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This Blog has Moved September 18, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Blogging.
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… for good.

Please kindly following the link below to go to the new address:


Please also bookmark the new address, and if possible, let whoever forwarded you to here know that they are pointing to an old address.

No More Skypecast September 4, 2008

Posted by Edwin in English, Skype, Speaking.

Over the weekend, another free on-line service was gone, not only the “free” part, but also the service itself.

Skypecast was launched in 2006 to host public conference calls up to 100 people at a time. It was since being established as a meeting place for many to get to know others and talk about anything. The service was also widely used by people seeking out language practices. English was by far the most popular language. One could often see skypecasts with titles such as “Let’s practice English”, and “Improve your English”. As a counter measure to keep learners out, it was not uncommon to find skypecasts with subtitles “Fluent English only please”.

Sadly, due to the virtually non-existence of any king of moderation, the service was very much abused by its users. There were people hanging around trying to harassing other users. Personally, I think it is better for Skypecast to go than stay.

Skype already has another service in place, a public chatroom service which provides better moderation. In addition, Skype provides another paid service called Skype Prime, and it is still in Beta. (what is not?)

At a first glance, Skype Prime looks like a good tool to hook up language tutors and students. As mentioned in my previous post, I support the business model in which tutors would charge their students and let the middle men take some commission. However, when I check out how much commission Skype is charging … 30%! Why would anyone want to use a service that charges a 30% commission?

Of course, tutors are smart enough to let the students to absorb the commission overhead. I quickly browsed through the “Language lessons and Translations” section, and I found “advisors” charging for fees as mush as $2 per minute.

If I were a serious student, I would poke around some language forums and look for a tutor. If I were a tutor, I would do the same to look for potential students.

Free Lunch Or Not August 26, 2008

Posted by Edwin in LingQ, Podcasts, Tools.

Today, I received 3 separate e-mails from ChinesePod, SpanishPod, and FrenchPod, all delivering the same announcement. Currently, everybody can have access to all their lessons. Starting from next month, people with free-membership will have access to newbie lessons only.

This change does not really affect me much, for I have decided to go “natural” a few months ago and quited listening to learner’s materials such as language lessons. But then I would expect in the next few days, the Praxis servers will be bombarded by people trying to get their last “free lunches”.

When I look at the language learning market, it always amazes me how people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for language books, tools, and classes, but they expect everything free from the Internet. One thing I have found from the online language learning communities in the past year-or-so is that, free stuff has no good quality. Contents or services that are of good quality that are free are either being paid for by someone else already, or they are going out of business very soon.

A particular “free lunch” mentality spreading across the online language learning communities is the concept of “free tutoring” services. All free online language exchange communities are for you to practice what you have learned, not to be tutored. You may fire up conversations with many native speakers, but don’t expect them to be committed in tutoring you all along your language learning journey.

I recently came into contact with eduFire, an online paid service which hooks up language learners with native-speaking tutors. The tutors would decide the tuition fees, the learners would choose his/her tutors, and eduFire would take a small portion of the fees for its service. While I cannot guarantee the success of this business, I believe it has a healthy business model to last.

I have been impressed by the quality of the Praxis production since the early days of ChinesePod. Her later sister “Pods” only continue to raise the bar even higher. I think they have all the right to start charging users. After all, it starts from $5 US a month!

Incidentally, I read from the LingQ forum another day, that someone complained about the inconvenience with his a free-membership limitations. Come on, the basic membership only costs $10 US per month! He complained that he could not afford it. Well then, I had nothing to say.

There is no need to grumble when the free lunch is gone. In the end, I think it all comes down to a single question: Does the service actually worth it?

Selling My iPod Nano August 25, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Tools.

While Steve has recently upgraded his MP3 player to an iPod Nano 3G, I am considering selling mine.

No doubt, an iPod Nano is an extraordinary device for language learners. It is portable, it can play both audio and video clips, and the lyrics display comes in handy when you need to read the accompanied texts. I upgraded my 2G Nano to 3G last November and had been using it everyday. Last month, my mobile phone contract was up, so I got myself a new phone, the Nokia 5310 XpressMusic. This unit is a genuine MP3 player. One can tell by the fact that it provides an 3.5mm headphone jack. Shame on the other so-called MP3 mobile phones, which still require an adaptor to connect to the headphone!

The greatest advantage of having an MP3 player/mobile phone combo is the convenience of having 2 gadgets in one. I have to carry my mobile phone with me anyway. Now, I don’t need to carry an additional gadget to listen to my audio files.

Another great feature I love is the external speaker. I don’t always carry my earbuds with me. Sometimes, I want to play the audio clips to other people. An external speaker just makes my life much easier. I always wonder why Apple does not provide it in its iPods. I am sure it is not difficult to put one in.

Another feature, which does not seem as useful now, but will soon in the future, is Bluetooth. The days of plugging/unplugging is over for me. I now sync up my unit wirelessly. Very soon, I will add Bluetooth ability to my car stereo, so I can listen to my favourite language clips as soon as I get into my car. I will also be able to do other wonderful things in the coming future when Bluetooth devices become more affordable.

After about 2 weeks of possessing my new 5310, I found my iPod unsync-ed for almost a week. In the past, I synced up my iPod everyday. I realize it may be a good time to sell the unit, before it worths less than its protective case. I know I am going to miss it though.

Québec City’s 400th July 3, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Canada, French.
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This year, Québec City celebrates its 400th anniversary. This is of course a good opportunity for the Canadian francophones to promote their culture and language.

Although the official opening ceremony was held today, many celebration activities have already been undertaken nation-wide in the past few months. There was a festival held in downtown Toronto 2 weeks ago, but unfortunately I could not make it that day. Ironically, I went to one in Vancouver a few weeks ago while I was transiting there.

The timing was perfect. The concert started at 8pm and my flight was at 11:30pm. As I was walking toward the Francodome, I was met with a volunteer handing out some flyers. She explained to me the event, and I acted as if I just knew about it. I stayed for about half an hour and left to catch my flight.

It was a free concert. The scale of the event was smaller than I expected. There were about 200 seats in the Francodome, and it was half-filled when I went in. As I looked around, I truly appreciated the efforts the volunteers put in to make the concert successful.

When I was outside the Francodome, I overheard someone near me, presumably a Canadian anglophone, asking his friend a question: “By the way, what is a francophone?”

Pronunciation-Wrestling June 24, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Accents, Canada, English.

In my last project at work, we dealt with a US telecommunication company. We had a team consisted of about 6-7 colleagues from the US and 4 of us from Canada, all ‘locked’ in a conference room somewhere in the vicinity of Seattle.

Since our client was a telecommunication company, the word ‘Mobile’ came up extremely frequently during our discussions. It was very interesting to notice how different people pronounced the word differently. In brief, people from the US pronounce the word as ‘Moble’ (rhymes with ‘Noble’). The rest of the world pronounce it as ‘Mobile’ (rhymes with ‘File’).

This means all the representatives from our client said ‘Moble’, as for most of our US colleagues. The only exception was a colleague with an Indian heritage. On the Canadian side, 3 out of 4 of us actually spoke English as a second language. Somehow, we naturally adopted to ‘Moble’ right from the beginning of the project. We just follow how the client said it with no complaint. The only person insisted on saying ‘Mobile’ was a native Canadian (meaning born and raised in Canada).

I came back to Toronto afterwards and talked with my boss about the project. She was another native Canadian, so she said ‘Mobile’. But then I found myself kept on saying ‘Moble’ and couldn’t switch it back!

I remember I was in another project many years ago. The team consisted of mostly Americans, with only a few of us from Canada. There was an issue with a database flag ‘Z’. Our US colleagues would say ‘zee’, but our Canadian colleagues, in attempt to keep up with our Canadian pride, would say ‘zed’. Somehow, everyone insisted on pronouncing it his own way and no one bothered to suggest to unify the pronunciations at least in the discussions. At one point, I was shocked to hear my team lead, a native Canadian, began to say ‘zee’. From then on, I knew we had lost the wrestling.

As a matter of fact, the ‘Z’ alphabet was once used as a Shibboleth. It was
known in American history and popular culture for distinguishing American males who fled to Canada from the US to escape the military draft in the 1960s. But thanks to the American cultural influences in the past few decades, such as Sesame Street and the Alphabet song (American version), ‘zee’ is now adopted more and more by many young Canadians.

Sophia Books June 18, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Canada, French, Japanese, Multiculturalism, Spanish.

Due to business reasons, I had to travel to Seattle back-and-fro in the past few weeks. I came back to Toronto each weekend stopping over at the Vancouver Airport. In the Memorial Day long-weekend, I had trouble connecting to an immediate flight from Vancouver. I ended up spending 6 hours in Vancouver. I went out to have a dinner in Richmond, which was just next to the airport. It had been more than 13 years since I visited Vancouver.

It was a pleasant experience, so I decided to try it again. Last week, I stopped over at Vancouver for 6 hours, and this time purposefully. I went to the downtown area. One place I visited was the Sophia Books, probably the only multilingual bookstore in Canada.

Sophia Books is not a huge book store, but it surely has plenty of books, magazines, and other media. French and Spanish are the 2 major sections. There is a large Japanese section right at the end of the room. Other languages fill the rest of the store. There are also up-to-date newspapers from different countries available.

I spent about half an hour in the store and picked up 4 books at the end: a Japanese magazine for my wife, a Spanish bilingual book for myself, and 2 story books for my daughter (1 French and 1 Spanish). Some books seemed a bit overpriced, but the rest are reasonable. Overall, the visit is a memorable experience to me.

‘No Best Method’ Hypothesis April 28, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Forums.

Nowadays, I seldom visit the How-To forums, though I still pop in once in a while. The forums do have many helpful advises, only that these pearls are usually buried under an overwhelming number of useless advises. Many people indulged in the forums for days arguing which study method is the best. Last week, I saw a very interesting thread. It has already generated more than 140 posts within a week.

The creator of the thread proposed that there is no best method in language learning. The most important factor is TIME and LOVE devoted to the target language. He was not talking about different people might have different best methods. He was simply saying that even for the same individual, there is no such thing as ‘best method’ in language learning. Provided he is spending time with the language and keeps himself motivated, no matter what method he uses, he will get there one day.

Within a very short time, many forum members replied and argued against this hypothesis. Of course methods are important, they said. You wouldn’t want to waste you time in some inefficient methods. In fact, the thread creator made his claim based on his own observation of the forums!

I have been reading in this forum for two years. People were writing about Pimsleur, FSI, Michael Thomas, Assimil, Liguaphone, Tell me more, Rosetta stone, Teach your self, Vocabulearn, Learn in your car, Rocket Languages, FIA and so on.

It’s interesting, because some people think some of this methods are the BEST and some of them think the same methods are useless, boring …or the WORST. Thinking about that, how is it possible such a level of contradictions between people who have succeed learning languages. Well, I ask you:

What’s the COMMON denominator between them? I can only think about one factor: TIME spent WITH the target language. They listen, read, write and speak in the target language A LOT OF TIME and every day.

I think I can see why this hypothesis would stir up such a great reaction in the forums. If it is true, then there is no need to discuss about which method is the best, and probably a great portion of the forum posts can be removed. People can get back to their own language studies instead of arguing among themselves. But then to some, language studying is boring. They’d rather spend their time arguing how to study a language!

Perhaps learning a language is like building up a personal relationship. People might have different tactics to ‘befriend’ your target person. But eventually if you want to build up a true relationship, you have to spend time, a lot of time. And you have to keep yourself motivated in the process.

Are tactics irrelevant? Absolutely not. Is there a best tactic for each individual person? May be. But they are not the key to build up a true lasting relationship.

Migration To Anki April 25, 2008

Posted by Edwin in French, Spanish, SRS, Vocabulary.

I have finally migrated my SRS to Anki.

Many language learners seem to be already using this cool flashcard tool. I myself tried it back in January, but I didn’t find the ease of using it. The program requires you to rate your answer before it sets the next time interval for review. JMemorize does not give you many decisions to make. You either get the answer right or wrong. One drawback of Jmemorize is that you have to finish all the lower-level cards first before you can do the higher-level ones. So I would end up getting stuck with hundreds of new words while seeing my familiar words getting expired and cannot do anything about them.

I tried moving to the LingQ flashcard for a few weeks. It is not an SRS, but I found it very convenient when I finished reading an article, I could pull out and flashcard the list of newly saved words right away. But later they added a new feature that would auto-increment the word status after every flashcard session. This was not what I desired, so I had to look for another program.

I decided to give Anki a second chance. After going through the tutorial videos created by the author, I gained more understanding of the tool. I have been using it for more than a week, and I begin to love it.

Here are some nice features of Anki that I like. Its import utility is very agile. I can simply copy-and-paste my vocabulary list right out of LingQ to a text editor and save it as a text file. Anki can parse it with no problem. Another nice thing is that I can suspend any card I like, so I won’t get stuck with a pile of difficult cards at any time.

Then of course there are some features that I hope Anki would have. It is not straight-forward to figure out the current level of a given card. It gives you some statistics but it never displays the level. On the other hand, JMemorize gives a clear layout of all the card levels. Another nice-to-have is a 2-stage display of the question, like what LingQ has done. It shows the word to you at first. If you cannot get it, it will show you the example sentence. In Anki, I find a bit tired of making decision of determining how ‘right’ I get an answer. With the 2-stage question display feature, it gives me another indicator to determine my familiarity with the word. Or better still if it could determine for me. It would be nice if Anki can take more of the decision-making off me.

As of today, I have imported to Anki 1195 out of my 2223 words from my French vocabulary list. One tip of migrating a massive list of vocabulary from one SRS to another is to import the easy and familiar cards first. I extracted my level-4 words from LingQ and import them to Anki. It only took me only 10-20 minutes to get through about 400 of them, and I won’t see them again until a few days later. Then I did my level-3 and level 2 words, which took a bit longer. I then gradually insert the level-1 words. My level-1 contains unfamiliar but infrequent words, so there is no urgency to learn them right away. Here is my current flashcard schedule.

I have also started (or restarted) my Spanish study about 3 weeks ago. I have 618 words so far, and here is my flashcard schedule:

Some people don’t like SRS or another kind of flashcard systems. I used to be one of them. I thought I could ‘absorb’ the new words naturally. But then at one point in time, I experienced the benefits of deliberately learning words, and I could see the immediate improvement I gained. Of course, it could turn into a stressful excerise, but this is why SRS comes in. The beauty of SRS is that you can review your words at your own pace. You don’t have to go through all of them at any time. You won’t lose any word because the system keeps track of them. It is a wonderful tool to build up your long-term memory.

Shadowing Alone April 14, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Speaking.

I recently came across a language forum post. A person taught some Japanese students English by playing recordings of native speakers and asking the students to repeat them again and again. The teacher did not give more details, so I assume this was the only method he used. He posted a recording of one of his students and asked for comments on her pronunciation.

I listened to the recording and was surprised that in the first half minute or so, I could not figure out that she was indeed speaking English! In fact, I could pick up less than 10% of what she was saying in my first listening.

Shadowing (a.k.a parroting, chorusing, echoing, etc) is a popular technique among language learners, which is widely claimed to be effective. So I wonder what went wrong.

I listened to the recording again and again. I noticed the student’s intonation was actually very good, but she could hardly get any pronunciation correct. My conclusion was that she was working on something probably not quite suitable at her level. She should pick materials with slower speed and contain simpler vocabulary. She should also put more focus on her pronunciation.

This example shows that doing shadowing exercises alone is simply not enough. This is also confirmed by my own experience. While I find it very helpful in improving intonation and perhaps fluency, it does not help much with my pronunciation.

I believe in two activities that are vital to improve pronunciation. The first is to study how each sound is pronounced. In other words, “Understand how it works”. I don’t think merely listening and imitating the sounds is sufficient to nail them precisely. While I am not an IPA-advocate, I think some kind of knowledge on phonetics need to be acquired. For example, we need to understand the placements of the tongue and the shapes of the month to pronounce those sounds. I am still thankful to John on his article about the tongue placements concerning some Mandarin sounds. I came across it a few years ago and that really helped me a lot with my pronunciation. I believe I sound better in those sounds than many native speakers from southern China.

The second activity is to read aloud on your own, in other words, “Make it work“. This way, you train your brain to work out the sounds by yourself. I have been working on this with my French in the last few weeks, although not very intensively. I would pick a short article with a few paragraphs and read aloud. Then I would listen to the native speaker’s recording separately, to check out some uncertain sounds. I would repeat the process again, and I would do at most one article per week. I would read the sentences slowly and as clearly as I could, which is something I can’t do in shadowing. I have heard many people who made tremendous improvement by doing this exercise.

I still believe shadowing is a useful technique, and we should all do it from time to time. But I believe this technique alone is not enough to reach fluency. We have to do it along with other exercises.