Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Learning Curve: Adventures in Self-Directed Education

Back when I started this blog, I promised several recurring features that I haven’t always delivered on.  (I like to think that if you take the long view, all of my promises will be’s all a work in progress!)

One of those features was discussion of self-directed continuing education, with my own experiences with setting up curricula for myself as the model.  Of course, the main reason you haven’t seen much of that is because I haven’t done a great job creating and sticking to my own curricula.  Well, January started a new semester, and I’ve been much more successful so far.  Various web-based options are making it easier to keep up one’s education outside of the traditional bounds of the classroom, and I’m interested to hear from my readers about their own experiences or with commentary on my choices.

First off, I decided that continuing library/info studies education doesn’t necessarily have to include the stuff you might expect to find in your official program--on the contrary, there are lots of subjects that are of immediate benefit to the librarian but which don’t fit into our 2-ish years of training.  For me, top on that list is Spanish.

I’m interested in working in large urban public libraries, and nearly every job posting I’ve responded to has listed proficiency in Spanish as a preferred qualification, if not an outright requirement.  Well, this guy made the very positive, yet not so demographically savvy, decision to study French starting in middle school, going on to major in the language in college.  While I very much enjoyed learning to read and discuss Hugo and Sartre in their original tongue, it hasn’t lended itself to employers snapping me up.

Spanish, I recognize, is extremely valuable to know in the American workforce today.  It’s the most-spoken non-English language in American homes, and overall there are 69 million hispanophones in the US.  While a great many of them also speak English fluently or very well, there’s a sizable number who do not--and besides, sometimes it’s more comfortable for people to conduct business in their native language, no matter how well they speak another.  

In the little community public library where I volunteer, a good proportion of the patrons I encounter every day are Spanish-speakers.  I decided it was time I had the ability to at least offer the option of communicating in these folks’ first language.  While it will be many years before I’m able to do so in a way that won’t make them cringe at my vocabulary and accent, I can at least get the process started with increasingly useful, rigorous and affordable online language-learning options.  

For this effort I’ve chosen Duolingo, with which I previously had a positive experience practicing Portuguese just for fun.  It’s a colorful site that offers an intuitive scaffold of each language to climb toward proficiency, breaking it down into digestible, thematic chunks--sometimes grammatically like pronouns, sometimes by subject matter like food.

The experience is nicely gamified to grab and hold attention: you earn points for successful lessons completed and which you can compare with those of your friends, and you earn bonuses for streaks of days practiced.  During lessons, you have three hearts--make too many mistakes and lose all your hearts, and you have to restart in that area.  But success also earns you some web-currency, ‘lingots,’ which you can use to purchase bonuses and upgrades, like extra hearts.

One feature I didn’t grasp at first, but which is actually really helpful, is aimed at combating recall decay.  When you complete a lesson, you have four full bars in the skill it covers--a happy little fully-charged feeling.  But as time goes by, you lose bars, and you have to go back and practice that skill to build bars back up.  It’s a great visual cue to remind you to go back and really lock down that content, rather than washing your hands of it.

The goal of Duolingo is to crowdsource translations of web-based content.  The thought is that there are too many millions of gigabytes of content building up through such outlets as  BuzzFeed for it ever to be translated in-house for global access.  By teaching people some of the top world languages, Duolingo hopes to harness their new skill to fill that gap.  Every now and then a dialog box pops up saying “You can now translate x% of all listicles!  Why don’t you give it a try!”

Frankly, I’m dubious.  It’s a noble aim and I will certainly do my part if I feel like I know enough to contribute competently, but even after months of practicing Portuguese, I wasn’t confident tackling BuzzFeed translations.  Especially not given the slang-heavy nature of most Web writing--Duolingo focuses on official language, so I’m really not sure how successful I’ll ever be in this part of the operation.  But I applaud those who make it work.

If you’re in the mood to pick up a new language, need a crash-course for a new life situation, or want to brush up on an old favorite, Duolingo is a great option.  And did I mention it’s free?  Money talks (several languages).  And if you already have a background in a given language, you can test out of the basic lessons and dig right into the  pollo y manzanas (chicken and apples--as close as I can get to ‘meat and potatoes’ so far!).  Eventually I will branch out from Duolingo and enlist some Hispanophone friends to converse with me and share more advanced, library-specific vocabulary...but for now I have to get my conjugations down.

So that’s my first self-directed course of study in my own private spring semester.  Tune in soon when I let you in on my efforts exploring coding and gamification, and chime in with your thoughts and feelings in the comments!

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