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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?”


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.

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.

My LingQ Testimonial March 28, 2008

Posted by Edwin in French, LingQ, Progress.

Some of you might have already figured out, by the lack my posts in the past few weeks, that I have been extremely busy. I have changed team recently at work, and I have been working on intense short-term projects since then.

Despite my busy schedule, my language learning progress has not slowed down in general. I have been reading and listening to a lot of French contents during this period. The LingQ statistics show that I have read close to 151,000 words in the last 3 months, which contributes to about 40% of the total number since I started using the system 8 months ago. Assuming an average article of 800 words in size, this means I have read close to 200 articles in this period!

I took a few years of French at high-school, which of course did not take me anywhere. Despite getting a ‘B’ in GCSE, I could not even conduct a basic conversation in French. I had not touched the language for almost 15 years, until the summer of 2006, when I decided to pick it up again. It was tough for me because there were not many Francophones in my area, and that I could only spend a portion of my spare-time learning. I joined LingQ in the summer of 2007, and I found significant improvement after only a few months, especially in my reading and listening.

The LingQ language learning approach focuses on input activities, namely reading and listening. This works great if the learner is in an environment where there are not many opportunities for output activities (speaking and writing). Once the learner has built up his confidence in reading and listening, he would find it much easier to improve his speaking and writing skills.

The LingQ language learning approach also emphasizes on learner’s own responsibility in his learning. He picks his own materials and the pace of learning. This works extremely well if the learner has a tight or unpredictable schedule.

Last weekend, I went to visit Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, the first time since I started to pick up French again. I was amazed that I could understand a lot of conversations spoken around me. I was also very happy to find myself being able to exchange a few lines with the Francophones over there. What I found most astonishing was that I did not achieve this by memorising the lines from some phrase books, but the conversations came out quite naturally from my mouth.

Now I have gained more confidence in my reading and listening, I am ready to move into the next phase where I would intensifying my speaking and writing activities.

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.

The Language of Good December 1, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, French, Toronto.

Since I have joined so many language exchange websites, I am quite used to receiving language exchange requests from time to time. Back in September, I received yet another one. But this time it was a bit unusual.

First of all, she was a native French speaker (bilingual French/English to be exact) asking for a Cantonese exchange. In the past, I often received requests from French speakers wanting English in exchange, or Cantonese learners who did not know French. This time it seemed to be a perfect match. Even better, she lives in my city!

Secondly, this person is no novice to the Cantonese language. In the past, I usually received requests for Cantonese help from people who knew virtually no Cantonese. There was no way we could communicate anything in Cantonese. This time, the person turned out to be the site owner of Cantonese.ca, a website which contains a lot of resources for Cantonese learners. The site has not been updated for a while, and she admitted that her Cantonese was rusted. That was why she wanted to pick up her Cantonese again. Besides Cantonese, she has also studied Dutch, Arabic, and Esperanto.

I later found out that this person was Sonja Elen Kisa, the creator of the language Toki Pona.

Toki Pona, which means “the language of good” in its own language, is a conlang which has only 14 basic sounds and 118 words. It is designed to be a simple language with simple vocabulary. Yet it turns out that with such a small set of vocabulary, it is quite sufficient enough to express a lot of complicated ideas. In fact, when Sonja created the language, she wondered why the vocabularies in our natural languages have to be so complicated.

Toki Pona has since caught the interest of language enthusiasts around the world, and it has also caught quite a significant media attentions, too.

In recent months, I have been communicating with my daughter, who is now 2 and a half years ago. I often have to avoid using complicated vocabulary. For example, instead of saying “fuel up”, I would tell her that our car is ‘hungry’ and needs to ‘eat’. “Turning off something” can be substituted by “putting it to sleep”. Even the concept of death can be conveyed as the person is “no more”.

So why do we need such complicated vocabularies in our languages. This just made life difficult for language learners and lovers like us.

I and Sonja exchanged a few emails and that was about it. She seemed to be quite occupied. I read from somewhere that she is in the process of writing a book about Toki Pona. Last week, I bumped into her again in a Cantonese Meetup group.

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.

LingQ Exited Beta October 15, 2007

Posted by Edwin in French, LingQ, Reading.

LingQ finally exited its beta last week. Congratulations, Steve, Mark, and your team!

I have been using the LingQ system for my French study since its beta launch in the beginning of August. During the last 2 months, I have been reading a lot. The LingQ system simply facilitates my reading activity, making it something very enjoyable to do. Indeed, I have noticed my French reading comprehension has improved substantially in this period.

What I find most fascinating about the system is its ability to give you a good estimate on the difficulty of the texts you read. It records all the words you have previously read and tells you the number and percentage of the ‘unknown’ words present in the text you are about to read.

The term ‘unknown words’ could be somehow misleading. I prefer to call them ‘un-encountered words’. The number only gives you an estimate, since you might know many words you have not encountered so far. Sometimes you would skip looking up some words you encounter, but they would still be unknown to you.

The most natural and efficient approach to absorb new vocabulary, suggested by Master Steve (and some others), is to pick the materials which are slightly above your current level, but not too much. You would then be able to absorb the new vocabulary with the help of the dictionary, or simply infer their meanings from the contexts.

I have been trying this method in the last 2 months, and honestly, I don’t know how I can do it without the LingQ system. From my experience, everything with less than 10% ‘unknown words’ are no-brainers. Everything with 10%-25% ‘unknown words’ are acceptable, and they are the ones I usually encounter and put my focus on. I should try to avoid everything with more than 25% ‘unknown words’. This is sometimes unavoidable though, as I might be reading a book and certain chapters might go beyond the 25% mark. Note that this percentage guideline is for French. It might be different from language to language.

I don’t need to worry about those texts which go beyond the 25%. As I read more and accumulate more known words on my way, I notice the marks get lowered. This indeed gives me a very satisfactory feeling.

Reading with the LingQ system is also very addicting. When I see some texts with low percentages of ‘unknown words’, I would want to read them right away. Even those with high percentages, I would just watch the the marks get lower and lower as I read other texts. I believe I have read more in the past 2 months than in the past years!

Besides being a valuable aid for reading, I have not yet found comfortable using other parts of the system, such as the vocabulary builder, writing, and speaking sections. I think they still need some improvement. Meanwhile, I am happily using other tools to cover those areas.

Computer Flashcard Nazi October 5, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Forums, French, LingQ, Vocabulary.

I had some time today to update my French vocabulary building progress. I was amazed that I have added nearly 600 words this month!

In fact, I owe this achievement to the LingQ system. When its beta version came out at the beginning of August, I subscribed to it right away. I have been using it for more than 2 months and I have been reading a lot. I think it is a great system for improving my reading skills. As for listening, speaking, writing, and vocabulary learning, I have better tools. I have more to say about the system, but perhaps I will save it for a future post.

Here is a recent story of mine related to vocabulary building which might interest you.

Ok, I could not help it but to peek into the forums again. My dear Tarzan friend is proposing a new vocabulary learning strategy. This time, he encourages people to use paper flashcards instead of software, and he encourages making and updating hundreds of them from time to time. He claims that the method only requires about 30 minutes to an hour everyday. Of course, many of our members spotted right away that this can’t be possible. The process he suggests is in fact a very time-consuming. Someone even estimated that it might take up to 3-6 hours a day.

As usual, after he received many comments against his method, he asked us not to doubt, but to simply try it out first. What makes this story more interesting is that someone has indeed promised to try it out! And he will post his feedback later. Poor soul.

I asked him to describe the advantages of his method over other proven methods, and I got this reply from him:

What are the advantages? Well my friend, if you read threads completely, you will have noticed this method is for people that PREFER to use paper flash-cards. If you’re a computer flashcard nazi, don’t bother reading the thread. It isn’t meant for you.

A computer flashcard Nazi?!

A vital skill of engaging in forum discussions is to know when and how to quit. So I took the opportunity to sign out.