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.