Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quantifying language learning, diminishing returns, and wanderlust

There's an interesting post over on Language Fixation talking about just how much is involved in learning a language, which was inspired by an interesting post on GlobalMaverick talking about the mess between being a beginner and being fluent. There's three points I'd like to focus on from these posts: quantifying language learning, diminishing returns in language learning, and wanderlust (to new languages).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Japan's foreign-language teaching industry valued at a cool $8.7 billion

There's an interesting article in The New York Times saying how Japan is gaga over learning English from Obama's speeches. They apparently even go gaga when they can't really get what he's saying; he's just that moving.

While that's fun and all, the most interesting part of the article was this little tidbit:
The publishers [of learning resources using Obama's speeches] are trying to tap into a foreign-language teaching industry [in Japan] that the Yano Search Institute said was valued at ¥767 billion, or $8.7 billion, in 2008. The figure includes the cost of books, CDs, dictionaries, e-learning programs, standardized English tests, and the cost of private language lessons. The institute, in Tokyo, says the majority of the spending is aimed at learning English.
Just to see it with all the zeroes, that's $8,700,000,000. To put that number into perspective, that's more than the GDP of 46 countries as listed in the CIA World Factbook. And that's how the industry was valued in 2008—hardly a stellar year for the world economy.

So if you're in the language-learning industry and Japan's not a major focus for you, it's probably time to make a Japan plan.

Monday, October 12, 2009

75-year-old Iranian guy crowdsourcing a Farsi-English translation in Geneva airport

Here's an interesting anecdote about a 75-year-old Iranian guy crowsourcing a Farsi-English translation in the Geneva airport. Sounds like he's doing a pretty good job of getting it done that way, but perhaps someone should tell him about how to get his foreign-language writing corrected online for free.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The best free online Portuguese-English dictionaries

Continuing my series on free online dictionaries (previously covering Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish), after the jump you'll find my favorite, free, online Portuguese-English dictionaries.

Learning by Mixing target language words into native language texts?

I'm pretty sure this is not a great idea:
Waikato University PhD student Michael Walmsley is working on a project which will help language learners build their foreign vocabulary by reading texts online where some of the words have been replaced with words in their target language.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The best free online Spanish-English dictionaries

My series on free online dictionaries (previously covering Japanese and Chinese) continues. Today I've got my favorite, free, online Spanish-English dictionaries for you, after the jump.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Get your foreign-language audio recordings corrected online for free

I've already given you the low-down on how to get your foreign-language writings corrected online for free. Now I'd like to turn to how to get your audio recordings corrected for free.

Unfortunately, your options here are still pretty limited. As far as I can tell, there are only two places where you can submit recordings and get them corrected by native speakers, neither of which are close to making the feature ideal: Livemocha and Lang-8.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The best free online Chinese-English dictionaries

Continuing my series on free online dictionaries (for Japanese, see here), today I present you with my favorite, free, online Chinese-English dictionaries, after the jump.

Google's getting into the language-learning game

Google Ventures, Google's venture capital arm, has invested an "undisclosed amount" of its $100 million in EnglishCentral, Inc., an English-language learning website where learners can watch popular videos (such as a clip from Forest Gump or a Red Bull ad) and then get graded on how well they pronounce the words spoken in the videos via EnglishCentral's "unique speech recognition platform".

This investment represents nothing more than Google dipping its toe in the water of the language-learning world. Let them get in up to their ankle or knees, and we'll all think back to the quaint days when we thought Rosetta Stone was a big player in the language-learning world.

Google Ventures, Atlas back language startup EnglishCentral [Mass High Tech]
Google Ventures Invests In English Language Learning Startup EnglishCentral []

Exposure is a great way to learn languages... for computers too, it seems

Ben Taskar at Penn State has a computer learning language by watching TV, listening to audio, and reading texts.

Sounds like a better language-learning program than most people get exposed to.

Link: Machine Learning by Watching and Listening []

Is the FTC about to give Rocket Languages a call?

As I've pointed out before, Rocket Languages has been conducting a pretty blatant (yet successful) astroturfing campaign. I thought that they might have been getting a bit worried when the New York attorney general started looking into the practice in other industries.

But now they'd better be worried; the U.S. Federal Trade Commission will start cracking down on astroturfing as of December 1 of this year.

The danger-zone skill level in language learning

When you're learning a language, there's a level of skill that I like to refer to as "the danger zone".

To show you where it comes into play, I would say that your ability in a language roughly progresses as per the following graph.

You start with the obvious beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. After that, you get to proficient, where you can use the language to get done whatever it is you need to get done, but you're still obviously not fluent. At this level, and those below it, your lack of fluency lets you make mistakes that would otherwise be considered rude without you being considered rude; fluent speakers will generally assume you just don't know enough of the language to speak with sufficient social grace.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Best language-learning environment for kids: Two parents chattering away with fancy words

An article in the New York Times entitled Birth Order: Fun to Debate, but How Important? discusses language learning and birth order. Here's the money quote:
Frank J. Sulloway, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives(Pantheon, 1996), points out that second-born children tend to be exposed to less language than eldest children. “The best environment to grow up in is basically two parents who are chattering away at you with fancy words,” Dr. Sulloway said.
That seems fairly obvious to me—expose them to more words and they learn more words—but the good doctor lends some authority to it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Get Chinese pinyin for any text

While I couldn't find the equivalent of for Chinese (i.e., letting you convert an entire website and then browse it), there are a few good converters that will take a block of text and convert them from Chinese characters to pinyin for you.

There are lots of them out there that simply do it character by character, but as context can affect the tones (e.g., whether the characters are part of a word or not), the best ones take this into consideration.

Here are a two of the better ones:

Get Japanese furigana for any website or text

If you're looking to add furigana to an entire Japanese website, just drop the URL into It'll add furigana to the entire page for you, and then you can click through the website normally and have furigana on every page.

If you've got a block of text that isn't on a website for which you want the furigana, then simply copy and paste it into Furiganizer. It'll do the same thing that does for websites for whatever block of text you dump in.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

44 Chinese characters you may need to relearn

Great... just when you think you've checked off all your Chinese character boxes, China starts debating whether to change the boxes by modifying certain characters.

Read more... For the first time in some two decades (in which time, I'm sure, many of us have commenced our studies of Chinese), China is considering revising some characters. The revisions only affect 44 characters, and below you'll find them in their revised format (click to enlarge):

Some of these characters I doubt whether I've even seen before, while a bunch are quite familiar. At first glance, I didn't even notice the changes, but, on a second look, it seems that one of the biggest changes is that of 朩 děng becoming 木 . So clearly we're not dealing with a revolution here, but still something that we learners should take note of.

And all this just when Taiwan starts talking about making the jump to simplified.

I don't know about them, but I'm still holding out for the implementation of one of the few ideas from Mao Zedong that just might make sense:
Reform of Chinese characters must be carried out in the direction of total Romanization that I believe is the mainstream of language development in the world.
Then again, he also thought that backyard steel furnaces would be a good idea, and that didn't turn out so well, so maybe we should just stick with the characters and consider this idea to be in the official 30% of things that Mao got wrong.

通用规范汉字表 Tōngyòng Guīfàn Hànzì Biǎo (General-Use Standard Chinese Character Table) (in Chinese) [中国语言文字网 Zhōngguó Yǔyán Wénzì Wǎng (China Language and Writing)]
Revision of 44 Chinese Characters in Hot Debates [CRI English]

Get the text of Japanese podcasts with

The Japanese government seems to be doing a few things that are pretty useful for language learners. I noted a few while back that they've made the official Japanese-English dictionary of legal terms. That unfortunately is probably only of use to lawyers and the like, but last week I discovered another gem, again courtesy of Japanese tax dollars*, that is of more general use for Japanese learners: Podcastle.

I've been trying to find some Japanese podcasts for which the text is also available, without much success. LingQ's list of resources surprisingly has nothing suitable, and googling was turning up little. For whatever reason, there seem to be few Japanese podcasts that also provide transcripts.

But then I stumbled upon Podcastle.

Language-learning schools as a front for crime?

I'm generally a big proponent of using your target language as much as possible. However, I definitely strongly advise against using it to make fraudulent visa documents.

Link: Lawrenceville man sentenced for immigration fraud [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

Monday, August 31, 2009

Reading workshop works for language learners too: Free students to pick their own content

A few days ago I blogged about a certain Professor Fish who argues that, for courses like literature, teachers should be free to pick the materials they deem appropriate, rather than needing to teach to some broad standard. He classified language as something with a specific body of knowledge to learn—and, accordingly, being exempt from his "free the teachers" rule—but I argued that languages are no different than literature in this regard. And, indeed, I said I'd take it one step farther: let's free the students, letting learners pick the material they wanted to learn.

Then today up pops this article on the New York Times, which takes my one further step of letting learners pick whatever they want in languages and applies it back to literature (with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it subtitle of "The Future of Reading").

After the jump, let's strike out references to literature and replace them with references to languages, just to see how well these arguments work in both realms.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Use Lang-8 and Snapvine to get your foreign-language speech corrected

Update: Snapvine closed shop on March 31, 2010, but you can still get your foreign-language speech corrected on Lang-8 using a similar service called Cinch.

Lang-8 is designed to help you get your writing corrected, but with a little help from a tool called Snapvine, you can also get your speech corrected.

How to do it, after the jump.

Get foreign-language text read to you online for free

My Russian tutorThis lady reads Russian to me. There is some major heavenly body action going on in the sky behind her.
When I signed up for CorrectMyText, I must have said I was studying Russian, because here's the message I got from them today:
Вы получили сообщение от Катрина со следующим содержанием:
I studied a year of Russian back in high school, but the only word I could remember was the first one, вы, which means "you". A couple of free online dictionaries quickly got me this translation:
You have received a message from Katrina with the following contents:
Knowing what it meant was a good start, but I also wanted to hear what it sounded like; although I can read the letters, I have no idea how close my imagined pronunciation is with the actual pronunciation (ultimate result: not so close). Without a Russian speaker anywhere nearby, and without feeling like spending the time to find one online willing to humor me via Skype, I googled about for a text-to-speech solution online, and quickly found one.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Don't speak the lingua franca = lose custody of your kids???

Apparently there's been a number of cases in the U.S. where this has been held, the most recent to get on the radar being in Mississippi. From Time:
[T]he state Department of Human Services (DHS)… ruled that Baltazar Cruz was an unfit mother in part because her lack of English "placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future."
Wow. That's not too far away from sounding like an article on The Onion, but it is in fact real.

A quote by Mary Bauer, the legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which helps people like Baltazar, points out the ridiculousness of this rather nicely:
Bauer points out that children have been raised safely in the U.S. by non-English-speaking parents for well over a century. Had they not, thousands of Italians and Russians would have had to leave their kids with foster care on Ellis Island.
Indeed, such a rule would have resulted with my own father ending up in foster care.

Luckily these cases seem to alway get overturned and the children reunited with their parents, but to subject anyone to this in the first place is absurd.

Links: Can a Mother Lose Her Child Because She Doesn't Speak English? [Time]

Oi, brasileiros! O qué é que vocês querem mais neste site?

Segundo as estatísticas de tráfego deste site, os meus visitantes do Brasil formam o segundo maior grupo—depois dele dos Estatos Unidos. Como um bom afinitrão quem sou (e modesto também, heim?), quero saber duas coisinhas:
  1. Como é que vocês chegam neste site? Não conheço nenhuma ligação a este site dum site brasileiro. É tudo por Google?

  2. O que é que vocês querem de mais neste site? Eu gostaria muito se ainda mais brasileiros viessem, e por isso dou pra vocês o que vocês querem!
Por favor, deixam as suas respostas a baixo!

Help me with Steve Kaufmann's Wikipedia page!!

After hearing about Steve's run-in with a little Napolean over on Wikipedia, I thought I'd insert myself into all this fun, so I started a Wikipedia page on Steve himself. I've gone on there a few times before to check out Steve's bio, only to find myself surprised that no one had put anything up yet.

The same is actually true of LingQ as well. I do think that if Livemocha and Lang-8 get Wikipedia pages, then there's no reason why LingQ shouldn't have one. However, let's let that one cool off for a little bit and focus on Steve's entry for now.

Here's how I started it:
Steve Kaufmann is a Canadian polyglot linguist, author, award-winning blogger and the founder of the language-learning website LingQ. He currently speaks twelve languages to varying degrees of fluency: Cantonese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish.
I modeled the text after Michel Thomas' Wikipedia entry. I made lots of citations, but as the article's not so long, I marked it as a stub in the hope that you guys would step in and expand it.

To keep this from getting deleted, remember to cite! cite! cite! Steve's book is up on the web completely for free, and it's full of good, citable information (Wikipedia loves citations to books). And feel free to dig up any information that might be floating around the internets, especially on official sounding stuff (wasn't there an NPR interview a while back?).

Also, Steve, you're not allowed to edit your own entry, so please don't! But if you've got links to media coverage, that'd be helpful. And, of course, if "anonymous" comes along and edits the entry, hey, who's the wiser?

For languages, it's not about what colleges should teach, but how

Stanley Fish's recent post in the New York Times, entitled What Should Colleges Teach?, asks just that. The article is in reaction to a report by a right-wing group, founded by Lynne Cheney, called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA.

Professor Fish found himself surprised that he was nodding along with many of the conclusions of this right-wing group.

I think they all missed the boat on language learning. just opened up their doors

You might remember that a week or two back I was curious about a new language-learning site along the lines of Livemocha or Busuu called Well, has just opened their doors. I just got this via email:
We are very happy to announce that our FREE language learning website is available in Beta!!!!
The bold emphasis on "Beta" is in the original, and rightly so; I kicked the tires today and they are definitely still in beta.

Also, they're completely free for now, but they'll be doing the same freemium model that's on Livemocha or Busuu; a good chunk of the content is free, but to get the very best stuff you'll need to shell out a bit.

So go ahead and kick the tires for yourselves, tell them where the bugs are, and let us know what you think in the comments below!

Links:, Livemocha, Busuu

Friday, August 28, 2009

How to use the built-in Japanese dictionaries and thesaurus in Mac OS X

While I'm on the topic of hidden little gems inside Mac OS X for language learning, did you know that Mac OS X comes with a built-in Japanese-English dictionary, Japanese-Japanese dictionary, and Japanese thesaurus? Yeah, I had no idea either, but it's handy to have around.

Where you can find them, after the jump.

5 Free English-Learning Tools to Help You Get Into Business School

The following is a guest post from education writer Karen Schweitzer, whose name you may recognize from her guest post on Aspiring Polyglot earlier this week. Karen is the Guide to Business School. She also writes about accredited online colleges for and guest blogs regularly on language-related topics.

Foreign students are always welcome in English-speaking business schools. Most programs love to accept diverse groups of applicants to simulate real-world scenarios in the classroom. To be considered for acceptance, however, you must be able to speak and write English relatively well. Fortunately, there are quite a few English-learning tools online that can help you brush up on your skills before you apply to your program of choice.

Five free tools that work particularly well for business school applicants, after the jump.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How to look up Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters by radical in Mac OS X

If you're running Mac OS X, you've already got a built-in way to look up Chinese and Japanese characters by their component pieces, i.e., their "radicals": it's known as the Character Palette. (It, by the way, also works for the Chinese characters that used to be used in Korean as well, if you're into that.)

How to use the Character Palette to look up characters by their radicals, after the jump.

Cia-Cia adopts Hangul to preserve spoken language

This article (via Aspiring Polyglot) tells us how the Cia-Cia, a minority ethnic group in Indonesia, have adopted Hangul to write their language down for the fist time.

I'd've probably went with the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today—the Latin alphabet—that's been happily applied to languages from Turkish to Vietnamese to Indonesian to the vast majority of Polynesian, Amerindian, and African languages. Not only would that have facilitated them learning Latin-based languages (including all of those in Indonesia), it would have also facilitated others understanding their language. Now everyone's gotta jump through the hangul hoop before that happens.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dear China: Banish Chinglish with free online corrections by native-English speakers

The BBC, among others, are reporting that Shanghai is looking to get rid of its Chinglish (crappy English composed by native-Chinese speakers) that can be found on signs all over Shanghai (it incidentally can be found everywhere else in China too, but it seems that no one else in China has done enough lately to get the media in the U.K. to write about them).

The persistence of Chinglish has been a puzzle to me for years (and Japanglish, perhaps better known as Engrish, as well, but let's leave that for a later post). There are all sorts of native-English speakers floating around China (take a look at just about any college, and you'll probably find a bunch). Many of them would probably be happy to correct the English for free. Slap "internship" on this correcting role and they'll come in droves.

And, yet, Chinglish persists.

Now, however, you don't need to bother to seek out an in-situs native speaker because there's an even easier way to get native-level English on all the signs in China: the Chinese speakers tasked with making these signs can make use of websites where you can get your foreign-language writing corrected for free.

So, Shanghai (and the rest of China), if you're listening, save yourself a few bucks—and perhaps some embarrassment—and throw the text into one of these sites the next time you need a sign in English.

If Chinglish truly goes the way of the dodo (I have my doubts), we native-English speakers will of course miss its unintentional hilarity. So, in honor of the Chinglish we have grown to love, I give you even more Chinglish, after the jump, including photos of a masterpiece of a Chinglish sign that I took myself, plus links to much more (warning: involves an obscenity or two).

Get your foreign-language writing corrected online for free

When you're learning how to write in a language, there's nothing quite like getting your writing corrected. And when you're getting it corrected, there's nothing quite like getting it corrected totally for free. And when you're getting it corrected totally for free, there's nothing quite like getting it corrected for free and quickly.

Sound like something you'd be interested in? A comparison of the websites on which you can do just that, after the jump.

Who is Focko?

It's a mystery we're all contemplating as this town struggles with the medieval equivalent of forgetting to make sure that their domain name didn't mean something offensive in another language (via Drudge Retort).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The best free online Japanese-English dictionaries

As promised, I've been working on lists of my favorite free online dictionaries, and I'd like to launch the series with Japanese-English dictionaries, as I've been making much use of these since I arrived in Japan.

The dictionaries, after the jump.

The 100th post on Street-Smart Language Learning

A little over nine months ago, I kicked off Street-Smart Language Learning as a place to discuss the various things I've been finding while I've been working on the eponymous book. Somewhere along the way, I found myself blogging about the language-learning industry (from the behemoths to the upstarts), as well as about all the typical language-learning topics you'd expect from a blog of this title.

And this here marks Street-Smart Language Learning's 100th post.

A few factoids about this blog, and the addition of a co-author to the book, after the jump.

Slow down foreign-language podcasts on your iPhone to hear that word you missed

While listening to podcasts as I was walking to the train station one day, I noticed the podcasts sounded really slow. Thinking something was wrong, I tinkered around with it until I discovered that I had inadvertently pressed a button that slows down the speed of podcasts to 1/2x.

This feature seems to have been originally designed in mind for going the other way—you can also speed it up to 2x—for people who wanted to get through podcasts or audio books more quickly (it unfortunately does not work with songs).

But they threw in the 1/2x speed as well, and that's good news for us language learners. If there's something in a podcast or that you don't quite get on the first pass, you can back it up a bit and slow it down to half speed, or if you're just getting started in your target language, perhaps you'll want to listen to everything at half speed.

How to do it, after the jump.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Online students outperform those receiving face-to-face instruction

A video entitled Social Media Revolution has been making the rounds via, ahem, social media. The video makes the case that social media is "the biggest shift since the industrial revolution".

The video, which tosses out a couple of interesting things for language learning, after the jump.

Probably the most interesting fact they toss out in respect of language learning is this (at 1:00 in the video):
2009 US Department of Education study revealed that on average, online students out performed those receiving face-to-face instruction... 1 in 6 higher education students are enrolled in online curriculum
So, if you've run into a language teacher who's skeptical about your use of eduFire, Lang-8, LingQ, Livemocha, or any of the rest, hold your ground because you've got some good statistics on your side.

At 2:00 in the video, it points out a language-learning resource that has certainly not gone unnoticed by language learners:
Wikipedia has over 13 million articles. Studies show it's more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica. 78% of these articles are non-English.
That means there's a pretty darn good chance that you can get materials in your target language on Wikipedia (and, of course, for you English learners, that means that 22% of the articles on there are in your target language).

With no further ado, here's the video:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Japanese/Chinese emoticons are totally inscrutable

You are probably wondering right now what the heck a picture of an obscure Star Wars character named Ponda Baba, who got his arm cut off by Obi-Wan in the beginning of Episode IV,is doing accompanying this post.

Well, as far as I can tell, there's a Japanese emoticon in which I can see nothing but our dearly disarmed Mr. Baba:
Japanese people apparently see happiness in this emoticon (1st column, 7th from the top), but I don't know what's happy about losing an arm.

And wait until you see what chaos emoticons bring us after the jump.

Asperger's, Empathy and Language Learning

As a quick follow-up to my earlier posts on Daniel Tammet and empathy in language learning, the connection between autism and language-learning ability augurs against a connection between empathy and language learning. According to Cambridge neuroscientist Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen (at 10:40 in the video):
Autism is a spectrum of medical conditions where people have a lot of difficulty in forming social relationships and in putting themselves in other people's shoes, to imagine other people's thoughts and feelings.
Or, in other words, they struggle with being empathetic.

But, still, autistic people demonstrate language-learning skill:
Tammet’s particular developmental disorder is Asperger’s syndrome, a mild, high-functioning form of autism. … People with Asperger’s often have normal to high IQs and good language and learning ability.
While this certainly doesn't prove anything definitively regarding empathy and language learning, and it doesn't address directly the issue of accents that was at issue previously, it does raise another question mark about just how important empathy really is in language learning.

Can you help me improve my language-learning routine?

I thought I'd share with you what's shaping up to be my language-learning routine. I'd love it if you could take home a few good pointers from my routine, but I'd love it even more if you could give me a few good pointers to improve my routine.

My days are, predictably, dominated by Japanese and English. I try to maximize my use of Japanese because of my need to use it at work, but there are two places where I use English as a matter of course. The first is with my kids; I only use English with them, and my wife and I speak English to each other whenever we're in earshot of them, in order to maximize their exposure to English. This is of course a direct trade-off between my Japanese and their English, but one I'll take to prevent them from speaking Engrish. The other place I use English regularly is of course at work when I need to do any of the various things a lawyer might need to do in English.

My language-learning day gets kicked off with my morning alarm; I awake to the sound of Japanese podcasts giving me today's news. Breakfast with the fam is largely in English, although my wife always speaks to the kids in Japanese and the nanny speaks to all of us only in Chinese, so that'll be floating around as well. My mother typically joins us for breakfast via video chat, so once in a while she and I will use some Italian when we don't want anyone else to understand.

Daniel Tammet can really learn to speak a new language fluently, in a week, from scratch

When someone tells Daniel Tammet that he's got a gift for learning languages, there's no way he can deny it. Sure, he speaks eleven languages (or 12 if you count the language that he made up himself), but that's not what impresses me; check out this amazing feat:
Daniel was recently profiled in a British documentary called “Brainman.” The producers posed a challenge that he could not pass up: Learn a foreign language in a week - and not just any foreign language, but Icelandic, considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn.

In Iceland, he studied and practiced with a tutor. When the moment of truth came and he appeared on TV live with a host, the host said, "I was amazed. He was responding to our questions. He did understand them very well and I thought that his grammar was very good. We are very proud of our language and that someone is able to speak it after only one week, that’s just great."
The actual video referred to is here (starting from 41:15).

Now if you give me a week of complete immersion and a good native-speaker tutor, I could make a great start in any language, but I don't think I could even come close to what Daniel was able to do. So what's the magic sauce and where can I get some? Well, it's unfortunately not quite as simple as all that; Daniel is a high-functioning autistic savant, so his brain works quite a bit differently from yours and mine.

If you've seen the movie Rain Man,that's a savant. Savant syndrome is a developmental disorder "characterized by one or more areas of expertise, ability or brilliance that are in contrast with the individual's overall limitations". In Daniel's case, his limitations are very few (for example, he's not a big fan of crowds and has trouble recalling faces), and his abilities are impressive—with his skills in language learning, memorization, and making complex calculations standing out as particularly impressive.

While I'm not putting any money down on anyone coming even close to Daniel's abilities (he's one of perhaps 50 in the entire world with skills like his), Daniel himself thinks that his learning strategy doesn't require his brain. Daniel's magic sauce, after the jump.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Is Rosetta Stone's advertising supporting hateful speech?

Rosetta Stone's ubiquitous marketing coverage seems to have gotten it caught up in the ongoing controversy over Fox New's Glenn Beck.

The video that started the controversy and how Rosetta's mixed up in it all, after the jump.

A computer with a human brain and language learning

Michael Hanlon of the Daily Mail is reporting that a group a scientists might be on the verge of creating a human brain in digital form:
[A] team of scientists in Switzerland is claiming that a fully functioning replica of a human brain could be built by 2020. … They are using one of the most powerful computers in the world to replicate the actions of the 100 billion neurons in the human brain. It is this approach - essentially copying how a brain works without necessarily understanding all of its actions - that will lead to success, the team hopes.
While this raises all sorts of fun things—like confounding ethical dilemmas and the singularity—let's see what this might do for language learning.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What is it with clicking on pictures and language learning?

It just dawned on me today that there's a good handful of language-learning tools out there where clicking on pictures is an important part of the learning method. For example:(And if you know of any others, drop a line in the comments below.)

This seems to be a pretty common method. Is everyone just playing follow-the-leader (i.e., following Rosetta Stone), or is there actually some science to back up all this fervent picture clicking?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Language learning and speed reading

Today I read this article on Lifehacker about speed reading, and it got me pondering whether there are any applications of speed reading in language learning.

My initial reaction is that, no, there aren't, because going slower helps you absorb better, but I suppose there could be some argument to covering quantity.


Links: Repeat "A-E-I-O-U" to Read Faster [Lifehacker]

thatwhichmatter: Advanced English grammar via Twitter

If you're learning English (as some of us native speakers still are), thatwhichmatter on Twitter (via Lifehacker via Daring Fireball) is full of bite-sized nuggets of English wisdom. While aimed at native speakers, I'm guessing if native speakers are screwing things up, so are the non-native learners, so get your advanced-English cap on and dive in.

ThatWhichMatter Delivers Grammar Tips in Tweets [Lifehacker]
ThatWhichMatter, a Splendid Twitter Feed on Grammar and Usage [Daring Fireball]

How long does it take to get proficient in Chinese?

An article in today's New York Times seems to have some anecdotal evidence that you can get proficient in Chinese—despite working full time and using some degree of English at work—in about two years.
“I didn’t know anything about China,” said [Joshua Arjuna Stephens, who graduated from Wesleyan University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in American studies]. “People thought I was nuts to go not speaking the language, but I wanted to do something off the beaten track.”

Two years later, after stints in the nonprofit sector and at a large public relations firm in Beijing, he is highly proficient in Mandarin . . .

After two years of living and working in China, [Sarabeth Berman, a 2006 graduate of Barnard College with a major in urban studies,] is proficient in Mandarin.
So there you have it: two years.

Links: American Graduates Finding Jobs in China [New York TImes]

JeKai: A interesting little online Japanese dictionary of some obscure terms

In searching the internets for an explanation of the word ~かねる -kaneru in Japanese, I found the explanation I was looking for on a website called jeKai (pronounced jay-kai). Curious as to what I had just stumbled upon, I dug around a bit.

The site appears to have been actively largely in the early 2000s, but is still kept up by the person who was behind it, Tim Gally. Here's how jeKai describes what it's there for:
In May 2000, a group of volunteers throughout the world began creating an open, free, online Japanese-English dictionary. The form and content of the dictionary are decided by the participants in the project. Among its features are the following:
  • Definitions that explain the meaning of words as completely as possible
  • As many examples as possible of each word in real contexts
  • Photographs and other illustrations, especially for entries about uniquely Japanese things
  • No restrictions on the type or range of vocabulary
  • No restrictions on the length of entries
My guess is this little Web 1.0 project fell into disuse as Web 2.0 wiki-based sites made this kind of effort a lot easier, but the fact that it's still coming up in Google hits demonstrates its ongoing relevance.

It seems to have a lot of things that aren't adequately explained elsewhere, one of course being ~かねる -kaneru, but another you might find of interest is their list of Japanese baseball terms. There's a whole bunch of other stuff up there as well, so I'd recommend you Japanese learners to have a looksee.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History"

According to this article, it looks like some of the brick-and-mortar educators out there are finally starting to get the picture on where education is going:
“I don’t believe that charters and vouchers are the threat to schools in Orange County,” ... said [William M. Habermehl, superintendent of the 500,000-student Orange County schools]. “What’s a threat is the digital world — that someone’s going to put together brilliant $200 courses in French, in geometry by the best teachers in the world.”
I'll bet we can come up with a few "brilliant" online courses in French—and probably for a lot less than $200.

Database of Spanish sentences

Ramses of is a man who likes his sentences. While I tend to butt heads with him on grammar-learning methods, I do agree with him wholly on the value of sentences in language learning. I use them (although not solely, as he does) to learn vocab, and finding good sentences can be something of a challenge.

Well, Ramses has made it a little easier for you Spanish learners with this database of Spanish sentences and their English translations (hat tip: Babelhut).

There's nothing quite like context to help you learn a language, whether for vocab or catching grammatical rules in practice, and sentences give you bite-size chunks of context good for just that. They won't be quite as useful for you as they were for Ramses (who got them from their original context), but the database can save you some work if you're looking for a ton of sentences that already have translations conveniently located nearby.

My one request at this point is a way to easily incorporate these into a spaced-repetition system. Currently, as far as I can tell, you'd have to pluck out the sentences one by one, but hopefully that is something that will change over time as it continues to be a work in progress.

Empathy to get rid of your accent?

Over on The Linguist on Language, Steve's discussing this study that concludes that "[t]he more empathy one has for another, the lighter the accent will be when speaking in a second language" and that "the 'language ego' is also influenced by the sociopolitical position of the speaker towards the majority group".

However, I'd say a lot of follow-up is needed before this can be considered a "conclusion".

Sunday, August 9, 2009

List of content with both audio and text, courtesy of LingQ

LingQ is maintaining a great list of foreign-language content sources here (it's so good I also added it to the links in the right-hand column of this blog). What makes it so great?
This list is for users of to identify sources of language content consisting of both audio and text.
Listening to audio is great, but it's even better when you can refer to a text to find that word you didn't quite get.

I'm currently working on setting up a bunch of podcasts that I can regularly listen to so that I can keep languages I'm not using so much moving forward, and this list has some good leads for me. I've been able to dredge up some thing that aren't on this list, so I'll be dropping LingQ a line to add them in. If you know of any similar content sources that are not yet on the list, I encourage you to do the same.

Links: LingQ

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Anyone know anything about

Thanks to an anonymous tipster in the comments to this post, I just got wind of a new website that appears to be in the mold of Livemocha and Busuu.

Here's how the site sells itself:

LEARN a new language anytime, anywhere with online, interactive lessons that will develop all the skills you need.

TEACH other members your language and learn from native speakers.

COMMUNICATE with native speakers and make friends all over the world.

That sounds a lot like Livemocha to me.

Strangely, the simple site is designed primarily as an image (that image above is a screen grab), as if to avoid Google bot detection and stay off the radar for the time being. On the other hand, they do have a perfectly searchable Facebook page.

One thing I'm curious about is the Men's Health article they got some coverage in. Keep in mind that this is an unreleased product:

[R]einforce your lessons by signing onto social-networking sites that let you interact with native speakers. "They use functional language that you'd hear in conversation," says Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Her favorite is
So how exactly does an unreleased site become someone's favorite tool? I smell something fishy! (Or perhaps a rational explanation that's just escaping detection, but I digress...). [Update: Yup, there was a rational explanation that was escaping detection. See the comment below.]

So... what do you know about Drop a line in the comments below or send an email to tips at this domain name. (And I welcome comments from you,, because I know you're keeping an eye on those Google Alerts!)

Links:, Livemocha, Busuu

Win the Mind Games [Men's Health]

Review of iAnki for iPhone: Not very elegant or convenient, but gets the job done

As I mentioned before, I've been looking for a spaced-repetition system to use on my iPhone that I can (1) sync with a desktop app and (2) use when there's no internet connection (because I spend time on a subway line every weekday from which I can't get online).

So far, it looks like Anki's solution for an unbroken iPhone, iAnki, is the best option available, although it's far from ideal. The software is testy, something of a challenge to get working, and syncing with Anki on the desktop can be a headache, but its core study functions by and large work fine and, in the end, you do get two-way syncs with Anki's desktop application.

Let's get into the nitty-gritty, after the jump.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The official (free, online) Japanese-English dictionary of legal terms

Pretty much every day at work I make use of Japanese Law Translation, which is pretty much what it sounds like it is, but it's got a few neat tricks up its sleeve.

The website is maintained by the Japanese Ministry of Justice, with contributions from various lawyers (including those at my firm), legal academics, and others (more about its genesis is available here). It is in effect the official translation of legal terms in Japanese.

It has a basic bilingual dictionary, where you can look up words in English or Japanese. (And there are rumblings of later expanding it to include Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese as well.) It then gives you a list of the definitions that contain the word plus links to the laws it's found in.

However, not all terms that have been translated can be found in the dictionary, so another very useful tool is the ability to search translations of the law for the word you're looking for. That will get you both the English and the Japanese text and you can figure out how the word was translated.

As the website is a work in progress (and will need regular updating as laws change), not all laws and regulations are included yet, and as mentioned above not all terms have been added to the dictionary, but it is a very useful tool if you ever have a need for legalese in Japanese.

Japanese Language Proficiency Test vocabulary list with Chinese translations

If you are studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (I'm not, really, but I find the lists of vocab for the test that can be found floating about the internet are useful because they approximate frequency lists) and you happen to speak Chinese, check out this vocab list. There's no English, but you can learn your Japanese from Chinese (or learn both at the same time). It's all in traditional characters, but I'm sure you tricky netizens can find a method or two that could convert it to simplified for you.

It's got separate lists for all four levels of the test (1, 2, 3, and 4, with 1 being the hardest), or you can view the vocab all together. The list was made in 2005, so it may be a little out of date, and it was made in Taiwan, so you'll probably get that variety of Chinese.

One thing I like about this list (and that I'd like to see in other such lists) is that it notes on which syllable the stress falls in the Japanese word. My wife often says I use stress in Japanese words where there isn't any. This chart seems to back up her criticisms, given how many words are marked as having "0" (i.e., no) stress and thus should just be read flatly.

How do you say "pattern" in Japanese?

This is the first in a new series on this blog called "how do you say", in which I take a word in English that has multiple translations in a given target language and try to figure out which ones are used for what. As I'm doing this to answer my own questions (or maybe yours—leave them in the comments!), drop a line in the comments if you think I've gotten someone wrong and I'll revise as necessary.

When you look up the Japanese for the English noun "pattern" on ALC, you get (deep breath, now) 傾向 keikou, 模様 moyou, 型 kata, 原型 genkei, 型紙 katagami, 柄 gara, 形態 keitai, 構図 kouzu, 模範 mohan, and パターン pata-n (as if they didn't have enough ways to say it with Chinese characters, they had to bring in a loanword from English as well). Let's see if we can figure out what to use when.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

What are your favorite free, online language dictionaries?

I've got some opinions on this one (ALC, holla!), so I'm putting together a series of posts for the best free online dictionaries between English and each of Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and German (which is probably the rough order I'll do them in). I'm also considering adding Korean and Russian to that list (two languages I've been known to dabble in), but since I don't use those as heavily my opinions are less-well formed.

Before I do, however, I'd like to put a call out for any of the free, online dictionaries that you might like. I've found before that sometimes the best dictionaries don't turn up easily in searches, so I thought I'd see if a little crowdsourcing might be able to find me some new and interesting hits.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Correcting small children's language use

Steve Kaufmann and I have been going back and forth on the correcting of small children's language mistakes in the comments of this post on Steve's blog The Linguist on Language.

Here's the play-by-play. In my earlier post on the best age at which to learn a language, I wrote:
Kids often get corrected by the adults around them...
Steve replied:
[I]t is not my experience that infants are corrected in their use of language.
And I elaborated:
Although some people correct children explicitly (we do), the usual route is that they're corrected indirectly when the adult repeats the phrase in some way back to them. Think something like a child saying, "Eat apple!", and the adult saying back to them, "Oh, do you want to eat the apple?" It's more subtle than directly correcting, but it's correcting nonetheless.

And that sort of thing is absolutely helpful when learning a language. When I'm not quite getting my point across, then finally I manage to grudgingly do so and the person says the equivalent of, "Oh! So you mean that you want to eat the apple!", I've got the correct way of saying it right there for the taking.
After I posted this comment, I went back and read Steve's earlier comment where he wrote "[kids] hear it and they imitate it", and began to wonder if this was a to-MAY-to / to-MAH-to thing where I'm calling it "being corrected" and he's calling it "imitating".

In any case, Steve continues:
I simply do not buy it. You cannot possibly correct enough errors to make a difference. Children and most good learners correct most of their mistakes on their own. The brain gradually corrects itself as the patterns of the language become clearer.
OK, I'll draw a line in the sand in response to that. My position, after the jump.

Mori to Clinton: Me too.

When I was studying abroad at Waseda University in college during the 2000-2001 academic year, a famous alumni of ours, Yoshiro Mori, was causing us a great deal of embarrassment by generally bungling his way about the prime ministership of Japan—with an abundance of verbal gaffes.

I was interning that year in Japan's legislature, and he wasn't exactly strongly supported there either. So it came as no surprise when the legislative-office rumor mill brought wind of an alleged interaction between Prime Minister Mori and U.S. President Bill Clinton at the G-8 summit that was held in Okinawa in July 2000, several months before my internship began.

Basically it went something like this. Mori, not very good at English, got some coaching from translators to help him at least get a basic greeting down for when he was to meet with Bill Clinton. But, instead of starting with, "How are you?", Mori forgot how it was supposed to go and blurted out...

Drinking-party English

Today there was a going away party for some departing summer associates at my firm. One of the Japanese attorneys sitting nearby commented that it's difficult to understand drinking-party English (飲み会英語 nomikai eigo). And I can see what he means.

One particular utterance that came directly from my own mouth demonstrates the point neatly. Some of my more-or-less inebriated non-Japanese colleagues were chugging ramen. Slurping vigorously would be a more accurate description, but we settled on "chugging" to describe the action. When a bowl of ramen was passed my way, I declined, saying, "I ain't chuggin' no noodles!"

The linguistic dissection, after the jump.

Livemocha stops supporting Safari

I haven't logged into Livemocha for a few weeks. When I did so today using Safari, I was greeted with this (click on the image to see a bigger version):

So I've got to use either Internet Explorer or Firefox. Despite Safari working fine up until now, it looks like something won't be working quite right if I continue using it.

Argh. I hope this is another of what I would like to believe are temporary growing pains. Let's hope they start growing out of their growing pains, rather than introducing new ones like this.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Follow this blog on Twitter

Thanks to a couple of friendly tweets mentioning this blog on Twitter, I can finally cross off "set up Twitter account for Street-Smart Language Learning" from the to-do list.

You can follow this blog on Twitter at streetsmartlang, and the obligatory tweet feed has been added to the right column.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rosetta Stone takes on LiveMocha + Sponsored "Review" on TechCrunch

In a bid to stave off competitors like Livemocha (reviewed here) and Busuu, TechCrunch is "reporting" (I use the term loosely) that Rosetta Stone has finally taken their first major step into using social networking for language learning:
Their new system, called TOTALe, adds two interactive ingredients to the mix. The first is the Rosetta Studio, a live lesson area where you and two other students at your skill level work one-on-one with a live, native speaker.
Sounds like they're taking a cue from the Michel Thomas method here.
The second ingredient is Rosetta World, a matching service that connects a native speaker of one language with a learner of the other and, in some cases, vice versa.
And let's not forget the juicy price.
TOTALe will be available on [July 28, 2009,] and will cost $999 for a twelve month subscription. This includes Studio sessions and you can repeat sessions as necessary. After the introductory period it will cost $1,200.
And that's no typo.

So that's the crux of the news story. Unlike Time, however, John Biggs at TechCrunch found himself utterly unable to not gush over Rosetta Stone. However, you might be able to forgive him since Rosetta Stone sponsored the post.

The cringe-inducing gushing, after the jump.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rosetta Stone actually gets some balanced publicity

One of the things I missed while overwhelmed by my move to Japan was the article Rosetta Stone: Speaking Wall Street's Language in Time magazine. I've mentioned before how Rosetta Stone's marketing people seem to do a great job of producing favorable coverage: lots of Rosetta Stone rahrah, but little of the skepticism that I and other language bloggers have of their method.

Time, however, avoids joining the cheerleading squad.

Seeking recommendations for a spaced-repetition system that syncs between your iPhone and your desktop

I recently got an iPhone with one of my main reasons for doing so being to productively fill the time I have on the Tokyo subways when I can't grab a seat and break out my laptop. One of the things I intend to do with that time is using a spaced-repetition system ("SRS") to help expand my Japanese vocabulary. So I'd like to see if anyone out there has any recommendations for such a system.

There are a few features in particular that I'm looking for.

Best time to learn a foreign language: between birth and age seven?

Some scientists seem to think that that's what new research shows (hat tip: Steve Kaufmann at The Linguist on Language), but I'm not fully convinced because I don't think the scientists have ruled out that the cause of young children's language-learning ability is the kind of exposure they are getting rather than some innate age-linked ability.

Just to scratch the surface, let me point out some of the advantages of small children's learning methods.

Getting to Grammar: Grammars are incomplete

Language Fixation makes the following observation:
What I feel with Chinese (and I think this applies to other languages too) is that there are two levels to [learning grammar]. There are sentences that are technically “grammatically correct” according to someone’s made-up grammar rules that seem to fit all situations, and then there are sentences that actual people say and that actual native speakers consider to be correct.
Language Fixation is touching on two things here. The first is word usage, which I already addressed here, and the second is informal grammar rules.

Native speakers often seem to use the language in ways that seem to break the grammar rules included in most grammars. These may break the rules found in the book, but are they really breaking the rules of grammar of the language as they exist in the wild? You can probably guess that my answer is going to be no.

Vote on the 2009 top 100 language blogs at LexioPhiles

We'll forgive them for not including this blog among this year's nominees, but head over to LexioPhiles to cast your vote for the top 100 language blogs of 2009 in the following categories: language learning, language teaching, language technology, and language professionals.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Getting to Grammar: Differentiate grammar and word usage

One argument made against actively trying to learn grammar is that, even if you get the grammar rules down pat, you still don't sound like a native speaker. Assuming you've really learned to correctly use the grammatical rules from your target language, then there are two possibilities as to why you don't sound like a native speaker. One is that something other than grammar is the problem. The second is that, assuming that everything in your grammar is correct, it is not complete. I'll come back to how your grammar is likely to be incomplete in a subsequent post, but for now let's focus on what else might be a problem.

Here's a problem described by Geoff of Confessions in the comments of an earlier post of mine on grammar:
After I found myself in a French-speaking environment, my latent knowledge was activated and my French took off. But before that, I had a nasty habit of creating sentences that fit the rules but that no native speaker would actually say.
And here's Language Fixation on a similar note:
[W]e can all surely think of examples we have heard where someone says something in our native language but it doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s technically correct, but nobody really says it that way.

Quite commonly, there are many “grammatically correct” ways to express ideas, but only a few of them are the ones that native speakers actually use. This is really what it means to speak a language… you say what other people say, because you’re used to how it works.
I myself run into this problem all the time in. Take Japanese as an example. I'll say something, completely grammatically correct, only to be informed by my wife that that's not how a native speaker would phrase it. She then tells me how it should be and, little by little, through lots of these short exchanges, I get to sound more and more like a native speaker.

In all of these cases, we're talking about grammatically correct speech. If the speech is truly grammatically correct, why doesn't it sound like native speech? Leaving pronunciation issues aside, that leaves only one obvious culprit: word usage.

What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

If you're an American who's studied languages, you've probably come across this joke, or some variant of it, before:

Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A: Trilingual.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
A: American.

I've heard this joke applied to Brits as well.

In any case, I hope some Americans (and Brits) out there will join me in defeating this stereotype.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Language-learning linkwrap 7/16/2009

Company Settles Case of Reviews It Faked: Fake reviews cost this company $300,000. I wonder if Rocket Languages is on New York's attorney general's to-do list.

Raising a Child in Two Worlds: Nicole Sprinkle seems to be a bit too worried about whether her biracial child will be better at English or Spanish. Wrong question. The question she should be asking is how can I make my daughter obtain native-level proficiency in both languages? Note also the "two worlds" hyperbole of the title. Something like "Raising a Child to Use Two Tools" would be a bit more realistic.

The Chinese Language, Ever Evolving: A debate almost as exciting as Coke versus Pepsi: simplified or traditional Chinese characters.

Name Not on Our List? Change It, China Says: More fun with Chinese characters. Now, if the characters in your name aren't on a pre-approved list, you can't use them.

Great Videos in Any Language: Videos translated into more than 40 languages.

I've moved to Japan

In case you've been wondering where I've been for the past three months, I've moved to Japan! If you've never done it before, moving to pretty much the other side of the world can be something of a complicated process, so I ran out of blogging time with all the things on the to-do list. I'm still neck-deep in a to-do list of unpacking and whatnot, but one way or another it'll be finished pretty soon, so hopefully I can get back to plenty of language-learning goodness.

I arrived here on May 31 and I'm working at Nagashima Ohno and Tsunematsu, one of Japan's "Big 4" law firms. While I was hired of course to work primarily in English, everything around me is in Japanese and I get lots of exposure to it, which is creating a great language-learning environment (which, unsurprisingly, is heavy in legalese). I'm also living with my in-laws, so the percentage of time that I'm only using Japanese is pretty high, although I'm not quite at complete immersion because of the legal work I need to do in English and the English I speak with my kids.

I've set myself a little goal for the next year: I want to get my Japanese to sound indistinguishable from a native speaker almost all the time. We'll see how that goes.

I've also got a whole bunch of half-baked posts from the past few months, including a lot more on my Getting to Grammar series, that I hope to push out the door over the next several weeks. So keep your eyes open! Although I'm not quite out of the woods yet in terms of things that are keeping me from blogging, the posts'll be here soon!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The brain and multifaceted language exposure

While we're on the topic of the bleeding edge of language-learning technology, an article entitled Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory in today's New York Times has some information relevant to language learners regarding how the brain learns:
[B]rain cells activated by an experience keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail, sight, sound, smell. The brain appears to retain a memory by growing thicker, or more efficient, communication lines between these cells.
My approach to language learning has always been one of multiple types of exposure. Take a new vocab word, for example. Let's say you come across it in a book. You've now got speed dial set up between that book and the word, and perhaps between the word and the sentence, paragraph, thing it was in reference to, etc. Then you look it up. Now you've got the connections built to the meaning. Let's say you later hear it in a podcast. There's another connection. An example like this would seem to fit into the paradigm they suggest: you're building thicker connections to that word, and are thus more likely to learn it. Apply that to all units of language learning—words, phrases, grammar rules, characters, pronunciation, intonation, etc.—and you can see how various exposure makes language learning easier.

A quick look at the ethical issues, and a clip from The Matrix,after the jump.

Language-learning robot?

Japan is once again leading the way in sort-of-creepy-but-still-pretty-damn-cool robots. The child-like robot below, known as CB2, has some interesting language-learning abilities:
In coming decades, [Osaka University professor Minoru] Asada expects science will come up with a "robo species" that has learning abilities somewhere between those of a human and other primate species such as the chimpanzee.

And he hopes that this little CB2 may lead the way into this brave new world, with the goal to have the robo-kid speaking in basic sentences within about two years, matching the intelligence of a two-year-old child.
Read the full article here, or just check out the video below. So far, all the robot appears to be able to say is "e" え.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rocket Languages' language software reviews: Astroturfing at its finest

I've mentioned before how RosettaStone's PR people seem to be everywhere, and competitor Rocket Languages doesn't appear to be taking it sitting down. In fact, they appear to be doing a full-court press, including what appears to be a pretty blatant astroturfing campaign.

Here's how Wikipedia defines astroturfing:

formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous "grassroots" behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass, AstroTurf.
Why do I think Rocket might be astroturfing? The blatant evidence, after the jump.

Language-learning linkwrap 4/4/2009

European Parliament split over language teaching: Next time any of my fellow yanks get themselves in a tizzy regarding the use of Spanish in the U.S., just remember: it could be worse; translation costs could take up 1% of our budget. Tangential money quote: "'[P]romoting the learning of […] an international "lingua franca",' such as English, should be a 'political priority'." As if there were another international lingua franca.

Young Americans going abroad to teach: When in economic peril, teach English abroad.

Statistical language learning in neonates revealed by event-related brain potentials: Say what? Babies can learn in their sleep! I wonder when and if that wears off...

On to Z! Quirky regional dictionary nears finish: For buffs of obscure Americanisms, this book's for you.

More languages, not fewer: Professor Erin Hippolyte "regularly see[s] statistics that link world language proficiency to salaries that are 8-20 percent higher." What exactly is a "world language" anyway? I wonder if it's a West Virginia regionalism for "foreign language". Someone should check a quirky regional dictionary. I am probably proficient in one or two "world languages", so where do I apply for the raise? When are Professor Hippolyte's office hours?

The Waver's Dilemma: A lot more information on how runners communicate in English than I gave you in my post on the runners' nod. For the record, I'm personally against waiving on the grounds that it makes you break form.

Getting to Grammar: Somewhere over the rainbow, frequency grammars

I seem to have gotten myself mixed up in this big debate about learning grammar, so this post the first in an unnumbered series called "Getting to Grammar" where I lay out my strategy and respond to some of the other things banging around the language-learning blogosphere regarding grammar.

Geoff of Confessions makes a valid criticism of the state of modern grammars:
When I was in grad school, we talked about the spiral syllabus. Imagine a spiral staircase going up multiple floors: You keep coming back to the same points, but at a higher level each time. Unfortunately, conventional grammars don't do this. They typically are divided into, e.g., phonology, morphology, and syntax, with morphology broken down into nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, etc. The treatments can get pretty exhaustive and the learner has to figure out how deep to dive in.
How to mediate the problem, and the as-far-as-I-know non-existant solution of a frequency grammar, after the jump.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How many languages can fit into your brain?

If this guess is anywhere near accurate, pretty much as many as you want:
Although we’re forced to guess because the neural basis of memory isn’t understood at this level, let’s say that one movable synapse could store one byte (8 bits) of memory. That thimble would then contain 1,000 gigabytes (1 terabyte) of information. A thousand thimblefuls make up a whole brain, giving us a million gigabytes — a petabyte — of information. To put this in perspective, the entire archived contents of the Internet fill just three petabytes.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Using Skritter with kids

Earlier this week, I discovered the addictive Skritter, a tool for learning simplified Chinese characters and the tones of those characters.

As promised, on Thursday I got the chance to let my four-year-old daughter use Skritter. She naturally likes to play video games, so I asked her, "Do you want to play a Chinese character game?" Naturally the answer was yes.

So I sat her down in front of the screen. The first character, if I recall correctly, was 我 ("I"). Out of context, I'm not sure that she knew what it was, even though she heard it, so I gave her some quick example sentences so she definitely knew which it was. To make this easier for kids, it'd be great if you could replay the pronunciation and if it had example sentences in Chinese, or even if it at least could read the English meaning out loud. Then I could just show her which button to push and she could go at it all on her own.

Once she knew what she was writing, I showed her how to press the "show" button to reveal how to write the character. She knows very few characters at this point, so she had to show pretty much every one. A few she only showed once, and then, beaming, she said, "I showed it once and then just remembered it!" Bingo. I hope getting kids to learn remains this easy forever.

Once she knew what she was writing and how to figure out how to write it, I just let her go to town. For each new character, she'd ask me what the word was. Some, like rén 人, she knew, but for the most part I had to give her examples so she'd understand the meaning. But she happily sat there going through them. This certainly looks like it can be a great tool for her to learn Chinese characters.

Related: Skritter to learn Chinese characters

En chino, por favor

I've written before about switching between foreign languages and how it can pose some difficulty. Today I just had another run-in with a lag in switching between languages.

I was in the shower listening to my mix of five-star (according to my own personal rankings in iTunes) foreign-language songs. Now normally I tend to listen to podcasts, but sometimes you just need to get your groove on and today was that day for me. The playlist, which is supposed to be random, spit out a bunch of Spanish songs all in a row: El Niágara en Bicicleta by Juan Luis Guerra,El Último Beso by Los Boltons (a Spanish cover of Last Kiss by The Cavaliers),Esposa by Tony Vega,Estoy Aquí by Shakira,Mirando el Mar by The Sound Lovers, Buscando América by Ruben Blades,and Ciega, Sordomuda by Shakira. Naturally I was singing along with these songs, which, in addition to keeping me entertained (my wife, not so much), is a good repetition of the vocab contained in the songs.

After I got out of the shower, I had to go downstairs to tell the Chinese-speaking babysitter that she could go whenever she wanted to. As I was walking down the steps, I was thinking about what I'd tell her and I heard in my head, in Spanish, "Si quieres ir..." ("If you want to go..."), and it occurred to me that that was a bit odd. Here I was about to tell something in Chinese to a Chinese speaker and Spanish was coursing through my brain. I'm pretty sure that if that hadn't run through my head as I was walking down the steps, the first words out of my mouth to the babysitter would have been in Spanish. Listening to and singing along with those songs had put me in Spanish mode, and I didn't snap out of it until I consciously thought about it.

This phenomenon intrigues me. Anyone else who speaks multiple foreign languages ever run into this? I'm curious as to what is the relationship between this and language learning. I suppose it's a good thing that my mind just kind of switches automatically into another language, but how can I improve my ability to bounce between languages? The obvious answer is practice, but with better understanding of what's really going on in my head, it'd be easier to really figure out how to utilize this best for language learning.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Don't ignore grammar, learn without grammar, or use it only for decoding

Ramses of Spanish Only, Geoff of Confessions of a Language Addict, and Josh of Language Geek have recently written about what Ramses calls the "anti-grammar" position (here, here, and here, respectively). The basic premise of the position is that you don't actively study grammar but instead learn it by induction through exposure to the language.

Let's clarify one thing here; both the pro- and anti-grammar camps share the same goal: learning the grammar. It's the how that is in question. The most extreme pro-grammar position would have you start with a grammar and not do anything else until you have the grammar down. The most extreme anti-grammar position would have you parachute right into the middle of the language zone with no background and have you learn it all by observing the language in use.

Neither approach optimizes efficacy. Many high school kids in the U.S. have studied 3, 4, or even 5 years of a language, but just try talking to them and you'll realize that the hidebound grammar-centric approach most of those schools are using is a complete failure. On the other hand, learning completely by induction requires huge amounts of time and leaves gaps for things that are less commonly encountered, especially when time is limited, as it is for most language learners.

Ramses did make a good point:
It’s just a pity to see that many people in the pro-grammar and anti-grammar camp just focus on LEARN grammar or DON’T LEARN grammar, and don’t come up with alternatives.
Let me see what I can do about that. My alternative, after the jump.