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.

Top 10,000 Chinese characters

Jun Da of Middle State Tennessee University has a Chinese character frequency list that was made in 2004 based on a very large collection of online Chinese texts. The list can easily be cut and paste into Excel and then put into your favorite memorization program. The explanation of what was included in the corpus can be found here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spring and spaced-repetition systems

What do spring and spaced-repetition systems (SRS) have in common? They both seem to be in the air this month.

There's been a lot of buzz in the language-learning blogosphere about SRS lately. See Mastering Mandarin parts 1, 2, and 3, Ramses on Free Technology for Teachers, Tower of Confusion, Flashcard Aficionado, and The Linguist on Language.

After the jump, a few highlights.

Skritter to learn Chinese characters

I just stumbled across Scritter today. Scritter lets you study Chinese character by writing them on the screen. And it's awesome. The implementation is very smooth. They ask you to write a character, and if you don't know it you can press a button to show it. It appears and then fades away before you can write it all. You can of course show it again, but short term memory should hold it there for you, and then you get some muscle memory action by writing it out there.

I started toying around with it to see what it was all about, and I'm addicted. Since I pretty much only type in Chinese, how to write characters is something that often slips my mind. This makes for a great refresher. And what's even more fun is that they cover tones as well. If I have one weakness in Chinese, that is it.

But what I'm most excited about is sitting my four-year-old daughter down in front of this thing. "Wanna play a Chinese game?" We'll see how that goes tomorrow hopefully. So far she's only started to recognize characters, not write them, but this seems to be a great device for getting kids to learn. My only complaint as far as children's learning goes is that the feedback that appears in the window—"Should hook", "Stroke backward", "Excellent!" and the like—are all text only. For a kid who's just learning to read, it'd be great if these were audible.

Son's first word is ねんね ("sleep") in Japanese

With my obvious interest in language learning, it's great fun to have kids and watch how they learn languages. If you've been reading this blog, you know that my four-year-old daughter has long been a part of my language-learning observations, and now my son had joined the speaking world as well.

We've got what is essentially a trilingual environment set up for the kids. I and my mom, who lives with us, speak only English to the kids. My wife speaks only Japanese with them and we make them speak Japanese with each other (which has so far consisted of our daughter speaking Japanese to our son). We use only Chinese-speaking babysitters or nannies and have them around enough that our daughter speaks Chinese as well as English and Japanese.

Our son's first official word is nenne ねんね in Japanese, which means "sleep". It's the an infantile form of neru 寝る ("to sleep"). We give if the official designation because he's clearly saying the word and linking it up to a meaning that he can use to communicate with.

More observations of a one-year-old learning to speak, after the jump.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Music: The overstructured language

Ever wonder why it was so easy for you to learn "Do you want to sleep with me tonight?" in French ("Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?"), but you had to exert a lot more effort to learn anything else in French? You can thank the brain's relationship with music for that.

Today's New York Times sheds some light on how it works:
“The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. “From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear.”

A simple melody with a simple rhythm and repetition can be a tremendous mnemonic device. “It would be a virtually impossible task for young children to memorize a sequence of 26 separate letters if you just gave it to them as a string of information,” Dr. Thaut said. But when the alphabet is set to the tune of the ABC song with its four melodic phrases, preschoolers can learn it with ease.
What's this mean for language learners? It means that songs can be a useful device for memorizing, especially the vocabulary contained in a song's lyrics. So look up all the vocab in your favorite target language song and then put that track on repeat. If you get the song in your head, you'll get the vocab in your head as well.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Language-learning linkwrap 3/15/09

Old age begins at 27: Nevertheless, "abilities based on accumulated knowledge, such as performance on tests of vocabulary or general information, increase until at least the age of 60." That, of course, would include languages.

The Economist translated into Chinese by Chinese readers (in Chinese) (via Waxy): If you like The Economist and are learning Chinese, here's a chance to read all of the articles translated into Chinese. What's great about this is that you can always refer back to the original English if you're confused. Now I'm sure there's a copyright issue or two to be found in here...

Where Education and Assimilation Collide: The New York Times discusses the debate over how to teach all of the non-English speakers coming into the States.

日本語を勉強する (in English): Aspiring Polyglot has a nice bunch of Japanese language-learning links.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The runners' nod and the runners' bow

If you've ever done any serious running, you're probably familiar with the runners' nod. When two runners run past each other, there is a sort of ritualized greeting. It's like you're both members of some club and thus have to greet each other with the secret handshake, even if you've never met before. While two strangers walking past each other on the street hardly feel the need to greet each other, runners generally do.

In the U.S., this is the runners' nod; you meet eyes with the other runner and just nod at them briefly, with a brief smile being optional. (We'll often do the same to cyclists as well. I wonder if they call this the cyclists' nod.) A nod, as opposed to a vocal greeting, is used by necessity; often, on a run, you don't want to say anything because that could screw up your breathing, potentially resulting in cramps, side stitches, etc. A nod is subtle enough to let you greet the passerby and maintain your form at the same time.

The nod, however, is not universal. Nevertheless, some mystical runners' bond does seem to be somewhat universal, so that even in places where strangers would rarely greet each other runners still seem to do so. What changes is not the fact that there is a greeting, but rather how it is done.

In Japan, for instance, the runners' nod becomes the runners' bow. Instead of a brief bending at the neck, you do a very brief bow, bending instead at the waist. In order to avoid breaking your running stride, this bow is generally very limited; even in cases where politeness would require a somewhat deeper bow, runners don't bother. Here the typical rules of politeness take a bow (lame pun fully intended) to the rules of good running form and allow you to minimize the bowing.

If you do the nod in Japan, people will probably get your drift, but it's like speaking with an accent; they understand you, but you're clearly not quite there yet in the "language". Yup, I'm saying that body language is part of learning a language, and it's one that's very rarely covered in any book. So be sure to not just listen and read, but to watch as well; watch how native speakers move when they're talking. Mastering the body language used by native speakers will go a long way to making you seem more like one.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Off-color Chinese pun: The grass-mud horse

The New York Times today is reporting how Chinese people are using nigh homophones to say things that would otherwise be censored. The thing about some of these homophones is that they're patently vulgar and demonstrate one of my rules of language learning: learn profanities.

Why learn profanities? Surely civilized society has no need for such vulgarity. Well, that may indeed be true, but it doesn't change one basic fact about profanities: people use them, and hardly infrequently. For instance, according to this word frequency list showing the top 1,000 words in English, the f-bomb is the 605th most common word in the English language. That list is created from TV and movie scripts, so I'm guessing that puts it higher up in the rankings than it would otherwise be, but even if you drop it to 2000th place, that's still within the range of words you'll need to learn to be reasonably fluent in a language. So, while it may not be necessary for you to be able to spew vile invective in your target language, you should at least be prepared to understand it.

And the Chinese grass-mud horse is a case in point. Be ready for some profanity, after the jump.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Going down? 够淫荡?

A friend of mine recently sent me a mildly off-color joke in Chinese that goes to my earlier post about native speakers using foreign languages in their native tongue.