Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An Age of Wonder

I have to tell you, we are living in a time of miracles. I am working on some new projects right now, and I can not believe the wealth of information at my fingertips, in ways I never dreamed of.

I'm working hard right now to regain and improve my French. I'm travelling to France twice in the next year, so I'll have opportunity to use it, and also I've always been somewhat ashamed of my essentially monoglot status. I met a 20-year-old tour guide in South Africa who was fluent in twelve languages. Sheesh. The least I can do is manage a very basic conversation in a language I studied for four years (in high school, but still.) Anyhow, I'm taking a multi-disciplinary approarch. I've got these fabulous flashcards set up on Anki, which is simply an online flashcard learning system. You create flash cards--there was a tutorial online that explained how to add images (through tinyurl.basicimages) and expert pronounciation (through forvo.com) to the cards. Therefore the card could show you, say, a photo of a sheep, and ask, "What is this?" and you would say, "le mouton." OR the card would say "How do you spell--and then a voice would say in perfect French, 'mouton'? Anki sets the cards up so that if you answer correctly, the card moves back in the pack, and if you answer incorrectly, it moves forward. Once you know a card you get asked it increasingly less often, just long enough to tweak your brain into remembering. It's genius.

Then I ordered a set of ear-training flashcards in French, online, and put them into my Anki setup. They're designed to be close auditory pairs, bague vs. bag, say, or hausse vs. os, things non-French speakers have trouble distinguishing between. The card says one of the pairs out loud while asking which I heard. You'd be amazed how you can learn to hear differences your brain simply ignored before.

Then I thought to myself, I wonder what books I could order in French. Of course I thought of amazon.fr, as I'm already a steady customer of amazon.co.uk for all books British. But--Kindle! Of course!

Now, you may not have known it, but amazon has a new Kindle subscription service--$9.99 per month all you can download. Are you kidding me? I'm going to be saving some serious cash. Then it turned out that not only can I download books in French to my Kindle, essentially for very little money, but they have books designed for language learners with audio files attached. Not only that, the audio files come in two speeds: regular speech and slow. So I can look at a short story on my Kindle while a voice in French reads along, fast or slow depending on how quickly I can listen.

That's astonishing, but even more so: I downloaded the first Harry Potter book in French. Now this is a huge step, vocabularu and word-tense wise, but I already know the story very well and I thought it would be fun. And it is. Reading each sentence is a little labor of love. Also, you'd be surprised what you can learn in context. "Owl" and "cloak." But there are some vocab words I simply don't know, and can't puzzle from the rest of the sentence, and here's where the miracle came in: struggling, I put my finger down on a troublesome word, trying to work it out from the rest of the words around it, and lo, the troublesome word highlighted itself and a dictionary definition popped up on the screen. Perhaps you advanced Kindle users already know this trick. (In my defense, I rarely need the definitions of words in English). The definition was of course in French, but I could understand it. Oh, fabulous.

All this milling around in another language is fascinating, but I have real work to do. I'm happy to report for the 30th time that I'm working on my Egypt book, only this time I think it will stick, because I'm out of other options. Now I've got a British family travelling to Egypt in 1922, and of course they'd have a Baedeker, a red-bound travel guide of the sort that were ubiquitous among British travels abroad in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Baedekers are almost a stereotype. So I thought, a Baedeker guide to Egypt from the right time period would be invaluable. It would tell me a lot about the attitudes of Europeans toward Egyptians, and it would also list, say, all the European doctors practicing in Luxor, or all the bookstores, or what I could expect from the hotels. It would explain the currency of the time far better than anything written now. I thought, lo, the magic internet. I bet I can buy an old Baedeker.

Nope. Even better. I can download a 1914 edition of the Baedeker Guide to Egypt onto my Kindle, included in the 10 dollars per month that already brought me French stories read out loud and a dictionary-enhanced French language Harry Potter.

It's the simple truth. We live in an age of miracles.