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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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Language Guides for Travellers August 29, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Pimsleur, Speaking, Vocabulary.

I walked into the library the other day and saw a CD by Pimsleur. It was a French language guide for travellers. It had only one CD!

I borrowed the ‘Pimsleur I’ (or part of it, I believe) from the library a few months ago. There were so many CDs to go through and it was just plain boring to me. I returned it after a few days.

This time, Pimsleur in one CD just caught my attention. So I checked it out. It contained Unit 1 from the original ‘Pimsleur I’, and a few traveller’s scenarios such as at the passport counter and checking into the hotel. That was it?

I am not against Pimsleur. I think it is good for beginners and it trains you for proper pronunciations. But it is the idea of “language guide for travellers” that makes me laugh.

Here is my point. Don’t ever let anyone give you the sense of quick language acquisition. If you are travelling to a foreign country and you know nothing about their language, don’t expect to read one of those guides and be able to perform basic conversations with the locals. This is a naive thinking, and I can tell how true it is from my own experience.

I have some traveller’s language guides on my bookshelves: one for Italian, one for Japanese, and one for German. I bought them over the years because I needed to travel to those countries (well, my wife bought the Japanese one, but I was the one ended up reading it). Throughout my trips, there were only 3 words that I could practically use in each language:

  1. Hello
  2. Thanks
  3. Bye

You can learn these words without buying those guides! If you want to impress the locals, they are good enough to show your sincerity. Perhaps in the case of emergency, you would be interested to know a few more useful words such as ‘passport’, ‘money’, and ‘hotel’. Basic exchange with the locals like checking into the hotel or asking for direction in those scenarios? Forget it! Fire whatever you can memorize, but don’t expect you can comprehend whatever is coming back at you.

If you want to learn more about the language, buy a beginner’s guide to the language, hire a tutor, or less favourably, attend some classes. Expect to put some time and hard work on it!

Vocabulary Update August 21, 2007

Posted by Edwin in French, Vocabulary.
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It has been a while since I last updated my language learning progress. There seems to be a lot to report. I might as well start from my French vocabulary.

Since the beginning of the year, I started setting monthly targets on the number of French words to learn. I started off well but stopped setting the target in May. Now I look back at the results, I learned only 14 words in that entire month! Here is a brief summary (or check the details here):

Jan – 274
Feb – 314
Mar – 447
Apr – 225
May – 14
Jun – 10
Jul – 20
Aug – 113 (as of 18 Aug)

June was the worst month. Then I started picking up again towards the end of July. This month I have over a hundred words so far. I guess this is acceptable, as I don’t expect myself to be consistent all the time.

I also reset my stacks in August. So I went through over a thousand words again. This helps me refresh my memory very much.

Now I have about 1400 words in my vocabulary list. I am going to set a goal of reaching 2000 words by the end of the year.

Learned Words March 2, 2007

Posted by Edwin in French, Progress, Tools, Vocabulary.
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I committed to learn 168 French words in the month of February. Here is my February vocabulary list, and the chart below is my JMemorize progress as of the end of February.

jMemorize Progress as of February 2007

I added 315 words to my list, but how many did I really learn?

Well, how do I define a word as ‘learned’? I can learn a word quickly but forget it in a few days. Even if I can remember the word a year from now, I still cannot promise that I can remember it for the rest of my life.

As I was thinking about this month’s resolution, I realized that my past resolutions of ‘learning a certain amount of words’ were not really measurable goals. I myself prefer measurable goals so that I will know if they are achieved at the end.

What I could do is to define the meaning of a ‘learned word’. For example, I could say, “All words in deck 6 or above are considered learned”. But this would present another problem. Under the Leitner system that JMemorize implements, getting a word into a certain deck requires at least a fixed amount of days. With my linear schedule, it would be 25 days for deck 6. This means I need to have all the words loaded in deck 1 in the first week of the month. I would also need to prepare for more words than enough because I am expecting to relearn some of them during the process. For a certain number of words, I have to get them right without retrying all the way to deck 6. Otherwise, I cannot meet the quota. This gives me a tremendous pressure and it is obviously against the principle of using the Leitner system.

Remember, the Leitner system is not supposed to pressure the learners. I know that once a word is in the system, it will eventually reach deck 10. I don’t want to impose any time constraint. I should try to remember as many words as I can, knowing that many will be relearned again and again during the process.

Here is my monthly resolution for March: I commit to add 300 words to my vocabulary list for the month of March. I have no commitment to learn any of them! Instead, I will let them to flow up the Leitner decks naturally.

Vocabulary Maintainance February 5, 2007

Posted by Edwin in French, Vocabulary.

In a comment from my previous post about vocabulary building, Geoff the language addict asked me how much extra time is involved for me to maintain the vocabulary list. I have never timed the process, but I guess if I describe the steps involved, this could give a rough idea of the amount of time involved.

I have installed a web plug-in from WordLearner, which gives me an easy access to a French-English dictionary. I customized it to point to WordReference. Using the plug-in to look up a French word only requires 1 double click to select the word and 2 mouse-clicks to redirect to the dictionary. When I am reading a French article from the web, I would open up a notepad. Every time I encounter a new word, I would perform the 4-click maneuver to find the meaning in the dictionary. Then I would pick the appropriate definition and cut-and-paste it into the notepad. I estimate that each word would require less than 10 seconds.

After I finish the article, I would cut-and-paste all the new words from the notepad into my vocabulary spreadsheet. I would also need to tidy them up a bit. On average, this requires about 5 seconds for each word.

From the master spreadsheet, I could do a few things: I could make a csv file and import the new vocabulary to jMemorize, I could make an html file and update my French Vocabulary Builder page, or I could check for duplications.

I import the new vocabulary to jMemorize about once or twice a day. I already have a separate sheet to transform the master list into the csv format. An additional step is to copy-and-paste the cells into a text editor and remove the tab characters. I would then launch jMemorize and perform the import operation. This takes about 30 seconds each time, regardless of the number of words since the copy-and-paste, replacement and import operations are done at the file level.

I update my Vocabulary Builder page about twice a week. The operations are similar to the ones for the cvs file. Again, I need to copy-and-paste the cells into the text editor and remove the tab characters. Then I would cut-and-paste the resulting html segment into my page. This takes about 1 minute.

From time to time, I would make sure I don’t have duplications on my vocabulary list. I am not a spreadsheet expert, so I use a rather dumb way to achieve this. I copy all the words in my vocabulary onto a separate sheet, sort them alphabetically, and then use a spreadsheet function to check if a cell is the same as the one below it. The whole process takes about 1 to 2 minutes.

I run jMemorize several times a day to learn new words and relearn expired words. It takes me 1-5 minutes, depending on the amount of words need to be worked on.

I hope this gives a rough idea on how I maintain my vocabulary and how much time is involved. I posted this up not because I think I have the best approach, but rather, I would like people to give me suggestion on how to improve the process. I would appreciate if you can give me any feedback you have.

My New Month’s Resolution January 1, 2007

Posted by Edwin in English, French, Motivation, Progress, Vocabulary.

How long does a typical New Year’s resolution last? A month?

We often make New Year’s resolutions for the sake of New Year. After failing for so many times, we just stop making them. Is there a way we can overcome this fate?

Say if a typical New Year’s resolution last for only a month, why don’t we try to have the same New Year’s resolution every month? Then it will last!

Personal development guru Steve Pavlina has explained the power of a 30-day trial. It seems that our determinism typically lasts for a month. What we can do is to try something out for a period of 30 days. If you don’t like it, stop doing it. Otherwise, you have the choice to continue doing it, and potentially you could turn it into a new habit.

I have already done my PCL for French, which contains high-level goals and actions. As for down-to-earth commitments, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I am going to make a New Month’s resolution.

An article from Voice of America last year gives some suggestions of New Year’s resolutions for English learners, but the resolutions can be applied to other languages. You may listen to this audio clip here.

In summary, English teacher Lida Baker suggested 5 simple goals:

  1. Listen to the radio
  2. Listen to songs
  3. Read Children’s books
  4. Learn a word everyday (or every other day)
  5. Talk with native speakers when there is a chance

‘Learn a word everyday’ seems attractive to me. But since I am going to try it out for only a month, I might as well make a bolder goal and make it 3 words per day, as suggested by David. So what I am going to commit in January, is that I am going to learn 31 x 3 = 93 new French words.

After 30 days, if I fail, or if I reach the goal but don’t like it, I will change my quota. If I like it, I will do it for another month. If I continue doing it until the end of the year, then it has become my year 2007 resolution.

Happy New Year!