Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pro bono language teaching

This article on Unlimited Potential, an Arizonan group that helps immigrants to the US (presumably mostly Spanish speakers) learn English, funded primarily by grants, describes how they are making a difference in their community through language education. As a lawyer, I'm used to the idea of spending a certain portion of my time working pro bono providing legal services to those who otherwise could not afford them and it is interesting to see how the concept is implemented in other industries, and the language-learning industry in particular.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Top 10,000 words in Dutch, English, French, and German

This page has lists of the top 10,000 words in each of Dutch, English, French, and German. As the page is in German, I've put together a little table to take you directly to the lists. The lists unfortunately do not have translations.

After the jump, the table and a another word frequency list for French.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

About me

As you may know, this blog is the companion site to a book I'm currently working called—you guessed it—Street-Smart Language Learning. The following is an except from the current draft of the manuscript. As I've yet to properly introduce myself on this blog, I've selected this excerpt from the book's introduction, which seeks to dispel with my story quickly so as to get readers to what they're really there for: how to learn languages.

When you tell someone that you speak eight languages, they are quick to label you as some kind of linguistic genius. And when you disagree with them, they assume you are just being modest. But as just such a person, I can tell you that I am no linguistic genius and I am not being modest when I disagree. Learning multiple languages hardly requires genius; our brains are all hard-wired to suck up languages, if only we approach language learning in the right way. Yes, that includes even you doubters out there who right now are saying, “Not me, I’m just not good a languages.” Yes, even you. With the right approach and a little bit of time, anyone can learn a foreign language. This book will help you formulate that approach and learn the foreign language(s) of your choice.

The rules that I’ve laid out for you in the subsequent parts of this book aren’t the result of any “survey of the literature” or the like. I’ve got no degree to make me an official linguist. In fact, I would say that my relationship to a linguist is the same as that of a criminal to a criminologist; they’ve got the data, the literature, and so on, while I’ve got the gritty experiences and the street smarts. These rules were developed over years, and to my own detriment even I didn’t always follow them, but to extent you can put these rules into practice you’ll be able to learn languages better and more quickly.

Before I arm you with all the tools you need to learn a language, let me first tell you a bit about myself and how I came to speak so many languages.

The Top 100 Language Blogs

LexioPhiles put together this great list of the top 100 language blogs.

Kanji poster

In Japanese, there are about 2,000 kanji characters designated for daily use. Have you ever been sitting around, studying kanji, and thinking, "Gee, I wish I had a poster of all of these kanji that I could write on with a dry-erase marker"? Well, if so, you're in luck, because has just that for $35 (including shipping).

You can also get a T-shirt with the same thing for about $30 (including shipping). I don't think the dry-erase marker will work as well with these, but pretty cool nonetheless.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Typing pinyin on a Mac

Pinyin is the how Chinese characters are transcribed phonetically. The Chinese themselves use this method (you'll see it in materials aimed at young children still learning how to read characters) and it's equally valuable for foreigners learning Chinese as it uses the Roman alphabet. While it's easy enough to write out by hand, how to do it on a computer is not so obvious.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Teaching my daughter how to say "th"

Until recently, my four-year-old daughter was unable to say "th" consistently. She'd sound right on "the", but "three" would be "free", "they" would be "dey", and "brother" would be "brudder".

For all language issues, we decided that we would teach our daughter normal language right from the get-go, and we would correct anything she got wrong right away. So we avoid "baby words" like "doggie", "go bye-bye", etc., and have just used standard terms, and whenever she makes a mistake we correct her and have her repeat the corrected form. By doing this consistently, we gradually remove incorrect patterns from her speech. We've applied this in both English and Japanese and in Chinese to a lesser extent due to the nanny not being as diligent as we are about it. When she is being uncooperative and won't repeat after us, we simply repeat it for her to hear and then let it go. We're generally not very forceful about demanding her cooperation, but she is quite used to it and generally cooperative.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best online dictionaries for Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish

Below you'll find a list of my favorite free online dictionaries for each of the languages I speak. There are numerous other dictionaries out there that you need to pay for, but I'm interested in doing this without shelling out a dime because, well, because you can, so why shell out that dime? Moreover, some of these websites have a lot more than just language-learning dictionaries, but here I'm just looking at their dictionaries.

If you'd like to just cut to the chase and get to a list of dictionaries by language, click here. Otherwise, read on for a brief description of each dictionary.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Using word frequency to teach writing to kids

The other day when I was looking at the word frequency lists that I mentioned in this post, my 4-year-old daughter came up to me and wanted to write, so she started writing down random words that were on my computer screen. When I looked at her paper, she had written "Genius Love Jazz Swing", which were from the children's music album Genius + Love: Jazz & Swing for Kids, one among the many that we have around here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Word lists based on frequency of use

Wiktionary has frequency lists of words in various language. There are a variety of languages covered, including English, French, German, Italian, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and others. These are great for focusing your vocabulary efforts in the most efficient way possible.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Times Online: Spanish to overtake German in U.K.

The Times Online is reporting that Spanish is set to take German's position as the second most studied language in the U.K., right after French.

This change is in line with those languages' respective rankings by GDP. However, you might expect French to fall a bit, but being next-door neighbors likely keeps it up there.

I'd imagine that the popularity of a given foreign language in a given country is based on three things: the economic opportunities in the language (of which the global GDP represented by such speakers is probably a pretty good proxy), the country's proximity to speakers of that language, and the history of that language in the country.

With France, Spain, and Germany all among the wealthiest countries in the world and all nearby, plus a long history of strong relationships with all three countries, it's no surprise that these make the U.K.'s top three.

According to the National Centre for Languages' report, Chinese is also on the upswing in a major way. Whereas Spanish is in 50% more schools than in 2005, and Italian in about 150% more, Chinese is in 600% more. This would suggest that the perceived opportunities that Chinese has to offer are growing, and that's in line with their GDP ranking.

What I'm left wondering is where is Japanese in all this?

Related: The (roughly) top 20 languages by GDP

Japanese kana

I've converted two kana charts and posted them on this site. Both include hiragana, katakana, and romaji. The charts also include the extended katakana set that is typically omitted from such charts but is nevertheless used in Japanese.
  • Kana chart in traditional sort order: This contains the kana in the traditional sort order, i.e., the way they are typically taught in class: in gojuuon order. Gojuuon of course comes first, followed by youon, the dakuten kana and finally the foreign-word katakana.
  • Kana chart in phonetic sort order: This contains the kana sorted phonetically in order of romaji. This chart results in, for example, ta (た), chi (ち), and tsu (つ) ending up in different rows based on pronunciation.
Related: Japanese Romanization

Japanese Romanization

There are three main systems of Japanese Romanization, or romaji: Hepburn, Nihon-shiki, and Kunrei-shiki. Only Hepburn is designed to approximate English in pronunciation, and hence that is the one I prefer, although with a few modifications.

Hepburn is best because it provides a 1:1 match with how Japanese sounds, precluding the need for memorizing any pronunciation rules. For example, an s is always pronounced like "s" in English, whereas in Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki it would depend on what vowel follows it (e.g., s followed by i sounds like "sh"). Moreover, Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki don't play well with the various extended katakana to better approximate foreign-origin words.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Japanese kanji by frequency of use

I was searching for a comprehensive list of Japanese kanji by frequency of use, and I managed to track down a list on Jonathan's Japan Journal. The list covers some 3,000 characters in order of frequency, with the data vaguely attributed to a now-dead link from Aichi University. While it's not quite the authoritative source I'd like to have, it looks like the real deal.

For any students of Japanese out there, you'll be quick to note that the list of daily use characters only has about 2,000, and even if you add in the additional name characters you only get a couple hundred in to the 2,000s. This list goes we'll beyond that, so if you're thinking about studying based on this list you may want to limit it to the first 2,000 or so.

And, for good measure, here's a frequency list for Chinese characters.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The (roughly) top 20 languages by GDP

There are many reasons to pick a particular language to learn. If there is a de facto second language of importance in your country (Spanish in the States, French in Canada, etc.), it probably makes a lot of sense to choose that language, particularly if you don't see any globe trotting in your future. If your relatives or spouse speak another language, it's not a bad idea to learn that language. And many still choose a language because they like the way it sounds (français, anyone?).

My preferred method of choosing which language to learn is based on its economic utility. As I do tend to be a bit of the globe-trotting type, I've never really limited myself to any region or the like. Without such limitations, it makes a lot of sense to choose the languages you learn based on the percentage of world GDP represented by speakers of those languages.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Chinese words of English origin

Check out this Wikipedia article for a list of Chinese words that come from English.

The Speech Accent Archive

The Speech Accent Archive contains the recordings and phonetic transcriptions of more than a thousand native and non-native speakers of English reading a standard script designed to evaluate pronunciation. If you're studying a foreign language, take a minute to listen to how speakers of your target language mispronounce English. By seeing how they mispronounce English, you might get some insight into how you should be pronouncing the target language.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Native-speaker tutors via video chat

I did a quick Google search today to see what I could come up with for getting native-speaker tutors via video chat, and appears to really nail it, provided you have a few bucks to shell out. Tutors on eduFire explain what they can tutor in and set their own price in the profiles, and you just drop by, pick your tutor, arrange a time to meet with them via Skype video chat or whatever other method works for the two of you, and you're learning. The prices are all over the place, ranging from $10/hour for one native-English tutor I saw to $70/hour for one law-school graduate tutor (as a fellow law school grad, I'm glad to hear it).

The one recommendation I'd have for them is to set up a language exchange service, whereby you can teach your language to someone and they would teach their language to you, all free of any payments. It appears that in any case this can happen unofficially, but it'd be nice if they could make it an outright part of the package.

Update: After I put up the initial post, I noted an ad for Myngle on my blog. I clicked through to find what appears to be a direct competitor of eduFire. Sooner or later I'll have to do a side-by-side comparison of the two, but for now if any of you have done so I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Monday, November 17, 2008

NYT/USA Today: Record number of U.S. students studying abroad

"Language ability" and "American" are not two things that are often thought of as being linked, but in a sign that bodes well for America's linguistic future the New York TImes and USA Today are reporting that a record number of U.S. students are studying abroad in a wide variety of places. CNN reports on the reverse of that: foreigners are coming to study in the U.S. in record numbers as well, topped off by India and China. So whether it's immersion abroad or a native-speaker tutor at home, it appears that linguistic experiences are becoming easier to get.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What is this blog about?

I've been studying languages for about sixteen years, and in that time I've managed to learn eight of them to the point when I can say that I "speak" those languages. When you speak eight languages, you're always getting asked how you did it, and I'm currently in the process of writing a book - entitled, as you may have guessed, Street-Smart Language Learning. As I've been writing the book, I've been coming across a lot of things that I think could be of use to language learners, and this blog is my forum to share them all with you, and ultimately will become the companion site for the book itself.