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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.


Conversation with Ziad Fazah October 20, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Motivation, Skype.

Today, I had the honour to talk with Ziad Fazah. Yes, the person who claimed to have learnt 59 languages in his youth.

Thanks, Keith, for the inspiration. At last, I decided to talk to the legendary linguist. I sent an email to Ziad yesterday, and was surprised to receive his reply on the same day. He asked me to call him today.

I felt so mad at myself when I found out that I messed up the time zone. I was an hour late. It seemed to be an inconvenient time for him, so we only talked for a few minutes.

We spoke English most of the time, but then we had a short exchange in Mandarin. He admitted that his Mandarin was rusted since he has not spoken it for 20 years. But he claimed that he could pick up any language again if he wanted. It would probably take him 2 days to 2 weeks depending on his available time.

As soon as I heard him speaking Mandarin, I thought the coming conversation was going to be valuable. So I started my Skype recording!

“Your call is now being recorded…”

The program was new to me, and I later found out the above message could be heard from both ends! I did not ask his permission to record the call, so I felt very embarrassed afterwards. But he seemed to be alright with that.

He indicated to me, as to other people in the past, that there was simply no significant financial benefit for knowing to speak so many languages. I kind of agree with him.

I have arranged another time to speak with him next week. I am hoping to get more inspiration from him on language learning.

Help Me to Trill the Spanish ‘R’ June 22, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Phonetics, Skype, Spanish.

The Spanish rolling ‘R’ (or trilled ‘R’) sound is always a fascinating sound to me. It is the most difficult sound I have ever encountered. I can make the sound alone, but I always find it difficult making it within a word, especially when it is at the middle of the word.

I looked up some phonetic websites (such as this one) and the way they teach to position the tongue is slightly different from the way I do it. Perhaps I should consult the native speakers and advanced learners.

Last night, just for the fun of it, I hosted a skpyecast called “Help me to trill the Spanish R”. There I met a Japanese lady, who lived in the vicinity of Tokyo. I asked if she could trill the ‘R’ sound, and she did not seem to understand what I meant. Her English was not very fluent, so I had to struggle to converse with her for a while.

I started to praise the Japanese language being a polite language, and the Japanese people are very polite in general. Then I ran out of topics…

Suddenly, she started to speak in Spanish!

I exchanged some simple sentences at the beginning, but couldn’t get very far. “No comprendo” (I don’t understand), and I had to switched back to English.

It turned out that she had lived in Spain for two years due to a job assignment of her father. She had not been to any Spanish language school, not before or during her stay. She learned the language mainly from a guitar teacher over there.

She then demonstrated the rolling ‘R’ to me in different words. It was perfect. I asked her how she learned it, and she said she couldn’t quite remember. It took her about a year to get used to it.

Then I asked how she dealt with verb conjugations in the Spanish language. She just did not know what the term meant.

Here is a language learner who has taken the natural approach. To this kind of learners, I just sound plain stupid with all the linguistic and grammatical jargons.

In Search of RP Speakers February 12, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English, Skype.

It was Friday night, the time to host my ad-hoc skypecast again. In the past two weeks, I hosted the ‘Learn a Language Now’ skypecasts to talk about all kinds of languages. This time, I wanted to do something different. I created a skypecast called ‘In Search of RP English Speakers’, with the following description:

“I don’t speak RP (BBC/Queen’s) English, but I would love to chat with anyone who does. In fact, I wonder if they still exist outside the BBC studio and the Buckingham Palace.”

Received Pronunciation (RP) is a form of pronunciation of the English language which has been long perceived as uniquely prestigious among British accents and is the usual accent taught to non-native speakers learning British English.

Most people joining the skypecast did not have a clue what ‘RP English’ was. Some got the idea when I mentioned the Queen’s English or the BBC English. I managed to get hold of four people from the UK altogether, which was a bit over my expectation since it was very early in the morning in their time zone. Three of them were British natives but none of them speak RP. In fact, they told me that if they hear someone speaking RP on the streets, they would think the person is trying to be ‘classy’ or something.

Although RP is still commonly used in foreign English schools, people in Britain hardly speak the accent anymore. I have read reports claiming that only about 3% of the British population speaks it today. Even BBC itself claims to be losing its speakers:

“If nothing else, it is simply no longer the case that most of the voices that come out of our TV sets are speaking RP. Perhaps the last bastion of RP on the BBC is the news, which still requires maximum clarity and the widest possible range of comprehension.”

Even the Queen herself has recently been identified of her accent change, as well as other members in the Royal family. Personally, I find the report ridiculous. It compared the Queen’s speeches which were five decades apart. Everyone changes the way he speaks over such a long period of time.

I often bring up the subject of English accents when I have chance to talk to people who are learning English. Most of them give me the impression that at their levels, they don’t care about adopting which accent, as long as it is not their own foreign accents. They also admit that although they love to hear the BBC English, they would rather go with the American accent.

In the skypecast, I expressed my sadness about seeing RP go extinct, as it is likely to be the case in the near future. Well, I guess all languages change through time. There is nothing much we can do about it, except to accept the fact and go with the trend.

Learn a LangAUge Now January 29, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Multiculturalism, Skype, Speaking.

What is a good way to start off a conversation with a stranger who has a completely different cultural background from yours?

If his native language is also different, why not ask him to talk about it?

Lately, I have become very curious about skypecasting after hosting a skpyecast for the first time in my life. So I have been studying skypecast hosting in the past week. What I did was to join some random skypecasts and check out how they were hosted. Sadly, I must admit that I am very disappointed with the majority of them. They had no clear purpose whatsoever and the participants were just wondering why they could be in such boring skypecasts. I am more surprised to see that these people still hanged in there and did not think about leaving!

It was slightly after midnight last Saturday when I had a thought: what if I just create a skypecast out of the blue, without publicizing it in advance. Will there be people joining me? So I quickly created an experimental skypecast. My plan was to ask each participant (if any) some questions, “What is your native language?”, “Are you learning a language?”, “If not, why not?”

The title of the skpyecast was “Learn a Langauge Now”. Oops, I created it in such a hurry that I made a typo! Would people still be interested in joining a skypecast apparently hosted by a language enthusiast who couldn’t even spell the word ‘language’!

To my surprise, there were about 6-8 people joining within the first 5 minutes. I accidentally muted my voice at the beginning. So these participants were hanging in the skypecast without hearing anything!

After fixing my audio, I began to invite people to talk and asked them about their own languages. I also asked if they had any plan to work on any other languages. If not, I encouraged them to do so.

During the peak, I had over 40 participants. The skypecast lasted for a little over an hour. Some still wanted to continue, but I had to end because it was 2 o’clock in the morning at my time. At the end, I promised them I will host more skypecasts of this kind in the future.

What lessons have I learned from this experiment?

First of all, I find that people love to talk about their own languages. When you throw in the topics such as cars and taxes, people may talk about them for a short time. But if it comes to their own languages, they can keep going on forever.

Secondly, after they realize that someone actually appreciates their languages, they would think about appreciating other languages. Many of the participants I talked to promised me that they would consider learning a new language or at least improve the ones they know already.

Lastly, I can see that there are indeed many people around the world at any given time who are just wondering around out there, and they would get onto Skype and join any skypecast they could find!

Conference Calls January 24, 2007

Posted by Edwin in English, Skype, Speaking.

It has always been my intention that once I have attained a certain level of fluency in a language, my next challenge would be to speak that language in a public setting. Conference call is surely one of these perfect occasions.

I once attended a business presentation course. The instructor was asked for some tips on conference-calling.

“Conference call is brutal!” He commented. “Avoid it by all means!”

Well, we simply just can’t! Conference call is one of the most common ways to perform business communication today, due to the globalization effect and the advance in modern telecommunication technology. Controlling this kind of environment is extremely challenging. Either everyone is trying to talk at the same time, or people are not listening at all. It is very difficult to present your ideas, control the meeting flow, or even to perform basic communication.

I am required to join a lot of conference calls at work. But I am usually one of those lurkers hiding in the background (until I am being called upon, of course). Sometimes, I don’t even bother to mention that I have joined or say goodbye at the end.

Recently, I thought to myself, “What if I could master the skills of conference-calling?” I believe not only can this benefit my own career, but more importantly, it can help propelling my speaking in the specific language to a higher level.

Last Sunday morning, I joined a Skypecast for the first time in my life, hoping to work on my conference-calling skills. In the evening, I found myself hosting one!

Apparently, there was a technical problem with the evening Skypecast. No one could get in. David, the chair of the Skypecast, asked me if I could create a new Skypecast on behalf of him for people to join instead.

So I created the Skypecast with just a few clicks, thanks to the easy-to-use Web 2.0 Kantalk interface. I saw 20-30 people joining within a few minutes. Just about the moment I wanted to hand over the hosting completely to David, his machine froze! He could still hear us but we could not hear him. He asked me in the text chat if I could host the entire Skypcast for him!

Now, I was the host. I was not prepared for this at all! What topic should I talk about? Were those 20-30 people going to drop? How could I get David back?

The Skypecast was conducted in English, but it was for language learners in general. I started by throwing in questions about language learning. The audience was not very responsive at the beginning. Gradually, one or two people began to join. Then someone from Scandinavia joined and asked about my funny English accent.

We started talking about accents and other interesting language topics. Later, a few people also joined the conversation, several from Latin America. At one point, we even switched to Spanish! (though I could only utter a few words).

The Skypecast lasted for almost 3 hours. I was amazed there were still over 20 of us hanging in when the Skypecast ended.

I can think of at least 3 advantages practicing your conference-calling in a Skypcast over a normal business call:

  1. There are no real business issues, therefore less pressure when speaking
  2. People tend to be more friendly in a Skypecast
  3. You can do it as often as you like, until Skype starts charging, or goes away

I am looking forward to host more language-related Skypecasts in the near future. I am thinking of hosting them in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. It is my hope that one day, I will be able to host Skypecasts in other languages, too!

Hitting the Green Button January 22, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Skype, Speaking.

I have been kind of late jumping onto the Skype wagon. A lot of language learners have already been using it. For me, it was always the first call that seemed so difficult to make.

I installed Skype a couple of months ago when version 2.5 first came out. I thought to myself, “One day I will find someone to call”. Time flied and the application just sat there on my desktop. A while later, Skype 3.0 came out.

One day, I decided to upgrade it. I looked at my call log and saw that during the whole period, I made only one call – the test call to my home. After the upgrade, I registered myself at Mixxer, the language exchange database. I said to myself, “For sure, I am going to get onto some serious business this time”.

Another while passed, my log still showed one call – the test call. Somehow, I just felt uncomfortable making the first call – hitting the green button thing. I did not know anybody to call!

Last week, an article from David’s blog enlightened me. I don’t necessarily need to find someone to call first. I could just wait for others to call me.

The past Tuesday night, I decided to give it a try. I polished my Mixxer profile and went online on Skype. Only after about 10 minutes, someone pinged me! We text-chatted for a while. Then we decided to have a conversation.

This learner was from Zhijiang, China, and he has been seriously learning English. We conversed for about 20 minutes, switching between Mandarin and English. We decided to do more language exchange in the future.

Over the weekend, I tried making more calls. I also received calls from other language learners. This Skype thing has been really addicting once I got started! I talked to people in China, the UK, the US, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Australia, etc.

I joined my first Skypecast on Sunday morning, and I found myself already hosting another Skypecast in the evening! It was David’s Skypecast, but he was having some technical problems. So I volunteered to host for him. There were about 30 people participating and the Skypecast lasted for almost 3 hours! I will have more to say about this Skypecast. I think it worths another post.

For those who have not Skyped before, I sincerely encourage you to try it out. From my experience so far, people have been very nice and encouraging. Here are your first few steps:

  1. Install Skype
  2. Join a language exchange site such as Mixxer or Kantalk
  3. Start your own language exchange advantage

Sadly, somehow I realize that I need to cut down on Skyping. My wife has been having a bit of complaint already.