Santiago’s Restaurant Menus – 2

Unfortunately I don’t have time today for a full explanation of another menu so I’ll just get started. In case a reader might wish to explore some of this material for themselves let me explain how I’m finding restaurants.

For small towns along the Camino it was easy. The Google Maps, either map view or sat photo view, did a good job of showing any food establishment (including bakeries or grocery stores or wineries and such). Clicking on those brings up, usually, lots of photos to examine and sometimes a website.

But for a thorough examination of a city as large as Santiago (with 571 restaurants in one rating system) something more efficient is needed. I found the TripAdvisor website to be quite useful. I’m not endorsing their reviews or ratings per se, but it’s an easy source to study. So, simply, I make my own list in three columns: ranking, restaurant name (scraped off the TripAdvisor page for that restaurant) and then my evaluation of whether there is more information, or in my main priority, either a website with menus or sometimes just the menu link. Let me say, as little as any of these establishments would care, forget silly Facebook pages and get a real website. Maybe you think the world gets all its information from Facebook but I believe a better website would bring you more business. Nothing wrong with a Facebook presence, just don’t make it the only way people find about you. AND, even if it’s just a sample put some menu on your site. Glossary photos and flowery prose doesn’t sell on choosing your establishment but a menu might.

All that said let’s just start on today’s restaurant, one that has dual language on the website, descriptive prose about the restaurant’s culinary philosophy and a helpful menu. I’m talking about Malak Bistro. The homepage seems to be in English but there is a clickable toggle to Spanish.

There is some prose on the page that makes for interesting reading. As usual here’s the three columns: Spanish, their human translation and Google Translate.

Comida Exótica Vegetariana y Vegana Exotic Vegetarian Vegan Food Vegetarian and Vegan Exotic Food
Saludable Flexitariano Healthy Flexitarian Healthy Flexitarian

Now both the description and menu are interesting, but actually this wouldn’t be one of my top choices. That said, my purpose is not merely to study food terms for what I like but to get a complete sample for what might be encountered in Spain so I’m glad to see something different. And I’d be happy to go here with people I know who might make this their first choice.

Now let me just start with their first paragraph of prose.

Situado en la capital de Galicia, el Malak Bistro es un punto de encuentro para los peregrinos que llegan a Santiago de Compostela buscando degustar los sabores de la comida Exotica Vegetariana Vegana & Saludable Flexitariano .

Con ingredientes de primera calidad de origen gallego, los comensales pueden disfrutar de platos típicos de la gastronomía nacional.

Located in the Galician capital, Malak Bistro is a meeting point for the pilgrims that come to Santiago de Compostela and want to taste the Exotic Vegetarian Vegan & Healthy Flexitarian flavours.

The clients can enjoy typical dishes of the International gastronomy, cooked with Premium quality ingredients from Galician origins.

Located in the capital of Galicia, the Malak Bistro is a meeting point for pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela looking to taste the flavors of Vegan and Healthy Flexitarian Vegetarian Exotic food.

With top quality ingredients of Galician origin, diners can enjoy typical dishes of the national cuisine.

Part of what I decided to do as part of my attempt to actually learn Spanish was to supplement what Duolingo provides with my attempts are translation. It was particularly helpful (and interesting) to have human translation as well as the Google Translation. Translation involves choices that goes beyond just “paraphrasing” the original language material (rather than purely literal) but also I found deviating quite a bit from the Spanish (as best I could read it). This poses an additional challenge to anyone trying to use a corpus approach to “train” a translation app, but it presents an interesting teaching experience.

Looking at the words in the first sentence that I marked I spot something unexpected. The Google Translation is more “accurate” (not just crudely literal as it often is). Since I’ve had the verbs llegar (to arrive) and buscar (to look for) in my Duolingo learning I do believe GT is actually more accurate. Now while translation can often have nuance and verbs often have many translations depending on context, these two verbs are fairly clear. In the second sentence there is no way ‘international’ is an accurate translation of nacional BUT I’ll agree, given the cuisine of this restaurant it can be descriptive.

As further indication consider this paragraph again marked.

A través de los aromas de la canela, la pimienta negra, el perejil, la cúrcuma, el curry o el tomillo,

nuestros clientes descubrirán los sabores de la gastronomía de oriente medio. Platos con mucha tradición que se construyen sobre ingredientes como: Verduras, garbanzos, arroz, carne o cuscús.

In our kitchen we use spices like: cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, parsley, turmeric, curry or thyme.

We prepare middle eastern recipes, most of them cooked with vegetables, chickpea, rice, meat or couscous.

Through the aromas of cinnamon, black pepper, parsley, turmeric, curry or thyme,

our customers will discover the flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine. Dishes with a lot of tradition that are built on ingredients such as: Vegetables, chickpeas, rice, meat or couscous.

See ‘cumin’ in the human translation (middle column). That’s nowhere to be found in the Spanish AND there is a Spanish equivalent of ‘cumin’ which is comino. Now given cumin is a word of Middle Eastern origin you might think comino is just a corruption of the original word but after all the word also appears in Latin as cuminum and as Spanish originated with vulgar Latin comino makes sense. (btw: ‘vulgar’ in this context simply refers to language in common use versus more proper “academic” use)

So, combined with the fact the default language of the website appears to be English I would suspect: a) the original material was written in English and translated to Spanish, or, b) perhaps, both English and Spanish are written separately (possibly by different people) and not strictly translations. Another hypothesis that might be more likely is that the “original” menu is not in either English or Spanish and both are translations.

So keep something like this in mind when you try to use your phone to read menus.

Now just one item from the menu to further amplify my deduction. And, btw, it was a challenge to create my side-by-side worksheet since the menu items aren’t in the same order on the Spanish and English versions of the menu. No diner would care about this but it makes for an interesting challenge to do what I’m doing and ALSO means automatic corpus extraction would fail.

(Exotic Siria) Tomate, Lechuga mix, cebolla, pepino, rábano, limón, pan tostado, sumaque. (Vegano)
Exotic Siria – Tomato, cucumber, mix lettuce, onion, radish, lemon, toast Pita, sumaque. (Vegan)
FATOUSH SALAD(Exotic Syria) Tomato, lettuce mix, onion, cucumber, radish, lemon, toast, sumaque. (Vegan)

Looking at the ingredients in both human and Google translation you’ll note the items are not in the same order, though it is the same list. Now this would be a problem for me, if I were composing a corpus of matching pairs (using human translation) but interesting using the Google translation would lead to matching pairs, e.g. (cebollo=onion), (pepino=cucumber) and so forth.

I’ll finish extracting and analyzing this menu to see if there is anything else worth noting in another post.


Santiago’s Restaurant Menus – 1

Yesterday I introduced this thread: finding, analyzing and discussing Spanish food terms on menus in Spain. So today I’ll continue with the restaurant I mentioned yesterday:  O Curro da Parra.

Now first I want to introduce the idea of finding human translations. In my earlier work I usually used Google Translate to translate the Spanish and then did additional research to try to improve translations. Now that I’ve learned a bit of Spanish I can do that better, but there are many reasons why the Google Translate is wrong and/or may not be that helpful which I’ll point out with a few examples in this post.

But in terms of learning to read Spanish getting human translations is interesting. To supplement my study on Duolingo I’ve found as many stories as I can with human translation to compare to Google Translate and my own stumbling attempts to translate.

So in terms of the main topic of menus, some like O Curro da Parra do have human translation, which, of course, might be wrong too. But my first point is also that sometimes they can be tricky to find. Some websites, like a couple others I tried in Santiago detect your location and, for me, automatically switch to English. Sometimes it takes a little hacking of the URLs to find both the English and Spanish or sometimes there is something in the UI (often flags to click) to pick your language. Of course there is no guarantee the English version will just be a translation of the Spanish version so you need to compare these carefully.

In general (and this specific case) the URL is likely to contain /es or /en in the URL. Sometimes you can just manually change the URL for which language you want. But for this restaurant they added an extra trick. Their standard URL for Spanish version of the a la carte menu is, Replacing the /es with /en doesn’t work since they also translated carta in the URL to its English equivalent thus producing the URL

Seeing carta and menú on webpages (or perhaps the printed menu) deserves a little explanation. carta, which Google literally translates to ‘letter’,  as in escribo muchas cartas a mis amigos (I wrote that myself, see I’ve learned a little), but in the case of a restaurant it does, usually, refer to the a la carte menu or just menu as commonly used in USA. Seeing ‘letter’ originally confused me but I had to learn words may have multiple translations. While Google Translate does use some “context” (not just literal word-by-word) I’ve learned GT pays little attention to the broader notion of “context” (or discourse) and thus seems to usually pick the most common translation. And menú often refers to some special offer, like menú del día, (menu of the day, common in small restaurants along the Camino) or even more specifically menú de peregrino (the pilgrim’s menu) or sometimes menú degustación (the tasting menu). IOW, these are particular selections essentially equivalent to prix fixe, which is, of course, French for fixed price. So one of the first things to know about reading menus is which section to look for and so I hope this helps.

So onto a few interesting things about this menu. First we’ll start with the section on the Carta, EMPEZAMOS. Now actually this is a bit surprising since the more common section you’ll see is ENTRANTES, literally ‘entrances’ but probably what would be called appetizers in USA. But  is fun for me because just recently I’ve been doing Duolingo drills of variations of the verb empezar (to begin, to start). So empezamos is actually the first personal plural conjugation in indicative mood present tense, so big surprise that GT translated this as ‘we start’ which would be correct in the right context. But here it just means (and its human translation at the website) ‘starters’. But the way empezar is one of the Spanish verbs that is somewhat irregular known as a stem changing verb so empiezo is ‘I start’ (I don’t know when I named this blog that subject pronoun are usually omitted to the to (I) is not typically used since person can be deduced from the conjugation. So for you Dear Reader I can also use the familiar conjugation, just as empiezas for ‘you start’. I realize including Spanish lessons in my posts may be tedious, but relax, I’m just bragging.

Second, under the “main” course part of the carta (in this case labeled PESCADOS Y CARNES, fishes and meats) one finds Media ración/Ración. This was a tiny mystery until seeing, for each item, 11,5/22. That’s the price, in euros I presume and note the /. ración is repeated with media in front of one instance. It would be a mistake to assume that’s a cognate and thus “medium” (or worse, ‘media’ itself). In fact it’s the word for ‘half’, which in the case of a time, a las cinco y media, means “half past” (AKA 5:30).  ración  can get confusing; it’s literal meaning is ‘helping’, ‘portion’ or ‘serving’. It’s most commonly used where tapas or pinchos might also be available. Instead of just a serving for one bit usually it means a larger quantity, sometimes also described as al centro (to the center), IOW, it’s a portion that potentially gets shared. Given it appears in the main courses I would assume the full portion might be for sharing (two diners trying two different dishes (platos) which can be fun) and the half portion is for an individual diner (comensal).

So let’s move on to a couple of items. I’m going to show these in three columns: the original Spanish, the human translation at the website and the Google Translation.

Brevas, queso del Cebreiro y foie Figs, Cebreiro cheese and foie Brevas, Cebreiro cheese and foie gras

I’m not sure why GT missed the translation of brevas to figs, except perhaps that the more usual word for fig is higo and breva refers to a particular fig, often called ‘early fig’.  But my point for this item is Cebreiro which is not translated by either human or AI. And this is common (you are getting the ‘cheese’ clue in both translations, which is not in the literal Spanish) as some words just don’t have English translations. Cebreiro is a local cheese (PDO), Galician in origin. There are numerous sources for quesos de espana but take it from me, it’s fairly hard to learn them all.

Moving on

Sardina, pan de maíz tostado, mayonesa de laurel y Padrón Sardine, toasted corn bread, bay maho and Padrón peppers Sardine, toasted cornbread, laurel mayonnaise and Padrón

Interestingly GT does a bit better job with mayonesa (really is) so I’m not quite sure why the human translation calls it maho, other than perhaps having seen ‘mayo’ in English sources and assuming the phonetic spelling in English would be maho. In the Spanish, Padrón is sufficient because anyone would know what these are (we even have some growing in our garden in Nebraska, not even too hard to find the plant stock). These are very popular peppers, usually toasted in oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. They’re partly popular because while they’re usually mild, one might be hot, so while I forget the term (read it somewhere) sometimes they’re referred to as Spanish lottery. They’re smaller than a Jalapeno with more wrinkles but otherwise look similar.

Moving on

Canelón de gallo de corral, bechamel de foie e shimeji Rooster cannellone, foie bechamel and shimeji mushrooms Cannelloni with poultry, bechamel with foie e shimeji

This one is fun because it demonstrates it is global world with food terms from France, Italy and Japan all combined with Spanish. In this case the GT translation is better (sorry for my critique to whoever did the translation).  I’ve encountered de corral before and while a literal translation could be ‘of the farmyard’, we’d probably call this “free range” in USA. But using gallo (instead of pollo) is interesting.  pollo is the generic name for chicken, well known in USA due to heavy use on Mexican menus. In fact, pollo is even masculine (gender is such a thrill learning in a language) and so gallina would be a likely term for ‘hen’ and so gallo is indeed rooster, but a little stranger because roosters are much less commonly eaten than hens. I assume they note this because most likely gallo would probably have a stronger flavor. Canelón is cannelloni  but as Italian is fairly particular about the last vowel in words, cannellone might be confusing.

And wrapping up (there are more items but this is enough for this post)

Helado de tarta de Santiago, cremoso de chocolate y bizcocho cítrico Almond ice-cream, chocolate mousse and citrus sponge cake Ice cream cake of Santiago, creamy chocolate and citrus cake

tarta de Santiago is very common (usually dusted with powdered sugar) so they must have used similar ingredients to make an ice cream and I’d bet GT’s translation of ‘ice cream cake’ is not likely to be correct. But here’s a good example of why I (eventually) decided to learn Spanish, this is an item were the menu description is probably less than you’d like to know so a little conversation with your camarero might be in order. GT is probably wrong on cremoso  just being ‘creamy’ (which it literally is) but the human translation as mousse is more likely. Then GT omitted ‘sponge’ in the translation of bizcocho cítrico (bizcocho is usually translated as sponge cake) and reading this, as a diner, I’d think citrus sponge cake and just citrus cake were two different things.

So wrapping this one up: 1) don’t trust any translation source completely, 2) they are often terms that can’t be translated so you just have to know what they are (or ask), and, 3) if you’re really interested in knowing what these items are you’re probably going to have to be able to speak and hear some Spanish, even though I’d bet a top-rated restaurant in a popular tourist destination probably has someone to explain it to you in English, figuring it out in Spanish is more fun.

And as your homework assignment you figure this one one:

Cerdo pibil, crema de maíz y pico de gallo Pibil style Galician pork belly, corn purée and pico de gallo salad Pig pibil, corn cream and pico de gallo

and what does gallo have to do with a relish? And why ‘belly’ is missing in the Spanish and whether that would matter to you in choosing whether to order this or not.




estoy de vuelta de Oklahoma

I had some family business in Oklahoma and so planned some other sightseeing for about a week. But things didn’t work out. I read that this has been the most rain over twelve ever recorded for the USA. Certainly I can personally attest to that around here. So what is normally hot and dry and dusty area was a swamp. Two different Interstate highways were closed. But I did get to my farm and check out the grass (all it grows) and the wind turbine (which was really turning, but we didn’t get cancer or see any “carnage” of dead birds so I don’t know which wind turbine Trumpidot visited to see such things but in the real world it’s all lies). But that aside.

What does any mean for the primary topic of this blog. Well first I also visited my birth town of Amarillo Texas. Never when I lived there did I know: a) amarillo is Spanish for yellow, and, b) it’s not pronounced ama-rell-o. And the original state was really Tejas and later anglicized to Texas. And we visited Palo Duro Canyon which was just a name to me, as in ‘hard stick’ as Google translates and Wikipedia confirms but I see no connection with that place. But the point is a great deal of names for things in Texas are from Spanish which of course makes sense as Texas was part of Spain, then Mexico, longer than it has been part of the USA, something most Texans choose to ignore. So I grew up surrounded by Spanish but was hardly aware of it. Later I spent most of my professional life in California. By that time I knew the first town I lived in, Palo Alto, and the next, Los Altos, certainly were Spanish names and that the main street of both, El Camino Real, were Spanish. It was a long time after living there that I learned Los Gatos was named for the mountain lions.  So in some ways it’s remarkable to me that it’s taken me 71 years to really attempt to learn Spanish.

I planned to keep up my language study on Duolingo on the trip but I’d started a process of recording exactly what drills I did, first in an Excel spreadsheet and then in an app I wrote. Both were working fine when I transferred these over to the laptop we use exclusively for travel. Of course, when I needed them both failed. I had the source code of my app, but my development environment was expired and I’d lost all the passwords, then my Office 365, while not expired, demanded a login and I didn’t have that password. So with no way to record my study in Spanish I essentially stopped doing it. I did a few drills in French and German just to keep up my “streak”, but basically I lost about 6 days.

And I’m amazed at then how much I forgot. Certainly I remembered 98% but several words I’d used in drills just before leaving on the trip I could no longer recall.

I’ve been grappling with this for a while. Duolingo does a lot of repetition, especially if you do every drill in every exercise (instead of testing out) but then there isn’t a lot of repetition of previous material. I had already developed an app to counter this, something I could use daily to refresh my memory, but since it was just vocabulary drill (glorified flashcards) that wasn’t enough. So I wanted to repeat entire drills (usually 20 individual questions) to also deal with grammar, word order, gender and verb conjugation. But a lot of repetition of previously learned material cuts into learning new material. For me it’s not so much a question of time, which I have in sufficient quantity, as merely endurance, i.e. I can only take so much language study each day.

And in development my app to manage what Duolingo material I’d do I also did a simulation and my first results in that indicated it would take nearly two years to complete the full Duolingo “tree” (their entire course which puts you somewhere in the A2 (CERF) range). With the initial algorithm I had for also including repetition it shot out to more than three years to finish. Given I’d like to visit some Spanish speaking country sooner than that it means: a) I have to carefully ratio repetition, just enough to retain what I’ve learned, and, b) actually increase my daily effort. To stay on schedule, i.e. aim at the big picture each day requires more than casual attention so my app, with all the data recording, statistical analysis and prediction is necessary, at least for someone like me to make the right daily progress toward a long term goal.

So I’ll leave you with a trail photo. While this is up in the mountains of Wyoming we saw a lot of this on this trip, including some flooding over the roads too much to cross at all.



Still chugging along the Camino, still learning Spanish

I’ve been so much buried in digressions I haven’t had any time to post. You might remember that my project, which is the primary subject of this blog, is to find as many menus as possible from restaurants in Spain, figure out what they “mean” (not just purely translate), build up a corpus of menu terminology to drive the creation of an application to translate menus.

So much for that, as I haven’t been doing any of that for about a month. In addition I continue to do stationary exercise in my basement to try to stay in shape and/or control my weight (lose a little ideally) and potentially build up to a real walk. So I take my mileage on a treadmill and convert it to a location along the Camino (the French route). While I’ve kept up exercise I’ve meanwhile been digressing into another area that has interfered with my primary goals.

But nonetheless I can report that I’m now at mile 368.9, having covered 21 miles thus far in January. That may not sound like much, given most peregrinos can do 12-20 miles/day but I’ve also done 480 miles in just January on stationary bike or the entire Camino.

So I had planned to do a post when I was around 344 miles, which is then near the cruz de ferro, which as Henri Sebastian (in the movie The Way) says is a place of much significance. For those of you who watched the movie or especially those of you who have actually walked the Camino you know cruz de ferro is a small iron cross at the top of tall wooden pole with a bunch of pebbles at the base. The idea is that pilgrims carry a stone from there starting location and then deposit it along with a prayer. The location happens to also be almost the highest point along the entire route.

It all looks very quaint in the movie but looking at that location via my “virtual” walk (i.e. looking at Google Maps, satellite views and the geotagged photos Google shows; you can search for ‘cruz de ferro’ and see what I’m talking about, I don’t reproduce photos from online sources due to implied copyright) it’s not quite the same as the image of the movie. The site is near a major road and is surrounded by parking lots and picnic areas. The cross itself is unimpressive so only interesting due to its historical perspective. Plus visitors leave a lot of mess at the site so again it’s not so quaint.

Also in the movie a collection of rustic signposts is shown. It turns out that’s just a short distance from the cross in the town of Manjarín (you can search for this to see). It appears to be part of a somewhat bizarre albergue/bar near all those signs, the Manjarín Encomienda Templaria.  That too is a bit less quaint than the movie made it look. So much for fiction.

And this raises an interesting point that I couple with other observations. A “virtual” walk certainly isn’t the same as a real one, but I’ve “seen” enough to get a much better understanding of what the Camino is like. And, frankly, a lot of it isn’t that great. The people who have the spiritual connection to the route don’t care, but for merely a “tourist” who’d like a more physical experience than riding tour buses I now question whether I’d really want to ever walk the Camino.

Or at least the classic (aka French) route. So now I’ve begun to focus on Camino del Norte route. What is still appealing to me is visiting the northern (Atlantic) coast of Spain, from France to Galacia. The country looks prettier (certainly greener) and I think the food would be better. Since my wife doesn’t want to do the walking as a compromise we’ll do part tourist stuff (driving, hitting hot spots like Bilboa) and then some more rural touring in the vicinity of the Camino del Norte and thus have some of the same experience.

But that’s in the future.  Now as to the digressions that are bogging me down.

My original idea was that I could merely focus on a mechanical aid to “translate” the written menus without actually learning Spanish. It’s not that I didn’t want to learn Spanish, I just saw that as too difficult. My sister (RIP) disagreed with my idea and said I should learn the language. So as I recently posted I’ve started to do that since I suspect some conversation with camareros  (waiters) would be required.

But I’m not going to fill this blog with many comments about my efforts. Any reader interested in that language has a lot better resources than I can provide. And my personal issues with it are mostly a digression so I don’t want to fill this blog with my adventures. But I’ll mention a bit.

As I previously posted I found what first appeared to be a good resource for learning a bit of conversational Spanish, which I do think I’d need to be able to order in restaurants. So I’m doing the Duolingo online study and have had decent results, thus far (up to about 600 words now, still struggling with verbs, of course). But as useful as Duolingo is I find that I fairly quickly master their “skills” (aka lessons) but then almost as fast forget most of what I learned. Without repeating some of the vocabulary (or having some other way to practice) I forget.

So, naturally, given an entire lifetime of developing software I began to think about building my own drills. I’ve done this before, several times in fact. Basically I’ve built software “flash cards” but with “intelligent” repetition, where I’ve developed some, not so good, algorithms to maximize drill on the vocabulary (or to some degree grammar) on what I’m not getting. Now learning vocabulary and grammar are helpful but speaking, and worse, hearing Spanish is tough. Duolingo helps a bit for hearing, but Spanish is a language my ear/brain simply don’t get. First of all, most Spanish speakers speak really quickly (this, I’ve found from online sources, is well known in comparison to other languages). And even with Duolingo, the full speed recorded sentences that I have to either translate or simply write what I hear, I miss lots of little bits. I have a terrible time hearing the gender or verb tenses which can be critical. I figure I can botch my pronunciation, as well as gender or conjugation, and probably still be understood, but hearing any response is really going to be tough. But the better I know the vocabulary, without a big mental delay to translate in my head, the more likely I can understand the spoken part. Fortunately there are many Spanish language TV channels in my cable subscription, often with good subtitling, so I have some opportunity, beyond Duolingo, to “practice” hearing, which will be more important to me than actually speaking well.

So, of course I started working on my own software to supplement Duolingo. That does have advantages over just using online courses. To write software one really has to understand some of the structure of the language (“teaching” something to a computer is a good way to find out what I do and don’t understand). So, for instance, I just finished, after considerable study and coding, how to do all the conjugations of regular verbs. And I’ve extracted all the vocabulary I’m learning in Duolingo to put into drills as well. So, IOW, I’ve switched from learning about menus to learning the language to writing code to help me learn the language. Hence, the “digressions” that have diverted my time from my original goal.

But I’m beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel (plus my coding skills were rusty, so doing my menu translation app will now be a bit easier) and maybe I can get back to my original plan and more, hopefully, interesting posts about menus, instead of my experience with learning Spanish or writing programs.

So stay tuned when I get back on track.


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 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.