The making of Progress with Lawless Spanish: LatAm

Kwiziq's language variation mechanism

KwizBotShortly after Progress with Lawless Spanish went live in October 2017, requests started coming in from users who wanted to be able to "turn off" vosotros. This might seem like a simple request, but the reality is far more complicated, and it has taken time to figure out a plan of attack.

The need to create a different version of the site goes far beyond vosotros - and Spanish, for that matter. All languages have many differences, from whole concepts to subtle nuances between regions and dialects, and the Progress with Lawless Spanish team had to create a new mechanism in order to be able to accommodate them. With that in place, we are now able to focus on creating a Latin American Spanish variation of the site, the most important aspect of which is vosotros.

Background Information

One of the most obvious differences in Spanish dialects has to do with subject pronouns. In Spain, there are four ways to say "you":

  Singular Plural
Informal vosotros
Formal usted (Ud.) ustedes (Uds.)

 
In Latin America, however, vosotros does not exist; instead, ustedes is used for all plural "you" needs, whether formal or informal. This means that everything related to vosotros - which goes far beyond verb conjugations* - is unnecessary for anyone who speaks only with Latin American Spanish speakers. It's understandable that these users would want to opt out of this entire segment of grammar.

The Progress with Lawless Spanish team has always been aware of the need to create a Latin American version of the site, and in June 2020 discussions began in earnest between two teams, development and content.

(Re)Creating Content

On the content side, we had to decide how to take vosotros out of the equation, and three possibilities immediately came to mind:

  1. Replace all questions with vosotros programmatically
  2. Remove all questions with vosotros programmatically
  3. Replace all questions with vosotros manually

The first option is of course absurd. Vosotros doesn't exist in a vacuum; in addition to verb conjugations for every tense and mood, it has accompanying possessives and object pronouns,* so using the equivalent of "find and replace" would be a disaster. The second option is clearly not good either, as it would mean the removal of a lot of questions from across the site, leaving the Latin American version considerably smaller. Clearly #3 is the best option - and also the most difficult.

The next question was, what do we replace those questions with? Answer: the same questions using ustedes (and the appropriate verb conjugation) instead.

We also needed an easy way to gather all the affected questions, rather than having to spend weeks combing through all of our lessons to find every instance. The subject pronoun vosotros and its feminine counterpart vosotras are at the top of the list of course, and it's easy enough to run a database search for those and collect them into a spreadsheet. But we also have to look for things like Pablo y tú, as that combined subject is equivalent to vosotros and therefore requires the vosotros conjugation.**

Technical Considerations

On the technical side, the key was figuring out how to allow two language variations, continental Spanish and Latin American Spanish, to co-exist. The vast majority of the content is the same, of course, but our developers had to invent ways to

  • Flag all the content and questions in any way related to vosotros,*
  • Allow the Spanish team to create alternative content / questions, and
  • Make the scoring algorithm recognize the two alternatives as having equal value.

The third point is the heart of the issue, from a technical point of view. The underlying algorithm (the A.I.) has to work the same way no matter which variation of the site users choose. If two users - one on each site variation - answer 10 questions, and both get 8 of them correct, they have to be scored the same, even though the questions are different.

Work in Progress

Our development and content teams worked together to create a list of what to search for, and then to refine that list to get rid of false positives. For example, y tú was flagged in sentences like Quiero ir a la playa, ¿y tú? so we had to figure out how to screen out those sorts of uses, which have nothing to do with vosotros, while keeping ones like María y tú.

In early November 2020, our developers published the alpha version of the Latin American site on our test server along with the automatically collected list of lessons and questions that need a Latin American version. Since then, our Spanish content team has been creating these new versions, further refining the search parameters, and notifying developers about bugs.

Coming Soon!

We are hoping to release the first phase of the Latin American variation in January, though it might take a bit longer than that. We are eager to share the vosotros-free version of Progress with Lawless Spanish with you as soon as possible. ¡Hasta pronto!

Notes

* And then there are all the other related grammar concepts:

** And it gets even trickier! Spanish is a pro-drop language (meaning the pronoun is not required), so we have to look for vosotros verb conjugations that stand alone, as in Sois muy amables (You are very kind). Another tricky aspect is when the object pronoun os is attached to verbs, as in Quiero daros un regalo (I want to give you a gift).

 

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