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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.


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.

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.

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

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

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.

An Innovative Way to Practice Conversations January 10, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Speaking.

Today, I have accidentally discovered an innovative way to practice conversations. This approach has the following advantages:

  1. It is free
  2. It is purposeful (you don’t carry out a conversation just for the sake of carrying out a conversation)
  3. There is potentially unlimited number of topics to talk about
  4. You can converse with different partners all the time
  5. The other party is always interested in talking to you
  6. There is no need to actively seek out for partners. They will come to you.

A few days ago, I tried to post an classified ad online. I posted my ads on some popular classifieds websites such as the Craig’s List and Kijiji. Then I thought it might be a good idea to target some specific communities. So yesterday I tried 51.ca, probably the most popular one for the Canadian Mandarin-speaking communities. I always avoid revealing my personal information except my email address. But this one, unlike the others, made the contact phone number a mandatory field. So I put in my mobile phone number, thinking that nothing bad could happen.

To my surprise, I received 2 cold calls this morning, one from an air-duct cleaner and the other from a banker. They started right off in Mandarin. Apparently, they got my number from the Mandarin classifieds website. Where else?! Unfortunately, I had to cut short the conversations because I was at work. Otherwise, I would be more than happy to practice my Mandarin with them.

After this experience, I was thinking if I could develop a systematic way to set-up and engage in conversational practices using this channel. Here are some points I have in mind:

  • Find some decent classifieds websites for a specific language community
  • Post an ad or reply to one
  • For local communities, try to find some bargains or sell your junks
  • For international communities, look for outsourceable services such as translation and proof-reading
  • Insist on contact by phone only
  • Use Skype In/Out if international calls are required

Of course, this approach only works provided you can communicate in the target language in some sense, though you can still be far from fluent. Somehow when we talk business, we can usually communicate more than words can express.

In-Context Vocabulary Learning December 31, 2007

Posted by Edwin in LingQ, Vocabulary.

It is the time of the year that I need to review what I have done this year and formulate plans for next year. I have been working on this in the past whole week, and of course this includes everything in my life, not just language learning.

One area I have been concentrating on is to improve all my processes. For example, in my French vocabulary learning, I have been using a spreadsheet to record all the new words I have encountered, and I use JMemorize as the reviewing tool. I find this to be very efficient in maintaining the list of vocabulary. But then reviewing them might take some time, especially with my current vocabulary of more than 2100 words and phrases. Then in August I have started using LingQ, and I have been maintaining my vocabulary list in both my spreadsheet and LingQ since then. It is certainly not as efficient, and I need to do something about it.

One thing my spreadsheet/JMemorize system is lacking is the example sentences. I still remember right at the start of my vocabulary building project, I was advised to include sample sentences for the new words. But this was something I found time-consuming to do. So I left out that part.

As I have been thinking it over and over again, I am not really 100% learning my vocabulary through context, something many veteran language learners would recommend to do. I store all the new words I have encountered from what I read (in-context), but as I review them, I only look at each word or phrase out-of-context and try to remember it.

It is not difficult for many people to accept the fact that the in-context approach is the way to go. But many people still seem to be stuck in the out-of-context approach. This includes activities ranging from the extremes such as studying the dictionaries or the 1000 most-frequently-used words, to traditional activities such as studying the vocabulary lists out-of-context.

So my plan for the next year, or at least the next month, is to learn my vocabulary in-context. This means that I will copy the examples from LingQ to my master spreadsheet and import them to JMemorize (LingQ automatically stores the example when you save a word/phrase. But you may need to touch it up a bit). This of course would take up more time to maintain my spreadsheet. But I believe it it something that worths a try.

Anniversary December 15, 2007

Posted by Edwin in General, Motivation.

Today marks the 1st anniversary of this blog. Exactly one year ago, I decided to create a blog to share my thoughts on language learning and multiculturalism.

During this period, I have learned a lot about language learning, and most importantly, I have met many language enthusiasts in the blogosphere. I am delighted to see so many new language blogs created, but then I am sad to see many have since stopped or become dormant.

When I started my blog, I set a goal to make this an inspirational blog to language learners and lovers. I am not sure how far I am from reaching this goal. Perhaps I will share a story here about a truly inspirational language blog.

Kelly started the Aspiring Polyglot on March 2006. Not long after I started this blog, she decided to close off hers (and created a few language-specific blogs). At some point in time (I believe it was after the closing of the Aspiring Polyglot blog), a person named JP discovered it. He loved the blog so much that he even wrote Kelly some fan mail.

JP worked as a language teacher in the States for many years. It was from the Aspiring Polyglot where he learned about ChinesePod and SpanishSense. A few months ago, he decided to quit his job and packed his bag for Shanghai, China. He decided to take up a much more challenging language-related job there. He became the new host of SpanishPod, the reincarnated SpanishSense.

Here is a comment JP left on Kelly’s blog:

It’s all because of you and your review! I quit my teaching job, moved to Shanghai (we share the studio with ChinesePod) and look at me now! All thanks to you!

This is absolutely inspiring and live-changing!

I hope all the language bloggers out there have this similar goal. Let’s have more sharing and support. Let’s inspire each other.

Xie Xie, Mr Prime Minister November 26, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Speaking.

The Australians voted for a new prime minister this past Saturday. Kevin Rudd will become the 26th Prime Minister of Australia in about 2-weeks time. I don’t know much about the Australian politics, but one thing Mr. Rudd has caught my attention (and probably of many others too) is his fluency in Mandarin.

Of course, the Australians voted for him not simply because he can speak Mandarin. But no doubt, it has become one great advantage for him in the time when countries around the world want to improve their relationships with China.

This YouTube video shows Mr. Rudd interviewed by the Chinese State TV Station just before the election. His Mandarin is absolutely impressive. The Chinese host tried to switch back to English during the interview a few times, but Mr. Rudd insisted to keep speaking in Mandarin.

Mr. Rudd mentioned how he worked hard on his Mandarin while at the university. Once again, this testimony refutes the theory of “minimal effort language acquisition“.

I have noticed my Mandarin has deteriorated in the past few months. I was too concentrated on my French. Some of my Mandarin-speaking colleagues had their contracts terminated recently, and I did not bother to find other colleagues to speak Mandarin. About 2 weeks ago, I came across a Mandarin-speaking parent while picking up my daughter from school. When I tried to speak Mandarin with her, my tongue was just tided up.

After watching the video, I feel ashamed of being a Chinese but yet can’t speak Mandarin as good as a non-Chinese. It is certainly a good reminder for me to work hard on my Mandarin again. I am going to refill my iPod with more Mandarin stuff now. Thanks, Mr Prime Minister, for your inspiration.

My New Cantonese Blog November 23, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Listening, Reading, Tools.

I always find language learner’s materials artificial and boring. I always want to access real-life contents in the languages I am learning.

There are of course a lot of real-life contents I can find today, especially on the Internet. However, most of them are either in written forms, or only available in audio or video format. Sometimes, I can find audio with someone reading some texts. As far as transcripts of real-life conversations are concerned, there are just not many of them around. At one point in time, I was so frustrated that I wanted to hire someone to transcribe for me. But then I figured out it could be quite expensive to do so.

What can I do? May be I will start by providing transcripts for learners in languages I am fluent in. Perhaps I will start with Cantonese first, which is my mother tongue.

So here it is. Ladies and Gentlemen … my new blog dedicated to all lovers (and potential lovers) of the Cantonese language: Cantophilia.

It could be that I am spawning this new blog out of my own frustration due to the lack of Cantonese transcripts out there. It could be that I am not happy with the fact that no Cantonese speaker is doing it. In fact, I can find only find 2 websites containing Cantonese transcripts, one from Milan and another from Marcelo, both are learners of the language. Where are the native-speakers?! (Besides their Cantonese friends who did the transcripts behind the scene of course).

My main reason of creating the blog though, is that I want to promote my own language. I already have this in mind for a while. Finally, I am putting it into action.

Tower of Confusion is still going to be my primary blog for language learning and multiculturalism. I still have a lot to talk about on these topics.