Today is European Day of Languages, and to mark this event, well-known language learning app Memrise have just finished compiling the world's largest video dictionary. Those involved have just returned from a three-month, 12,000 mile road trip around continental Europe, but how straightforward a task is it to create a video dictionary, what are its benefits, and how can learners access it? Marie Francois from team Memrise tells all ...
Could you tell us a bit more about what a video dictionary is?
We decided to record thousands of videos of native speakers saying phrases in their language, in the way that comes naturally to them. By integrating all these videos into our app, we want to create an immersive experience where you’ll constantly be translating and responding to real native speakers.
The idea is to learn how to sound like a native, as well as discovering the personality of each language; how they actually speak, their accents, their gestures, but also their clothes, their landscapes, their humour, their quirks... basically all of the stuff that makes language learning fun in the first place.
Why is it useful for learners to learn from native speakers?
In language learning the most important question is: why do we do it? What is the motivation for putting in the effort? We do it because we want to be able to communicate with the people that speak that language, make friends, debate, joke and so on.
By adding videos to our app, we want to bring that experience as close to the learner as we can, to both heighten the learner’s motivation and excitement about the language but also to expose them to the variety of dialects, voices and personalities that they will meet when they hopefully one day get to go to the country of the language they are learning to fully immerse themselves in.
What did the 12,000 mile road trip involve exactly?
In order to collect these videos, we embarked upon an epic multilingual road trip aboard a converted vintage 1970s double decker bus. Setting off in May, we travelled through 9 different European countries and filmed over 20,000 locals en route, returning to British soil a couple of weeks ago. We visited both the big capital cities and the smaller rural towns, stopping locals en route, whatever their age, appearance, accent as the goal was to capture each individual language in all its diversity.
Any mishaps or funny stories along the way?
I can think of quite a few, especially when it comes to the bus, including our crazy driver roller-skating, a panicked trip to local mechanics and fires on board…
Did you cover all European countries?
We funded the tour via Kickstarter. We started with the five most learnt languages in Europe, and then gave the opportunity to our backers to decide where we should go. That’s how we ended up in our grand fjord Scandinavian tour.
What about dialects and minority languages? Are they included?
We first focused on the diversity of one’s language (different regions, accents…) and we will move on to dialects in the future.
How can learners access the dictionary?
The videos are being integrated as we speak, but you can already access some of them (French, Portuguese, Italian, German and Spanish) by simply starting to learn the language. You just need to select the official Memrise course. If you want to enjoy these videos in a more immersive way, then ‘Meet the Natives’ mode is part of our Premium offer. We are still at an early stage and will keep experimenting around the best ways to fit videos into the app, now that we have this great content database. We are also currently filming Korean, Russian, Mandarin and Japanese, with more to come.
Jamie McGarry: "There are a lot of factors I consider before I publish a book. Language is one of the easiest things to fix"
,Jamie McGarry set up Valley Press - an leading independent Scarborough-based publishing company - in 2008. In the first of a series of blog posts about Europe and cultural expression, I caught up with him about what it would take for him to publish someone writing in English as a second language ...
A few weeks ago, a Dutch friend of mine told me that she and her husband were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the prospect of a post-Brexit Britain. They have lived in Britain almost thirty years - longer than my lifetime - and had always felt extremely happy here (hence the lengthy sojourn).
In the build up to the EU referendum, however, and in the wake of its result, my friend told me she had begun to experience a culture of fear that she insisted she hadn't simply conceptualised out of nowhere; she had started to feel less welcome here, not only in light of reports about people being more openly xenophobic towards foreign nationals (people who, sadly, saw the vote to leave as an expression, and perhaps legitimisation, of their intolerant views), but also as a result of having been goaded in public about her 'right' to live here on the basis of her accent.
She told me she wanted to somehow convey all her experiences of British life, communicating both a positive and admonitory message, but wasn't sure if a blog was the right medium for her. She asked me what I knew about getting a book published in English if it wasn't your first language, and I replied that - honestly - I didn't know much!
It was a query that I was determined to settle, however, because it drew my attention to how important it is that we give a platform to as many voices as possible in the wake of such unprecedented change.
And it became a quest of curiosity that would eventually take me to Wardle and Jones - a gorgeously furnished independent book shop down one of the narrowest snickets in Scarborough - where I'd meet Jamie McGarry, editor and founder of Valley Press and lover of all things literary.
Over a cool, rosewater-pink raspberry lemonade that would have garnered the approval of organic bloggers the world over, Jamie answered my questions about writing in English as a second language ...
Jamie, a basic question to start with: have you ever received a submission from somebody who didn't speak English as their first language?
Not that they've mentioned overtly! And if I have then it was very, very good.
If you saw a lot of potential in someone's work, but there were a lot of mistakes in the language, would you take them on as a writer?
There are a lot of factors I consider before deciding whether a book is good enough to publish. The quality of the written language is one of them, but it's not the only factor. In terms of fiction, if the narrative is absolutely fascinating, if there are great characters, for example, then that can often be reason enough to warrant publication. I also show submissions to a focus group, so lots of people weigh in. Therefore, if it's popular with the people I show it to, that is a big deal. Besides which, there might be something special in the text that appeals to me personally - a sort of magical quality, I suppose you could say, that would make me buy the book if I came across it - not to mention the fact that the writer might have a lot of experience in the field (whether they have been writing in English or otherwise). And then there's the question of whether I actually like the person. Is he or she the sort of writer that I could see myself working with, and could they charm people? Will people be interested enough in them to buy their work?
So it sounds like you're saying that if the language needed some tweaking, but all the other boxes were ticked, a writer might still stand a good chance of getting published?
Yes, that's exactly it. I think of all the things I mentioned, most of them can't be changed upon suggestion. For instance, a writer can't become nicer or more charming, and likewise it would be difficult for me to make a better narrative, or more convincing characters. Whereas language, if it isn't quite up to scratch, could be modified. In short, the quality of the text can be improved - you could hire someone for not a colossal amount of money to just tighten it up, so it really is one of the easiest things to fix.
What do you think can be lost in the writing process if somebody for whom English is not their first language, decides to write something in English?
Well the first thing that comes to mind would be idioms and sayings that are peculiar to English; you know, things that when you really consider them don't make a lot of sense! But actually, when you think about it, someone writing in English as a second language would be more likely to avoid cliches, because they won't have been fed on the same diet as the rest of us, be that made up of radio 4 or ITV morning telly!
Have you ever had a submission from someone who has used the services of a translator?
Yes, I received a submission from someone who had translated something off their own back - there you are, a perfect example of an idiom! - but in terms of whether it's better to use a translator or to try writing your work in English, that would really vary from writer to writer. There's no guarantee of quality either way.
If you were to ever specifically encourage writers with alternative first languages to submit a piece of creative text, say by way of a special campaign, would there be something you'd look for in particular?
Well, we're always open to submissions from anyone, but if we were to do a specific call for non-English speaking writers, I think the main thing readers would benefit from would be a fresh voice. The way the book was written would be much more original, and the style would also vary hugely from writer to writer on the basis of when they started to learn English and what their first language was. I have one poet - Salim Peeradina - who was raised in India, so he was raised on two languages at once, English being one of them. I think that affords his poetry a fresh quality.
If somebody wanted to reach an English-speaking audience but were struggling to get published, would you recommend self publishing?
I don't think my recommendation would be any different to what I'd say to any writer that was trying to get their work out there. First, if you're writing short stories or poems, a blog would be an ideal place to start building an audience, and then - once you've got access to an audience - self publishing would definitely be a viable option, because you'll already have people in mind to whom you could promote your product. Traditional publishing would be better if you needed that bit more help, in terms of coordinating design and promotion, for example. In short, if you don't feel you can sell hundreds of copies by yourself, traditional publishing would aim to get you on that track.
Valley Press publishes poetry, fiction - including short stories - and non-fiction, including memoirs and travel writing. To learn more about the organisation, and how to submit work, visit www.valleypressuk.com