Language for the masses? Wunderbar

It’s been a busy couple of months. Work’s picked up as the 2014 election looms, I spent a fantastic week in England with my now-boyfriend, and I’ve gotten to spend time with friends in D.C. during my precious few moments off. (And the Royals are in the World Series.)

One other thing I’ve done, at the recommendation of my boyfriend, is try out Duolingo. It’s a Web-based language-learning program that is completely free and based on crowd-sourced translated content. It’s set up like a game, with organized lessons, points, levels and a currency that can “buy” supplemental lessons and other goodies. The lessons are a combination of translating phrases into English, translating English phrases into the language, transcribing audio of the language and verbally repeating phrases in the language. The lessons are separated by topic, such as colors, verbs, time, adjectives and clothing.

So far, you can learn German, Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Portuguese. Dutch, Irish and Danish are in beta development, and still more are in the works. It’s set up like a community, where you can compete with friends for points, discuss lessons to figure out what you might have missed, and translate articles and read translated articles.

Again, it is all free, based on the idea of learning languages as a tool of economic mobility. It stands in stark contrast to Rosetta Stone, which costs hundreds of dollars for a five-level program. I have Rosetta Stone in French, German and Hebrew, but I was curious about Duolingo as a supplement.

I think I’m addicted.

I dabbled in French first, then resolved to work through the German program, since I’m more familiar with that language. I do go back daily and do a lesson in French to keep my “streak” (number of uninterrupted days you complete a lesson, part of the “game” aspect), but my focus now is on completing the German program before going back to work through the French program. Once both programs are done, I’ll go back and do revision lessons on them to “keep my bars up,” and then start on a third language (I’m thinking Italian).

It has always been a goal of mine to become at least conversational in as many languages as possible. I know that true fluency will probably come only with total immersion for an extended period, but Duolingo seems great at teaching the basics, while keeping it fun and making you want to come back. I look forward to traveling more now, because I know I can sample the languages beforehand.

If you’re interested in learning a language but unable or unwilling to make a large monetary commitment, I’d definitely look into Duolingo. It’s probably best paired with other tools (I still use Rosetta Stone and try to read German news sites regularly), but for light study, it’s a great tool.

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Advice I’d give my younger self in J School

Last night, I had drinks and caught up with one of my friends from university who also lives in D.C. As is our habit whenever we get together, talk inevitably turned back to the college days, when we were on the student newspaper. I remember my last semester, when I worked a second time as the Kansan.com managing editor instead of being editor-in-chief. At the time I was disappointed but ultimately accepting. Looking back at where I’ve been since, it may have been a blessing in disguise at best, and irrelevant at worst.

So I’d tell my disappointed 21-year-old self, “Don’t sweat it. It will work out.”

While I learned a lot at the Kansan about production, teamwork, ethics and judgment, and made some amazing friends there, many of whom I still keep in touch with now, it was my internships that ultimately propelled my professional career, now that I look back. No one at The Columbus Dispatch cared that I wasn’t the editor; they liked my Dow Jones internship, which I earned by passing an editing exam and essay, not because of where I was on the Kansan staff. No one at The Kansas City Star cared, either; they liked my previous two internships. And POLITICO ultimately valued my three internships, my knowledge of online publishing (which I polished as Kansan.com editor and wouldn’t have had much of a chance to work on as editor, where most of my focus would have been on the paper) and my master’s degree.

My friend was in much the same position. After not being chosen for editorial leadership, she took up internships at smaller Kansas newspapers and eventually ended up in D.C. as the editor of a political news website, and will soon be a White House reporter for the bureau of a major publication. Another fellow alumna works at The Hill after having interned there. Just about everyone I work with on production at my current job had impressive internship experience that stands out. Two of my friends who are copy editors for major, large-market daily newspapers were “only” ever copy chiefs at the Kansan, but they each had strong summer internship experience. Another close friend had mid-level editorial leadership experience but branched out to editing and social media work for the university city government, and now does travel writing.

It’s probably only because I’m a few years out of university that I can look back with clearer eyes. To be blunt, I don’t see much of a correlation between the professional success of my fellow students and what positions they held on the campus paper. The ones who’ve gone the furthest (in terms of the relative size/prestige of the publications where they now work, if they work for one) made the best use of internships and outside-of-school reporting/editing opportunities, regardless of whatever work they did for the Kansan (which, to be fair, provided many of us with our first clips). That isn’t to say that former Kansan editors don’t or haven’t achieved substantial professional success (I know a married pair who’ve both gone extremely far, including a Pulitzer), just that there’s not really much of a link, from where I’m sitting. Being editor of the Kansan is not a guarantee of professional success, and not being editor of the Kansan isn’t going to keep you from professional success.

So that is what I would tell myself, if I could go back: Enjoy the student newspaper. Have fun, learn the process and make friends. But it is a stepping stone to other things that are stepping stones in and of themselves. In the professional world, no one will care all that much. I have fond memories of the Kansan, but the environment, pace and workload of my job now resemble it about as much as a Nilla Wafer resembles a wedding cake. And that’s fine, and doesn’t have to diminish the value of my campus newspaper experience. It just puts a lot of things into perspective, and I’m glad to have it.

Richard III has one hell of a car park bill

As an insatiable student of history, I geeked out this morning when I saw that Richard III’s remains had been found in a car park (a parking lot) in Leicester. (As you might expect, the BBC has the best coverage of the goods.)

The skeleton had taken a fatal head wound, the burial site matched the alleged location of Richard III’s final resting place, the remains matched the time period and Richard’s age, and a mitochondrial DNA test matched known descendants of Richard. Most intriguing, to me, was the fact that the skeleton had a curved spine — scoliosis — that was the basis for calling Richard a “hunchback.”

Richard’s story — the brother of a king who became king himself under interesting circumstances, only to die in battle against Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field — holds political significance even now. Namely, the story shows that history is written by the victors — in this case, the Tudor dynasty, victorious in the final stand of the Wars of the Roses, painted Richard as a deformed, child-killing villain, with the help of one William Shakespeare. And above all, it shows that “might makes right.”

The discussions on the BBC story are fascinating to read. A few decry Richard as a murderer who should be left where he was found. Others say he was framed and that Henry Tudor was responsible for killing Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London. (While I think we’ll never know for certain, I tend to believe that Richard did it; come at me.) There are those who want him interred in York Minster or Westminster Abbey (right now a Leicester burial is planned). And there are those who insist that Edward IV was not a legitimately born son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville and that Richard III, his younger brother, was the legitimate king after all. Oh, and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) was a usurping jerk.

This last part is interesting for a few reasons. First, Edward IV overthrew Henry VI, the last Lancaster king, and thus could, in theory, have claimed the throne by right of conquest no matter who his real father was. Second, Richard’s claim was largely through being Edward’s brother, based on Edward’s success against Henry VI. Richard and Edward’s father had been a duke but not a king. So if Edward was illegitimate and not qualified to be king, Richard as his brother should not have had a claim either — it’s circular logic, saying that Richard was the rightful king and not Edward, when Richard’s immediate claim was derived from Edward’s military success. If Richard was the rightful king, it follows that Edward must have been, too; if Edward’s claim was bunk, his heirs’ claims must have been too, surely? While it’s true that both men had claims by being descended from Edward III, they were certainly not alone there; the primary argument for the York dynasty at that point was defeating the Lancasters.

And the same can be said for Henry Tudor. Rightful claim or not — Henry’s mother was descended from a legitimized branch of Edward III’s family through his son, John of Gaunt, and his father descended from a Welsh upstart who married Henry V’s widow, a French princess — Henry still defeated Richard and could claim the throne by right of combat.

That justification for rule just seemed lost on much of the BBC audience. Arguing about legitimacy and parentage and the church and rights, while forgetting that in those days, the throne belonged to whoever could keep it. Richard failed, Richard died and Richard lost. And he wasn’t the first one — Henry Tudor (technically on the Lancasters’ side, but who founded the Tudor dynasty) overthrew Richard, who helped overthrow Henry VI. Whose grandfather Henry IV overthrew his own first cousin, Richard II. And on and on back to William I. So who gets to decide who’s rightful? When does a usurper become legitimate, and vice versa? Ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different answers. So it goes.

Regardless of how misplaced I think some of the commenting on this story is, it’s nonetheless a huge development in understanding a critical moment in English history — considered the dividing line between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages by many — and I was thrilled that it happened. I also hope that more can be done to understand Richard and how he lived, and maybe even change popular opinion about his reign and personal character. There’s a lot to be learned here, and I for one am curious to see where this all goes.

I was an intern, hear me roar

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Words of wisdom, if from an odd source (Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight”).

As we get further into June, so begins that magical summertime stretch of Internship Season. Each year, thousands of high school and college students get experience in their industries of choice. Some get paid, some don’t.

Recently, there’s been a big to do about unpaid internships and the ethics involved in them. Seeing many of my friends go off to their own summer gigs, it got me reminiscing and thinking about my intern days.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my summer work. I didn’t have the time to intern the summers before and after I studied abroad, but the summer after my junior year, I earned a Dow Jones editing internship at the Indianapolis Star. A Dow is pretty much the gold standard in editing internships, and I had a great summer in Indy.

My next two internships — in the summer of 2009 after I graduated from KU and in the summer of 2010 before I came to Canterbury — were also with large, respected newspapers: the Columbus Dispatch and Kansas City Star, respectively.

I will point out two critical features that all three of my internships had in common: I did actual hands-on, deadline-based work, and I was compensated.

Apart from getting some technical help and one-on-one critiques, I was expected to do the work of anyone else on the copy desk. Often I was responsible for front-page or front-section displays, and at the Kansas City Star, I often had an entire page to put together from the dummy up. After clearing my content choices with the slot, getting it done was on me.

So it’s with some dismay that I now read stories about unpaid interns, desperate to get their feet in the door, who trudge through their summers doing mindless, menial tasks. I was trimming AP wire, editing house copy, writing headlines and cutlines and posting stories to the Web. Many of them are fetching coffee and running the Xerox machine.

I’ve noticed that journalism, particularly the magazine industry (not all magazines, certainly, but many of them), is a career path rife with unpaid and unchallenging internship work. Many outlets apparently think that working for them is enough of a reward in and of itself.

I have two serious problems with this.

The first is that not every college student can afford to go two and a half months without a paycheck. Internships often require you to pull up stakes for the summer (two of mine did). Valuable experience or not, it’s a big burden to bear, needing food, rent and living expenses with no income. This puts more affluent students at an unfair advantage, regardless of skill sets or talent. This annoys the hell out of me; I value fair play.

The second is that I think students should feel that their work is appreciated. A hard-earned paycheck is a great thing to hold in your hand. It is a clear message that your employer finds you valuable. I don’t find anything greedy about people wanting compensation for their work. I do think it’s greedy when employers use unpaid college students to do grunt work and try to explain it away as “valuable work experience.” I received valuable work experience at all three of the newspapers for which I worked; they still saw fit to pay me.

There’s evidence that the tide’s turning away from unpaid internships. Many colleges refuse to list them in career center postings, a position I enthusiastically support. More media attention is focused on them now, and there’s also some naming and shaming going on. I know some people who simply refuse to apply for them.

I think that last point is the key. As long as droves of students sign on for unpaid work — some companies even charge students to get them internships, which I frankly find kind of tasteless — the trend will continue. But if the talent pool starts drying up and students hold out for internships where they’re appreciated and compensated, maybe employers will wake up. 

Waiting for “Waiting for Superman”

Just about the only thing I regret about living in England is the lack of access to many specialized or independent films that I’d be able to see at home. Case in point: “Waiting for Superman.”

I had a feeling that, whether I ended up agreeing with its thesis, “Superman” would be an interesting documentary to see, as it tackles a domestic issue of importance to me: public education and the voucher system.

The film follows a collection of children and their parents as they try to gain admission to quality charter schools via a lottery system. The assumption is that admission will give the children an academic leg up, while getting shut out will be a crippling blow. As is usually the case in social commentary such as this, the dark cloud of income inequality hangs over the whole affair.

In addition to following the children’s narratives, the documentary interviews various prominent figures in education, including Geoff Canada, whose “from birth” method and creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone are success stories of the system, and Michelle Rhee, who’s been tasked with fixing Washington D.C.’s school system.

In a piece for GOOD, John Morrow called “Superman” overly simplistic. In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman praised it lavishly.

So who’s right? I can’t say. Much of Morrow’s criticism is that the film (directed by Andrew Guggenheim, who did “An Inconvenient Truth”) paints charter schools with a broad, positive brush, ignoring the statistical evidence that most charter schools are not, in fact, “outstanding.” Having written a 4,200-word research project on the voucher system for my honors American politics class a few years ago, I can say my findings corroborate this. Morrow also criticizes the film for using broad terms such as “great teaching” without confirming what, exactly, that entails.

Friedman, meanwhile, lauds the film for pointing out that it’s everyday men and women, working out of genuine interest and love of their communities, along with great teachers and involved parents, who make a school outstanding. But didn’t we know that already?

I freely admit, despite having received an excellent public education myself, to being skeptical and unnerved with the direction that American education is heading. I’m only 23, but even I notice gaps in knowledge — appalling grammar, ignorance of the scientific method, poor math skills, little to no knowledge of history, civics or geography — that weren’t as noticeable during my school days. Thanks to budget cuts, forget art, music, media and technical education. So what’s left? And other than supplementary education, I think a lot of problems are down to inefficiency and methodology more than funding. I used to think of private schools as the realm of snobs and homeschooling as repressive and backward. Now both look like viable options. But again, what about children like those depicted in “Superman”? Other than charter schools, what can be done for them?

I probably won’t be able to see this film until it’s on DVD. But maybe you should try to see it, even if you end up disagreeing with it.

A possible dissertation topic

I said the D word, run for your lives!

Since we had a brainstorming session in my research methods class last week, I’ve been trying to think of a possible dissertation topic. This is especially important because, even though we don’t begin formal work on the paper itself until this summer, a lot of prep work for it is due in November (a research methods outline) and January (a formal proposal that must be department-approved).

After slightly stressing out over it, I think I may finally have a topic — foreign aid. Namely, aid that the United States gives to developing countries. While I’m going to do more in-depth reading before choosing a precise angle on the topic, I’m considering writing about aid’s effectiveness, or lack thereof. What does the U.S. hope to accomplish by distributing aid — security, goodwill, humanitarian success — and what does it actually accomplish? How efficient is aid? Would another form of assistance or demonstration of soft power be more practical or successful? How much aid actually gets to people who need it, and how much ends up on the black market? How much does the U.S. actually distribute versus what it says it will?

A final, streamlined approach, which may very well be just a single question listed above, will probably have to wait until I’ve done more research and had a chance to chat with a supervisor. But for now I’m fairly confident that the final product will be something to do with developmental economics and aid.

In Canterbury

After spending a few days in London with the family, I’m finally moved in at the university. I love my room — roomy but cozy, with nice big walls to hang posters and places to stick up photos.

I’ve picked up my ID and done some basic grocery shopping. In the next day or so I’ll open a bank account, and when my loan money comes in I’ll pay my accommodation fees, join the gym and maybe buy a city bus pass.

We had international student orientation this morning, and there’s an international students’ dinner tonight. Tomorrow is a tour of Canterbury Cathedral and the postgraduate induction. Thursday is my program’s orientation, where I’ll meet professors and choose my classes. It’s also the society fair, where you can pick which clubs and groups to join. Sunday is the Leeds Castle tour.

I’m having a lot of fun so far. I’ve met a couple of people who live on my (quiet) block, and gone to a couple of quiz nights with three really nice English girls. I’m kind of taking it easy this afternoon before cleaning up and getting ready for dinner.

More later!