Friday, December 23, 2011

Speaking a foreign language in a dream when you know next to nothing?

My friend sent me an email relating the following tale of dreaming in Spanish, even though he's studying Japanese and knows pretty much no Spanish. I'm not exactly sure what to make of it, so I'll throw it out to you. What do you think?

My mom asked me this morning what I was dreaming about last night because I was talking in my sleep. I couldn't remember anything so I just shrugged it off and asked what was I saying? Here's the kicker, my mom said "You were speaking Spanish. It was like a conversation going on for a few minutes." I was even doing it with a Spanish-like accent. I can tell you flat out that if hard pressed to say more than please and thank you in Spanish I would drown in a sea of my own ignorance. Also, as you know, the only Spanish I ever took was in high school, with Mrs. Huggins, which I never even opened the book for, so I wouldn't say I learned anything that could subconsciously be festering in the back of my mind. I have never been to a Spanish-speaking country, don't listen to Spanish-language music, rarely watch Spanish films (and definitely not recently), and have had no other interaction or exposure to Spanish-speaking people recently. So where does it come from?
My friend throws out a few of his own ideas, after the jump.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A formula to calculate language-learning success

One of the first formulas you'll learn in high-school physics is that distance travelled (D) equals speed (s) multiplied by time travelled (t), or:

D = s * t
So if you're going 30 km/h for 3 hours, you know you've travelled 90 kilometers.

The same formula can be applied to language learning, where learning (D) equals learning speed (s) multiplied by time spent learning (t). So if you've been learning 1 new item (vocab word, grammar rule, character, etc.) every 3 minutes and your exposure time is 100 hours (or 6,000 minutes), you've learned 2,000 items.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Learning with Texts Review: Great for languages that use spaces, cumbersome but still useful for those that don't

Learning with Texts allows you to copy and paste in a body of text, note which words within that text you do and don't know, quickly look up the words you don't, and create flashcards from them. It was designed with languages that use spaces in mind (to determine where one word stops and the next begins), and works quite well with them. For languages that don't use spaces, like Japanese, it's much more cumbersome (as some elbow grease will be needed to indicate where one word stops and the next begins) but it's still a useful tool. The interface is not very intuitive and there's definitively a significant learning curve to climb before you get your sea legs, but I'd recommend breaking out your climbing gear because the price is right ($0) and there's no other free tool that does the same thing.

In fact, the only place you can do the same thing that I am aware of (to the comments if you know of another!) is LingQ. However, LingQ only allows you to input 100 terms for free; from there, you have to subscribe to get more. While I've found that LingQ is a bit more user friendly and intuitive, it's hard to beat free.

My initial approach to reviewing Learning with Texts was to simply pick some article I was reading, throw it up there, run through the process with it, and then report back in the form of a review. However, the initial article I selected was in Japanese, and it quickly became apparent that the Learning with Texts experience is going to be vastly different depending on whether you're using a language with spaces, like all major Western languages, or a language without spaces, like Japanese. As such, I also decided I'd add the text of a short comment from my blog that was written in Portuguese to test out how it works with languages that use spaces.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Today’s exercise in heresy: In defense of the traditional language course

The following is a guest post by Serge Gorodish, the author of Country of the Blind.

Let’s consider the case of a hypothetical language student, whom we shall call Lenny. Lenny has studied, say, French for four years in high school—what the hell, make it twelve years from 1st grade onwards. After graduation, Lenny travels to France for the first time. He finds with shock and dismay that he can scarcely manage to ask where the restroom is and, what’s worse, finds the answer utterly incomprehensible.

But Lenny is nothing if not resourceful. He is determined to get a handle on this French thing. He joins the Paris chapter of the Jerry Lewis fan club, he watches every episode of obscure French cartoons, he leaves no stone unturned. Eventually, through a combination of luck and inspiration he hits on the magic formula (whatever it is). He finds himself speaking French with increasing facility. French women swoon at his feet, and even snooty maîtres-d’hôtel smile and nod approvingly of his eloquence.

And he thinks: Damn! All that time I wasted in stuffy, traditional language class!

We’ll come back to the case of Lenny shortly. But there seem to be a lot of Lennys out there in cyberspace. Some language gurus will tell you input is the secret; others will tell you it’s all about output—but almost all seem to agree that traditional language courses are the kiss of death. I respectfully disagree. I’ve tried studying languages in class, outside of class, at home, and in immersive environments. I’ve had both success and failure in every scenario. And I find that when embarking on a language I always sign up for a traditional course (if available).

I didn’t need to analyze why until writing this post. On reflection, I find the traditional approach has advantages—and disadvantages, too, but these can be negated if you take the right attitude. Let me start by defining what I call the “traditional” course: a group studying together, guided (and usually evaluated) by a “teacher” not only proficient in the language in question but with training and/or experience in the particular issues encountered by students of the language.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Three of Benny's reasons for not wanting to live in the U.S. boil down to U.S. English being different

You may have recently read Benny's post slamming the U.S. for a bunch of stuff. While I agree with some of it (prices including tax are way more user friendly) and disagree with some of it (Americans hardly have a monopoly on stupid stereotypes—no, I have never owned any guns and, no, I never eat at McDonalds), I've no interest in wading into those debates on this language-learning blog, but I was pretty surprised to see a well-versed language learner like Benny fail so hard in his attitude toward a few things that are clearly linguistic issues.

Let's go through those points.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Input-only language learning is like being in a new city without a map

You'll get to where you need to be eventually. It'll just take longer.

Quite a while back, a reader (let's call him "Sam" because I didn't bother to see if he cared whether or not I published his real name) wrote to me with the following message:


I saw your "debate" with Steve K. and I considered myself a 100% input-only guy. For some reason, I started outlining (actually copying word for word) Baron's 501 Spanish Verbs grammar/verb section in the front of the book. After just covering the first 12 or so pages (3 verb tenses), I listened to a Mexican podcast I've heard 20+ times. My comprehension went from 10% to 60% (just general estimates). I was blown away by your approach. I know that everyone learns differently, but I swear by this now. I've been adding phrases to Anki as well, and I "knew" what the phrases translated as, but now I "know" the phrases and can substitute in words and other phrases to form thoughts and sentences. I am thinking more in Spanish now, and now that I have a better working blueprint (i.e., grammar) of the language, I understand far more.

I know that input-only types say that you will learn the language "naturally" from input and you won't need grammar, but I think is kind of like saying, "Don't buy a map of New York City; if you walk around downtown, you'll naturally learn it." Your method says, get the map, learn it, and then pound pavement. You will still learn "naturally" but intuitively you will be light years ahead. I still do 5 hours of input every day, but now it's becoming comprehensible thanks to grammar and your method!

Thanks for your blog and time!!!

So Sam appears to have used my grammar-learning method with his own twist—and to great effect.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Online resources for nurses to learn Spanish

The following is a guest post by Erinn Stam, the Managing Editor for She attends Wake Technical Community College and is learning about nursing schools in Washington State.

As the Spanish-speaking population grows in the U.S., it is becoming more and more important for healthcare professionals to learn the language to be able to communicate vital information to provide life-saving care. Nurses are on the front lines of patient care and are often the first to see a patient and take an assessment. Knowing how to communicate with patients clearly and quickly can make the difference in a life-or-death situation. Unfortunately, nurses are busy professionals and work notoriously long and stressful hours. Finding the time to learn a second language may not be possible for many. Fortunately, there are a number of resources that can help nurses learn medical Spanish through self-study or part-time study, making it easy to balance with their schedules. A few good resources, after the jump.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Memory as data points embedded in a schema

In the middle of a pretty interesting article on how psychology was used to analyze the wildly varying recollections of the survivors of a WWII naval battle to pinpoint the location of the battle's shipwrecks, the author makes an interesting point about memory:

When a memory is made, the content you're trying to remember is embedded in a schema, or theory of what is going on. Over time, you remember less of the original content and more of the general theory.
One thing about my own language learning that I've noticed is that I seem to retain grammar rules much longer than vocabulary. I've always chalked that up to exposure; if you say there are hundreds or even thousands of grammar rules, there are easily many more words than that, so for a given amount of exposure you'll be getting more exposure to your average grammar rule than your average word.

But what if the actual difference is that grammar rules fit better into the "schema" I'm embedding the memories into?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Livemocha to give away its premium content to contributing users

So there seems to have been a lot of change over at Livemocha since I reviewed their site. In addition to a new logo, the biggest change is that some of their content isn't free any more. I suppose the Livemocha team has to put food on the table as well, so I can't say that change is all that shocking.

What is kind of cool is that they're offering that content for free to people who contribute to the site. Because I seem to have made a lot of good corrections while playing around with Livemocha, I recently got an email from them to become an "Apprentice Expert Reviewer". All I need to do is send in a resume! (Lol?)

The email, after the jump.

Monday, October 31, 2011

International Business Times: Foreign-language skills provide sharp edge in the job market

Want some more motivation for your language learning? How about cash money? From the International Business Times:

Job seekers with bilingual skills could look forward to a profusion of opportunities in the coming year, according to various reports and company hiring plans.
A profusion? If that's not so much hyperbole, that sounds pretty good, given that jobs aren't exactly easy to come by at the moment.
[T]he need for transactional knowledge of languages has become very important in both private and government sectors. … Strangely however, … while proficiency in languages—especially in Chinese and Spanish—seems to be among the most critical skills likely to be sought by recruiters over the next decade, very few workers had plans to invest in language instruction.
Speaking just from my own personal experience, foreign-language abilities are a huge asset in a job search; from my first college internship to my current job, language skills were a crucial part of my sell—and often a prerequisite to even get a position.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wanna be a polyglot? Might wanna lay off the alcohol

A new study may indicate that the more you drink, the worse you're gonna be at language learning. From Science Daily:

[A]lcohol damage occurs in gradations: the more alcohol consumed, the greater the damage. … Alcohol has an impact on both gray and white matter, with the greatest impact affecting parts of the brain called the frontal and temporal lobes. "These brain areas are critical to learning new information…," said [Catherine Brawn Fortier, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School as well as corresponding author for the study]. … "Severe reductions in temporal brain regions most often result in impairments in memory and language function… ."
Learning and memory and language function? Golly gee, those sure sound like they'd be important for language learning!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Your target language should become second nature

A quote about skills in general that would also apply to language learning skills (from Time):
"Once skills… become second nature, you can call them up much more easily when you need them," [theoretical physicist Lisa] Randall writes. "Such embedded skills often continue operating in the background — even before they push good ideas into your conscious mind."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Laokang Tone Test Review: Great, simple app for learning how to distinguish Chinese tones

The Laokang Tone Test (via Laowai Chinese) is a simple, free iPhone app that trains your ability to recognize Chinese tones.

Press the play button on the app's opening page, and you'll hear the two-syllable word mama with one of the 20 unique tone combinations for two-syllable words in Chinese. By doing it this way, it accustoms you to the way tones changes when used together with another tone, something Chinese learners usually tend to overlook.

You then must select the tones for each syllable by simply tapping on a graphical representation of the tones. Each test goes through all 20 tone combinations in a random order, only taking a couple minutes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Music: Like jet fuel for kids' (and adults'?) language learning?

Some scientists seem to have come up with some darn good stuff for kids' language learning. From Science Daily:

Canadian scientists who specialize in learning, memory and language in children have found exciting evidence that pre-schoolers can improve their verbal intelligence after only 20 days of classroom instruction using interactive, music-based cognitive training cartoons.
And the results are impressive:
The verbal IQ tests assessed the children's attention, word recall and ability to analyze information and solve problems using language-based reasoning. Brain imaging enabled researchers to detect if functional brain changes had occurred related to the cognitive training.

When the children were re-tested five to 20 days after the end of the training programs, researchers … found quite a different result in the children who took the music-based, cognitive training. Ninety percent of those children exhibited intelligence improvements -- five times larger than the other group -- on a measure of vocabulary knowledge, as well as increased accuracy and reaction time. The music group also showed brain changes that co-related to their enhanced cognitive performance.So what's that mean for us language learners (and our language-learning kids)?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Amanda Knox's tragic path to Italian

The language-learning world is not one that's prone for drama and high crimes, but the murder of Meredith Kercher created just that in a place that is surely close to the hearts of many readers of this blog: a study-abroad program. Meredith was spending a year abroad, studying Italian as an Erasmus scholar, when her life was abruptly cut short in a senseless tragedy, and the aftermath of that tragedy sent Amanda Knox down a multi-year language-learning path that I would wish upon no one, but nevertheless resulted in her fluency in the Italian language.

This post looks at Amanda's language-learning background, how her language abilities may have affected her interactions with Italian authorities, and finally how the long path from trial to conviction to acquittal ultimately led to her fluency in Italian.

Friday, October 14, 2011

GraspChinese review: Pretty good way for Chinese beginners to get started is an online Chinese course for the total beginner. The first 10 lessons are free and for $14.99 (or $12.74 with the 15%-off promo code "GRASP15" that will work through the end of 2011) you can get a month of access to all 37 lessons, with discounts for longer subscriptions (GraspChinese provided me with a free six-month subscription for review purposes, so I had access to all 37 lessons). The short and succinct lessons cover the basics of Chinese vocab, grammar, and pronunciation, with a welcome focus on teaching the four tones. It's a pretty good place to start your Chinese efforts, especially given how quickly you should be able to go through the material, but wholly omitting Chinese characters is disappointing and needing to hear a non-native speaker pronounce Chinese words is not ideal.

GraspChinese's lessons are for the most part organized around doing a bunch of things that a traveller to China might need to do while there (ordering a coffee, shopping, etc.). Each lesson consists of a series of narrated slides, a listening comprehension exercise, dictation exercises for words and phrases, a list of vocabulary and key phrases from the lesson, and—when the vocabulary of the lesson lends itself to visual representation—an image selection exercise not unlike those found in RosettaStone or Livemocha.

Guidelines for guest posts

Guest posts have been a part of this blog for some time now. As I keep getting requests from potential guest bloggers, I've decided to create this post explaining my guidelines for guest posts so I can lazily link here whenever someone wants to do one.

Monday, October 10, 2011

How Steve Jobs made language learning easier

As you may have heard, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc., passed away last week at the age of 56.

Steve doesn't appear to have been much of a language learner (one somewhat unreliable source tells me that he spoke Malayalam, presumably learned during the time he spent backpacking around India), but it's hardly surprising that the course Steve cut through technology has had many reverberations in the way we study languages. The changes are really knock-off effects from what was happening at a higher level, and much of it seems to be "someone would've done this sooner or later" kinds of things, but the big changes are obvious when I compare to the way I learned languages 15 years ago, and I for one am glad those changes came sooner rather than later.

Three ways he did that, after the jump.

Advertise on Street-Smart Language Learning

I've recently been getting some inquiries about advertising on here, so I've decided to test the waters with a monthly banner ad auction. Lang-8 kindly agreed to be my banner ad guinea pig, and you can see what the banner ad will look like above. The minimum bid is just $10, which should hopefully make the advertising accessible to just about anyone.

Find out more after the jump.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Stopping the study-abroad fail train

The Associated Press is reporting about a trend in studying abroad away from "so-called 'island' programs, where Americans live, study and often party together" (via irishpolyglot). The results of these programs, as you might imagine, is that students learn little of the local language.

My study-abroad program in Shanghai was very much an "island" program. Our dorms and classrooms were a bunch of apartments in a fenced complex with a pool. Each apartment had four English-speaking students, English television channels and our classes were in English (except for our Chinese classes). It took me about two months to make my escape to a host family a few blocks away, but I was glad I did as my learning speed picked up immediately.

Although I've seen Americans get stuck in such an island on every single study abroad program I've ever been involved with, it's hardly limited to Americans and other English speakers. It's likely to be a problem for any group of native speakers studying abroad in sufficient numbers, with Japanese and Korean students coming to mind as well. One of the most extreme examples I've run into is a Japanese guy who had gotten a four-year college degree from the States and, a few years after graduating, when I asked him something like "Oh, so your English is pretty good then, right?" in English, he had no idea what I was saying. None. Turned out that he had bubbled himself up in Japanese so much that he never really got his listening and speaking skills to improve very much and had passed all his classes through reading alone. Yikes.

Getting back to our U.S. study abroad programs, the trend seems to be taking steps to put an end to this kind of thing. Let's run through the ways noted in the article that they're going about this, after the jump.

Monday, October 3, 2011

How being multilingual can help a career in criminal justice

The following is a guest post by Marie Owens. Marie works in security logistics, writes for Criminal Justice Degree Online and is a frequent guest blogger on various related topics.

The field of criminal justice in the United States is as diverse as the individuals in which professionals in the field come in to contact. In addition to police and detective work, the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that those with a criminal justice degree can work as probation officers in the field of pretrial services, assist addicts as substance abuse treatment counselors and also work with families and individuals as social workers. Federal and state agencies mandate training modules and testing score adherence, so as to vet candidates for open positions. Even so, it is frequently overlooked that being multilingual greatly assists a criminal justice professional in a chosen field, to the point of being an essential skill.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Signing to Cee-Lo Green

I recently came across this post on Renaissance Cafe of a student of American Sign Language signing the lyrics to Cee-Lo Green's elegant love ballad entitled "F**k you". While not exactly the most child-friendly lyrics ever written (although I must admit the tune is catchy), I was intrigued and hit play on the video, only to see some language-learning lessons jumping out at me.

The (lyrically) NSFW video, together with a few language-learning lessons, after the jump.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Verbling: Chatroulette for language learners

Verbling takes the Chatroulette random video chat paring model and applies it to language learning (via VentureBeat).

Verbling pairs you up with someone who speaks the language you are learning and is learning the language you speak. The app times you and for the first 5 minutes you are supposed to speak one of the languages and for the next 5 minutes the other. At the moment, its language coverage seems to be limited to Spanish-English combinations, but you can select from a variety of languages.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Chinese and Spanish in Philly

Back in high school, I did an internship down in Center City, Philadelphia. Every day I'd walk from Market East Station to my internship a few blocks away towards the waterfront. On one of my first days down there, I noticed that free, Spanish-language newspapers were available along the street on the way to the internship. Having had five years of Spanish under my belt at that point but having little access to Spanish-language materials (the internet in 1997 wasn't quite what it is today), I'd always grab those papers and try to read them during my commutes, marking them up with my notes. I was down in Philly earlier this week, saw the same newspapers, and had to restrain myself from picking one up, if only because I can get much more (and likely exactly the same) content online.

The other interesting thing related to language learning about my excursion to Center City earlier this week was the foreign languages I heard: Mandarin, Spanish, and some other Chinese language (not sure which it was; I could pick out some words and phrases, but it clearly wasn't Mandarin). Mandarin was the one I heard the most, which might have just been a function of where I was; I was basically walking parallel to Chinatown a block or two to the south on Market Street. And Spanish was hardly in short order.

So although no one really thinks of Philly as a great place to go learn Mandarin or Spanish, it is (and long has been) easy to get exposure to both languages there (and to others as well, I'm sure). Just a few of the many of the ways you can increase your exposure to a target language without needing to go abroad.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Donate to the disaster relief effort in Japan

Even while language learning continues in the midst of a disaster (e.g., I just learned how to say "aftershock" in multiple languages while assuring friends from around the world that all is well for me and my family), the focus is of course on the lives of the people most affected, so if you'd like to chip in to help them out, click here to donate via the American Red Cross, or Google around for any of the numerous ways to contribute that are popping up across the web.

While the experience here in Tokyo has been more about inconvenience than injury, I can't say the same for other parts of Japan, and my thoughts are with those who've been affected more seriously than we have.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dirty mind = better memory?

That's what we're getting from the New York Times:
The basis of memory techniques is that the brain remembers visual imagery better than numbers, and erotic, exotic and exciting imagery best. … “When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind,” [Joshua Foer, author of “Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,”] writes. “Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex — and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.”
So if you were ever wondering why you never had any trouble learning dirty words in a foreign language, this is probably it.

But the tactic has you using it for any words at all:
[Memory grand master Ed Cooke] coaches [Foer] in a system of memorizing a deck of cards in under two minutes that uses both familiar old memories and thrilling new pictures. Foer said his images devolved into “a handful of titillating acts that are still illegal in a few Southern states, and a handful of others that probably ought to be.”
However effective it may be, I'll venture that we're not going to see this tactic widely deployed any time soon.