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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.

The Quadriplegic Mayor March 3, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Canada, Cantonese, English, French, Mandarin, Punjabi.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan caught the attention of the international media back in 2006, when he accepted the flag at the closing ceremonies of the Turin Winter Olympics. He is Canada’s first disabled mayor and also the first quadriplegic mayor of a North American city.

The mayor was paralysed after a tragic skiing accident when he was 19. Apart from many other achievements in life, he is also well-known for his linguistic ability. The Tourism Vancouver website contains some multilingual video messages from Mayor Sullivan speaking English, French, Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin, and French.

The major does not like to be confined in a wheelchair either. Here is him going hiking:

In the following video clip posted only recently, the mayor shared his thoughts in Cantonese on a legendary Hong Kong actress, a resident of Vancouver, who passed away a few week ago. I was touched when I saw the disabled major, who can barely use of his feet and hands, signing his name in traditional Chinese.

Transcript and translation of the clip are available here.

International Mother Language Day February 21, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Multiculturalism.

Today is designated to be the “International Mother Language Day”, whatever it might mean…

The United Nation has proclaimed 2008 the “International Year of Languages”, whatever it might mean. But still this seems to me more meaningful that the “International Mother Language Day”.

According to this UN link, the International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The same page provides a reference to this webpage, which contains several recommendations on action items, promoting multilingualism, such as:

“The early acquisition (in kindergartens and nursery schools) of a second language in addition to the mother tongue, offering alternatives.”

Now, I am totally confused. Perhaps someone could help me out. What on earth is this special day supposed to celebrate?!

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.

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.

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.

Anniversary December 15, 2007

Posted by Edwin in General, Motivation.

Today marks the 1st anniversary of this blog. Exactly one year ago, I decided to create a blog to share my thoughts on language learning and multiculturalism.

During this period, I have learned a lot about language learning, and most importantly, I have met many language enthusiasts in the blogosphere. I am delighted to see so many new language blogs created, but then I am sad to see many have since stopped or become dormant.

When I started my blog, I set a goal to make this an inspirational blog to language learners and lovers. I am not sure how far I am from reaching this goal. Perhaps I will share a story here about a truly inspirational language blog.

Kelly started the Aspiring Polyglot on March 2006. Not long after I started this blog, she decided to close off hers (and created a few language-specific blogs). At some point in time (I believe it was after the closing of the Aspiring Polyglot blog), a person named JP discovered it. He loved the blog so much that he even wrote Kelly some fan mail.

JP worked as a language teacher in the States for many years. It was from the Aspiring Polyglot where he learned about ChinesePod and SpanishSense. A few months ago, he decided to quit his job and packed his bag for Shanghai, China. He decided to take up a much more challenging language-related job there. He became the new host of SpanishPod, the reincarnated SpanishSense.

Here is a comment JP left on Kelly’s blog:

It’s all because of you and your review! I quit my teaching job, moved to Shanghai (we share the studio with ChinesePod) and look at me now! All thanks to you!

This is absolutely inspiring and live-changing!

I hope all the language bloggers out there have this similar goal. Let’s have more sharing and support. Let’s inspire each other.

Languages Spoken in Toronto December 10, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Mandarin, Toronto.

After more than a year of waiting, the data finally came out last week. Statistics Canada released the language-related statistics of the 2006 census.

Here are the top 20 languages “spoken most often at home” in Toronto, my home town, and their corresponding head-counts and percentages:

  1. English – 2746480 (55.31%)
  2. Italian – 185760 (3.74%)
  3. Chinese, n.o.s. – 172040 (3.46%)
  4. Cantonese – 166655 (3.36%)
  5. Panjabi (Punjabi) – 132745 (2.67%)
  6. Spanish – 108380 (2.18%)
  7. Portuguese – 108185 (2.18%)
  8. Tagalog (Pilipino, Filipino) – 100420 (2.02%)
  9. Urdu – 98575 (1.99%)
  10. Tamil – 93590 (1.88%)
  11. Polish – 80090 (1.61%)
  12. Russian – 65210 (1.31%)
  13. Persian (Farsi) – 63975 (1.29%)
  14. Mandarin – 62850 (1.27%)
  15. French – 58590 (1.18%)
  16. Arabic – 56155 (1.13%)
  17. Gujarati – 54160 (1.09%)
  18. Korean – 47750 (0.96%)
  19. Greek – 46305 (0.93%)
  20. Vietnamese – 45325 (0.91%)

Here is an interesting point about the Chinese-speakers. The “Chinese n.o.s.” category includes responses of ‘Chinese’ as well as all Chinese languages other than Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Chaochow (Teochow), Fukien, Hakka and Shanghainese. This number just too big for the minor Chinese dialect speakers. Therefore, we would expect most people in this category probably speak a major dialect. Somehow they just put down “Chinese” instead of the specific dialect in the census.

Who would do this? My speculation is that those who can speak Mandarin together with another dialect would have a tendency to do so. On the other hand, those who can speak only one Chinese dialect would more likely put down the dialect instead of ‘Chinese’.

If my speculation is correct, then there are in fact many more people who speak Mandarin than what is shown in the data.

No matter what, if we add up all the people in the ‘Chinese n.o.s.’ category together with those in the Cantonese and Mandarin categories, they make up about 8% of the Toronto population. This is about 1 in 12 Torontonians. This is quite a significant portion, considered only 6 out of those 12 speaks English as their mother-tongue.