Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Use music, TV, movies, radio and the internet to ingrain your target language in your brain

The following is a guest post by Susanna Zaraysky, author of Language is Music, of which I recently received a free review copy. Susanna speaks seven languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbo-Croatian) and has also studied Hungarian, Hebrew, and Arabic. She has taught English in Argentina, Bosnia, and the United States.

Who remembers a TV commercial jingle from their childhood better than what their spouse or parent told them to get at the grocery store yesterday?

We can all remember certain melodies and songs better than we can rattle off a list of vocabulary words or pronunciation rules our teacher taught us in French class this morning.

I broke my CD player replaying the difficult guttural sounds from my Al Kitaab pronunciation CD for Arabic. I had to press rewind so many times to hear the letters and pronounce them. I would have been better off listening to a fun Egyptian Arabic pop song by Amr Diab and registering those sounds to a melody rather than learning them in isolation on my CD player.

Music imprints sounds in our memory much better than a pronunciation lesson in class or a CD that ends up breaking our CD player from overuse.

Music is an essential element of the human condition. Neuroscientists have shown that music engages more parts of our brain than language. Some stroke survivors can sing and dance to music but can barely speak. Music gets deep into our psyche and memory. It sticks. Conjugation charts and vocabulary lists don’t stick. (Read Dr. Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia for more information on how music effects the brain. This book made me realize how I learned languages using music.)

Harness the power of music to make foreign languages stick.

I know how powerful music is because I studied 10 languages and speak seven (Russian, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, and French) with perfect or almost perfect accents. I was able to do this because I listened to language like music and internalized the prosody and melodies of the languages. I also studied grammar, but it’s a lot easier and more fun to study grammar rules when you actually like the language you are learning. Plus, you remember the grammar rules better when you know verses from songs that display these rules, irregular verb conjugations, idioms, etc.

Unfortunately, many foreign language classes focus primarily on written exercises and rote memorization. Some people who try to learn on their own bury themselves in grammar books only to find themselves unable to speak well and comprehend native speakers. I’ve met people who have spent more time than I have studying in a language class or on their own. But when we were in the country where our target language was spoken, they were almost inept at speaking and understanding, while I was conversing freely with native speakers. Why? I used music and media in the target language to make the language part of my life.

Below are some suggestions from the over 70 tips in my book, Language is Music, on how to put the fun in language learning using music, TV, radio, movies, the internet, and other free and low-cost resources.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Language Hacking Guide review: Great guide for conversation, but no focus on reading or writing

I think I developed a crick in my neck while reading Benny's Language Hacking Guide from nodding my head in agreement so much. Although we took very different language-learning paths, it was clear while reading his book that the strategies we'd each came up with separately are very similar. While I can't say that I agree with him on every point (and I'll highlight some of those disagreements below), his book is definitely full of great strategies that, if implemented, will surely increase your ability to converse in your target language.

However, his book purposefully focuses on only two of the pillars that hold up the language temple: speaking (especially speaking) and listening. Writing and reading have been consciously ignored (although you'll certainly make some gains in both writing and reading by following the advice in the guide). Here's how Benny describes his take on writing, which I presume applies even more to reading:

Writing is not social enough for me to care about it. For people with academic or professional goals for their languages then my guide isn't for them. For people who want to improve their relationships with natives, then some of my tips help and I intentionally didn't discuss improving writing skills because of this. [I don't] care about [my] writing level…
So if you're looking for an all-in-one guide to tell you how to improve your speaking and listening and reading and writing, as Benny says, his guide isn't for you. Following the Language Hacking Guide, the gains made in writing and reading are really just incidental to the gains made in speaking and listening. For a book that purports to be a language hacking guide rather than a foreign-language conversation hacking guide, this is the only major issue I'd note.

Nevertheless, given that most language learners seem to pull off the reading/writing side better than the speaking/listening side, I'm not sure that this is a wholly bad thing, as long as you know not to expect much advice on reading and writing.

A good chunk of the book actually has application far beyond language learning: maintaining a positive mentality, staying motivated, being productive, moving from introversion to extroversion, etc. I feel like he could delete the language-learning references and turn the book into some kind of general self-help guide, but as those are definitely things that are helpful in learning a language, they're well placed in the guide. And, to echo another review, Benny's enthusiasm bursts through and it's hard to not be excited about going out and speaking a language after reading the guide. And let's not forget the numerous moments of humor to be found.

Turning away from the content itself, the guide is a pretty-pricy $39 (and will be going up to $49 at some point). It's advertised as over 200 pages long, but that's in slide format (i.e., like PowerPoint slides); the printer-friendly PDF version of the main text of the guide that comes with the package weighs in at only 55 pages, as opposed to the 195-page slide version of the main text. That was actually good news for me; a 200+ page book would be a bit more weighty than I'd expect from a guide, but it was in fact a breezy read. The whole package consists of the main text of the Language Hacking Guide (195 pages in slide format, 55 pages in printer-friendly PDF format, and an ePub version that prints out as 123 pages on my computer), 6 worksheets, a list of "conversational connectors", and over three hours of audio interviews.

So what's the bottom line? I strongly recommend this guide for anyone who wants to learn how to speak and learn how to speak quickly, although you might want to consider something else if your focus is on improving your writing and reading. (Disclosure: Benny traded me a copy of his guide for a copy of our book once it comes out, so while I didn't exactly get it for free, I didn't shell out the $39 either. I'm also participating in Benny's affiliate program, so if you click on a link to the Language Hacking Guide on this site and then buy it, you'll be giving $23.40 of that $39 to me (you can always click here to give it all to Benny).)

For the rest of this review, I'd like to look at a number of specific points in Benny's book, which I've put in three groups based on my own opinion of them: agree, agree but I'd add more, and disagree.

Lulzes from Benny's Language Hacking Guide

As you might know, I've been reading through Benny's Language Hacking Guide. I hope to post my full review of it later today, but for now I thought I'd share a few of the highlights of one of the things I enjoyed while reading the book: its humor.

Using vocab reps to put my son back to sleep

My two-year-old son often wakes up in the night to discover that he's rolled away from us. Not liking that, he'll start to cry. If he gets himself too worked up, it can be a pain to put him back to sleep. But there's a little trick that we've discovered that works like magic.

If you say a word he knows, he repeats it. If you keep saying words he knows, he'll keep repeating you. He'll do this until he falls back asleep—often mid-word.

Convert more of your time to target language time

Native-language time vs. target language time is a zero-sum game. Though not as nerdy as this zero-sum game (which, btw, is available in numerous languages).
Continuing my posts inspired by Benny's Language Hacking Guide, Benny and I both clearly agree that there is a lot of time that can be reclaimed during your day that can be put towards language learning. He covers it in a chapter called "Making Time" (p. 159), while the current manuscript of our book has it under "Maximize time spent getting exposed to the target language" (Benny wins in the "punchy titles" category).

The basic idea that both of us describe is taking a look at any time you have during the day and seeing if you can eke more target language time out of it. This means converting dead time into target language time and converting time used for other languages into target language time.

To give you an example of how you might want to look at your time, let me show you how I currently apply the analysis to myself.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The three milestones in learning a foreign-language accent

When learning a language, your accent will go through at most three stages, as shown here:

Improving your accent over time
In the worst-case scenario, you'll start with most of your speech being unintelligible, i.e., native speakers don't know what you're saying. This is more like if you're going from, say, English to Chinese than, say, Spanish to Italian.

If your accent does start out unintelligible, it won't stay that way for long. Once you start speaking (and this should be happening early and often), you'll quickly reach the next milestone of most of your speech being intelligible, i.e., native speakers know what you're saying, even though your accent might very well be extremely strong.

Then it's time to get settled in for a bit, because the path between merely being intelligible and sounding like a native is often a long one. Over the course of plenty of speaking, you should be able to push your accent forward. As you get closer to sounding like a native, you'll probably need more concerted efforts (as opposed to merely speaking) to work out the kinks, but doing so will get you closer and closer to the native milestone.

That said, there's not necessarily a need to sound like a native. If you can do everything you need to do after the intelligible milestone but before the native milestone, then you could very will be happy with leaving it at that.

Grammarly responds to complaints about not disclosing their pricing

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.


After I put up the post regarding Grammarly's response to the complaints raised on this blog, Max Lytvyn, one of Grammarly's founders, wrote back once again, which started another email back-and-forth, with pricing being the main focus this time.

In short, while Grammarly intends to make it easier to get pricing information without first providing contact information, Max defends their existing system based on industry norms and their need to figure out which users are entitled to discounts due to Grammarly having agreements with their schools, etc. I argue that they can meet this requirement and still be upfront about it.

How to learn Japanese without saying a word

If you came here to find the secret sauce for doing what the title suggests, I hate to disappoint by telling you that you'll actually need to say lots of words to learn Japanese. However, you'll also have to learn some things that aren't exactly words as we typically think of them. I'll let Ken Tanaka and Remy February enlighten you on a few of these.





As a bonus, Ken Tanaka and Remy February will also enlighten you about the restaurant chain affectionately known as ファキン Fakin . I'll warn you now that Fakin is not pronounced like "fakin'" in English, and the video plays on the word's similarity to a certain obscenity in English. Proceed at your own risk.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Write a blog, but write it in your target language

In Benny's Language Hacking Guide, he recommends writing a blog (p. 51).

There's just one massive problem with his suggestion.

He suggests you do it in your native language.

There is no such thing as "difficult" in language learning

Not applicable to languages.
I'm currently reading through Benny's Language Hacking Guide, and one of the points he makes is that he labels language issues as "different" instead of "difficult" (p. 30). This is dead on.

If a five-year-old native speaker can figure it out, you can too. And they usually can. When I took Russian back in high school, my teacher told us that five-year-old kids were doing just fine with many of the cases that foreign learners struggle with. And I can tell you that my own five-year-old daughter is doing just fine with Japanese, English, and Chinese. If you're reading this, I'm pretty sure your cognitive abilities are superior to just about any five-year-old, and if they can do it, you can too.

When something is different, it means you need to spend some time to figure it out. Depending on how different something is, the amount of time you need to spend will vary. Saying something is "difficult" is really just drawing an arbitrary line in that amount of time and considering anything past that line to be difficult.

But it's not difficult (remember the five-year-olds). It's just takes more time.

There is no such thing as "difficult" in language learning.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Language learning by the images

I'm a big fan of using graphics to convey messages, and of course I like to include them on this blog. The following is a collection of recent graphics used here. Click on an image to see the original post.

Language learning through exposure

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are females better at learning foreign languages?

This lady's mad language skilz have failed to impress her friend.
It looks like babies aren't the only ones we guys should be jealous of for their language abilities. According to Cracked:
The areas of the brain responsible for language are over 17 percent larger in women than men, making them the well-hung studs in the horse stables of conversation. Not content to just be bigger, women's brains also multi-task; processing language in both hemispheres while men generally keep the conversation going with just the dominant side of the brain.
Looking at children learning their native language, The Scientific American adds this:
Girls completing a linguistic abilities task showed greater activity in brain areas implicated specifically in language encoding, which decipher information abstractly. Boys, on the other hand, showed a lot of activity in regions tied to visual and auditory functions, depending on the way the words were presented during the exercise.
If you don't trust Cracked as a source (and, really, why would you?), and if The Scientific American still isn't enough, how about the National Center for Biotechnology Information? They write:
Our results suggest that females have proportionally larger Wernicke and Broca language-associated regions compared with males. These anatomical differences may correlate with superior language skills previously demonstrated in females.
Translation? While dudes may drive better (sorry, ladies, Cracked told me so), the ladies got some mad language skills that men just can't match.

Here's the thing though: these studies seem to be focusing on native-language acquisition. I did some quick Googling around, but I couldn't find anything that provided any convincing evidence of the same for foreign languages. Does the same apply?

Babies are masters of the world's consonants and vowels

"I so pwn u." —Baby
Think you're a good language learning? You ain't got nothing on a baby. From LiveScience:
At a few days old, infants can pick out their native tongue from a foreign one.
They can't even see clearly across a room, and they're already figuring languages out.

"Big deal," you say? You can recognize your own language easily? Well, how about this one?
Infants can recognize the consonants and vowels of all languages on Earth, and they can hear the difference between foreign language sounds that elude most adults.
That's right. All languages on Earth. Those weird D variations in Hindu. If you're Japanese, Ls and Rs. If you're Hunanese, Ls and Ns. Run into a pronunciation you just can't get? It's so easy a baby could do it. So no more excuses from you.

Well, except that your mind works a little different from a baby's, so you might want to take a tactic that's slightly different from lying around cooing and crying.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

When and how to use paid online tutors for language learning

The following is a guest post by Milena Mitic, a native-Serbian speaker who also speaks English and is actively studying Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. In the comments to an earlier post, she noted how she has been making use of various paid online tutors for language learning. As I’ve never used any paid online tutors myself, I was interested in hearing about her experiences, so I asked her if she would write a guest post on the topic, and she kindly agreed.

It took me a while to discover that something very interesting is going on in the world of teaching; although I’ve been a heavy internet user for many years, I found out about online tutoring just six months ago. It is comforting to see that I’m not the only one who was completely oblivious of this revolution in teaching; many people think, when I mention online classes, that I’m talking about recorded sessions and not live interaction with a tutor who just happens to be on the other side of the world. So, just to make it clear, in case anyone still has any doubts, paid online tutoring works just like paid “offline” tutoring; you just use Skype or virtual classrooms instead of going to evening classes or meeting your tutor face to face.

These virtual classrooms are basically platforms offered on various online tutoring websites, like eduFire or WiZiQ, where you and your teacher can have voice and video chat, as well as sharing a “blackboard” and the presentations and documents that you are using during the class. Both of you can make changes to these documents (typing, drawing, highlighting, etc.) and both of you can see what the other person is doing. Some websites, like the Spanish-teaching 121Speech, use Skype + Google Docs for their classes, and this works very well too. You can then save the notes from the classes to go through them later. These virtual classrooms offer a possibility of one-on-one as well as one-on-many classes.

Some of you might be asking why use a paid online tutor when you are already on the internet where, as we all know, variations of everything can be found for free ☺. Well, in my opinion, there are situations where paid tutoring is a better choice.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What good grammar checkers are out there for foreign languages?

I just did a review of Grammarly, a grammar checker for English. In the comments on that post, for French, Damian recommended BonPatron (short texts are free, and the pro version is €9.99) and Antidote ($69).

Milena asked for suggestions in Spanish and Russian in another comment on that post. I've never made much use of grammar checkers, but, as I noted in my review of Grammarly, they could be quite useful. Accordingly, I'd like to broaden Milena's request: do you know of any other good grammar checkers in any language (including English)? If so, please drop a line in the comments!

Motivation is crucial in language learning, but must be considered together with efficiency

If you're not motivated to learn a language, you won't spend time learning a language. If you don't spend time learning a language, you won't learn a language. So no motivation means no learning.

It's pretty much just that simple, but let me add a corollary to the rule: if doing something is going to kill your motivation to learn a language, stop doing it. This gives you a free pass to ignore any language-learning suggestions (including, of course, my own) that would kill your motivation.

But if something is only going to damage your motivation and thus merely reduce the time you spend learning languages, you need to consider how much more efficient that thing is before giving it the old heave-ho.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Grammarly review: Most useful for advanced English learners, but has tough competition from free sites

Grammarly bills itself as "the best grammar checker and proofreader" for English-language documents. They've provided me with a free premium account (which I'll be giving away to a reader this upcoming week; if you want to be that reader, click here) to review.

To summarize, Grammarly is only going to be of use to more advanced English learners, due to the fact that (1) its engine aims at correcting native speakers' mistakes, not those of non-native speakers, and (2) all of its explanations are in English. So if your mistakes are somewhere in the ballpark of a native speaker's (and many advanced learners' mistakes are), and you can understand their explanations, then you're in good shape to make use of Grammarly. However, given the free corrections you can get on sites like Lang-8, it's probably not necessary for most language learners to invest in a premium account on Grammarly.

When starting a language, strike a balance between reading/listening and speaking/writing

When learning a foreign language, what you can write and speak is a subset of what you can understand when reading and listening; you simply can't write or speak something that you haven't already put in your head through reading or listening.

If you emphasize reading and listening, then what you can understand when reading and listening will increase more quickly than what you can write and speak. On the other hand, if you emphasize writing and speaking, then what you can write and speak will increase more quickly than what you can understand when reading and listening. This can be summed up in the following chart:

Emphasis on reading and listening. Emphasis on writing and speaking. Read/Listen. Write/Speak.

Looking at this chart, it's easy to see how you can only expand your writing and speaking as far as your ability to understand when reading and listening. As your writing and speaking approaches the limits of what you can understand when reading and listening, you need to expand what you understand when reading and listening. Otherwise, your writing and speaking will stagnate.

This, however, hardly means that you should focus on reading and listening while pushing off writing and speaking to some amorphous point in the future.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Trying to learn grammar primarily through exposure is inefficient

Imagine that someone gives you a cake and tells you to figure out how to make the same cake. A trained chef might be able to do that just by looking at the end product, but most people wouldn't stand a chance. Let's say they then give you all the ingredients you need to make the cake and then ask you to do the same thing. Making this cake would be cake (painful pun intended) for a trained chef, but the average person still wouldn't be likely to make anything close to the original cake. Now let's say they give you instructions for making the cake as well. The chef could probably pull off the exact same cake and the average person could probably get pretty close as well.

Now replace the cake with a language, the trained chef with a polyglot, ingredients with vocabulary, and instructions with grammar rules, and it holds up just the same; you need the grammar rules to bring it all together, and getting them quickly will help you bring it all together quickly.

I noted in an earlier post that the process of improving your language ability is fundamentally the same for each component of the language. The first two steps consist of identifying something you don't know and then figuring it out.

In my debate on how to approach grammar with Steve Kaufmann, I argued that his method for learning grammar is slower than mine. His approach to figuring out the things he doesn't know is one of the main reasons I think his method is slower.

Let's illustrate this with some imagery.

Scientists: Speaking multiple languages gives your brain a turbo boost

Hey, you, polyglot: has anyone told you how awesome you are today? No? Then David Marsh, specialized planner at the Continuing Professional Development Centre of Jyväskylä University in Finland, can take care of that for you:
[T]he ability to use more than one language brings an individual a considerable advantage…

[E]specially the research conducted within neurosciences offers an increasing amount of strong evidence of versatile knowledge of languages being beneficial for the usage of an individual's brain…

[The] six main areas where multilingualism and hence the mastery of complex processes of thought seem to put people in advantage … include learning in general, complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and even a possible delay in the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life…

[T]he multilingual shows superior performance in handling complex and demanding problem-solving tasks when compared to monolinguals…

[I]t is likely that multilingualism produces a special advantage in utilizing a person's brain capacity as creatively as possible.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Grammarly: Want a free, year-long subscription to Grammarly? Leave a comment on this post.

Sorry, but you're too late to get a free subscription to Grammarly! Lang-8 user Late Bloomer received the account for this comment, and her review of Grammarly can be found below.

Grammarly bills itself as "the best grammar checker and proofreader" for English-language documents. As offered, Grammarly has provided me with a free, one-year subscription (automatically downgrading to a free account on May 13, 2011) to their premium service so that I can do a review of it for language-learning purposes.

They've set it up for me so that I can give that account away to one of my readers, which I will be doing sometime next week after I do the review this weekend.

Interested in getting the free account?

Regardless of what component of a language you're looking at, the basics for improving it don't change

Regardless of what part of a language I'm trying to improve in, my fundamental approach to improving my language abilities is always the same, as shown in this chart:

How to Improve Your Language Abilities. Identify an unknown. Figure it out. Set up exposures. Get exposures. Characters: A character. Look it up. Add to your SRS. Do spaced reps. Vocab: A word or phrase. Look it up. Add to your SRS. Do spaced reps. Grammar: A grammar rule. Look it up. Update your outline. Review. Pronunciation: A mispronunciation. Get a recording. Add to a playlist. Listen. Intonation: A misintonation. Get a recording. Add to a playlist. Listen.

This chart is of course a bit simplified, but you can get more details on how this can work for grammar here and how it can work for everything else here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

When repetition does not improve memory

The above is the title of a very interesting post on TheSuperMemoryBlog, a blog written by a fan of the spaced-repetition system SuperMemo named Gérman. Although he's using SuperMemo, his post applies to any spaced-repetition system.

The crux of his post is this:
[S]ometimes repetition is ineffective in promoting learning. … [U]nder certain circumstances … [repetition] not only doesn’t help, but could even impair your recall.

Get a native-speaker tutor that speaks in the accent you want to learn

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post writes:
According to a new research study in Israel, students learn a second language better from a teacher who speaks with the same accent as they do.
Why I think Valerie's on the wrong track, after the jump.

Vote for Street-Smart Language Learning in LexioPhiles' Top 100 Language Blogs 2010 competition

Vote the Top 100 Language Learning Blogs 2010I'm honored to say that this blog has been nominated to be one of LexioPhiles' Top 100 Language Blogs of 2010 (thanks, Benny!). You can vote for this blog by clicking here or on the image above.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Are high school students wasting time learning foreign languages?

For a while now, China has been helping schools around the world employ Chinese teachers. This week, the New York Times took a stab at this topic with an article entitled "Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America". How much Chinese are these students actually going to retain over the long run? Not much, according to this Chinese teacher:
“I want my students to have a sweet, sweet memory of taking Chinese,” … said [Zheng Yue, a 27-year-old woman from China who is teaching her native language to students in Lawton, Oklahoma]. “They won’t remember a lot of words, but I want them to remember the beauty of the language and the culture.”
I guess if your goal is to enhance China's soft power, that's a win, but it sounds like a fail as far as language learning goes.

And she's not the only one to question the benefits to be had by teaching languages in high school.

The false dichotomy of your first language and your second languages

On a website called Literacy News, I came across an article called "How Is Language Learnt?", which is a summary of some of the major theories of language acquisition by a native-Arabic speaker who is learning English.

It contains a nice little encapsulation of an idea that is often treated as some kind of universal truth:
When we say language acquisition, [we] mean either the first language acquisition or the second language acquisition. In this domain, we should distinguish between the first language and the second language. The first language which acquires by a very young child (mother tongue), the second language which acquires by older learners, and it includes any language which learners acquire except their first language (mother tongue).
It's this first language (1L) / second language (2L) dichotomy that I'm skeptical of. The idea generally seems to be that when you're a kid, some language becomes your first and only native language. But I don't think that's always the case.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The role of grammar: A live debate with Steve Kaufmann

A couple of weeks back, Steve asked in the comments of a post on his blog for someone to take the pro-grammar side in a debate with him. I took Steve up on the offer, and we did our little debate last week.

Steve posted the audio files of our debate last week, but since I happened to have the video as well I thought I'd make this debate the first thing on my nascent YouTube channel. I've tried to get rid of some of the repetition caused by the call getting dropped twice, so this edit's a little different than the audio recordings on Steve's site, but other than that it should be the same as the audio file—except now you can see our cherubic faces.

I agree with Steve when he noted that "I am sure we both feel that we did not get all our licks in", so I'll be revisiting a number of points raised in the debate later.

For now, here's the debate. Part 1 of 3 is below, and the other two are after the jump.



Sunday, May 9, 2010

RhinoSpike: My suggestions to make getting recordings from native speakers even awesomer

In case you hadn't heard, I'm something of a fan of RhinoSpike, a website that lets you get native-speaker recordings of target language text, which you can then get in MP3 format and add to your spaced-repetition system, listen to in iTunes, etc.

As I've been using it more, it's become clearer to me the places I'd like to see improved. I'll run through them, after the jump.

How to record your audio and video chats in Skype and iChat

If you use Skype or iChat to speak with native speakers of your target language, it's probably crossed your mind before that it'd be helpful if you were able to record the conversations and then go back through them to try to figure out the things that you didn't quite get during the chats. However, Skype doesn't come with this feature right out of the box, and only the most recent version of iChat does, so you probably need some add-on software to get the job done.

Product review policy

If you page around this site for a little bit, you'll see that reviews of language-learning tools are some of the bread-and-butter posts on this site. Thus far, all reviews have been done without being requested by the companies behind the products (although in some cases the companies notified me of the product via email, probably with the hope that they'd get a review or some other publicity). However, I recently received a free copy of language-learning software to review, and Grammarly might be hooking me up with something similar, so I thought it best that I lay out my product review policy.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Grammarly: Impressive response to complaints reignites 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.


Grammarly bills itself as "the best grammar checker and proofreader" for English-language documents. Thinking that it might be useful to my English-learning readers, I thought I'd check it out. My initial impression was one of disappointment; I found the website misleading and was quick to write a post detailing my complaints. That was nine days ago.

Grammarly was quick to respond, and that led to a back-and-forth between me, Grammarly, and the commenters on this site, in which Grammarly said that they were going to make some changes to remedy the causes of the complaints.

Well, just nine days since my first post, the "first wave" of those changes has been made and, all in all, they've done an excellent job of responding in such a short period of time to the complaints that were raised.

After the jump, the email that notified me of the changes and a look at the actual changes.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Some thoughts on the shift of foreign-language learning from classrooms to the web

The concept behind Help a Reporter Out—or HARO, for short—is pretty simple. Journalists (which, according to them, includes bloggers—nice!) can submit requests for sources. Sources then get emailed all such requests, and they can pitch themselves as sources. Then it's up to the journalists to decide whether or not to use the sources.

A few months back, a friend of mine forwarded me this request for a source:
I'm looking for sources to discuss the shift of foreign language learning from classrooms and one-on-one tutoring into the online, Internet realm. Can languages be learned as well online? Why is this format gaining ground? Are high schools getting out of language teaching?
I've heard nothing since, and the journalist has posted nothing related to language learning since then, so I'm guessing that the article was killed.

In any case, I thought the questions were interesting, and, after the jump, you'll find my quick answers to the questions.

How can speakers of lesser-studied languages quickly get good input from native speakers on social language-learning websites?

Milena, a native speaker of Serbian, made a great point in the comments of my earlier post entitled "Twelve simple tips to quickly get good input from native speakers on social language-learning websites". The post emphasized how helping others learn your language can get them to help you learn theirs, but Milena points this out:
Well, this basically means that we, native speakers of languages that are not popular at all, do not have much (or good) chance when it comes to this point. :)

(I can, of course, correct basic English writing, but I wouldn't trust myself correcting someone's article usage, for example, and also, it is quite hard to find a speaking partner, since I'm not a native English speaker.)
So what's a native speaker of a language that's not widely studied to do? Well, it'll certainly be harder, but you can still pull it off by adapting the tips in that earlier post to your situation. How to do that, after the jump.

(But before I get into that, Milena, you wouldn't happen to be studying German, would you? Several posts back I got a comment from a native-German speaker who is studying Serbian. He or she posted anonymously, but I might be able to get you in touch with him or her if it'd be helpful.)

My interview on LexioPhiles

Over the past several months, LexioPhiles has been conducting a series of written interviews of language learners, with a pretty interesting format:
Please answer five (not all!) out of the following ten questions…
  1. What was the first word you learned in a foreign language and how did you pick it up?

  2. What are your personal top three tricks and tips when learning languages?

  3. What is your favorite word of all times and why?

  4. Which word do you always have trouble spelling?

  5. What was the funniest situation with a linguistic misunderstanding you ever encountered?

  6. What is the worst translation error you have ever made?

  7. Which word is missing in your language and how would you spell it?

  8. In your opinion, what is the sexiest accent and what is the reason for it?

  9. Which language would you like to invent and why?

  10. Which language teaching product / service / method / gadget … has impressed you the most and why?
I recently had the honor of being selected as one of their interviewees. See what questions I answered, either over on LexioPhiles, or after the jump.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How to overcome your shyness when speaking a foreign language

Reader youmetal asked in the comments on an earlier post how to overcome his shyness when speaking a foreign language.

My quick answer is to ease into it slowly, building up confidence as well as the amount you say when speaking in your foreign languages.

A proposed way to do that, using free, online resources, after the jump.

China continues its assault on Chinglish

Previously it was the Brits who were all over Chinglish, and now the New York Times has it's own coverage in an article entitled "Shanghai Is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish".

While I've already aired my fondness for Chinglish in my earlier post on the topic, the New York Times had a few interesting bits.

Grammarly responds to my claim that their website is misleading

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.


Last week, I wrote a post entitled "Grammarly: Misleading website kills my desire to learn about their service", in which I complained about Grammarly leading me to believe that I'd be seeing grammar corrections when all I in fact got was statistics about grammar corrections, and that they took my email before letting me know that I'd have to pay to do anything more.

To Grammarly's immense credit (and in contrast to Rocket Languages, who opted to ignore complaints about their astroturfing campaign), they were quick to engage me on this, both in the comments of that post and via email. Most importantly, they indicated a willingness to remedy the issues that led to my complaints, which they believe stem from a misunderstanding, and are currently working on doing so. They hold—and, given how open they have been in engaging me, I have no reason to doubt—that they are not being intentionally misleading. All in all, their communications with me have left me with a positive image of the people behind Grammarly.

That said, even if unintentional, I remain unchanged in my opinion that their website as it stands is misleading. And I don't seem to be alone (see here, here, and here). The pattern doesn't seem to be limited to their website, either; check out the ad below:


I also note that my earlier blog post on Grammarly is currently the number one result on Google when you search for "Grammarly price", and that can't be a good sign.

After the jump, I've gathered all of my communications with Grammarly together so that you can make your own call on this. It's a long read, but you'll get some great insights into the thinking that led them to make the site what it is.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Twelve simple tips to quickly get good input from native speakers on social language-learning websites

Busuu, CorrectMyText, Livemocha, Lang-8, italki, RhinoSpike, and others. The number of language-learning websites where you rely on free help from other users is slowly but surely proliferating.

While the specifics of each site vary, what you want from other users is pretty much the same. First, you want input. Then you want good input. Then you want good input quickly.

Twelve simple tips to make that happen, after the jump.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Project Gutenberg: Get free, online books in lots of languages

Project Gutenberg (via Learn a Language) "is the place where you can download over 30,000 free ebooks". They've got the complete text for numerous books that are in the public domain.

And their books cover lots of different languages. The languages with the most books are Chinese (405), Dutch (477), English (26,942), Finnish (527), French (1,593), German (675), Italian (238), Portuguese (426), and Spanish (284), but there are plenty of others there as well. As with LibriVox (which serves up audio books for books that are in the public domain, as covered here), because these books are all in the public domain, they tend to be old, so you probably won't be getting the most recent lingo in any of these languages.

Speaking of LibriVox, Project Gutenberg is in fact working with LibriVox (in multiple languages) and LiteralSystems (almost all in English) to get audio books of their ebooks. Go to Project Gutenberg's audio book page and search for the language of your choice to see what they've got. For English learners, they've also got a bunch of computer-generated audio books, but I'd stick with the human-read audio books if you can.

Anki + RhinoSpike = Utter awesomeness: Copy and paste MP3's URL and Anki does the rest

I've been giving my workflow using free, online tools to cover reading, writing, listening, and speaking a spin, and I just got to the step that requires me to add my recordings to my spaced-repetition system, Anki.

I began Googling around for an easy way to do this, and I quickly found this great tip on Spanish Only. Let me lay out the [sarcasm] long, complicated [/sarcasm] process for you. It goes like this:
  1. Copy the URL of your audio file.
  2. Paste the URL of the audio file into an Anki field.
Yes, that is all you need to do. Anki will then do all the heavy lifting, first converting the URL into an Anki-friendly text string and then downloading the file so you have it sitting on your computer.

So where do you get those audio files? You haven't already forgotten yet about RhinoSpike, have you? Here's a list of all of my audio requests on RhinoSpike. Most of those posted yesterday are the vocabulary words from a Japanese article I read. Click on the "Listen" button next to any of those requests, and you'll get a list of recordings. Next to each recording is an "MP3" button. Click that, and you've got your URL, ready to copy and paste into Anki.