Life: Smoke-Tinted Light and Casual Reading

Not the current sky.

The sunrises remain a striking yellow-gold. This still has the capacity to surprise me. The wildfires are still sending particles to the upper atmosphere, and I am sad that I’m becoming used to the yellow tint to my surroundings. I don’t want to get used to it, but it is a daily filter. It is becoming normal.


I don’t write here about everything I read. I try to limit myself to books I strongly recommend. And the bulk of what I read each day aren’t books!

I read both US and international news each morning (not just the book reviews!), and I’m trying NOT to provide running commentary on that. (I’ve done that in the past on blogs, and it’s tiring. Also, you can get personal commentary on just about everything all the time on social media, along with an endless collection of reposts of things you’ve already read.) I don’t write about books until I finish them (notes for myself notwithstanding), which means I am always in arrears on endorsements.

I fall into Internet research rabbit holes, and love that Wikipedia has a t-shirt on this theme.

On Twitter, which can consume an entire afternoon if I’m not careful, I read posts by my favorite authors, journalists, comedians, artists, and activists. There is a beneficial crossover of articles and other media on topics that interest me, recommended by people with similar interests, and written about by professional sources. It allows me to have a positive experience of Twitter, which wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t filter carefully.

That makes it sound like I only do super-professional research on Twitter, which is not the case. Twitter is also full of jokes, puns, highly charged commentary, mockery, illustrations, photos, AI software being used to match celebrity outfits to natural phenomena, and dumb-but-funny observations. I have geeky sense of humor, so I wind up with a lot of this sort of thing (below, sung to the tune of “That’s Amore“)

This is posted to Twitter from other sites by multiple posters, so I’m unsure who to credit. Twitter only lets me see a few days’ worth of these posts on the “That’s a Moray” topic, which appears to have a longer history than you actually want to know about. If you searched now, today, you’d see this and other variations of this coming up, including more song lines… Be warned: you’ll find yourself singing this in the shower.

This continues in many flavors, and is also enjoyed by the professional media (though non-media types shared the links with me in the first place):

This, in turn, reminds me of the collection of Guardian headlines that they are very pleased with themselves over:

…and now you know too much about my non-book reading time.

Words: 800 Days of Duolingo

The Duolingo app is still a regular habit of mine! I’ve been using it in different ways for different languages, and with even more practice behind me, my favorable opinions have grown even stronger.

My Sunday profile. My 800 day streak isn’t PERFECT: there is an option to be forgiven if you make up for it the next day. Which I have used.

During the course of my studies, Duolingo has been adding lessons and improving exercises. I appreciate and like the improvements, which I feel have increased my understanding of topics like verb tenses.

Separate scores for separate languages; “crowns” are displayed in the app for each course, reflecting each unit/chapter you have completed.

German is the language I still use the most, and it is the one I have completed all of level 1 for. I have pen pals who don’t speak English, and this has increased my need to be able to write skillfully and expand my vocabulary. Duolingo introduces practical topics that are more current than the lessons I learned so long ago. (I remember the word for reel-to-reel tape player, because I had some old books – I’m trying to move AWAY from that!) I’m moving through all the lessons in a linear fashion, and plan to complete all of level 2 this year.

Since I first studied German in the 1980s, I can think entirely in German for periods of time, so when I am too tired to study another language, I return to German.

French is my runner up, and a language I always THINK I should speak, though I mostly have reading experience. (I’ve used French transactionally in France, with success but no depth. I’m much better with written French than spoken.) The best part of the app for me with French are the listening exercises: there were sounds that I couldn’t distinguish before, that I can now! My pronunciations remain dodgy, and the app is trying to help.

Spanish is a language I have heard all my life, since I grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, and would need to use my height to get objects off of high shelves for other people’s abuelas. Talking to abuelas only taught me NOUNS, however, so I’m using the app primarily to learn verbs and form complete sentences!

Spanish is the course where I started writing out notes on verb conjugations, and it turns out I REALLY need those for reference. My note-taking has helped improve my answers, since I recall things better when I have written them out. I also use independent references for verb conjugations. Duolingo helped me finally think a few thoughts spontaneously in Spanish, which is new and exciting.

Japanese is a recurring interest, and a language I studied independently for a brief time in the early 90s. (I learned hiragana and katakana, and tourist phrases; I have visited Japan twice on multi-week trips, and was able to translate signs for other foreigners both times.) Japanese for English speakers is a relatively new Duolingo course that I had been eagerly awaiting, and I’m really impressed by it.

This language program is INTENSE, since there are new characters to learn in nearly every lesson. It helps to be familiar with hiragana before beginning, but the program covers it, and then replaces some words you’ve learned in hiragana with their kanji equivalent, which is how students there learn kanji, I believe.

I’m finding weak spots in my katakana, and am learning that note taking for the new kanji characters is ESSENTIAL. I was clever enough to subtitle the kanji with hiragana early on, but making notes in English is a fair enough habit.

My characters aren’t well-formed, but I’ll improve with independent practice on sheets that schoolkids use.

I’m learning the Japanese counting method, where the number is modified by the shape of thing being counted, and it is a tribute to Duolingo that they have introduced this gently enough that I did NOT run away screaming.

I am not super confident that I can recall some of these lessons where multiple new kanji were added, and so I may use the course differently from how I use it for other languages: instead of completing level 1 for all lessons, I may keep stepping up my levels in the early lessons until I really feel comfortable.

SO: Duolingo is a useful tool. You can set your own pace, and use it as a standalone study method (especially if you are already familiar with the languge) or as a supplement to other tools. If games and competition motivate you, you can get competitive in your ‘league’ against other students working at a similar pace. The courses are regularly improved based on the data they see across students. It has options to skip ahead and test out of levels that you are acing. I’m happy to see the addition of Japanese, and the care that went into designing the lessons.

I still recommend it! 🙂

Language: German Conjugator

I write in German regularly, but not fluently. What I mean is, my conversational German is okay (I can talk about my life and the weather), my transactional German is okay (I can buy shoes and order food), but my new pen pals keep raising topics I’ve never discussed in German, and so I’m learning new words. Which is GREAT! But… I don’t know how to conjugate the new verbs.

Google Translate ( is nearly magical in its application, and I rely on it while traveling. The image to text instant translations are AMAZING! And the translations are pretty smart. I think I’ve mentioned before that it misses context and nuance, which makes some sense: when I had large Swiss bills and smaller denominations, it offered transformation in place of change, because the nuance is a little different in German: I needed small money. But I knew enough German not to ask for transformation, so it was FINE.

Anyway, Google Translate is my go-to for trying to say new things. However, for all of its excellence, switches between conversational past (I had eaten) and simple past (I ate) in a way that distracts me, and which I don’t seem to influence by my English wording. I want to be more consistent, and this tool, which is called Reverso Conjugator, can help me!

We used conversational past in school, so simple past is kind of exciting – close to how I speak in English, but also unfamiliar in a few ways. So, I’m using it to learn, and it’s been great so far! I recommend it!

Life: Language Study (with Owls)

I made a cheerful little owl more excited.

Duolingo, the language study app/platform, showed me this cute graphic summarizing my progress this year. I study every day for a couple minutes, and I’ve been using it for about 550 days consecutively…

My eavesdropping in Spanish is getting better, and I made an actual (bad) joke to myself today (about podemos vs. perdemos) which is a good sign for me, though perhaps not for anyone near me.

My Spanish translation and/or guessing ability is improving, but my independent recall and sentence formation isn’t so great, so I’ll need to do some independent writing. I’ve only had spontaneous thoughts in grammatically proper Spanish a few times, whereas I have entire conversations in my head in German, so there’s a long way to go! The Spanish past tense has really bowled me over, perhaps because I hadn’t fully mastered conjugations for the present tense, and I haven’t recovered conceptually. (I ate, you ate, s/he ate, we ate, they ate IS SO MUCH EASIER than the Spanish versions of those: female: Yo comí, tú comiste, ella comió, nosotras comimos, ellas comieron; and then the same verbs for male, but different pronouns for those last three: Yo comí, tú comiste, él comió, nosotros comimos, ellos comieron. YES, German does something similar, but I’ve been practicing that for YEARS longer!)

On the days when I want to study, but can’t focus on Spanish, I return to German. I use German somewhat regularly, thanks to a friend and Postcrossing, so it feels like laziness. Or, less frequently, I switch to French, which I’ve still cumulatively spent more app time studying than Spanish. The issue with French is the random shared words: my trés bien could sabotage my muy bien. This is a really lucky problem to have!

It’s nice of Duo, the owl mascot of Duolingo (die Eule, le hibou, or el búho, depending), to encourage me with this certificate.

I still enthusiastically recommend Duolingo as a nice way to improve language familiarity as part of a bigger study plan suited to your personal learning/method needs.

Culture: 423 Days of Duolingo

Duo is the encouraging Owl mascot of Duolingo

Growing up in San Francisco is an experience I wouldn’t trade!! You can hear half a dozen languages spoken in a trip across town, have classmates and neighbors from around the world, celebrate the new year at least five different times/ways, and taste so many delicious, different foods!

I grew up in the Mission District, and was a tall child from about age 11, so I spent countless years of my life as ‘the tall girl that can get something off the shelf for your abuela.’ (Note: I am still that woman. I also open jars for other gals. Sisterhood is powerful.) The abuelas would politely ask me for the thing I should reach for them, usually in Spanish, and so I developed a reasonable Spanglish vocabulary for things you can buy in a shop and anything/everything I would want in a Mission-style burrito. (Burrito vegetariano con frijoles pinto, aguacate, y salsa picante, por aqui, por favor!) (Note: it still bothers me that our local shops insist that lemon is limón, and lime is limón verde. IT IS NOT JUST A VERDE LIMÓN! Noooooooo!)

I had been frustrated by being unable to read some books my father had at home from his prior life, when he was in the military and stationed in Germany, so I studied German for four years in high school. (I kept a diary in German, and got a German pen pal whom I’m still in touch with decades later!) I loved Japanese design, and so I casually studied Japanese before taking a trip there in the early 1990s, and was able to read Hiragana and Katakana briefly. (Other English speakers were so impressed when I could translate for them! “Where are we?” “We’re in Sendai.” “You can read that sign?” “Not the big characters, but you can see just below the big characters, it is subtitled, and I can read that.” “BUT THAT IS ALSO IN JAPANESE!” “Yes, but it is easier Japanese…”) In the early “aughts,” I took my then-spouse to Paris, and I studied French for about a week before going, which got me through ticket purchasing and train station announcements successfully. Years later when I began to work in Europe, I needed to brush up on at least German, and perhaps French.

I turned to Duolingo.

Duolingo is an app (and website) that turns language study into a game. The lessons are short; there are cartoon characters that speak the language you are studying, and respond when you translate them correctly; there are exercises in multiple choice, magnetic-poetry-style listening and translating in both directions (native to study language and reversed), and speech tests. It’s fun, like a little game, and there’s a tiny social network element to it, where you are ranked against others (if competition is your thing). It’s free if you want, or you can pay for it to be able to go faster (and be forgiven for making more mistakes).

I’d read that the well-intentioned company founders couldn’t actually speak in the languages they claimed to be studying, not even in their press conferences touting the tool. If you’ve read those stories, you may be wondering whether you’ll get anything out of it.

I’ve used Duolingo to study German, French, Spanish, and a little Dutch. Studying languages I have formal training in (German) and those I don’t (all the others), I can say that it is a nice tool for building vocabulary and expanding on foundational knowledge, but just okay for learning structural basics from scratch. My German lessons went VERY smoothly, especially in the mostly multiple-choice format, but I really struggled with the French lessons, and needed to find other resources to explain what it was about verb conjugations and gender patterns that I JUST COULD NOT SEE.

I can say that the style of lessons (and even some of the stories) are the same across languages, though the conversational content can differ quite a bit. (The French lessons were originally much more about being rich, liking horses, and going shopping than the German ones, which favored taking trains and telling everyone you are German; the lessons have all been updated since I started, often multiple times.)

After 166 German lessons/levels, I can say that my German vocabulary has definitely improved; words that never came up in the travel-books, but which are very practical, were great to finally see. I can read them, and hope to remember them. After 146 French lessons, I can read far more than I could previously, but I can’t start a conversation, my grammar remains awkward, and my pronunciation still sounds like my tongue objects to something. 62 Spanish lessons allowed me to learn waaaay too much about a party the girl behind me was describing to her friends on the phone, but were not enough to speak to my neighbor’s wife to tell him that a parking space he wanted was available, and he should take it immediately.

So: it is good! It is fun! It is bite-sized! You’ll be glad you did it! Yet know it isn’t enough on its own. If you want some tables of rules, clear patterns presented for reference, or to write things down to better remember them, you’ll need to supplement Duolingo with other materials. (I like Living Language books + audio recording packages for that.) It is good for what it is, but an app can’t do it all, and that’s okay.

And ALL OF US could use some encouragement in daily life from a cute owl.