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Sophia Books June 18, 2008

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

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.

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Migration To Anki April 25, 2008

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

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.

Text-To-Speech (TTS) January 29, 2008

Posted by Edwin in LingQ, Listening, Spanish, Vocabulary.
9 comments

Last month, Steve posted on his blog an idea of exchanging recorded vocabulary lists. He then made a very nice sample recording of an English vocabulary list. The first time I listened to it, I told myself that I must get one for my own list.

Here is the problem. I have over 1000 words/phrases on my list. Asking anyone to record the entire list is just inhumane. Well, perhaps I can find a non-human to do it for me. How about a Text-To-Speech (TTS) engine?

A quick survey of several online TTS services gave me the impression that the one from AT&T Labs produces the best result. Here is a sample in Spanish:

With a few trial-and-errors, I have refined the process so that it would take me only 5-10 minutes to make the audio file. Here are the steps:

  1. Select those words/phrases you want to learn and generate a print-view in LingQ
  2. Copy and paste the list onto a spreadsheet
  3. Remove the ‘hint’ column and massage the other 2 columns to make them consumable by the TTS engine
  4. Generate multiple WAV files 300 characters at a time (a limitation of the demo version of the engine).
  5. Merge the multiple files into one
  6. Copy and paste the list to the lyrics section of the MP3 file
  7. Upload the MP3 file to the MP3 player.

The audio quality from the TTS engine is acceptable for listening. But I would not recommend using it for serious speaking or parroting exercises.

Hopefully in the near future, I can generate the audio file with a few clicks from the LingQ system, played back with real voices.

Help Me to Trill the Spanish ‘R’ June 22, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Phonetics, Skype, Spanish.
24 comments

The Spanish rolling ‘R’ (or trilled ‘R’) sound is always a fascinating sound to me. It is the most difficult sound I have ever encountered. I can make the sound alone, but I always find it difficult making it within a word, especially when it is at the middle of the word.

I looked up some phonetic websites (such as this one) and the way they teach to position the tongue is slightly different from the way I do it. Perhaps I should consult the native speakers and advanced learners.

Last night, just for the fun of it, I hosted a skpyecast called “Help me to trill the Spanish R”. There I met a Japanese lady, who lived in the vicinity of Tokyo. I asked if she could trill the ‘R’ sound, and she did not seem to understand what I meant. Her English was not very fluent, so I had to struggle to converse with her for a while.

I started to praise the Japanese language being a polite language, and the Japanese people are very polite in general. Then I ran out of topics…

Suddenly, she started to speak in Spanish!

I exchanged some simple sentences at the beginning, but couldn’t get very far. “No comprendo” (I don’t understand), and I had to switched back to English.

It turned out that she had lived in Spain for two years due to a job assignment of her father. She had not been to any Spanish language school, not before or during her stay. She learned the language mainly from a guitar teacher over there.

She then demonstrated the rolling ‘R’ to me in different words. It was perfect. I asked her how she learned it, and she said she couldn’t quite remember. It took her about a year to get used to it.

Then I asked how she dealt with verb conjugations in the Spanish language. She just did not know what the term meant.

Here is a language learner who has taken the natural approach. To this kind of learners, I just sound plain stupid with all the linguistic and grammatical jargons.

A Quick Exchange April 27, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Spanish.
3 comments

I am in Las Vegas this week for a business conference.

I don’t find many things exiting as this is not my first time here. I did have a chance to practice my long forgotten Spanish on one occasion though.

I was walking down the strip one night, and as usual there are people handling out ‘pamphlets’. A majority of them are Hispanics. I normally just ignored and walk passed them. Then suddenly one of them, after recognizing that I am a Chinese, suddenly said to me in Mandarin, ‘你好’ (‘hello’), and attempted to hand me a pamphlet. So I replied, ‘No gracias. No dinero!’ (No thanks. No money!)

Dora the Bilingual Kid February 26, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Canada, English, French, Spanish.
4 comments

It was my wife’s birthday two weeks ago. I went to the mall to search for a gift. Finally I bought one … for my daughter Michelle.

It was a DVD from the ‘Dora the Explorer’ series. My wife was not happy after knowing this. She said Michelle is watching Dora everyday from the TV channels for free. Why on earth would I want to buy her a DVD? I defended by explaining that, with a DVD we can play Dora any time we like (or rather, any time she likes).

For those who don’t know about the animated series, Dora is a Hispanic kid who is bilingual. She speaks almost all English but throws in a few conversational Spanish words whenever she meets Spanish-speaking characters, both people and animals. She teaches Spanish nouns, adjectives and commands, as well as math, music, and physical coordination.

A more personal reason I bought the DVD is that it has 3 language tracks: English, Spanish, and French. I believe only the Canadian version provides the French track. I was curious in knowing how the bilingual scenes are rendered in Spanish and French.

In the Spanish track, the English parts become Spanish, and the Spanish parts become English. Interestingly enough, in the French track, the English parts become French, and the Spanish parts become English. I wonder why they don’t provide a version in which English remains English and Spanish becomes French. I believe this is more useful in Canada.

Another interesting thing I have observed is that there is no subtitle, not even for the Spanish words. The children are supposed to learn the words just by listening.

Dora was the top-ranked preschool show on commercial TV for five years. Her tremendous popularity comes at a time when many English-speaking parents desire for their children to learn a second language. The children also feel good about the ability to speak a foreign language.

Michelle loves Dora very much. Now she frequently cries out ‘Dora … Dora …’. I think she got a bit addicted to it. As for me, I just came back from the mall yesterday with another Dora DVD and some Dora toy storage bins. Oh no!

Resume Critique January 15, 2007

Posted by Edwin in French, Motivation, Spanish.
6 comments

Unless I know a language well enough that I can communicate in it, I cannot claim to know the language.

A few months ago, my company’s human resource department ran a resume critique session for funding-raising purposes. I decided to dust off my years-old resume and give them a shot. After giving out a few suggestions here and there, the HR guy was near the end of the resume. “No offensive here”, he said, “but I would remove the line concerning French and Spanish”.

He was referring to the lines I put under the language session:

  • Fluent in English and Chinese
  • Rudimental French and Spanish

He went on to explain his opinion, “if I don’t know a language enough that I can communicate in it, I would remove its reference. It does not mean anything to the hirers” So I removed it. Not a big deal to me.

Afterwards, I thought about what he said and it was indeed very true. It does not matter if I am very interested in French and Spanish, got good grades in my high school exams, know how to count, say some basic greetings, or even understand some articles in those languages, if I cannot perform basic communications, I cannot claim to know the languages. “I know a bit of the language” basically means nothing. Nada! Rien du tout!

From then on, I have made up my mind. Some time in the future, I am going to put that line back into my resume, be it 3 years, 5 years, or even 10 years. In fact, I will combine it with the previous line:

  • Fluent in English, Chinese, French and Spanish

Someone Trying to Learn Spanish December 30, 2006

Posted by Edwin in Humour, Spanish.
1 comment so far

Language classes could bore you to death … unless you have a classmate like this one:


It would be a fun class, but I guess you won’t learn much.