Let’s Learn Spanish: Advice for Duolingo Language Students

Varios de mis amigos estudian español con Duolingo. Nuestro maestro es Duo, el buho. Duo es muy listo, él sabe muchos idiomas. Pero, yo siempre he querido aprender español porque vivo cerca de la frontera con Mexico y tengo unos amigos que hablan español solamente.

Duolingo es un buen método para enseñar un idioma. Duo usa técnicas motivacionales como esos usado en los videojuegos. Pueden convertirse adictivo. Ten cuidado.

Of course, I am trying to show off for you and I confess to having a Spanish-English dictionary at hand. My vocabulary, usage and grammar are undoubtedly not quite up to Duo’s standards but I think they would get my ideas across to a good many Spanish speakers.

My real purpose is to offer advice to anyone using Duolingo to learn a language. It is simply this: beware of the video game motivations. In my case, I became so obsessive-compulsive about running up points and competing to attain goals and push ahead of other users that I was sacrificing the kind of learning that occurs when you stop to examine and think about the last item posted, to listen carefully to pronunciations, to look at the way sentences have been constructed, and, dozens of other details that you miss by hurrying on to the next item as soon as you hit enter.

I had attained a status in Duolingo called the Diamond League. It was difficult to get there and I maintained it for a sizable number of weeks. I watched the scores in “the league” as they mounted every day and I made sure I generated enough points to put a safe distance between myself and the others in the league. I found “cheap” points to score quickly and easily.

One week I set out to see if I could nail a number one finish for the week in Diamond League. I did it. That was the week that I discovered I had reduced Duo’s great teaching tool to a lousy video game, and a pretty lame one at that. From then on I was determined only to avoid “demotion” by keeping out of the bottom 10 per cent of the class. That wasn’t so difficult. But it still distracted from my learning.

So, today I changed my strategy. I am spending more time with each item. I have a set goal of points (XP) that I want to achieve every day and I am determined to stay with that number and not go beyond it. I found that I spend as much time studying as I did with my more compulsive approach but it is much more satisfying and I felt I learned much more.

Design your own approach. Establish your own XP goal for each day. Do it every day. Daily practice is important. I have a five year streak going and plan to keep it up until I can have a decent conversation with a native speaker in Texas’ first European language.

UPDATE: After the first day using my new approach, I was awakened by my cell phone with the following ominous message: You fell to #28! Be careful! You’re going to drop back to the Obsidian League. I will post another update at the end of the week to let you know what life is like in the minor leagues.

Happy Valentine’s Day: Eleven Months in Isolation and Reading Your Way into Depression

You would think that eleven months in coronavirus isolation would give you time to read some of the fun things you have been putting off. Maybe some good humor, or even some poetry, although most of it seems to have been written by people in depressed states.

But, speaking of poetry, a friend gave me Mary Oliver’s Devotions for Christmas. She celebrated the beauty of the natural world. That would be uplifting if we weren’t rushing toward the total destruction of nature.

Well, that stretches it a little. We are only destroying the elements of nature that support the kind of life we humans are accustomed to. It is only a bit comforting that no matter how much we abuse it, the rock we call home will continue spinning its annual trips around our supporting star.

If we snuff out human life, evolution will kick in again and we can pick up where we left off in a few million years – if we can somehow remember where we left off.

No, it is just as well we begin anew. We will need a new Bible, of course, with revealed word that can be dug up from the past. I would suggest Mary Oliver’s book for a book in the new bible on our revived planet Earth. Devotions could well be called the Book of Psalms in the New Good Book if her poetry somehow survives. Ms. Oliver was, herself, too modest to name her collection Psalms.

Some of my other choices seem to reveal a masochistic need to deepen the suffering of living in lockdown for what has been almost a full year. One of my first choices was The Plague by Albert Camus. It gave me a pretty nice introduction to the psychology of living in the lockdown world of pestilence and death. It’s not a pretty picture. But it has a happy ending when the rats return to the streets. Normalcy.

Then, Donald Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, emptied Donald’s family laundry basket so we could all pick through all his dirty cotton boxers and sweaty undershirts. (Mary L. Trump, Ph.D, Too Much and Never Enough) In it, Ms. Trump reveals that DJT is a narcissistic sociopath. I’m not certain that I am correctly citing her professional diagnosis but it will do as confirmation of what most of us have been able to conclude by watching the evening news. If anyone thought Ms. Trump exaggerated his sorry condition, the events of January 6, 2021 confirmed that, if anything, she underreported the depth of his dysfunction and the danger he poses to those around him.

Of course it has been the daily newspapers that absorbed most of my reading time. When DJT was elected I added online subscriptions to the Washington Post and New York Times to my daily encounter with the news. No one can read all of either one of those papers every day. But it gave me a good way to ease into the day’s new developments by reading yesterday’s with horror and a cup of coffee. Although I am never able to read everything in these two papers, I manage to read a lot and I also get to feel good about supporting serious national journalism. Oh, and Jeff Bezos.

Then I made the mistake of beginning to plow through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. I really thought it would have a calming effect by reinforcing the idea that as bad as Trump is, it could always be worse. I am still reading, just beginning actually. I have read 22 per cent of the book. (Thanks to Kindle, I can give you a precise report of my progress.)

But, already, I have been repeatedly chilled by the similarity of the track Trump is on to that of Adolf Hitler’s steady ascent to despotic power in the Thirties. Trump’s impeachment and pending legal actions by state and federal prosecuting authorities provide no exception. After all, Hitler spent nine months in jail after his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, He used the time to write Mein Kampf, ghosted by his prison companion and lifetime follower-to-be, Rudolf Hess. If Trump should be jailed on tax evasion, he would no doubt compose his own manifesto with the help of some more literate inmate with ten-finger typing skills.

They say that as a discussion grows longer on the internet, the more likely that someone will throw out a Hitler analogy or some other Nazi comparison. (See “Godwin’s Law“.) And, there, the discussion generally ends. There is nowhere else to go as the discussion has degenerated into absurdity.

But don’t be too quick too quick to dismiss this one. Reading about the rise of Hitler after WWI, the similarities are downright uncanny. One begins to wonder if Trump has read the Shirer book. That’s not likely since he is a notorious aliterate. Nor has he likely read Mein Kampf, although his ex-wife Ivana claimed he kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches on his night shelf. Godwin’s Law would say that’s enough already. Out of bounds. End of discussion.

But, take a look, friends. The Big Lie. Check. The doubling down on claims shown clearly to be false. Check. The cultivated cravenness of partisans. Check. The promotion of violence among supporters. Check.

But to be fair Trump is missing a few important characteristics.

  • He seems not to like the sight of blood. He is happy for others to bathe in it but he doesn’t seem likely to be putting contracts out on people’s lives. As mob bosses go, he seems like a pretty lily-livered one. But he would undoubtedly develop the skills with time, need, and toothless legal and legislative oversight.
  • He is cagey smart and plenty manipulative but he lacks strategic thinking skills. He has people for that but neither are they exactly world class. (Think Stephen Miller, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon.)
  • He espouses no particular ideology of relevance for American voters beyond a nihilistic attitude toward science, government, American culture and rule of law. There is, of course, a unifying principle of opposition to anything vaguely inclusive of people of color, any color but pink-orangey-white. His son-in-law and daughter are Jewish so he differs with Hitler there, but only because they are snow-white and Jared is from a proper criminal family and had, from Donald’s perspective, the good sense to marry gentile.
  • Nor does he have Hitler’s oratory skills. He does standup comedy for the amoral semi-literate, racist groups but he doesn’t have the ability to excite millions of Americans with exciting crescendos of inspirational illiberalism. He can barely read aloud from a TelePrompter. Although sometimes I suspect he reads as he does to communicate to his followers that he doesn’t really mean what he is saying; he is required to say some things to stay barely inside the bounds of decency so that they may all survive another day as a movement.

So, where does that leave us? All I would say is that comparing Trump and Hitler does not extend to my good Lake Jackson Republican friends. They have simply had no choice (so they thought) but to follow along with the nominee of the party they have belonged to for years.

I would suggest to them that they take a look at our party system and the ease with which an extremist or demagogue can take over a party through our system of primaries, gerrymandering and campaign financing. So long as things move along as usual with ho-hum races between ho-hum candidates, there will continue to be folks sent off to legislative bodies to do their bidding and vote against taxes and regulation, except for being “pro-life” when it comes to regulating women and pro-death when it comes to reading the Second and Eighth Amendments. I think most of my long time Republican friends in Lake Jackson are repelled by Trump. The ones who continue to worship him after the Capitol riot are either folks who never participated much in politics or they were conservative Democrats of the early Strom Thurmond, Huey Long, Lester Maddox variety.

But keep and eye on DJT. I think he will keep holding rallies and egging on his followers. If he climbs back into office in 2024, America is in grave danger. You may say that his age is on our side but there are more youthful pretenders out there: Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz to name a few. Graham and Cruz are prime examples of the power of power to turn old opponents into remorseless lackeys.

So ignore my reading list if you are looking for uplifting ways to pass your days in coronavirus solitude. Get a copy of Love Story from an old paperback bookstore in the neighborhood and have a happy Valentine’s Day.

Thanksgiving Thought: A Poem by Sheenagh Pugh

 
 
 
 Sometimes
 by Sheenagh Pugh
  
 Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
 from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
 faces down frost, green thrives, the crops don’t fail,
 sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
  
 A people sometimes will step back from war;
 elect an honest man; decide they care 
 enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
 Some men become what they were born for.
  
 Sometimes our best efforts do not go
 amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
 The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
 that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
   

Twenty Weeks in Isolation; 144 Days, or, a Gross of Days. When Will the Rats Return and Liberate Us?

Call it isolation, quarantine, or lockdown. It all feels like a leash or a probation department ankle bracelet. We do this of our own choice, not by order of Dr. Fauci, George Soros, the Chinese embassy, County Judge Lina Hidalgo (wrong county but I would do anything she asked of me), or, heaven forbid, Gov. Greg Abbott.

The latter, Gov. Abbot, was a late comer to the mask mandating business. Per his order of a month ago, you are only required to mask if there are 20+ active cases in your county. Presumably if you had twenty positives living and three hundred formerly positive, now dead, your county would be exempt.

Hermiting (gerund form of the verb, to hermit) has allowed me to dig in and enjoy my inner obsessive compulsive drive. I do not consider it a disorder if I can channel it into healthy addictions.

I have directed my OCD into treadmilling since no one can walk outdoors in Lake Jackson’s heat and humidity in July and August. We regularly experience “feels like” temperatures of 110 F. plus in the daylight hours. Even in early evening when the sun is setting, it will often feel like over 95 degrees with the humidity over 60 per cent. But the treadmill lives inside in air conditioned space under a ceiling fan. I can walk as long as my bones will bear it.

So, I have made it my goal to abandon the sedentary life by walking a minimum of 7,000 steps a day. That is a modest amount of exercise but, done regularly, it keeps me from feeling like one of those vegetables left too long in the bottom drawer of the fridge. My goal, pushed along by my OCD, now has me up to 42 consecutive days. (I have permitted myself two “recovery days” that are included in the count. So, call it 40 if you are beyond OCD, maybe anal retentive.)

The side benefit of treadmilling is that I can read on my iPad Kindle app. Walking enables deeper concentration on my reading, which is to say that I can’t fall asleep while walking. Should I fall asleep I can pick myself up and go back to walking and reading. It hasn’t happened but I know I could do it if necessary.

Using this method, I have finally finished Albert Camus’ The Plague, and Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini. My brief reviews of those two: 1.) The end of a pestilence is greeted by the return of rats to the streets and gutters, not doves bearing olive branches, and 2.) Pat Conroy delivers more locker room talk than I have heard since junior high school and Army basic training. Ugh. Almost as repulsive as the joyous return of the rats to our daily lives.

My other compulsion has been Duolingo Spanish lessons. After five years of daily exercises, I have finally decided to reward them with my $7/month so I can enjoy the site free of advertising. Their advertising is not as annoying as Pandora‘s. The woman who serves as Pandora’s shrill shill and whom they drop like a cold dagger without warning in between Brahms and Bach makes you either want to quit going to the site forever or cough up the $5/month to make her go away. I blinked and gave them my credit card. Life without her has been a joy.

Duolingo, on the other hand, is much less intrusive and annoying with their advertising. I could have tolerated it forever and gone on with free Spanish lessons. I finally gave in because of my nagging conscience.

What they do at Duolingo has made me consider nominating the organization for a Nobel Peace prize. Their lessons seem expertly organized and thought out. There are people on their staff who know languages and language pedagogy. And, even better, they know some of the tricks of game-style motivators for online learners. My OCD feeds right into their trap.

By their count I now have 1,837 consecutive days of meeting my self-defined practice and instruction goals. That is just over five years of 30 minutes or more every day. And, ever so slowly, it works. After five years I can hold brief conversations with a few of the native Spanish speakers in my world. Well, so long as they answer without asking a question. I’m not quite that fast.

So, if you must have a mental health disorder during a pandemic, I suggest the obsessive-compulsive. It beats clinical depression for many reasons, not the least is the survivability rate. So, if you have a computer and want to learn a language, there is no better time than the present. Duolingo offers ninety-five courses in thirty-eight languages with over 300 million registered users.

If you came of age in the sixties like me, you may even want to take Esperanto. It may be the language humanity’s far spread remnants can use to make peace and start the process of rebuilding the world. You could be among the first to say, Ho gojo, la ratoj revenis.” Oh joy, the rats are back.

The Democratic Debates: A Team of Rivals?

Watching both nights of the Democratic presidential debates last week was informative and exhausting. Even more exhausting, although not as informative, were the hours of commentary offered by some of America’s best journalists. I have stolen a few of their thoughts and grafted them into my own commentary. If you are a politics junky of the MS-NBC persuasion, you may spot a few of my borrowings. You have no standing to sue me and I can’t be impeached. So just read on.

In my post last week, I confessed a partiality to Elizabeth Warren, although I made a commitment to watching the debates with an open mind. I am certain that all of my many readers have been waiting anxiously for my conclusions and advice. 

Well, I can’t help you that much. I concluded, like most folks,  that Bernie and Joe came across as a little tired. Though they be a little worn out, I still hoist my Bernie mug and my Obama mug (Was there ever a Biden mug?) with pride any time I sip a cup of tea. Although I think a lot of both gentlemen, I confess to a little ageism that I am permitted only because I know exactly what it feels like to wake up and face every morning with 75 years of history pulling you down and informed by the knowledge that gravity never loses. So, let’s take a look at some of the other candidates.

Elizabeth Warren proved once again that she is a fighter for social justice and building an economy and government that serve the people, not just those wonderful corporate entities the Supreme Court has lately endowed with rights we once thought applied only to individual citizens and residents. She demonstrated well thought out policy proposals, passion and a willingness to go forth and fight. She has never been one to give up when confronting a bully. 

These debates ought not be evaluated as performances, yet it is an unavoidable standard when the survivor is likely be forced to go up against an incumbent for whom this whole enterprise is nothing more than poorly produced television for tired old white men. Warren meets the standard of political performance art and even makes it appealing to the larger demographic that would include women, minorities, LGBTQ voters, the poor and thinking people of all identities. EW is solid gold. Go Cougars!

But then there was Kamala Harris. What she did to that nice man who used to work for President Obama was almost frightening. I would hate to have to face her as a defendant in a courtroom. And if you agree with me that what Donald J. Trump needs more than anything is to face off with a good prosecuting attorney, then I will suggest to you that Kamala Harris would be the one to do the job. She is fearless, brutally logical, and and quick to the attack, all the while respectful and able to use her expansive vocabulary with withering effectiveness. Better be ready to duck, Donald. She won’t be upstaged.

Julian Castro presents himself as a serious candidate, well rooted in national politics and very capable of taking on a more challenging leadership role. And there was Eric Swalwell, young but well schooled with his serious participation on House Intelligence and judiciary committees. And there is Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, And Beto O’Rourke. And so many more. 

As I watched them through the two nights of debate, I recalled the premise of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s analysis of the Abraham Lincoln’s genius use of his political rivals after the election of 1860. In Team of Rivals (Simon and Schuster, 2005), Goodwin tells how Lincoln pulled talented opponents into his circle of advisers when it was time to take charge of the government. William H. Seward, Edward Bates and Salmon P. Chase were Lincoln’s opponents in the contest for the Republican nomination. Yet he didn’t ignore them and treat them as “losers”. He asked them to join forces with him to do the nation’s work during its time of greatest strife.

Seward became his secretary of state, Chase, his secretary of treasury and Bates, his attorney general. 

He also brought some former Democrats into cabinet positions, including Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war. As Goodwin points out in her introduction (p. xvi), most of these men had credentials and achievements that far exceeded those of the country lawyer from Illinois who had pulled off the upset victory for the nomination and election. 

Lincoln’s great self-confidence and dedication to the task of preserving the Union allowed him to marshal the country’s best talent in service of that goal.

Could 21st Century Democrats do the same following success in the 2020 election? They would be well positioned with the fine set of competitors I saw among the twenty who presented on Tuesday and Wednesday night last week. One commentator (I do not remember who) suggested that one of the least known of the candidates, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, would make an excellent Secretary of Defense. She served as an army officer in Iraq and, in the House of Representatives, on the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Financial Services Committees. I don’t believe she is at all intimidated by the Trump Gang. And she would certainly be a better Secretary of Defense than the one DJT has currently serving in that office.

Oh, I forgot. It’s one of several vacancies he is carrying while he, Ivanka, and Jared do it all.

There was plenty of talent on the stage both nights of the debate. I think the party will be primed to install a competent government once again when they take the presidency in 2020. President Obama was wise to appoint HRC as his Secretary of State after defeating her for the presidential nomination in 2008. It was a script he borrowed from our favorite Republican, Abe Lincoln. This time we have a whole cabinet full of good talent.

That is the main thing I took away from the debates last week. 

That and the fact that any one of them will take more ability and honor to the office than the current incumbent. Yes, Maryanne Williamson, if you secure the nomination you have my vote and total support. 

Madeleine Albright: An Interview in The Guardian

This is one of the most interesting articles I came across today. Madeliene Albright, the former U.S. Secretary of State has a new book, Fascism: A Warning. She was interviewed by Andrew Rawnsley of The Guardian. Check out the interview here in The Guardian.

Ms. Albright does not offer us much comfort. From the interview:

“The things that are happening are genuinely, seriously bad. Some of them are really bad. They’re not to do with Trump; it is the evolution of a number of different trends. All the various problems that we have, they can’t be solved by simple slogans. But it’s easier to listen to some simple slogan.”

Yet simple slogans seemed to be what a significant number of voters responded to in 2016.