This summer my wife, Angie, our eldest daughter Maddie, and I headed to Europe. For the first week and a half we volunteered at a kid’s camp in Gjakova, Kosovo with Service International. See the recap video at the bottom of this page. After Kosovo, Angie and I continued on to Sorrento and Rome, Italy.
Angie had been to Gjakova just 2 years earlier, but it had been nearly 15 years since I was last there. At that time the city had the fresh scars of war, buildings were bombed out, and roads were barely passable. The only internet available had been at a downtown internet cafe, and all the keyboards were German.
The only Albanian phrase I could remember from that trip was “I would like something to drink”. It was a phrase I had studied prior to my first trip from a set of audio cassettes. I never had the opportunity to use it properly.
I’ve always enjoyed language. There was a time in my teens when I thought I would join Wycliffe Bible Translators and disappear to some remote jungle, learn the oral language of a tribe and work to translate the Bible for them. Perhaps gravitating towards software language learning wasn’t too far afield, and I suppose the jungle may not have been all that romantic anyway.
My love of spoken language has never really diminished. I will occasionally decide to brush up on the German I learned in High School, or sign up for Benny Lewis’ Fluent in 3 Months email list to expand into Russian. (Angie: Why are you learning Russian? Me: I dunno, Dostoyevsky?)
By the way, if you need a cyrillic keyboard cover for your Macbook, I like this one on Amazon.
This usually ends with my family questioning my general sanity, or meeting a Russian speaker that cannot decipher the first thing I’m trying to say. “Здравствуйте!” anyone? To be fair, she and her husband were from Ukraine, had lived in San Francisco for nearly a decade, and their own Russian was rusty.
I just couldn’t find anything decent for the Albanian dialect spoken in Kosovo. In preparation for this trip I began my search anew for good resources. After all, I no longer had a working cassette player.
I found some great apps. Duolingo and Memrise are among my go-to apps for building vocabulary through memorization. There are also phrasebook apps like IHG Translator. Google Translate is always useful.
I use these all the time. Where things break down is when you go to have a conversation in another language, it’s just not the same kind of recall.
The fuse was lit. If I couldn’t find a good app with the language I needed, I would make it. Thus was born the “Albanian” iPhone app with companion Apple Watch. Apple had just announced the 2nd version of Watch software introducing audio recording and playback capabilities. I had every excuse I needed to make this app a reality.
— David Ortinau (@davidortinau) June 19, 2015
Within just a few weeks I had it ready to go. I could add words and phrases, a translation, my own phonetic description, and record audio snippets. I envisioned myself conversing with local kids in the camp game tent, showing off my cool watch like I was Inspector Gadget. They would surely be in awe. And I could build a wonderful library of local voices clearly pronouncing how things should REALLY be said.
What is your name?
One of the phrases I had prepared before arriving in Gjakova was “Si te quajnë?” or “What is your name?” (and of course it was one of the first I used when meeting kids). The usual reaction from them was a look of confusion, and then the hesitant response of their name. I figured that my pronunciation was poor, or maybe they weren’t expecting any Albanian to be spoken from an American. Over the next few days I was able to confirm that was definitely part of it; there are not too many blonde haired, blue eyed people speaking Albanian.
As camp started, I was assigned interpreters to assist in managing my area of the camp, including a girl about my daughter’s age named Bleona. I actually conscripted her as an interpreter because of her almost perfect English she’d learned the way most kids did: television and movies.
Bleona overheard me asking one of the kids their name, and she gave me a confused look “What did you say?”
I repeated myself, trying to enunciate as clearly as I could.
She laughed. She laughed a lot.
“We don’t say that in Gjakova” she clarified, still laughing.
Bleona then taught me how locals asked “what is your name”, “Si quhesh?”.
I opened my app to the entry I’d already created for “What is your name?” and I had my new friend teach me the spelling, and then I had her record the phrase so I wouldn’t forget.
People from Gjakova speak a distinct dialect that is different even from the capitol city of Pristina, just a few hours away. In fact, their dialect (and slang) is so unique to their identity, they call it Gjakovar.
Over the course of the week I made several hurried changes. I found myself unable to hear pronunciation clearly enough and properly type out the translations, so I would hand my phone over and let a local type it in. I also found that I needed to be able to ask someone to “repeat this word / phrase” on the recording screen, and wouldn’t it be helpful to see that phrase on the screen for reference. Thankfully, I had my computer with me, and could make all those changes on the go.
I also realized each day I would add several new words and phrases, and I wanted to be able to quickly reference those as “favorites”. Easy change.
By the end of our time in Kosovo, I had a wonderful collection of vocabulary and a few decent recordings. And I learned so much about the local culture.
Introducing How You Say
While the current crop of language learning apps and programs all do great things for language learners, I think we’ve identified a facet of language learning that wasn’t yet addressed in an app, and one that satisfies at a much deeper and rewarding level by encouraging person to person interaction.
With How You Say, we approach language learning with the opinion that:
* people in a locale rarely use the phrases you’ve learned in an app or book
* it’s more important to understand than to be understood; you are in their world
* communication is more than language syntax, it’s cultural context
* relationships are essential to learning a language
* learning a language is learning a culture, how a people views and interacts with the world we share
We describe How You Say as your personal language learning journal. As you learn a phrase, or identify a word that you need to remember, you add it to the app. If you’re like us, as soon as you’ve heard the pronunciation, you’ve just as quickly forgotten it. How You Say enables you to capture a native speaker (or yourself) repeating it just as it should be said. Audio recording and playback also conveniently work from Apple WatchⓇ.
And because we know that some phrases are only appropriate in certain company or in particular situations, you can add notes to each translation. While you’re at it, write notes about who you were talking to and where you were.
“Life is a journey, not a destination” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
You may be wondering why How You Say makes you do so much work. Shouldn’t apps make you do less? Automate all the things?!
The process of doing the work naturally stimulates your brain to learn and lock in that learning. Typing the phrases in How You Say, associating it with a conversation, an experience that becomes memory, and adding the audio and notes that remind you of all of that helps it to really sink in.
“But what if I embarrass myself?” you may be asking. People appreciate your interest in them, in their language and culture. I was asking my friend Alejandro how he learned English coming from Mexico, and he described how he initially wasn’t very confident in using his English. It was when he finally decided to not worry about being embarrassed that he really became proficient.
Great experiences, meeting interesting people, learning local culture, and making a few friends are all bonus byproducts of the process. I dare say these are byproducts you are less likely to get from a computer or phone or device generated translation alone.
It is now my absolute pleasure to introduce to you Salvatore. This kind, generous man made our 29 story climb to the cemetery in Amalfi totally worth it. He shared story after crazy story which I hope to bring to you once I fix audio on the GoPro footage. He's a riot! Even the harbor workers know him (and may not believe a word he says).
Walking the streets of #Gjakova I captured a brief conversation with this man that spanned English, German and Albanian. We basically understood each other. Barely. Ha! I observed from the English speaking Kosovars that the most proficient in language are those willing to make mistakes. That's good advice for many areas of life I think. #gopro
We believe apps are at their best when they focus us on what truly matters, improving relationships and lives. Although that can easily sound cliche, we prefer to hear it as a challenge!
Italy: More of the Same
You may be thinking, “Sure, but that’s Kosovo and Albanian. For most languages, the phrases books are fine.” I thought that too.
I hadn’t spent too much time thinking about Italy and Italian. Because we would be in tourist areas, I figured English would be well accepted, and it certainly was. But I was on a language learning high after Gjakova and I decided I needed to know at least a little Italian.
I had a couple of phrase book travel apps on my phone, so I brushed up on the usual: Please, Thank You, Yes, No…
At lunch the first day in Sorrento I used what I’d learned with the waiter. He looked at me with what I think was pity. I knew I was again off track. But how could I be with such a popular phrase book? So I decided to listen closely to how people interacted in the hopes that I could spot my mistake.
The next day we were again eating, and the waiter had such good English I decided to ask him where I was going wrong.
“When I wanted to say yes, I said ‘Certo’ and for thank you I said ‘Grazie’, but I don’t hear anyone else saying that here. What do you say?”
He smiled and knowing smile and kindly informed me I should be using “Si” and “Prego”.
There’s a difference between using a word that means literally what I want to say, and knowing what I should say in a situation in a specific locale. This is probably the biggest lesson I learned; language is much more than syntax, it’s about culture and how people thinking about situations and interactions. After all, that’s what is so fascinating about language. It’s rich with culture and people and history.
I couldn’t get that from travel books. I could only get that from talking to people, listening closely, and considering how they communicate. It wasn’t about how I wanted to communicate, but how they communicated and how I should adapt to that.
How You Say is unlike other language learning resources. By default it is empty, and you fill it. Think of it as your scavenger journal. To fill it you are encouraged to engage people. To make acquaintances. To learn how to communicate from necessity. When you do this, you’ll find as I did, that the experience so much richer and rewarding that reciting phrases from a book.
“Talk to people, not your phone.”
Get out there and meet someone.
- Dave Ortinau, Co-Founder of Rendr
A big thanks to all our friends that contributed translations to this launch:
Alejandro Ramirez – Aguascalientes, Mexico
Alexandra Marin – Bucharest, Romania
Antoneta and Valentina Pjetraj – Gjakova, Kosovo
Ben & Jackson Bishop – St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Maddie & Declan Ortinau – St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Paulo Ortins – Salvador/Bahia, Brazil
Peter Kallai – Dülmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
William S Rodriguez – Curitiba / Paraná, Brazil