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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.


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.

The Quadriplegic Mayor March 3, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Canada, Cantonese, English, French, Mandarin, Punjabi.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan caught the attention of the international media back in 2006, when he accepted the flag at the closing ceremonies of the Turin Winter Olympics. He is Canada’s first disabled mayor and also the first quadriplegic mayor of a North American city.

The mayor was paralysed after a tragic skiing accident when he was 19. Apart from many other achievements in life, he is also well-known for his linguistic ability. The Tourism Vancouver website contains some multilingual video messages from Mayor Sullivan speaking English, French, Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin, and French.

The major does not like to be confined in a wheelchair either. Here is him going hiking:

In the following video clip posted only recently, the mayor shared his thoughts in Cantonese on a legendary Hong Kong actress, a resident of Vancouver, who passed away a few week ago. I was touched when I saw the disabled major, who can barely use of his feet and hands, signing his name in traditional Chinese.

Transcript and translation of the clip are available here.

Statistical Machine Translation January 7, 2008

Posted by Edwin in English, French, Tools.

Back in last October, Google Translate completely switched to its own home-grown translation software, adopting the Statistical Machine Translation approach.

Google Translate had been using SYSTRAN as the underlying translation engine, the same software Babel Fish uses. In the past, I used to get the same translation results from both engines, so I did not pay too much attention to Google Translate.

With the traditional rules-based approach, a lot of work is required by linguists to define vocabularies and grammars. With the Statistical Machine Translation approach, billions of words of text are fed into the engine, both original texts and their human translations. Statistical learning techniques are then applied to build a translation model. It is claimed that very good results were achieved in research evaluations.

Here is the original French text quoted from my past post last year on machine-translation humours:

Les Chinois qui ont dû payer une taxe d’entrée à leur arrivée au Canada ont reçu jeudi les excuses officielles du gouvernement canadien.

Here is the translation from the Fish:

The Chinese who had to pay a tax of entry to their arrival in Canada received Thursday the official excuses of the Canadian government.

Here is the translation from the new Google Translate engine:

The Chinese who had to pay an entrance fee upon their arrival in Canada have received formal apology Thursday from the Canadian government.

Not bad at all.

For the Sake of Conversation November 20, 2007

Posted by Edwin in English, Motivation, Speaking.

Keith left me a comment on my previous post, asking why I would join so many language-exchange networks. In fact, I am not quite sure if I know the answer. May be they are free, or perhaps I keep joining new ones simply because none of them has met my expectations.

When I look back at all my attempts to establish a language exchange relationship in the past, I have never talked to the same person more than 3 times. The relationship just does not last long. For example, I have talked with the legendary Ziad Fazah 3 times so far, but we have not been talking since 2 weeks ago. May be Steve was right. Here is the quote again from his recent podcast:

“It is very difficult to have a conversation just for the sake of having a conversation with someone that you aren’t necessarily interested in having a conversation with.”

I have a friend whose English is always poor despite living in Canada for a decade or so. Over the years, I have suggested her to work on her English by watching more TV, reading more books, or less preferably attending boring classes. None of my suggestions interested her. She just did not have the motivation.

Recently, I noticed her English has improved, not drastically but noticeably. I found out that she had joined an MLM network. She was on calls all the times, may be 2 hours every other day. She had to speak to a few native English speakers. They were her trainers. In her case, she did not arrange the conversations just for the sake of having them. She was highly motivated to speak with those people. She had a real purpose behind those conversations.

I hope she will not lose too much on her adventurous business. Even if she does, she might as well consider the money was well spent on improving her English skills.

O Canada November 15, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, Canada, English, French.
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Last week, I was compiling a collection of more than 25 different versions of the Canadian nation anthem “O Canada” for my daughter. The anthem is her favourite song besides, of course, the Alphabet song. I had been singing the anthem to her since she was 3-months old. Somehow, the tune worked great for a lullaby when sung with my dull voice. Now she is almost 2 years and a half, and she can sing the complete anthem by herself.

A few quick facts about “O Canada”:

  1. The song officially became the nation anthem only very recently, in 1980.
  2. The French and English lyrics of the anthem have nothing to do with each other. Their meanings are completely unrelated.
  3. In fact, the French lyrics came out first.
  4. The anthem is often sung by mixing the lyrics of the 2 languages. One reason for doing this is to demonstrate the bilingualism of the country. Another reason, rather more subtle, is to avoid some ‘sensitive’ words. So, if there is a sensitive word in one language, they would switch that line to the other language. How ridiculous!

In one version of the anthem, I found the pure English French-accent perfectly rendered. When I first heard it, I thought it was sung by some folks from the US (for it was from an NBA game). But then I found out it was sung by the Canadian A Capella-turned-rock-band (then disbanded) group – the Moffatts.

I was amazed how well the parts were harmonized. These 4 brothers had been singing A Capella since they were kids. I was more amazed that even their English French-accents were so harmonized too!

Out of the many versions of the anthem I have collected, the most beautifully sung French version I find is one posted by the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary on YouTube. In my opinion, it was sung better than the Celion Dion’s version.

Scarier Than Halloween November 3, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English, Speaking, Toastmasters.

I just delivered a Toastmasters speech on the past Wednesday, right on the Halloween. No, this was not the scary part. It was my first speech in 11 months. This was not that scary either. The real scary moment was when I received the recording afterwards, and I watched myself delivering my speech.

Many people, including myself, find it very uncomfortable watching ourselves or listening to our own voices. A while ago, I posted in the language forum, asking why so many forum members claimed to speak multiple languages but yet not many members have recorded their own audio clips. I only got 3 or 4 answers back, saying that they were afraid of listening to their own voices.

Indeed, I have realized that this is a severe problem for myself. This past week, my company had a major upgrade to its telephony system, and all of us had to reset their voice mailboxes and record their greetings again. It took me 5-6 takes to record a short greeting that was acceptable to me.

Ever since I had taken the “Accent reduction course“, I would occasionally sit beside my laptop and record myself reading some short passages in English. Listening to them simply makes me shiver. Lately, I had installed Pamela for Skype and had tried recording my Skpye conversations a few times. My own voice just sounds so weird to me when I play back the recordings.

Perhaps it is time to fix the problem once and for all. It seems that I am the only person that rarely listen to my own voice. So here is something I am going to try. I will carry a portable recorder with me and record my own voice everyday. I will then listen to all the recordings afterwards. I will try it out for a week or so and see how it goes.

Coalition Of The Willing September 7, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, English, French, Speaking.

Naturegirl left a comment on my previous post, mentioning a common scenario, where you want to practice your target language, only to find out that the other person always responses back to you in English (or your native language).

This is indeed an extremely frustrating experience. This could be by far the number one enemy for language learners who want to practice speaking. I remember Milan has been ranting about it in his blog all year long!

A common counter-move is to tell the other person that you don’t speak English. This could be funny at first and probably help to break the ice. But I believe it won’t get you very far. Alternatively, I have some suggestions based on my experience and those from the others.

If you are a beginner’s level speaker, don’t expect people to put up with your broken sentences. They would only do that out of generosity (well, except if you pay them). You must state explicitly that your are a learner and want to speak the language. Do this right at the beginning or after the usual greeting exchange. Say this in the target language so to build up your confidence and at the same time to show the other party that you really know something about the language.

I have been trying this protocol in Skype to practice my French. The greeting part is usually simple and standard. Then the other party would start to throw in more complicated vocabulary and increase his speed. Sooner than I would expect, I become lost. I would then tell him that my French is not really good and I am a learner, and he would slow down and return to more basic conversation. At this stage, don’t expect anyone to stay up with the conversation very long. Even if some are willing, your own tongue will begin to tide up very soon, and you will get discouraged. I would recommend the conversation to last no longer than 5 minutes. Then you may end it or switch to another language.

For advanced speakers, I have once learned a tactic from Cecilia’s podcasts. Cecilie Gamst Berg is a Norwegian living in Hong Kong since 1989. Besides Norwegian, her mother tongue, she is fluent in both English and Cantonese. She has been doing a Cantonese learner’s program in a Hong Kong radio station. In one episode, she went to the subway (MTR) to demonstrate how to buy a ticket (to increase the value of her Octopus card to be exact). Seeing a Caucasian, the ticket clerk replied in English right away. Being intolerable with this seemingly disrespectful action, she replied immediately:

“你講乜嘢呀?唔好講英文啦你!” (What are you talking about? Don’t speak English!)

The “啦” (laa1) towards the end of the sentence is a emotional particle in Cantonese. Together with the unsatisfactory mood she carried when saying it, the sentence should be more correctly translated as:

“What are you talking about? Don’t speak English for goodness sake! This is Hong Kong after all. Why would you as a Chinese speak English? Shame on you!”

Then I could hear the clerk switched back to Cantonese, feeling very embarrassed.

If you do this successfully to someone you will be seeing regularly, I bet he won’t dare to speak to you in English anymore. But then of course, you have to show your confidence speaking your target language in the first place.

With the above suggestions being said, I don’t believe there is a perfect solution to the problem. My own advise is to pick your speaking partners carefully. No matter how well you speak, there will always be people who are not willing to speak to you in their own languages. After all, they also have their right to practice their English, right?

I have many Mandarin-speaking friends and colleagues. Some know me for a long time, well before I started to pick up the language. They just feel speaking Mandarin to me a bit unnatural, and they would rather speak English to me, as it has been done for years. So I have decided to give up speaking Mandarin to them. Now, I only pick those whom I have recently met, and those who are willing to put up with my weird accent.

I believe the overall approach is to find a few speaking partners who are willing, stick with them, and leave the unwilling ones behind. Just like Mr. Bush’s “coalition of the willing“, you don’t really need a lot of them.

More on Accent Reduction Course July 13, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English.
1 comment so far

In a recent comment from my previous post on “Accent Reduction Course”, Max asks if anyone knows a good course to help his friend on his English accent. His friend comes from Mainland China. Both Max and his friend are currently living in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any reference in Hong Kong, but I am sure courses like this are very common around the world. The challenge is to identify which ones are good.

Perhaps what I can do instead is to share some important concepts I have learned from my course, which have since become extremely beneficial to my English skills. Remember, here we are not just talking about learning a language, but changing your accent.

1) Pronunciation
Unlike many Romantic languages, you simply cannot figure out for sure how an English word is pronounced by merely looking at its spelling. This fact is probably well-known to a lot of English learners, but many ignore its magnitude.

You basically have to get rid of the mindset of figuring out English pronunciations by spellings. You can guess but you can never be sure. I would even boldly go to the extreme to visualize that the correlation is as weak as figuring out how a Chinese character is pronounced. There are patterns for guessing the pronunciation by looking at the radicals, but they are not rules.

This means whenever you encounter a new English word, you must find out how it sounds. You can listen to how native speakers pronounce it, or simply look it up from a dictionary (or better still, an on-line dictionary with sounds). But never assume its pronunciation. I have personally made this mistake many times in the past. In one occasion, I was making a speech but getting the pronunciation of a simple word wrong. How embarrassed!

2) Phonetics
An English ‘j’ is different from a Spanish ‘j’, a French ‘j’, or even a Chinese Pinyin ‘j’. Getting all these sounds sorted out right from the beginning is crucial. It is very easy for typical English learners to omit this, especially those who have been learning the language for many years.

For example, it was my first time to come across the concepts of reduced vowels and ‘schwa’ in the course. Although I have been using them subconsciously, I was never aware of their existence. I have also learned a few IPA notations in the course.

You don’t have to get the sounds perfect right from the beginning. But at least you should have a foreknowledge of how they should sound, and strike to imitate them until you have reached some kind of perfection.

3) Intonation
English is a non-tonal language, but it does not mean the English words are toneless and you can pick any tone you like. They still have tones, but the tones vary depending on the contexts. It is typically the learners coming from tonal-language backgrounds who find difficulty in grasping this concept. They usually assign fixed tones to the words, and they do this subconsciously.

However, it is also not unusual for learners coming from non-tonal language backgrounds to have difficulty too. For example, English intonation is different from those of other European languages. I remember seeing my Polish and Ukrainian classmates struggling with the English intonation. There is a tendency for them to simply adopt their own sets of intonations and ignore that fact that English has different intonation. In fact, if you pay closer attention, even British English and America English have slightly different intonations.

4) Effort
No language course can help you if you don’t help yourself. In fact, it was pointed out to me right at the beginning of the course, that each student should find himself an individual native English-speaking buddy, and spent at least a certain amount of time per day to study the language.

One clear message I got from the course is that the course itself is just the beginning. It taught me the basic concepts, but after that I would be on my own. What needs to follow is a lot of hard work and effort.

Without effort, you can go nowhere. “Effortless success” is an oxymoron.

Business Languages July 1, 2007

Posted by Edwin in English, German, Listening, Speaking.
1 comment so far

Business people can often communicate without knowing each other’s languages well.

A few months ago, I had a chance to talk to a retired business man, who was a friend of my father-in-law. He grew up in Shanghai, China, and started a successful printing business in Hong Kong many years ago. He recently sold his business and was retired.

He told me when he first started his business, he went all the way to Bristol, UK to look for a printing machine. He had never been to the UK before and he spoke very poor English. Somehow he managed to get around fine just by himself. He could communicate with the manufacturer there and even got trained on how to use the machine. He told me all he needed to know was some technical terms in English, and he used a lot of gestures.

I was more surprised when he told me that he even made a trip to Düsseldorf, Germany. Again, he went alone, got around, and communicated with the manufacturer. Only this time he knew nothing about the German language at all!

My retired friend could not quite explain to me how he did that. Perhaps this is how business is conducted. They seem to have a communication ‘channel’ which can penetrate through all barriers of languages.