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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?

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.

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.

LingQ Exited Beta October 15, 2007

Posted by Edwin in French, LingQ, Reading.

LingQ finally exited its beta last week. Congratulations, Steve, Mark, and your team!

I have been using the LingQ system for my French study since its beta launch in the beginning of August. During the last 2 months, I have been reading a lot. The LingQ system simply facilitates my reading activity, making it something very enjoyable to do. Indeed, I have noticed my French reading comprehension has improved substantially in this period.

What I find most fascinating about the system is its ability to give you a good estimate on the difficulty of the texts you read. It records all the words you have previously read and tells you the number and percentage of the ‘unknown’ words present in the text you are about to read.

The term ‘unknown words’ could be somehow misleading. I prefer to call them ‘un-encountered words’. The number only gives you an estimate, since you might know many words you have not encountered so far. Sometimes you would skip looking up some words you encounter, but they would still be unknown to you.

The most natural and efficient approach to absorb new vocabulary, suggested by Master Steve (and some others), is to pick the materials which are slightly above your current level, but not too much. You would then be able to absorb the new vocabulary with the help of the dictionary, or simply infer their meanings from the contexts.

I have been trying this method in the last 2 months, and honestly, I don’t know how I can do it without the LingQ system. From my experience, everything with less than 10% ‘unknown words’ are no-brainers. Everything with 10%-25% ‘unknown words’ are acceptable, and they are the ones I usually encounter and put my focus on. I should try to avoid everything with more than 25% ‘unknown words’. This is sometimes unavoidable though, as I might be reading a book and certain chapters might go beyond the 25% mark. Note that this percentage guideline is for French. It might be different from language to language.

I don’t need to worry about those texts which go beyond the 25%. As I read more and accumulate more known words on my way, I notice the marks get lowered. This indeed gives me a very satisfactory feeling.

Reading with the LingQ system is also very addicting. When I see some texts with low percentages of ‘unknown words’, I would want to read them right away. Even those with high percentages, I would just watch the the marks get lower and lower as I read other texts. I believe I have read more in the past 2 months than in the past years!

Besides being a valuable aid for reading, I have not yet found comfortable using other parts of the system, such as the vocabulary builder, writing, and speaking sections. I think they still need some improvement. Meanwhile, I am happily using other tools to cover those areas.

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.