Duolingo – my favourite app

DuolingoPardon me while I enthuse briefly about Duolingo. For the past 68 days, I have used the Duolingo app on my Google Nexus 7 every day. I’m working on my French. It’s getting to be a habit. A good habit. According to Duolingo’s statistics, over those 68 days I have used (successfully) some 1223 French words. I’ve reached, approximately, the half-way point in the 25 skill levels available. My wife says that even my pronunciation is improving. I love this app.

I’ve been working on improving my French for at least 10 years, off and on. It is one of my great regrets in life that I did not pursue French as a youth when it might have been easier and when the language might have got better secured in my still malleable brain. For some reason, I was permitted to drop French after grade 10 in high school. By the time I reached my second year of university, I knew that I’d made a big mistake. But there was no going back. Instead I decided to start from scratch with German and to learn it intensively. That did the trick. I reached a passable level of German and for a while there even carried on conversations with my wife’s unilingual German relatives.

The initial impetus to reclaim my French came when I visited France, and more especially Paris, for the first time. It was the turn of the century (the current one; I’m not that ancient). We were living in London, England, just then. I must have been thinking that it was time to start afresh. Time to make a commitment to who I wanted to be. Time to reclaim the half of my Canadian heritage that I’d admired in the past but never been able to participate in. It was time for me to learn French.

Learning a language well past the age of 30 is, frankly, hard. For me it was very hard. I don’t have a natural aptitude for language learning. And I’d already had a less than stellar history with French nearly 20 years earlier. So there were some obstacles. On the other hand, nothing greatly depended on my learning French. It was just something I wanted to do for myself. I could go at my own pace. And that is basically what I’ve done. Slowly.

Enough about me. Let’s get back to Duolingo.

I can’t say that I set about researching lots of language learning apps before I started using Duolingo. When I first got my Google Nexus 7, I looked briefly at the apps recommend on Google Play. Duolingo had two things going for it straight off. Lots of people were using it, and it was (and apparently always will be) free (as in no cost). So I gave it a whirl.

In Duolingo the user works through a learning tree from basics to intermediate to advanced. Each set of exercises centres around some aspect of the language, either grammar or vocabulary. For example, one set might be focussed on adverbs and another on clothing, or pronouns, or directions. There are four or more lessons in each exercise set. Once you successfully complete all of the lessons in a set its colour changes to gold and, usually, new (harder) exercises are unlocked. The activities in the lessons vary between translating from French to English, translating from English to French, transcribing a sentence you hear in French (I find that the hardest), and repeating a sentence in French until the software declares that you’ve got it close enough to move on. Probably nothing there that you would not expect to find in any technologically sophisticated language learning program.

So you make your way through lesson after lesson, completing exercise after exercise, probably thinking, “This isn’t so hard.” And then one day you notice that an exercise set earlier in the series, which you had completed successfully, is no longer gold. What’s this?

It’s time for revision. Duolingo determines by some algorithm that the skills you learned a week or two weeks ago may already be getting a bit rusty. Time to go back and do a lesson in order to practise your skills. Complete one such lesson successfully and the entire exercise set reverts to gold. You can move on.

The constant need for revision — call it hectoring, if you like — turns out to be exactly what I, as an older learner, need. I need to go over and over those adverbs or pronouns to get them well and truly locked in my head. And then I need to return to them in the not too distant future to deepen the grooves.

Of course once you get to the half-way mark in the learning tree, there are more and more exercise sets behind you that are going to need revision periodically. And that, inevitably, will slow your progress. But I think that’s a good thing. I feel like I’m finally getting some things secured.

My entire experience with Duolingo has been through its Android app. I now know that Duolingo is available through your web browser as well. So you definitely don’t need to wait until you get a tablet device to start enjoying Duolingo. There is also a social component to Duolingo that I have not explored. For example, a group of individuals could join Duolingo together and compete as friends in their progress through the language they are learning. That didn’t appeal to me, but it may appeal to you. And of course there are more languages than just French. You could try Portuguese, German, or Italian. Other languages will follow.

I probably won’t ever reach a level of real proficiency in French. But everything isn’t about the endpoint. It’s about the journey. Duolingo helps make the language learning journey more enjoyable. I recommend it.

Twitter community through self-identification

DSC_7172I made my first tweets on Friday, 15 November 2013. They were a long time coming. I set up my Twitter account more than three years ago. It has taken me this long to overcome my communications anxiety. Not so much anxiety about what to say, although there is that too. But rather anxiety about how this communications stream fits into my PIO, my personal identity online.  Frankly, I didn’t have a viable use-case for me back then. What’s changed?

To some extent Twitter has changed. In the past three years it has grown not just in numbers but in sophistication. These days it would be hard to deny that communities form, interact, and disband within the  Twitter environment. That is part of what motivated my plunge into the tweet pool.

I like the fact that Twitter is not a deep well or walled garden or whichever metaphor you best think captures the semi-permeable envelope surrounding Facebook and users within Facebook. Yes, I’m on Facebook, but I rarely, if ever, use it for anything other than staying abreast of the status updates from my many friends and relatives. For me, Facebook never overcame my anxiety about openness. I have a bias towards openness. I want what I write to be readable by anyone. I think that forces me to be a bit more circumspect about what I write. Just as it would if I was in a real live conversation with someone. Twitter has not produced the same level of anxiety for me. Although it is possible to “protect” your tweets so that only your preferred set of followers see them, the ethos is clearly to leave your tweets visible to one and all.

However, it was something other than anxieties over openness and the challenge of wit or wisdom in under 140 characters that convinced me to activate my sleeping Twitter account. It was something that arose during a panel discussion at the recent Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo.

Many of those present were published writers at different stages of their careers. There were also lots of people present who were one or more steps behind in their career arc. Many of those people, I think, marvelled at the level of camaraderie on display amongst the ‘pros’. How, they asked again and again, could they also find such a community?

Writing is hard. Community, if you don’t already have it, is probably harder. The writers on the panel struggled with what to advise. Many of them had found their writerly communities while in school, often after they embarked on a graduate degree, an MFA. Others followed a different path and felt they had only found their community after their initial publications. That led to speculation as to what the preconditions of such a community might be. The best answer to that question, I think, came when one of the panellists turned the tables and asked whether the questioner self-identified as a writer.

What does it mean to self-identify as a writer? And why might that be important for joining or forming a writerly community?

I think self-identification here means declaring publicly that you are a writer. You aren’t a hobbyist. This isn’t an avocation. When someone asks you about yourself, the first thing you say is, “Hi, I’m a writer.” It’s both what you do and who you are. It’s a vocation, which is a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation. A strong feeling of suitability.

There is no need to be diffident. Indeed, an unwillingness to declare yourself as a writer may be precisely what is holding up your entry into the community of writers. If you do have that strong feeling of suitability, then declare yourself.

Declare yourself. Sometimes it comes down to just that — admitting to yourself that you are, in fact, a writer. And once you’ve done that, then the next step is to declare it publicly.

Which brings me back to Twitter. I have chosen to use my Twitter account as a means of publicly self-identifying as a writer. I like the extremely limited number of characters that Twitter permits for your personal bio on your profile. Mine now reads:

writer, reader, sometime thinker

Come join me, if you wish. Follow me @randymetcalfe


Transformative Explications renewed

Technically, this is the first post of this blog. But it is the second incarnation of Transformative Explications. The old version, which was located elsewhere, no longer exists. However, all of the posts from the previous version have migrated here. So, nothing is lost.

Here you will also find the posts from my other blog, RandM Thoughts. That blog has now reached its end. But it too finds a new lease on life here.

If you arrived here after visiting RandM Thoughts, do stay. You’ll find what you are looking for.

If you arrived here after searching for the old version of Transformative Explications, do stay. Again, you’ll find what you are looking for.

And if you arrived here with no previous knowledge of those blogs, do stay. You might find what you are looking for.

In any case, this is where you’ll find me.

Transformative Explications is a blog that explores my thoughts on literature and creative writing as well as, periodically, observations on technology, open source software, and more.

Do join in. I encourage comments on my posts. Agree, disagree, head off into left field — I’ll usually confirm the comment and probably respond.

Stay in touch. You can add the RSS feed for Transformative Explications to your favourite RSS reader. Or you can sign up for email delivery of new blog posts.

I hope to hear from you often.

And now on with the show . . .

Randy Metcalfe

Chucklit, or the rise of the man-boy novel

I’m an eclectic reader. I will read serious literary fiction as well as Star Trek spoofs. I will read classics as well as contemporary fiction. I will even read works in translation. I’m an eclectic reader but I’m not uncritical. There are many types of novels and there are better and worse examples of each.

Recently I’ve spotted a new novel type. It has probably been around for a while, so no doubt it is only newish to me. For lack of a better term, I’m calling it ChuckLit.

Chucklit is typically written by a male author. Its protagonist is also male, usually over 30 but under 40.  He is presented as an everyman but a special breed of everyman. He is smart but under-appreciated. He is financially comfortable either due to his own efforts or the largesse of some fabulously wealthy friend or relative. He has male friends who range from the aggressive loudmouth to the emotionally fragile. But they are all good guys. The kind of guys you would go out to a bar with weekly (or more frequently). They stick up for each other and have been friends probably since they were teens.

In ChuckLit, the protagonist has a low self-image yet seems, perhaps miraculously, to be surrounded by young, buxom, and entirely available women who think he’s great. But it’s so hard to choose! Or having chosen, to stick with your choice.

These are relationship novels. Although there will eventually be some form of violent action at a moment of crisis, in reality the acting out is all about the restructuring of the protagonist’s self-image.  (Despite appearing somewhat weedy, the protagonist will typically summon inner strength that manifests itself in the form of punching some guy who really has it coming.) Once that self-image has been restructured, he is capable of new/better/different/longer-lasting/fulfilling relationships with one or another of the available buxom young women.

And that’s about it. There may be some glancing nod to a topical issue or superficial psychological insight. But mostly it’s about a man-boy becoming, not exactly a man, but at least a new and improved man-boy.

There is something tiresome about such books.

It’s not just the laddish behaviour. Or the gratuitous scenes written as though the real goal is the movie deal the author may be able to negotiate. (Thus there are typically one or more scenes set in bars where bands are playing, which offers opportunities for a cool soundtrack for a movie, and one or more scenes set in strip clubs, which offers opportunities for some gratuitous nudity that the lead actresses may not wish to partake of.) It’s not even the disproportionate relationships with entirely average guys taking up with incredibly beautiful women. That can happen.

It’s the lack of effort, honesty, and insight in the writing that I find disappointing.


The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Picking up almost immediately from where the first novel of Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy concluded, The Story of a New Name traces the lives of Elena and her friend Lila from ages 16 to 23. Superficially they are on utterly disparate trajectories. Lila, married at 16, undergoes humiliation after humiliation, beatings and abuse from her husband, scurrilous gossip and innuendo from relatives and neighbours, and financial ruin. A brief summer of adulterous love spirals out of control and leaves Lila with an infant son, no husband, no lover, and, ultimately a need to re-establish her name as Cerullo, scrubbing away the years she has had to endure as Signora Carracci. By contrast, Elena goes from one academic triumph to the next, obtaining both her high school diploma, and, after gaining a scholarship to the university in Pisa, eventually her university diploma as well. To top it off she writes a much-praised short novel that is published not long after she finishes at the university. But we would be wrong to think that Elena and Lila’s lives are any less entangled than they were in their first youth. The ‘Elena Greco’ on the cover of her novel is as much a constructed name and identity for Elena as the, now, ‘Signora Cerullo’ is for Lila.

I couldn’t help thinking of the relationship between Elena and Lila as comparable to an elaborate dance. Ferrante has structured their lives in such an intricate formal pattern (even their sexual relations are matched), yet the wonder is that the novel never once becomes forced or contrived. Each step in the dance seems both compelled and entirely free. It is so well done that it can take your breath away.

Ferrante’s writing matches her two protagonists. At times it becomes almost formal and argumentative, as when the increasingly educated Elena tries to think through her emotional confusion. At other times it soars with near poetic and existential angst. And yet again it can be as basic as the most basic functions of life in the poorer neighbourhoods of Naples. Riveting. The only disappointment is that I will now have to wait impatiently for the final volume to appear. Highly recommended.

See also