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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.


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.

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.

Portable MP3 Players March 16, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Listening, Tools.

Language learners nowadays may not need a language textbook, but definitely they must have a portable MP3 player.

This may sound obvious to many, but there are still people out there who don’t feel the need. You CD player or laptop are just not enough. You need an audio device that is highly portable and its contents can be updated frequently at ease. Not only do you need one, you also need one that is suitable for language learning.

After struggling for more than 2 months, I finally bought myself a 2G 2nd generation iPod Nano last November. The reason for my struggle? Well, I already had another portable MP3 player. Why would I need another one? The main reason I used to convince myself (and my wife) for getting the iPod was its ease of handling podcasts. As a bonus, it turns out to be a better device for language learning, too. Here are some of its nice features over my old player:

1) Easy Sync-up
New language resources keep coming out everyday, and the content of the player need to be updated frequently. I sync-up my iPod at least once a day. My old MP3 player works like a USB drive (a.k.a. memory stick) and it has a mini-USB port. Every time I need to sync it up, I have to grab my mini-USB adapter, connect my player and laptop with it, wait for the device to show up in my Windows Explorer, find my audio files, and drag them into my player. With my iPod, I just need to connect it to my laptop, and off I go to make my cup of nice tea.

2) Ease of navigation within an audio track
I often need to jump back and forth within a language track. My old MP3 player gives me such a pain when I want to do so. It has this conventional ‘hold the button until you reach the place’ style. But with the intuitive ‘Click-wheel’ of my iPod, I can easily and quickly navigate to the section I want to listen.

3) Lyric display
As described in my previous post, I believe listening with transcripts is a very effective way to improve my listening. Many podcasters already embed the transcripts in their audio files. I can also do it myself. With my iPod Nano, I can view the transcripts on the display while listening. With this in mind, I don’t recommend the screenless iPod shuffle for language learning.

My old MP3 player does have one feature my iPod is missing, which I think is useful for language learning:

Play sections of a track
When listening to podcasts, I frequently want to skip the starting/ending music, self-promotions of the hosts, and other useless stuff and get right to the actual contents. My old MP3 player allows me to select part of the track and have it played repeatedly. My iPod does not.

If you are learning a language and don’t have an MP3 player, GET ONE NOW! If you already have one but it is not suitable for language learning, I recommend you to get one that is. You don’t have to get an iPod, but at least a player with the features mentioned above.

Ineffective Listening March 5, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Listening.

“You need at least 400 hours of ‘effective listening’.”

This was an advice given to me by an advanced French learner in regard to improving my listening. After pondering the meaning of ‘effective listening’ for a while, I found it more fascinating to think about ‘ineffective listening’.

I have been spending most of my time for my French study engaging in repeated listening exercises. According to my iTunes log, my most played French clip has been played 53 times. Imagine how much time can potentially be wasted if I am not doing it in an ‘effective’ way. Eliminating the ineffective elements thus becomes crucial in speeding up my learning progress.

I have identified 3 common mistakes contributing to ineffectiveness that we should avoid when engaging in listening exercises.

1) Repeatedly listening to materials that you don’t understand
When trying to make a sense out of a piece of material by repeatedly listening to it, I don’t think we can get anymore out of it after 3 or 4 times of listening without additional aids. What we understand remains understood, and what we don’t understand remains incomprehensible. Any additional listening attempt is considered to be ‘ineffective’.

Remember, after a few times of listening to the material, if you still want to understand more, you either need a direct translation or a transcript from which you can look up the meanings of the words. Otherwise, don’t waste your time.

2) Trying to get the meaning instead of the words
This is a subconscious mistake I often make. I often have the delusion of understanding a complete sentence even when I can get only 2 or 3 words out of it. What am I thinking? I have read the transcript! I have looked up the words. I already know the meaning! I should not try to understand the sentence again by repeatedly listening to it!

Remember, the whole objective of the repeated listening exercise is to identify each word you hear, not to understand the sentences. You already know what they mean.

3) Not referring to the transcript enough
Often depending on the environments in which we are doing the listening exercises, we might not have the transcript with us. We would keep listening to the material again and again, even realizing that we cannot get more words out of it. What we actually need is to do at this point is to refer back to the transcript. And we need to do this frequently.

We must allocate times to study the transcripts, and also times to simultaneously listen to the material and read the transcripts. I find this difficult myself, but there seems to be no shortcut.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on any ‘effective listening’ tips that you have.

Extreme Listening December 20, 2006

Posted by Edwin in French, Listening, Mandarin.

Listening to podcasts is a good way to improve your listening. Do you have a tendency to settle into listening to the “easy stuff”, so that you could just listen once and understand most of it, or are you willing to go for the “extreme stuff”?

I have been working on my French listening in the past month or two. In the last few days, I have been trying what I call “Extreme Listening”. The idea is to go for something that is way out of your comfort zone, something that you can make absolutely no sense out of at first, then spend time to analyze it piece by piece, and try to understand its content gradually through repetitive listening.

I picked a French sermon I found in Allan Rich’s website. I cannot find a transcript, but a good thing about this podcast is that Allan maintains another website which provides an English podcast translated directly from the French version.

The sermon was about 20 minutes long. The preacher spoke so fast that in the first-pass, I could only pick up 5-10% of the French words. I missed most of the keywords that I could hardly make any content out of the podcast at all. But I persevered and listened until the end.

Then I listened to the English translation provided by Allan with his cute French accent. Now I had the idea of the content, I went back and listen to the French version again. I found that I could now pick up about 20-30% of the words.

Then I placed the 2 podcasts side-by-side in my ipod, and listened to them segment by segment, English first, then French. Each segment was about 5-10 sentences long. If I didn’t get the words, I would go back and replay the segment. In this third-pass, I could figure out 50-70% of the words.

I will listen to the same podcast again and again until I get over 90% of the words. Then I will pick another podcast to work on.

I remember doing the same sort of activities when working on my Mandarin a year ago, only without translation. I found a radio show from Beijing on the Web. In each episode, they would have 3 talkative ladies chatting with each other, and they spoke extremely fast. Whenever 3 women jam together … Well, you know what I am talking about! It was really an “Extreme Listening” to me!