technology & language learning

Last week my Spanish teacher was out on leave, so we had a substitute. A wonderfully experienced substitute, but a substitute who let’s just say tried to retire about 30 years ago, yet it never stuck. When we suggested during a lull in conversation looking up a bit of news on the SMARTboard — the interactive, Internet connected whiteboard with which all Foreign Service classrooms are equipped — she unapologetically reminded us that it didn’t work unless she operated it, and she didn’t care to operate it, so it wasn’t very smart after all, now was it? Instead, she got out the same grammar book she’s been loyally carrying around since her first teaching gig many moons ago.

It wasn’t until this week without the SMARTboard that I realized just how reliant on it FSI language classes have recently become. It’s only been a little over three years since I studied French here, and yet the change is remarkable. Back then, our classes were fairly formulaic: talk about the news, read and discuss an article, learn or review some grammatical point, do exercises in the book to practice said grammatical point, repeat.

But now no day of language learning is quite the same. Each teacher employs technology differently, but in my experience thus far it’s integral to every one’s instruction, recent substitute excluded of course. When we were studying the weather, we watched Youtube clips of actual weather segments on Latin American news stations. We listen to popular music and try to transcribe the lyrics. When we’re starting to feel overly confident about our skills our professor pulls up some rapid speaking newscaster to show us how much we have left to learn.

It’s not just the SMARTboard. Technology has worked its way into our class in other ways too. Once when we were learning to formulate questions we tried them out on Siri. (Sadly at that point our Spanish accents were still too awful for her to understand us.) When a teacher is struggling to come up with the best translation, a student can usually track it down on the Google translate app on his iPhone before the teacher thinks of the word.

Outside of class, too, technology comes in remarkably handy. The flashcards our teachers create online  sync with my phone; I can access them anywhere whenever I have a few minutes. I listen to daily news podcasts during my commute and while at the gym. I have a handy verb conjugator on my phone that helps me out substantially more quickly than a book could. When I don’t want to do anything too rigorous I can play Duolingo, an online Spanish learning game, tracking my progress against friends and classmates.

Are there downsides to technology? Absolutely. Just like in real life, it can be a distraction. We’ve certainly wasted valuable class time searching in vain for some particular video we probably didn’t really even need to watch anyway. Was I able to learn as much that week without the SMARTboard? Sure. And I probably talked more than usual since speaking was kind of the only thing we had to fill all that time.

But all and all I think the addition of technology is positive for language learning, at least in the Foreign Service Institute context. Six months of full-time study of a foreign tongue is grueling. Anything you can do to keep things interesting is a welcome addition in my book — or should I say, on my touchscreen? In any case, I have to think that maybe even my Luddite leaning substitute sees some benefit to all this new technology, even if she’s not interested in taking it on herself. Once, searching for a complicated translation, she started to get up to get the giant dictionary on a side table, and then stopped short. “Ask that phone of yours, why don’t you,” she instructed my classmate. And a few seconds later, before she would have even gotten the dictionary back to her seat, we had our answer.

Books schmooks. With everything we need easily accessible on all of our many portable screens, will the library go the way of the video rental store? I hope not, but possibly.
Books schmooks. Gimme that iPad already.

P.S. Here are a sampling of some of my favorite online resources…

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the spanish continues

I’m eight weeks into my Spanish training and some days are definitely better than others. With almost five hours of class per day, plus time in the lab and individual instruction with my professor and learning consultant, there is precious little time to do my homework, especially with two little kiddos at home. Fortunately, I’ve learned to multitask.

After two years in Guadalajara, which one will speak better Spanish?
Posted in Baby, FS Life, Spanish | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

chinese new year

I realize that Chinese New Year happened a few months back, but it’s still alive and well here in our house.

Let me explain.

Back in December, Flynn somehow stumbled upon a video of a Chinese New Year parade in his YouTube perusing. (Yes, our toddler peruses YouTube. Don’t judge.) Seeing as how the parade featured a giant colorful dragon, it should come as no surprise that this immediately became the coolest thing our two year old boy’s little eyes had ever seen.

And then he (and we) realized that YouTube is filled with these Chinese New Year videos. He could click from one to another and watch mesmerized for pretty much forever — or at least until his parents started to feel a little negligent and made him go read a book instead.

Fast forward a few months to February, and, what do you know, the actual Chinese New Year was upon us. We live in a pretty culturally diverse neighborhood and so there happened to be a Chinese New Year festival at the middle school a few minutes away. Of course we went. We only stayed for about 10 minutes or so, but our little guy is still raving about the event now, two months later.

And of course he’s still watching his dragon dance YouTube videos too. He’s watching one at this very moment, in fact. It’s odd, yes, but we can’t really complain. They’re a huge improvement over his previous favorite videos of people unwrapping Kinder Egg Surprises. Yes, you read that right.

(Brief aside: These egg surprise videos have millions of views. Don’t believe me? See for yourself: this one has 55 million views! It’s just someone unwrapping a candy egg with a toy inside. That’s it. And 55 million views! And there are hundreds if not thousands of videos like it! If you understand this phenomena, please enlighten me.)

Just as a reminder, we’ve never been posted to China. He doesn’t have any friends who have been posted to China. He doesn’t know any TV shows set in China. The fascination with Chinese New Year came out of the blue, but we like to think it’s a sign of a sort of curiosity that will serve him well in the crazy international lifestyle that awaits him.

Maybe that’s a stretch.

At least it’s keeping us from having to watch any egg surprise videos for a while.

Gratuitous family photo.
Gratuitous family photo. Nope, the almost eight month old baby still doesn’t have any hair.
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how’s that spanish?

Want to see a video of an English language learner whose level of English is equivalent to my current level of Spanish? Click here.

Not exactly bilingual, eh? But still not too shabby considering I could only say “hola” a few months ago.

(If you’re curious to learn more about the U.S. government’s language evaluation system, click here or here. I’m currently a 2; I need to get to a 3.)

NYT’s columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently that he uses a simple one-word test to determine whether someone is truly proficient in a foreign language: he asks, “how do you say ‘doorknob’?”

Uh… not a clue.

Fortunately, I have a few more months of full-time language instruction left ahead of me.

 

Posted in FS Life, Life in DC, Spanish | 5 Comments

first words in the soon-to-be second tongue

When we first switched Flynn’s beloved Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to Spanish, he got pretty upset and insisted we make Mickey stop talking silly. But lately he’s totally behind the idea of learning Spanish. He loves telling everyone both “hola” and “adios amigo,” and after some hiccups, he can now also explain, “Me llamo Flynn.” (It took a while for him to understand why “me llamo me” doesn’t work. “But I am me,” he would argue.)

This evening, Mickey taught Flynn to say “gracias” and “de nada,” which inspired him to ask me for a whole bunch of other translations. In case you’re curious, here are the words a toddler boy desperately needs to know in his soon-to-be second tongue, according to said toddler boy:

  • Dog
  • Dinosaur
  • Bucket
  • Spider
  • Pigeon
  • Mickey
  • Pig
  • Pants
  • Digger
  • Tiger
  • Dog (guess it didn’t sink in the first time)
  • Elephant
  • Baby bottle
  • Giraffe
  • Light
  • Mirror
  • Bear
  • I will get you

So there you have it. He’s pretty much bilingual now, wouldn’t you say?

Posted in FS Life, Personal, Toddler | 4 Comments

first tour in washington

Now that Alex has settled in to Spanish training, she reminded me that I may never have mentioned what it is that I’ve been doing for the past year. Well, way back when I was in A-100, we made the (correct) decision that it would be better for our tandem chances if I bid on jobs here in DC. Lucky for us, I received one of the DC jobs on our bid list on flag day.

Right after flag day, there were a few days of uncertainty during which nobody quite knew which DC job I would have. Maybe the one I was assigned. Maybe a different one in the same office. I was told that someone would let me know when I showed up for work my first day.

I ended up being assigned to a position called a Post Management Officer. It’s both in DC and in my selected cone (management), so I feel pretty fortunate. I’m basically the liaison between all the posts in my portfolio and all the various offices and bureaus in DC. I’ve learned a lot about taxes, real estate, assignments, and a lot of other things I previously knew little about. I even got to head out to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan for a couple of weeks.

Working in DC as a first-tour officer can be challenging, especially when your job is usually filled by a 3rd or 4th tour officer. I heard the phrase “drinking from a fire hose” more times than I care to remember. But in the end, I think it’s been a very good experience (and hopefully my office would agree).

Speaking of the end…

It won’t be long now before I’m off to Spanish too. I’ll start on February 24.

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snow

Today was a snow day. A legit one. Not one like that entire cold but mostly snowless week during which I paid for preschool and yet Flynn didn’t get to attend a single day. We have about a foot of snow here in the greater DC area, and it’s still falling. Schools are closed. The federal government is closed. Mail never came. Streets still haven’t been plowed. Our neighbors are all out shoveling. Their kids are all out building snowmen. Soon we’ll all be drinking hot chocolate. Good old American fun. We’ll take it.

Brr.
Brr.

 

Snowed in.
Snowed in.

 

 

Posted in FS Life, Life in DC, Welcome | 1 Comment

languages that are not english

Did I mention I’m back at work? Yep, I’ve been at the Foreign Service Institute learning Spanish for these past five weeks. Nineteen more to go until I’m a professionally proficient Spanish speaker, though I have my doubts about that timeline.

Everyone assured me that my French would make learning Spanish a breeze. I’m not so sure. The linguistic corner of my brain seems to be divided into two sections: 1) English, and 2) Languages That are Not English. There’s just no controlling what comes out when I open my mouth in class. Sometimes it’s Spanish. Just as often it’s French. Pretty frequently it’s a French word bastardized with a Spanish accent — or more accurately, what sounds like a Spanish accent to my ear that is definitely not yet accustomed to a Spanish accent.

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We’re both in a little over our heads.

So, yeah, language learning could be going better.

But at least the FSI cafeteria now has sushi.

Posted in Welcome | 2 Comments

on languages lost

Flynn understood French before he understood English. By the time we left Cotonou, when he was just over two, he was speaking about equal amounts in each language. But fast forward six months, and now he’s speaking paragraphs in English, yet when we try to read him bedtime stories in French he tells us to “stop talking silly.”

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Bedtime books, iPad edition.

Sigh.

Sometimes we wish the timing were different, that we had been in Benin when he was one to three rather than zero to two. Or that we were going to a Francophone post next so he could maintain and build upon his skills. Or that it had been practical to bring his wonderful Francophone nanny back to the U.S. with us.

But alas, a Francophone Flynn was just not to be. At least not now.

I’m still convinced that he would pick up French fairly easily if he were to study it later in life. And that his early exposure to multiple languages stretched his brain in such a way that he will more easily learn any second language in the future.

For now, though, French has left at least one undeniable impact on Flynn’s linguistic skills. He seems to have retained the French “liaison,” which links the ends of certain words to the beginnings of the next words. For instance, he doesn’t say, “it all,” but instead, “i-t’all.”

It’s just a small thing, but it’s a fun reminder every day of where we’ve been.

I can’t wait to see how small things from all the different places we will serve throughout his childhood combine to influence the little person he will become.

Posted in Benin, French | 1 Comment

baby’s first trip abroad

 

It was a brief one — just a cruise ship stop in the Bahamas, with no passport stamp as evidence, even. And he slept through it too. Yet it still felt like an important moment in the life a baby who will come to know many, many other countries in the course of his childhood years.

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Also, our apologies for such a long period of silence. We’re finally starting to kind of sort of get our heads above water with this whole parenting two young children thing, and we hope to update you loyal blog readers, all three or four of you, very soon.

Posted in Life in DC, Personal, Travel | 2 Comments