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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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Language Web 2.0 November 11, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Social Networks, Speaking.

I have joined so many language exchange networks in the past year that I have already lost count of them. Whenever people contact me for language exchange, I would ask them from which language exchange website they found out about me. Quite often, they simply cannot recall it, probably because they themselves have also joined too many of these networks.

There is recently posted on Mashable a comprehensive list of 70+ online language communities and resources. 15+ of these are language exchange networks. So it looks like everyone is jumping into the wagon! Most of these sites render like a typical social network, with features such as messaging and forums. Some also include built-in voice-recording, communication tools, and even language courses. Out of the many I have tried, I would recommend SharedTalk, Kantalk, iTalki, and xLingo.

But then this whole new business of language exchange network, or Language Web 2.0, has still not yet proven to be anything effective. So far, I have only seen people using the services as a mean of socializing and making friends. Have their languages skills improved? It is really hard to tell.

As for myself, I always find it difficult to follow through once I have established a contact in those social networks. I would usually exchange a few private messages and end there. Sometimes, we would conduct a few voice-chats but that’s all about it. Perhaps I should try to make more effort in knowing the other person instead of just treating him as a resource of language learning. Here is a brilliant quote from Master Steve in his recent podcast which is very true:

“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.”

One thing is for sure though. Everybody seems to be looking for more exciting ways to learn languages other than the traditional model of classroom learning.

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.

Mandarin Tongue-Twister September 21, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Speaking.

Last Friday, I went out for lunch with a few Mandarin-speaking colleagues. We went to an authentic Northern-Chinese Cuisine. We knew it was authentic because it was certified by someone among us who actually came from Harbin, China.

At some point during the lunch, someone brought up a well-known Mandarin tongue-twister. Being the only non-native speaker at the table, I was honoured to demonstrate it. I heard about that tongue-twister before, but it had been a while since I last tried it. So I totally messed it up. The whole table just went LOL.

Tongue-twisters are absolutely fascinating, especially to language learners. They could be very useful, too. First of all, they typically do not require too much time to perfect. Secondly, if you can pull it off, you will definitely impress the native speakers. Even if you fail to do so, it will help to break the ice.

Here is my attempt on the tongue-twister recorded over the weekend. The background noise testifies that the clip has not been edited.

“四 是 四 , 十 是 十 , 十 四 是 十 四 , 四 十 是 四 十 .”
(si4 shi4 si4, shi2 shi4 shi2, shi2si4 shi4 shi2si4, si4shi2 shi4 si4shi2)

Here is the meaning: “4 is 4. 10 is 10. 14 is 14. 40 is 40”.

Rebuking the Tarzan Approach September 14, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Forums, Speaking, Vocabulary.

Most language learners out there should have heard about the How-to-learn-any-language forums already. You can find many experienced language learners making valuable contributions and advises there. Unfortunately, the forums are also overwhelmed with ridiculously amateur postings which just make me feel wasting my time even reading the subject lines. Frequently, you will see topics like:

1) Which language should I learn?

2) How do I master this language in a month?

3) How do I learn 5 languages at the same time?

4) I dreamed in a foreign language. Isn’t that cool?

Then there are different theories and methodologies flying around and people debating which ones are the best. I joined the forums many months ago, but I have been trying to avoid being pulled into fierce and pointless arguments. After all, who am I to debate with the experienced learners?

But once in a while, I cannot help it.

This time, it was someone coming out of the blue, and proposing many language learning ideas and approaches. A lot of these ideas already did not make sense at the first glance. Others are just plain obvious, such as work hard, don’t give up, and you will succeed. To make things worse, he used the tone of a language expert. (He later admitted that he was only an expert in education, not language acquisition).

I originally chose to ignore these posts. But there is one idea he proposed that raised my eye-brows. I worried that it could be harmful to other language learners, especially those new to language learning. I could not sit back anymore. I had to rebuke him.

Basically, the person suggested that a language learner should converse with others as early as possible, even if this would mean speaking like Tarzan:

“Me go home”
“Me want food”
“I swim now”

Those with some common sense would wonder right away: how can the learner understand the replies? So this person came up with a hypothetical dialoque, which was supposed to be conducted between a language learner at the beginner’s level (B) and a patient and considerate native speaker (NS). The objective was to use limited vocabulary and don’t worry about the grammatical errors. The native speaker should come down to the level of the beginner, even if this would mean butchering his own language:

B: Hello I here today talk
NS: Hello good see you
B: What do today you
NS: Nothing I eat look tv
B: I look superman movie
NS: Superman movie good
NS: I look superman movie yesterday
B: You like movie
NS: Yes good movie

Not before long, others members joined in and rebuked his approach. They backed their arguments up with their own experiences as well as research from language experts. His reply?

“… a theory such as your ‘prevalent’ theory supported by ‘linguistics experts’ that may have no background in actual education/learning…”

And about his method:

“Consider it, try it yourself (ideally) and discard it if it does not work for you.”

This was just outrageous!

Enough of that. I signed off from the thread. My lesson learned? As I have been stated previously in my blog – stop wasting my time and get on with some language learning. I have already wasted 2 nights!

I have promised myself to try not to fall into the same trap again. In fact, I have made my first move to unsubscribe the forums from my news reader. I will just visited the website from time to time.

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.