Friday, April 30, 2010

Why I find grammar study to be a valuable use of time

Steve Kaufmann just put out a podcast on his blog entitled "Why I find grammar study largely a waste of time". Unlike my last contrarian title, which I intended to be more provocative than anything else, I actually stand fully behind this one.

As background, my approach to grammar can be found here, and a comparison of my approach to Steve's can be found here.

Why I largely disagree with what Steve's saying in his podcast, after the jump.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

It takes 15-20 exposures to learn a word

In an article on VOA News, Catherine Snow of Harvard's Graduate School of Education gives us some numbers on how many exposures you need to a word before you learn it:
In order to have a high probability of learning a word, you need to encounter it fifteen, twenty times.

Grammarly: Misleading website kills my desire to learn about their service

This post is part of a four-part series on Grammarly.
  1. Grammarly: Misleading website kills my desire to learn about their service
  2. Grammarly responds to my claim that their website is misleading
  3. Grammarly: Impressive response to complaints reignites my desire to learn about their service
  4. Grammarly responds to complaints about not disclosing their pricing
Additionally, you'll find my review of Grammarly for English-learning purposes here.

It's pretty rare for a language-learning tool to annoy me enough that I feel the need to write a post about it. But Grammarly has managed to do just that.

I saw Grammarly recently advertised on some language-learning site I was on. It's supposed to automatically check English-language text for grammar and other various mistakes. I thought it sounded interesting, so I clicked through the ad. On their home page, I see this big welcoming button telling me to "Get Started Now!", and noting in little tiny letters below that no registration is required.

"No registration required? Great!", I thought, and clicked on the button.

Watch me get annoyed by, receive an email from, and then write an email back to Grammarly, after the jump.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Getting to Grammar: Comparing my method with Steve Kaufmann's method

Steve and I have been having a bit of an interesting back-and-forth on how to approach grammar. It started with my post entitled If you want accurate grammar quickly, Steve Kaufmann's method is not for you, and then moved over to the comments section of a tangentially related post on his blog.

The back-and-forth actually led me to think that we're a bit closer in our approaches than my earlier post suggested, so I thought I'd pull together all of the relevant comments into one place and then offer some further comparisons of our methods, making use of a few rough graphs. The fun begins, after the jump.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Getting to Grammar: Learn grammar through an ad hoc spaced-repetition system

Extracted from the current manuscript of the book, to the right you'll find the meat of how my preferred method for learning grammar works, in convenient flow chart format.

As with learning any piece of knowledge, you'll learn a grammar rule best through spaced repetitions. As such, through much trial and much (much, much, much...) error, I've found that combining a wide variety of repetitions works best. Although the repetitions do not have any systematic spacing based on a forgetting curve as spaced-repetition systems are supposed to, there should be enough repetitions here to get the rules in your head.

Let's take a walk through that flow chart, after the jump.

Why output trumps input in language learning

OK, so I don't really think that output trumps input, but I thought I'd lead off with a contrarian title vis-à-vis Steve Kaufmann's post entitled Why input trumps output in language learning. Some amount of input necessarily needs to come before you can produce any output, but saying one trumps the other is like saying reading blogs trumps writing blogs; sure, you can learn a lot by reading blogs, but you'll only be getting your message out there once you start writing one. (And, incidentally, in either case, you'll be getting exposure to a language.)

The reason I went with a contrarian title was because, when I read Steve's post, I thought that most of his arguments for input learning could easily be changed to serve as arguments for getting into output sooner rather than later. Below I've edited Steve's post to show how easily those arguments can be turned in the other direction. I've tried to edit as little as possible. Some of the changes work better than others, and some even work surprisingly well, but they all go to my main point here, which is that early output is a good thing.

What does a foreign language sound like to a non-native speaker, Benny Lava?

According to this Italian parody of a 60s/70s English-language pop song (via Fluent Every Year), it might just sound like gibberish...

I was about ready to write the English subtitles for that video, but who needs to add English subtitles to English-mimicking gibberish when you can add it to a completely foreign language?

This Tamil-language video, which has been floating around the internets for some time now, shows us via soramimi that a foreign language might just sound surprisingly like a very humorous version of your own language.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Is it possible to become fluent in just three months? Yes. Will Benny pull it off in Germany? Probably not.

One of the points of contention in the ongoing back-and-forth between Steve Kaufmann and Benny the Irish Polyglot is whether Benny can truly pull off fluency in three months. Specifically, Benny is in Berlin studying German right now and will deem himself fluent if he can pass a really hard German test and if he can fool native speakers for 30 seconds that he is a Berliner.

Jelly donuts aside, Kennedy didn't fool anyone.
Here's what Steve thinks of Benny's plan:
Sounding like a native and amassing enough vocab to pass a difficult exam is impossible IMHO. Senseless hype.
I can confidently state that this is not impossible; I myself did with Portuguese exactly what Benny is trying to do with German. (And that's not even getting into wunderkinds like Daniel Tammet.) That said, I'm doubtful that Benny can pull this off in Berlin because there are some very important differences between his situation in Germany and mine in Brazil that will make it a harder task for him to accomplish than it was for me.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A single workflow to make use of online language-learning tools

There are so many language-learning resources out there on the web, it's kind of tough to figure out how to make use of them all. In looking at how I'm using these tools myself, I put together the following little process to incorporate many of the language-learning tools I've been using into a single workflow:

Oh, and this workflow is completely free.

Let's walk through this, after the jump.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Getting to Grammar: If you want accurate grammar quickly, Steve Kaufmann's method is not for you

This is the best our graphics department could do.
he great language-learning blogosphere battle of the day has been Steve "The Inputter" Kaufmann v. Benny "The Haxor". The latest salvo in this battle comes from Steve:
In my view, there are three divergent approaches to language learning, divergent in terms of their emphasis or principal focus. This is true whether we learn in the classroom, online or on the street. One approach focuses on input, another on output, and a third on what I would call shortcuts and some people call language-hacking techniques. These techniques include grammar study, studying vocab lists and phrase books, heavy use of flash cards, "deconstructing the language", memory techniques, and so forth.
I don't think Steve's division has it right at all. As I noted in my last post, output is input. In other words, it's all just exposure. From there, the only thing you need to think about is what kind of exposure you need to get in order to burn the language into your brain as efficiently as possible.

And efficiency leads me to one of my main points of disagreement with Steve: grammar.

Friday, April 23, 2010

This is your brain on languages.

The image you see here is a visualization (which is obviously not comprehensive) of how a given piece of information in a language might get lodged into your brain. The piece of information could be anything: a vocabulary word, a grammar rule, pronunciation, a character, etc.

Every one of those lines emanating from the piece of information connects with one kind of exposure. The more exposures you get, the more connections your brain draws to that piece of information. The more repetitions of a given kind of exposure, the stronger that exposure becomes (imagine the lines getting thicker with each exposure). The stronger and more plentiful your exposures are, the more likely you are to remember the piece of information.

Exposure to a language can be largely divided into reading, listening, writing, and speaking. It doesn't matter if an exposure is via reading/listening (i.e., input from an external source) or writing/speaking (i.e, output to an external target). These traditional ideas of "output" and "input" are both input as far as your brain is concerned.

Output is input.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

iTalki is taking on Lang-8 by letting you get your foreign-language writing corrected for free

iTalki just announced that they've added features that make iTalki into yet another place where you can get your foreign-language writing corrected online for free.

From their post:
Have you ever wanted to write something and get help correcting it? Now you can write a short post in your Notebook, and get other italki members to correct and comment on it.
They kind of make it sound like they're doing something completely new, huh?

Their system is fairly straight-forward, where the text is copied to a comment window below and you can format it to show your corrections. Their correction interface isn't quite as good as Lang-8's, but I certainly can't complain about having yet another place to get my writing corrected for free.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Get Cramberry (spaced-repetition app) for iPad and iPhone for free (U.S. residents only)

I've mentioned before that my current go-to spaced-repetition system is Anki, but there are a lot of other options out there, including well-known systems such as, Mnemosyne, and SuperMemo.

Another contender in the field is Cramberry. What's kept me from making more use of Cramberry is that you can only study 30 cards per day in the free version of their web app. That said, they're doing a promotion right now that will get U.S. residents their iPad apps for free, and the first 50 people to download the iPad app can also get their iPhone app for free. And I'm guessing that those apps, which currently cost $2.99 (iPad) and $4.99 (iPhone), don't have the any study count limitations, even when you're getting them for free.

Get your free apps, after the jump.