Quiero hablar más español

It’s been quite a while since my last post. In addition to all the activities of the holidays I have continued, sporadically, to work on my project that is one of the subjects of this blog. So now I can report some progress.

As a reminder I am (slowly) working my way to develop a mobile application to translate restaurant menus in Spain. To accomplish this I am finding many menus from restaurants in Spain (only Spain to avoid Spanish terms from other Spanish-speaking lands). I translate these using machine translation (mostly Google Translate), then looking for discrepancies in that translation method and using either online dictionaries or Google searches to make better “guesses” about translation. Often terms on menus are not translated accurately (or at all) by machine translation

Once I have accumulated enough raw data (a never ending process) I can create a corpus with Spanish terms and the best English translation I can produce with a “confidence” factor (expressed as a probability). Once the corpus is large enough I’ll write code to extract the best food related (and a few other terms) vocabulary with the highest confidence levels of the accuracy of the translation. Once the vocabulary is “complete” (again a never ending process) I can build my application and then test it on all the menus I’ve accumulated. I’ll judge how well I’ve done this by expecting my translation tool to work much better than other machine translations.

Fine, a useful exercise as someday I hope to actually need to do this while touring Spain, an indefinite “wish” for me. Being able to accurately translate menus, as well as having knowledge of Spain’s cuisine I’d be able to wisely select my choices.

But, my sister, who was quite dedicated to mastering Spanish, albeit focused more on Mexican cuisine, was critical of my approach. Instead of just building an application her strong suggestion was merely that I should just become fluent in Spanish. A fine idea, but one I find very challenging.

Several times in my past I’ve attempted (not very vigorously) to learn Spanish. Since I lived much of my life in California some fluency in Spanish is almost a necessity. I first tried, decades ago, using the best technology then available, i.e. cassette tapes and accompanying text. Ugh. That was a bust. Later as computer tutorials became more common I also tried those, initially using DVDs (as the sound source, later just online voice recordings). These attempts all failed for me.

Why? For one thing I’m not very good at foreign languages. While I studied both French and German in several years of school classes I never got very far with those. My first trip to Germany was a joke at how badly I could either speak or hear. My only real exposure to having to use French was in Québec, during the time when speaking French was a strong “political” issue. I had a bit more success with that partly because everyone, e.g. waiters in restaurants, insisted on French. My stumbling attempts were at least considered a sufficiently sensitive effort that I had some success.

But with Spanish I have a different problem. The sounds of the language are much more alien to my ear – I really can’t hear the words, especially since, it seems to me, native speakers speak very fast and to my ear the words are run together. And, my attempts at speaking were even worse than my attempts to hear and understand. So this has been very discouraging and so I rejected my sister’s urging to just actually learn the language. Additionally I had the joke running through my head that her years of vigorous effort were analyzed by several other people that she had atrocious pronunciation, barely intelligible to a native Spanish speaker. If she couldn’t do it how could I possibly succeed.

BUT, in my effort to translate menus I’ve also found a serious stumbling block. Even with English menus often I need to have some conservation with the server to really understand the menu. And as I translated more and more menus I found this was even more true in Spain. Certainly discussing food with a knowledgeable server adds to the enjoyment of food (another lesson I learned from my sister who was more skilled at cooking than me and through example demonstrated how dining was more pleasant after discussing menu items in some detail).

So I happened to stumble on a new possible learning method. Just happening on an article on the Net about the best apps for “your new smartphone” (naturally timed with the assumption of Christmas gifts) I discovered Duolingo. Previously I’d done the demos with several of the subscription or purchased online tools with little success. But at least: a) Duolingo was free, and, b) it was available for my phone and so I could do the exercises at any time, not just during some study time while on my computer.

So I downloaded the app (both to phone and multiple computers) and committed myself to really giving an earnest effort to learn, at least some basic Spanish. Now, as best I know, traveling in Spain in the larger cities, especially those popular with tourists, probably doesn’t require speaking or hearing Spanish. When i visited Portugal I knew zero Portuguese but managed to get by OK (with some help from hotel staff making phone calls for me). And I managed to get by in both Japan and China, although with considerable help from the people I was visiting.

But my interest in visiting Spain is out in the countryside, initially focusing on the Camino de Santiago (the French route). Now I’m looking more at the Del Norte route since that part of Spain is more appealing to me that the dull plodding through country that looks a bit too much like the Great Plains or Central Valley of California. In such areas I would expect that at least some minimal conversational skill would be necessary. My hope would be: a) I could ask Spanish speakers to speak more slowly and thus hear each word, and, b) that my poor pronunciation wouldn’t prevent them from (mostly) understanding me.

So I’ve now worked as hard as I can on Duolingo. I strongly recommend this for anyone following my blog who might have the same need, especially as it is free (gracias to the community who create these lessons). I’ve made it through 12 days and 12 of the lessons. Duolingo requires a LOT of repetition and thus this forces me to work hard enough at estudio that I actually have made some progress.  Even the sentence I used as the title of this post would have been impossible for me prior to Duolingo.

In the first part of each exercise Duolingo introduces one to vocabulary (and without the more academic approach to grammar, i.e. simple conjugation of verbs). Then the exercises move more and more to responding to spoken phrases or sentences by: a) writing what was said in English, and, b) much harder, writing what was said in Spanish. Each exercise gets steadily harder making it difficult to “guess” and thus requiring actually learning something, especially when one has to actually type the Spanish (from an utterance), especially being picking about getting gender and verb conjugation right. The sheer repetition is working for me.

Despite my best progress ever attempting to learn Spanish I: a) still find it difícil to “hear” the utterance spoken at full speed.  I often either cannot hear the spaces between words or miss subtle bits (I really have trouble hearing una vs un). But since I must get every drill question right before I can proceed I muddle through. So thus far Duolingo reports I’ve now encountered 308 words (many useless for my purpose, also they count each version of a verb as a separate word). Thus far, as far as verbs go I’m still only in the present tense and with the singular persons (figuring out at usted is third person like él or ella was fun since Duolingo mostly uses the informal second person tú  as ‘you’, which often would be rude for me to use in conversation).

While Duolingo focuses on conversation instead of the typical more “academic” language study (all the grammar details, especially conjugations) I’ve done more exploration with other tools (especially spanishdict.com and Wikipedia) to go beyond the Duolingo simple lessons. I’m accumulating some of my own “lessons” to supplement the Duolingo lessons.

Now another challenge for me is that I’ve also learned, in past language learning efforts, that I’m fairly good at immediate duration memory. So while I’m intensely involved I learn to recognize many words. Unfortunately weeks later I’ve forgotten most of those. So, with Duolingo I actually repeat finished exercises to continue repetition which is key.

BUT, repeating everything is time-consuming and not that helpful. The real repetition I need to do is the vocabulary (or sometimes grammar) that I do badly. So now I’m thinking about another bit of programming for my own learning tool.

Once before I built a fairly complex bit of code to extend my English vocabulary. Using something built into Kindle I would mark English words that I either didn’t know at all (like reading more “academic” texts that use more esoteric vocabulary) or that I wasn’t really sure about. Kindle had a drill application that accumulated the words I’d mark as I encountered them in some book. But the Kindle drill, like Duolingo, wasn’t very “smart” about focusing my drill time on the words that gave me the most trouble. So in my own app I developed a scoring system that adjusted my drill to the words I most often missed and also then made sure all but the easiest (for me) words were at least repeated some. I spent a lot of time tuning how that algorithm worked but never was completely satisfied with it.

So with Duolingo as a model (incomplete for what I need) and all my past efforts at learning languages I soon will begin to build my study app (a fancy version of the classic flashcards, especially for verbs and gender). I can move all my Duolingo vocabulary to that app, plus much of what I’ve accumulated from menu study, plus just grabbing more words not found in either source from either: a) various lists I’ve found of the “most common” Spanish words, or, b) from going through a couple of dictionaries, tourist phrase books and grammar books I’ve purchased for my Kindle.

Eventually I would expect my drill app to be sufficient to potentially get by in parts of Spain where I might not find any English speakers. One thing I have learned from my foreign travel is that travel itself (public transportation, getting directions) often requires speaking to people who don’t know English (say, unlike typical tourist destinations, i.e. city hotels, museums and restaurants).

But all this is just a start. I know, largely from my experience in Québec that “immersion” is the real way to learn a language. To be someplace where there is no English mandates that I at least stumble through some sort of conversation to get what I need. Mi esposa loved her weeks in Oaxaca and wants to go back (which I’ve resisted) so perhaps I’ll give in and make the trip she wants as preparation for Spain (just as Québec can be a shorter preparation trip for going to France).

So, I won’t belabor this point much more in posts since I’ve focused this blog on food in Spain and the Camino. My efforts to learn a language are probably even more boring to my readers. But I will supplement some of my posts purely about food terms with a bit more of the conversational stuff I pick up through this other study.

 

 

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