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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.

Free Lunch Or Not August 26, 2008

Posted by Edwin in LingQ, Podcasts, Tools.

Today, I received 3 separate e-mails from ChinesePod, SpanishPod, and FrenchPod, all delivering the same announcement. Currently, everybody can have access to all their lessons. Starting from next month, people with free-membership will have access to newbie lessons only.

This change does not really affect me much, for I have decided to go “natural” a few months ago and quited listening to learner’s materials such as language lessons. But then I would expect in the next few days, the Praxis servers will be bombarded by people trying to get their last “free lunches”.

When I look at the language learning market, it always amazes me how people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for language books, tools, and classes, but they expect everything free from the Internet. One thing I have found from the online language learning communities in the past year-or-so is that, free stuff has no good quality. Contents or services that are of good quality that are free are either being paid for by someone else already, or they are going out of business very soon.

A particular “free lunch” mentality spreading across the online language learning communities is the concept of “free tutoring” services. All free online language exchange communities are for you to practice what you have learned, not to be tutored. You may fire up conversations with many native speakers, but don’t expect them to be committed in tutoring you all along your language learning journey.

I recently came into contact with eduFire, an online paid service which hooks up language learners with native-speaking tutors. The tutors would decide the tuition fees, the learners would choose his/her tutors, and eduFire would take a small portion of the fees for its service. While I cannot guarantee the success of this business, I believe it has a healthy business model to last.

I have been impressed by the quality of the Praxis production since the early days of ChinesePod. Her later sister “Pods” only continue to raise the bar even higher. I think they have all the right to start charging users. After all, it starts from $5 US a month!

Incidentally, I read from the LingQ forum another day, that someone complained about the inconvenience with his a free-membership limitations. Come on, the basic membership only costs $10 US per month! He complained that he could not afford it. Well then, I had nothing to say.

There is no need to grumble when the free lunch is gone. In the end, I think it all comes down to a single question: Does the service actually worth it?

Selling My iPod Nano August 25, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Tools.

While Steve has recently upgraded his MP3 player to an iPod Nano 3G, I am considering selling mine.

No doubt, an iPod Nano is an extraordinary device for language learners. It is portable, it can play both audio and video clips, and the lyrics display comes in handy when you need to read the accompanied texts. I upgraded my 2G Nano to 3G last November and had been using it everyday. Last month, my mobile phone contract was up, so I got myself a new phone, the Nokia 5310 XpressMusic. This unit is a genuine MP3 player. One can tell by the fact that it provides an 3.5mm headphone jack. Shame on the other so-called MP3 mobile phones, which still require an adaptor to connect to the headphone!

The greatest advantage of having an MP3 player/mobile phone combo is the convenience of having 2 gadgets in one. I have to carry my mobile phone with me anyway. Now, I don’t need to carry an additional gadget to listen to my audio files.

Another great feature I love is the external speaker. I don’t always carry my earbuds with me. Sometimes, I want to play the audio clips to other people. An external speaker just makes my life much easier. I always wonder why Apple does not provide it in its iPods. I am sure it is not difficult to put one in.

Another feature, which does not seem as useful now, but will soon in the future, is Bluetooth. The days of plugging/unplugging is over for me. I now sync up my unit wirelessly. Very soon, I will add Bluetooth ability to my car stereo, so I can listen to my favourite language clips as soon as I get into my car. I will also be able to do other wonderful things in the coming future when Bluetooth devices become more affordable.

After about 2 weeks of possessing my new 5310, I found my iPod unsync-ed for almost a week. In the past, I synced up my iPod everyday. I realize it may be a good time to sell the unit, before it worths less than its protective case. I know I am going to miss it though.

‘No Best Method’ Hypothesis April 28, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Forums.

Nowadays, I seldom visit the How-To forums, though I still pop in once in a while. The forums do have many helpful advises, only that these pearls are usually buried under an overwhelming number of useless advises. Many people indulged in the forums for days arguing which study method is the best. Last week, I saw a very interesting thread. It has already generated more than 140 posts within a week.

The creator of the thread proposed that there is no best method in language learning. The most important factor is TIME and LOVE devoted to the target language. He was not talking about different people might have different best methods. He was simply saying that even for the same individual, there is no such thing as ‘best method’ in language learning. Provided he is spending time with the language and keeps himself motivated, no matter what method he uses, he will get there one day.

Within a very short time, many forum members replied and argued against this hypothesis. Of course methods are important, they said. You wouldn’t want to waste you time in some inefficient methods. In fact, the thread creator made his claim based on his own observation of the forums!

I have been reading in this forum for two years. People were writing about Pimsleur, FSI, Michael Thomas, Assimil, Liguaphone, Tell me more, Rosetta stone, Teach your self, Vocabulearn, Learn in your car, Rocket Languages, FIA and so on.

It’s interesting, because some people think some of this methods are the BEST and some of them think the same methods are useless, boring …or the WORST. Thinking about that, how is it possible such a level of contradictions between people who have succeed learning languages. Well, I ask you:

What’s the COMMON denominator between them? I can only think about one factor: TIME spent WITH the target language. They listen, read, write and speak in the target language A LOT OF TIME and every day.

I think I can see why this hypothesis would stir up such a great reaction in the forums. If it is true, then there is no need to discuss about which method is the best, and probably a great portion of the forum posts can be removed. People can get back to their own language studies instead of arguing among themselves. But then to some, language studying is boring. They’d rather spend their time arguing how to study a language!

Perhaps learning a language is like building up a personal relationship. People might have different tactics to ‘befriend’ your target person. But eventually if you want to build up a true relationship, you have to spend time, a lot of time. And you have to keep yourself motivated in the process.

Are tactics irrelevant? Absolutely not. Is there a best tactic for each individual person? May be. But they are not the key to build up a true lasting relationship.

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.

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.

Statistical Machine Translation January 7, 2008

Posted by Edwin in English, French, Tools.

Back in last October, Google Translate completely switched to its own home-grown translation software, adopting the Statistical Machine Translation approach.

Google Translate had been using SYSTRAN as the underlying translation engine, the same software Babel Fish uses. In the past, I used to get the same translation results from both engines, so I did not pay too much attention to Google Translate.

With the traditional rules-based approach, a lot of work is required by linguists to define vocabularies and grammars. With the Statistical Machine Translation approach, billions of words of text are fed into the engine, both original texts and their human translations. Statistical learning techniques are then applied to build a translation model. It is claimed that very good results were achieved in research evaluations.

Here is the original French text quoted from my past post last year on machine-translation humours:

Les Chinois qui ont dû payer une taxe d’entrée à leur arrivée au Canada ont reçu jeudi les excuses officielles du gouvernement canadien.

Here is the translation from the Fish:

The Chinese who had to pay a tax of entry to their arrival in Canada received Thursday the official excuses of the Canadian government.

Here is the translation from the new Google Translate engine:

The Chinese who had to pay an entrance fee upon their arrival in Canada have received formal apology Thursday from the Canadian government.

Not bad at all.

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.

Guessing Game December 22, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Dictionaries, Podcasts.

Some people promote the use monolingual dictionaries in language learning. Some others, like me, would tell you that it is a waste of time. I am not trying to be rude, but I hate seeing my fellow language learners wasting their time and effort. They could be more productive!

There is a popular party guessing game (I don’t know the official name) in which someone would be randomly assigned a topic, which could be an object, a phrase, a concept, or anything. Other people have to guess what it is. The person who knows the answer can say or do anything except mentioning any of the words in the answer. The game might sound easy at first. But if you have played it before, you would know how hard it could get to guess the answer sometimes.

In my opinion, using a monolingual dictionary is exactly like playing this guessing game. You have a foreign word you don’t understand, so you look up the dictionary in the same foreign language. The dictionary tries to explain to you what that word means, only that it cannot use the same word in the explanation.

Adding on top of this complication is the fact that you might come across other unknown words in the explanation, and you end up recursively looking up their meanings. For example, Dictionary.com defines ‘Sun‘ as “the star that is the central body of the solar system, around which the planets revolve and from which they receive light and heat”. It thens defines the “Solar System” as “the Sun together with all the planets and other bodies that revolve around it”. Next, I will need to look up the meanings of ‘planet‘ and ‘revolve‘. If I just want to know the meaning of the word ‘Sun‘, why not directly look it up in my own language?

One common misconception is that it works well for advanced learners. In fact, the unknown words advanced learners encounter are usually more complicated that they need more complicated explanations. Their exact meanings could be difficult to capture by merely a few sentences.

Then the monolingual dictionary advocates would tell you that reading a monolingual dictionary is like reading a book in your target language only. Your language skills will improve this way. If this is the case, why don’t I just pick a book in my target language and read it? It is more fun than reading a dictionary. Why would I want to torture myself?

Another reason they give you is that using a monolingual dictionary ‘by-passes’ your own language, and therefore you can think in the target language only. First of all, I can tell you that you won’t. You will still be thinking in your native language subconsciously. Secondly, what is wrong with thinking in my native language? I have a knowledge of an adult. I learn faster than a child because I don’t need to learn the words and the concepts at the same time. I don’t want to rebuild my knowledge I have gained over the years. I know what the ‘Sun‘ is. I don’t need detailed explanation again.

This brings me to another related subject, which I find equally interesting. Occasionally, I would discover language learning podcasts in which the hosts would try to explain foreign words in the same foreign language. I do appreciate their efforts. But then if I can understand the explanations, I would probably understand the original words in the first place!

Unless you enjoy reading dictionaries, my recommendation is to get something interesting to read. If you encounter some unknown words, look it up in a language you can understand, then move on. You will save a lot of time and effort down the road.