Friday, July 17, 2015

Linkword review

Lately I've been discussing mnemonic techniques for memorizing vocabulary. It turns out there is software that uses this method, the Linkword Language Courses developed by Michael Gruneburg.

This screenshot gives you a pretty good idea of the premise behind Linkword (I tested the Spanish course, because I speak no Spanish at all).  There are hundreds of these screens in a Linkword course, divided up by skill level and then category (animals, clothes, food). You can choose to hear the foreign word spoken, or work in silent mode.
It works like this: When a screen like the one above pops up, you spend a moment visualizing the imagery suggested: in this case, a camel lying on your bed. Concentrate on the word and the image of the camel on your bed. If all goes according to plan, the next time you see the word cama you'll recall the image of the camel in your bed and remember that cama is Spanish for "bed."

Click "Next" and repeat. And repeat. After 10 of these you get quizzed, then see a review screen with all the words. Then you go to the next unit. Eventually you end up composing (meaning, typing; there's lots of typing in this course) simple sentences.

Your first impression may be that this software must have been created in Basic in 1978 on a Commodore PET, but the (extremely) bland interface and choice of yellow on black are said by Dr. Gruneburg, who invited me to review the course, to be intentional choices that contribute to focus and memorization. I'm not sure if I buy it, and I have to wonder if a lively illustration of a camel in repose on a bed might not have been helpful. Certainly it would've made it more interesting as you pass through screen after same, feeling like you're stuck in DOS land. (Sorry for all the nerdy computer references, but that's what I do in my day job.)

Some of the linkages are good, and helpful, but for me too many are a bit, well, tortured.

Consider the pig. Third O'? Really?  I would've had the pig eating Certs to kill the stink, and why on earth you'd link "fox" to zorro by using the word "sorrow" instead of putting a Zorro mask on the fox is mind-boggling. But that's the nature of a mnemonic technique -- it's very personal. Which raises the question: are you better off creating your own linkages, rather than using those suggested by another? Almost certainly, I'd say (Dr. Gruneburg, for the record, does not agree), but that takes more effort, and perhaps few students would be willing to spend the time to do that, as I did when learning the 1,000 French words in a children's dictionary in a week. And, of course, there wouldn't be a Linkword product to sell if the users were creating their own images.

More importantly, the other thing that I did to facilitate learning vocabulary, if you recall from an earlier post, was to put these objects into themed rooms. For me, it wasn't enough to connect jupe to "skirt" by having the girl in the skirt jumping rope. In order for this technique to work, I had to put her and her family (and all their clothes) into a room, a busy room with lots of activity and words (refer to Flirting with French for details) - that is, combining mnemonics with the memory palace. That also greatly relived the monotony of memorizing word after word. Of course, I used my own images. In fact, my editor called me out on (and edited out!) the image of the woman in a tank top sweating on the exercise bike. But, hey, I remembered her (and her associated word)!

Anyway, back to my review of Linkword and the crux of the matter. Is this product an effective way to learn vocabulary? I would say, having spent some time with both the PC-based and mobile versions, that it can be, for some, a useful adjunct to other study, although I found it more useful in going from French to English than in the other direction. And note that, while there are some screens in the advanced sections that deal with grammar and sentence structure, and it's marketed as a full-fledged language course, in my opinion this is really a dressed-up vocabulary-learning tool. The product website claims that "Level 4 will enable you to read and understand the average newspaper article, watch a foreign language film and converse with people in a very wide range of situations abroad." I didn't make it to level 4, so I shouldn't judge, but I'll confess to a little skepticism when it comes to that lofty goal.

 As a vocabulary-learning supplement, it might have some use. I prefer the mobile version, which is something that you can do for a few minutes while waiting at the doctor's office during your lunch break. Think of it as a little snack between your language-class meals, and keep your expectations limited.

As my grand-mère de Brooklyn used to say, "It couldn't hoit!"

The Linkword language courses are available at

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jumping rope in the rain in my liviing room

To summarize the last two posts on learning French vocabulary (my, where has the time gone!), I had only a little success with both the mnemonic keyword technique, where you associate a French word with an English image that will remind you of the word, and the memory palace method, which seemed more suited to remembering a shopping list than learning vocabulary.

Neither worked.

Until, in a moment of uncharacteristic brilliance, I combined them. I took my vivid images of complaining plantains and the like and assembled them into themed rooms. Thus to learn French clothing words, I put a British chap wearing a chapeau and a coat (manteau) up on the fireplace mantle in my living room. 

Any well-dressed British chap up on a mantel needs an umbrella, that wonderful French word parapluie, which can double as a parachute if he needs to jump off. His wife, an unfortunate, homeless bag lady, wears a diamond bague on her finger. This couple’s daughter is jumping rope in her skirt (jupe), impermeable to the rain that’s falling onto her yellow impermeable.

But what is this strange crew doing in my living room? Sadly, it’s a wake for the son, a ten-year-old kid, laid out in a casket wearing a baseball cap (casquette), and sneakers (baskets) under a basketball hoop. I run through the scene with this odd family, whom I’m starting to enjoy, a few times in my head, jot down some notes, and test myself an hour later. Still there. The next day, the next week, still there. Thus it seems that while the keyword method itself doesn’t work and the memory palace doesn’t even really apply (it’s usually employed to memorize mere lists of items), combining the two methods — assigning a keyword and placing that object in a palace — clicks!

Try it yourself! And, of course read the full story in my New York Times bestseller, Flirting with French.  In the next post I'll tell you about my experiences with a software product that uses one of these techniques.

Friday, June 26, 2015

French students can't "cope"

There's (yawn) another student protest in France with week - but wait, before you tune out, this one involves language! The students are protesting the appearance of the English word "cope" in the English proficiency section of baccalaureate exam (which requires students to be proficient in not just one, but two foreign languages!). To quote from the NY Times:

The students said they were baffled by a passage from the best-selling novel “Atonement,” by Ian McEwan, in which the word “cope” appeared. Then came two questions about a character named Turner: “What concerns him about the situation?” and “How is Turner coping with the situation?”

Twelve thousand students signed a petition claiming that the word "cope" is not easily translatable into French. Some say the very concept has no exact equivalent, although a letter to the Times refutes this as "utter nonsense," pointing out that there are two verbs, se débrouiller and s'en sortir, that mean precisely that.

I won't enter the fray, except to point out that this same week, French taxi drivers, unable to cope with competition from Uber, were staging disruptive, even violent strikes, prompting Courtney Love to tweet that Baghdad is safer than Paris. Ouille!

One final note: Only 4 days left to buy Flirting with French on Kindle, Nook, or Apple for the appropriately insane price of $1.99! At that price surely it's worth the e-ink it's written on!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Flirting with French still only $1.99 on Kindle

Ever wonder what the French call "French kissing"? Why they have the most advanced transportation system in the world but haven't yet discovered the shower curtain? Whether you can learn a language as a adult?

This is the week to find out, as the New York Times bestseller Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart is just $1.99 on Kindle and Apple. Raved about in the Wall Street Journal, praised in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Flirting is cheaper than a croissant -- but just till the end of the week, so dépêchez-vous! (hurry!)

He throws himself into learning to speak French with Gérard Depardieu-like gusto -- The New York Times Book Review

"One of America's funniest writers...has done it again" -- Counterpoint

Friday, June 19, 2015

Chewie, on est à la maison

Skip the usual drivel on my blog this week (it will still be there next week) and zip right over to FluentU for the  trailer of the new Star Wars movie -- in French!  Make sure you hang in to the very end for the line by our favorite pilot and his furry copain. You might even understand the line.

Que la force soit avec toi!

Friday, June 12, 2015

French is un pain in the pan

That's "pain" as in pain (pronounced roughly "pah"). In a previous post I started a discussion (okay a monologue) on using a memory technique known as the memory palace to remember French vocabulary. (Go ahead, read it now, we'll all wait....)

Frankly, I couldn't see how it was going to help me learn French, so I abandoned it, but not long afterwards, I came across another "trick" that has been around for at least 30 years called the keyword method. The way this one works is that you associate the foreign word with a common English word, and visualize that English word. So, for example, to remember that pain is "bread" you  visualize a pan. Now picture that pan coming out of the oven filled with bread, and concentrate on that image for a few seconds. Bake it into your brain. Now, the next time you see the French word pain, you should be able to conjure up this picture, and say, “aha, bread!” As with the memory palace, the advantage of this method is that it uses imagery, and the human brain is far better are retaining images than at retaining words

Does it work? I tried it with a children's French/English dictionary I'd been trying unsuccessfully to memorize  For se plaindre (to complain), I pictured a bunch of talking plantains complaining about me every time I walk by. Funny. One word that had evaded me for weeks was autoriser, a verb meaning “to give permission.” I closed my eyes and pictured myself in my mechanic’s garage asking him for permission to put my car on his lift — his auto riser. Bingo. Ten minutes later, I tested myself with a handful of new words, and passed. But as I added words, I started forgetting earlier words. So I dismissed the technique aside as yet another gimmick.

So, neither the memory palace nor the mnemonic keyword technique seemed to work for me.  But stay tuned: next week I'll tell you how 1+1=5, or what happened when I combined the techniques...and the email I received from a proponent of one of them. Très intéressant!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Cheap Flirting

For those of you who follow my blog, but haven't read my book, Flirting with French, here's your chance. For the month of June, you can get an e-book of Flirting (Kindle, Nook, Apple) for only $1.99!  If you have read it, surprise your Francophile friends with a gift. They'll never suspect how little you spent.

Buy the Kindle edition here

Buy the Nook version here

or visit the Apple Bookstore from your iOS device.

Act now, before they're all gone

Friday, June 5, 2015

Raining milk in the memory palace

I thought that maybe for at least a few posts that I might return to topics related to the reason I started this blog -- namely, the business of learning French, at which I've proven remarkably inept. Why this should be so is anybody's guess (Je suis idiot is mine), but I did have a little success, and did learn some techniques along the way, so let's dwell on the positive for moment.

One technique which I discovered during my quest to memorize French vocabulary is called the "memory palace." In Flirting with French I discuss the fascinating origin of the term (too lengthy to go into here), but the way it works is that you place the object or word in a room (or if you're a king, a palace) but represented by a vivid visual image that will remind you of that word. So if you have a list of objects for the grocery store -- bread, milk, chicken, and potatoes -- which is one more item than I can memorize, you place memorable images of those items in a room or rooms, which you picture yourself walking through. So, to memorize this list, I picture myself coming home from work, and as I pass the mailbox a chicken pokes his head out and clucks. As I approach the house it starts raining milk, so I dash inside, only to slip on the potatoes that are covering the kitchen floor, and as I lay there the oven door flies open and a loaf of bread pops out. (This is particularly vivid use of the technique -- all the action isn't the norm, but I find it helps.)

So that's my list, converted to a little tableau. When I get to the store I picture myself coming home from work, and the rest follows (we hope). Memory experts have used this technique to memorize hundreds of objects, or,say, the order of cards in a deck. It's effective because the mind is better at remembering images than at remembering words. But how can it help you with a language? To help you to remember, not to bring home the bread, but that "bread" is le pain? Ah, that's a topic for another day, but give it some thought -- you may come up with the answer yourself.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

An historic first for Académie Française

As I reported in my International New York Times op-ed a couple of months ago, France seems to be loosening up when it comes to defending its language. The latest historic moment is the naming of the first foreigner to l'Académie Française, that august defender of the French language since 1635.

In recent years a few Frenchmen born outside of France have been named to the this very private club, including perhaps most shockingly, an English-born poet, but Dany Laferrière, born in Haiti, and a Canadian citizen, is the first non-citizen of France awarded the post.

France's minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, signaled this openness in March 2015 speech in which she pointed out the there are more French speakers outside of France than in it, so it nice to see to substance put behind the talk.

Some interesting details about M. Laferrière's induction and life:
  • His traditional a black tailcoat embroidered with green olive branches took a Montreal embroiderer 500 hours to make
  • His sword, handmade by a Haitian sculptor, had references to Legba, the Voodoo deity of crossroads
  • Among his 20 novels are the autobiographical "How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired,"  which became a 1990 film
We wish M. Laferrière bonne chance in his new post. We don't have to wish him  bonne santé, because the 40 members of the academy as call les immortels.  Time will tell.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The French Blog makes the top - um - 100 (!)

When I first heard that this blog had been included in a list of the top 100 French learning websites, I have to confess, my first reaction was, "There are a hundred French language sites?"

Well, there are, and lots more, and actually I'm honored to be included in Love Frence, Learn French's list of free French-language learning sites, because I'm the only learner blog included -- the other 99 are websites and blogs from French teachers. And I can only hope that my presence makes them nuts.

Anyone, Love/Learn French's list is a terrific resource for any cheapskates trying to learn French -- I didn't know about most of the sites on the list, and the blog author, Ryan Harrison, has included nice little capsule descriptions of each. About this site Ryan writes, "He blogs about France and learning French but doesn’t give any lessons to learn the language. He is very interested in current affairs. The site has some reviews of paid online software you can read too."

But I'm in some good company, include resources maintained by legitimate enterprises like The College of William and Mary. So go learn some French! Or should we say, Apprendez-vous quelques française! Or something like that.