The short answer: It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The Duolingo app, a quasi-free online tool for getting started in a foreign language, has been much in the news lately. The Duolingo team has been fairly successful in gamifying language learning by turning into a competition. How easily we are manipulated, right? This is what we do with kids — “Let’s play a game and see who can clean their room first!”
Well, it worked on me, which probably says volumes about my emotional maturity. I thought I would just take the app for a test drive to see what it was about, and picked German seemingly at random. The first few lessons taught me some basic vocabulary. Frau. Mann, Kind, Hund, Katze. Hallo. I thought, this isn’t so hard.
That was in 2015. Little did I know at the time that Duolingo is akin to a gateway drug. Today, I am taking classes at a local Deutsche Schule, have an online native speaking tutor, attending a local Stammtisch twice monthly, read novels in German, reading the news at Deutsche Welle, watching TV shows on Netflix with German language options selected, playing video games with German subtitles, and wondering how this all came to take up so much of my attention. It’s not like I ever had an urge to read Goethe or Nietzsche in the original.
There is a Facebook page for German learners using Duolingo. There are probably several. About once a week, a new member will ask, “How did y’all get started learning German?” The answers could probably be set up to be selected from a drop down menu:
- I have a German lover.
- I want to visit family in <German speaking country.>
- My firm’s HQ is in Germany.
- I want to live and work in Germany.
- I’m studying philosophy, and I need to read Kant in the original. (I don’t buy this one. Being able to read Wilfrid Sellars in the original English certainly doesn’t help.)
None of these reasons apply to me. Instead of simply shrugging my shoulders and making vague hand-waving gestures, I made up a reason:
“I found this puzzle box on one of my recent campaigns. Solving the puzzle was difficult, and it contained a letter in German. Pre-reform German, with lots of references to arcane knowledge. I had to battle a dragon, three trolls, and a horde of undead in order to retrieve it, and I’m not about to let a language class stand between me and reading the damn thing.”
Nobody asks me why I study German anymore.
I was grossly misled by the early steep learning curve. I now appear to be eternally stuck somewhere in the pre-intermediate skill level, measured on how difficult the books are that I can read. I know I’m learning new words, but still struggle with prepositions.
And, as you all know, it’s much easier to read and understand the spoken language than it is to create new sentences from scratch. Friends at the Stammtisch have become accustomed to my silence, and show great patience when I do try to make a contribution to the dialogue. Sometimes, the whole table, including the native speakers, grows silent in anticipation while I navigate the grammatical minefield.
I need to schedule a trip to Bavaria for research for my next book. Never mind that the story takes place on other planets.