Unlocking Library Coolness: Language Learning

A gold key perched between the cover and first page of a book.Last time in Unlocking Library Coolness, I introduced you to the magical funtime that is Libby, Overdrive’s new app (which everyone in my house now uses and loves). I even overheard folks at RT last week talking about Libby, and how easy it is to use.

Today I’m going to talk about some other features of my library that are likely available to you as well: should you wish to learn or practice foreign languages, your library is very well equipped to help you out!

I was using Duolingo for a very long time to practice Spanish (I’m moderately fluent) and to learn rudimentary French, but after a few aspects of the app really started to bug me, I switched over to see what my library had to offer.

I’m very fortunate in my public library, as the Montgomery County Public Libraries in Maryland provide a LOT of language resources: Mango, which I’ve been using and enjoy quite a lot, plus Muzzy, Tumblebooks – both for children, and Rosetta Stone, which is accessed by patrons through EBSCO.

The bulk of my experience is with Mango, which I’ll talk a little about here, as I’m really enjoying it. But it is far from the only language learning option available through libraries. There are a bunch of different language learning options that may be available at your library, including borrowable materials and online and app-based resources. Other choices I’ve encountered at other library systems include Transparent Language, and PronunciatorIf you visit your library website, you’ll likely find a few options for language learning software, and probably some conversational practice groups as well.

So let’s take a quick look at Mango, because it is charming and I’m really enjoying it.

First, Mango has a TON of languages, and teaches in a conversational format where an opening conversation is broken down in to parts and then rebuilt. I’ve done lessons in so many different languages, including Hawaiian (Aloha! Pehea ‘oe?),  Japanese,  and Dutch,  and I’ve done considerable number of lessons in Spanish and French, which are the two I work on most attentively.

Second, the easiest way to set up your access if your library uses Mango is to visit the website. You can view the complete set of languages available, and set up your account (your library should have instructions as well). You can do lessons on the computer, but I’ve found that downloading the app makes the lessons easier to use. I tend to do my language practice over coffee each morning.

Each lesson begins with a conversation, and then you learn the elements of that conversation. Different parts of speech are color coded to correspond between the two sentences in two different languages.

Here is an example from my lesson in Spanish:

Mango Screenshot with English sentence It's nine sharp. I think that the pharmacy is closed translated into spanish at the bottom Son las nueve en punto. Creo que la farmacia esta cerrada. At the very bottom is a mango wearing glasses looking at the lesson, with buttons to replay the audio, record yourself saying it to compare to the original, and a replay button as well.

 

Each sentence is read aloud but you can disable the additional encouragement narration that reads aloud cultural notes and adds things like, Isn’t this easy? and Ok, let’s hear it!. That got on my nerves after awhile. The primary narrator is, fun trivia fact, Kathleen McInerney, aka Veronica Taylor, who is also the voice of Ash Ketchum.

How many languages does Ash speak?

Ash Ketchum from Pokemon spinning around then holding up two fingers

Well, to be honest, he probably speaks more.

The context of each lesson is usually based on common interactions with the world: introducing yourself, going to the store, going clothing shopping, going to parties, or, in this example, maybe stopping embezzlement or theft:

Screenshot from Mango: In English the sentence is what are you bringing the checks for if you're not going to the bank? Para que llevas lost cheques si no vas al banco? Mango: helping you avoid theft!

Each section also contains a timer that allows you to try to answer aloud. When the timer runs out, the answer is read by another narrator. Some languages have both a male and female voice actor, which helps with languages that have gender rules. (I am somewhat bad at remembering those.)

You can also record yourself and compare your audio to the lesson, though it doesn’t grade or give you feedback on your spoken attempt. One of the features of Duolingo that I found both useful and frustrating was the oral responses, which were evaluated by the app, though sometimes I knew I was saying things correctly and it would tell me I did it wrong. Duolingo can be very specific in its pronunciation demands. (Also, I learned Spanish in Zaragoza, so I have a kinda specific regional accent, and Duolingo was not having any of that.)

I didn’t think I was learning that much when I started using Mango for French, but then, after several weeks of lessons, I was in Paris and found myself able to converse with people based on phrases I’d memorized and practiced, and was able to translate and read a large number of signs and posters because I knew most if not some of the words. If you went through drills and verb conjugating recitations in school like I did, learning through conversations broken apart and then rebuilt in sections may seem different, but for me personally, it’s been pretty effective.

Plus, when you reach the end of a unit, the little mangoes that accompany you through the lessons will throw you a little party:

Three mangoes, one green, one yellow and one orange, wearing party hats and tooting party horns throwing confetti because the middle yellow mango finished a unit. It's fleaping adorable

There is a placement test for some languages, but you do have to take it on the Mango website, and it’s not available for every language and variation. For example, I had to take the placement test in Latin American Spanish, but I learned Spanish in Spain. There is a Spain, Castilian lesson series, but it is shorter and there is no placement test. I’ve been working in the Latin American Spanish lessons just fine, but there are a few times where the words I know and the words it uses don’t match entirely. But hey, languages change (Have you met English on the Internets?), and it not like learning more words is a bad thing (MOAR WORDS PLS).

Click to view how many words I want!

Illustration of a stack of books piling up in three columns

We have also used Mango (my husband and I, I mean) for travel. Before we went to Greece last year, we did Lessons 1, 2, and 3 in Unit 1, mostly so we’d know how to say please, thank you, yes, no, and common polite greetings like, Good morning, Good afternoon, and Good night. The people we met were, as one would expect, very patient with our attempts to greet and thank them in Greek (and a few taught us naughty or fun words, which anyone who has traveled knows is the most funnest part of learning a new language). So even for basic tourism purposes, Mango can be useful.

But learning a language also has long-term cognitive benefits. I think it’s another way to learn empathy and connect on a more intuitive or emotional level, too.  It also, as a very wise person I met in a restaurant said, teaches you how much you don’t know. Not being able to talk in one language when you’re very fluent in another but can’t necessarily use it teaches me right quickly how much I do not know, a very humbling experience.

I learned Spanish as an exchange student when I was 15, but being able to converse in Spanish, even if I’m trying to talk my way around a word I can’t remember, has been useful in myriad ways. Moreover, to my everlasting shock, being multilingual or merely speaking Spanish out loud now has become a political act. To my contrary mind, the best way to battle against such linguistic bullshit is to learn as many languages as I can stuff into my brain (which really doesn’t want to add a third or fourth, but I’m going to keep trying).

Libraries, in my never-humble opinion, are a constant and admirable resource of much badassery, and I love that I can indulge my love of cookbooks, ebooks, comics, and audiobooks alongside my long-held aspirations to be a polyglot. I hope you’ll check your local library if you’re curious about learning or practicing a language. Buena suerte! 

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