Monday, September 9, 2013

Hashy Pomme+ Bath Speaker review: Get your target language audio and video in the shower—batteries not included (or needed)

If you like being clean—and I'll bet you do—then you probably spend at a bare minimum 5 to 10 minutes in the shower every day. And if you're into Japanese-style ofuro bathing or just take really long singing showers that annoy everyone else in your family (*ahem*), then it's probably going to be a lot more time than that. And if you aren't using that time to get exposure to your target language, then you're missing out.

Years ago I bought some crappy $20 shower speaker on a whim, and it's been one of the items in my language-learning tool kit ever since: turn on some audio (music or podcasts, for example) and get some exposure while you're taking a shower.

Unfortunately there was one thing that always annoyed me about that crappy $20 shower speaker: it needed batteries. That meant that every time the batteries died, there'd be some period of time between the battery dying and me finally bothering to replace them that would result in missed exposure.

After that shower speaker breathed its last breath, I got the Pomme Bath Speaker by Hashy Top-In (pretty sweet Japanglish name for a company that's been around since 1929, no?), which is pictured above. It's powered by the device that you put in it so it doesn't need a battery, and I loved it for that, but this too had something that annoyed me: there's no convenient way to skip a track that you don't want to listen to or to adjust the volume.

I went looking for a battery-free replacement and that was when I discovered that Hashy had upgraded the Pomme to the Pomme+, which remained battery free but scratched one of my itches by adding a button that lets you skip songs. Below is the unboxing and a quick demonstration of how it works.

You'll find my full review after the jump, but I'll say right now that I can completely recommend the Pomme+ to get your daily dose of language learning in the shower.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Get more exposure from target language music by adjusting songs' start and stop times

While using music as a tool to improve my various languages, I discovered something that was crashing headlong into my impatience to learn quickly: when trying to get exposure to a target language via music, I'd often have to sit through parts of the songs that weren't giving me any exposure to the target language or were only providing very repetitive exposure.

There were basically three things that led to this. The first was those parts of the song that were purely instrumental; obviously if nobody's singing, you won't be getting any exposure to the target language. The second was that some songs use languages other than one of my target languages—most commonly English. The third was that certain songs would repeat the refrain or some other part of the song so much that I wasn't getting any particular value from all the additional repetitions.

That led me to thinking that if there's a way I can skip these parts, I can increase my exposures per minute and make the exposures more valuable by reducing excessive repetition. In theory, I could edit out such parts with an audio editor, but that'd be quite a lot of work and I'm not sure the time spent doing so would result in a net gain. However, if the parts you want to skip are at the beginning or end of your songs, iTunes has a pretty easy way for you to skip those sections on a permanent basis: changing the start and stop times of the songs.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Ways to master English vocabulary

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

Learners can improve their English vocabulary in the following ways:
  • by doing communicative English grammar exercises with daily life content;
  • by practicing speaking on various topics;
  • by reading various materials in English on a multitude of topics; and
  • by listening to audio and video recordings with diverse content.
I believe the best way to learn English vocabulary is by topics with explanations of meaning, examples of usage in sentences, and subsequent exercises.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Always be on the lookout for exposure to your target language

When you start learning a language, there's a pretty good chance that you're going to start noticing that language in all sorts of surprising places. If it's a more obscure language, it might just be in a handful of loan words from that language, but if it's a bit more common where you are, you very well might find it all over the place.

I'm constantly reminded of this while studying Korean in Japan.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Practice speaking English (or any language) with ready-made dialogues

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

My suggestions below are suitable for practicing any language and are given of course in addition to indispensable communication practice with native English speakers.

There are quite a lot of ready-made conversational English dialogues on a multitude of topics with authentic natural wording with useful content (and vocabulary) at all levels of difficulty from basic to advanced levels. It's hard and time consuming for learners to create such dialogues on their own, as this would require a lot of imagination about potential content of conversations in various situations and issues of discussions.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): Dealing with the lack of one-to-one translations

Randy explains his second major issue with flashcards as follows:
And the other bad side-effect of learning from flashcards is that they encourage you to believe in one-to-one translation. They make you narrow-minded and unaware of the language you think you're learning.

When you learn a foreign word and an English word together, and burn them together in your mind as a pair, you create the illusion of a world where every language is exactly the same, just with different words. But that world doesn't actually exist.
Assuming that there's always a one-to-one translation between any two languages is simply a patently false assumption. Now that you've been disabused of that notion, you no longer need to worry about flashcards "encouraging you to believe in one-to-one translation".

Now that that's out of the way, we can turn to the more interesting question: how do you deal with words that have multiple meanings in one language or the other? This is a real issue when using flashcards—and when learning languages generally—but hardly one that can't be overcome.

All you need to do is find some way to differentiate the slide of the flashcard that would become the same, and there are numerous ways to do that.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Difficulties and problems in learning English

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

Different students can have different difficulties and problems in learning English. They can make different mistakes in English pronunciation, grammar, orthography, and vocabulary usage.

There is a connection between the native language of a learner and particular difficulties in learning and using English and the kind of mistakes a learner typically makes in English pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary as there is native-language interference in learning and using English.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): Translation is not the end result of flashcard use

This week I'll take aim directly at one of Randy's main criticisms of flashcards: that flashcard users will end up being trapped in some abyss of always needing to translate from their native language to their target language.

This is just plainly false. Flashcards that use your native language to explain the meaning of a word in the target language are merely using an associative mnemonic device (namely, a meaning of the target language word in your native language) to connect the word in the target language to its actual meaning. At some point in your learning, you will rely on that mnemonic device to recall the word—that is the point of the mnemonic device, after all—but that will be temporary; as with any good mnemonic device, you'll eventually stop needing the mnemonic device to recall what you want to recall. In other words, translation should never be the end result of flashcard use.

Let's walk through this step by step with an example borrowed from Randy.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Considerations before practicing a real-life topic in English

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

My ideas below may help you practice a language even on your own more comprehensively and productively.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): Learn faster with flashcards than without

In my last post, I described how flashcards allow you to learn words to which you otherwise wouldn't get sufficient exposure to commit to memory. But what about those words that you would eventually get enough exposure to learn? Should those be excluded from flashcards?

No. And the simple reason is that you can learn them even faster with flashcards than without.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The importance of listening comprehension in English

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

The actual process of oral communication consists of two integral parts: listening and speaking.

People do not develop listening comprehension skills in English only by watching English movies (films) and other programs on video, on TV, or on the Internet, or only by listening to BBC English, Voice of America, and other radio programs and to audio/video recordings for learning English.

People also listen to and learn different accents and peculiarities of English usage in real-life settings in different English-speaking countries by native-English speakers in terms of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and style (formal and informal English). Informal English includes colloquial, slang, and dialectal usage.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): Learn more with flashcards than without

There are two main reasons why you should use flashcards. The first is that, with a spaced-repetition system, they allow you to learn more quickly than exposure alone. I'll turn to that in my next post.

The second reason—and the one I'll cover in this post—is that they let you learn words that you otherwise wouldn't be able to learn.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): How much to use flashcards

Flashcards should be taking up about 10% to 20% of your language-learning time. To see how I've arrived at that range, let's start by considering the two extremities of the flashcard use continuum.

Point A is no flashcard use at all. This is Randy's stance. Point B or thereabouts, on the other hand, represents the other extreme: you're using flashcards as your main way to learn a language. When I read Randy's criticisms of flashcards, it comes off to me as if he's throwing those criticisms at someone who's at or approaching point B as their language-learning method, i.e., pretty much the only thing they're doing is using flashcards.

I think Randy's completely correct in that, as a language learner, you don't want your language-learning time to be anywhere near point B. If you simply try to remember a string of facts without every actually applying them, Randy's completely right: you're going to struggle to ever get your speaking off the ground.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): When to use flashcards

You'll want to use flashcards during "trapped time", i.e., time in which you can't otherwise efficiently gain meaningful exposure to your target language, and minimize their use at other times.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Why I use flashcards (and you should too): How to use flashcards the right way

This post is part of a series on using flashcards written in response to Why I don't use flashcards (and you shouldn't either) and other related posts on
  1. How to use flashcards the right way
  2. When to use flashcards
  3. How much to use flashcards
  4. Learn more with flashcards than without
  5. Learn faster with flashcards than without
  6. Translation is not the end result of flashcard use
  7. How to deal with the lack of one-to-one translations
A few years back Randy on wrote some posts arguing that you should never use flashcards in language learning: "Why I don't use flashcards (and you shouldn't either)", "The flashcard holy war rages on!", and "8 ways to learn a language without using flashcards", and it's a constant theme of his posts generally.

In the second of the above-mentioned posts, Randy remarked:
I have a strong suspicion that the biggest advocates of flashcards are people who haven't yet finished learning their first foreign language. And I expect that the number of polyglots using flashcards is extremely low.
It's high time that a big advocate of flashcards and polyglot explain why Randy's advice is wrong.

Randy argues, in short, that you should learn only through reading, listening to, writing, and speaking the language (with an emphasis on reading), looking up unknown words as you come across them or learning them from context. My position is that you should learn through reading, listening to, writing and speaking the language and supplement that with flashcard review because that'll allow you to learn more in less time, and each problem Randy raises about flashcards is either incorrect or can be overcome without detracting from your learning.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Using music to improve a language that you're not currently focusing on

The main thing that has always made me reluctant to add another language to those I've already started is that, with work, a brood of rambunctious offspring, etc., the amount of time I have to throw at language learning tends to be limited. Well, what with me getting all gung-ho on Korean lately…

I thought it was time that I came up with some kind of systematic way to continue growing my vocab in the languages that I'm not really focusing on at the moment. Given my time restrictions, the system would have to work with a minimum amount of time but pack the strongest punch possible in that time.

I know that Susanna Zaraysky would approve when I decided that music was the answer.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The value of oral translation into English

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

Have you noticed that interpreters have to possess the most thorough knowledge of a foreign language, especially of conversation, vocabulary and grammar? Perhaps foreign learners of English can achieve fluency in English also through oral translation from their native language into English. It is possible to check oneself this way when practicing speaking in English every sentence in ready-made materials with both native-language and English versions. I also believe that the value of oral translation from a native language into English with self-check is underestimated by English teaching specialists for self-study and self-practice of English conversation, vocabulary and grammar. Oral translation practice should cover English grammar, conversation, and vocabulary. Thematic dialogues, questions and answers on conversation topics, thematic texts (informative texts and narrative stories), grammatical usage sentences, and sentences with difficult vocabulary on various topics, especially with fixed phrases and idioms, can be used in practicing English through oral translation from one's native language into English.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How to type in Korean on a Mac

Given how much digging I had to do to get to the bottom of how to type in Korean (i.e., in "hangul") on a Mac, I thought I'd make a quick summary of how to do it. This'll run you through the basics and a few slightly trickier questions:
  • How do you set up Korean typing?
  • How do you type Korean double letters?
  • When one syllable has no final consonant but the next syllable has an initial consonant, how do you prevent the initial consonant of the second syllable from being treated as the final consonant of the first syllable?
  • How do you turn Korean writing into the corresponding Chinese characters?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Forget less of your target language with better kinds of exposure

I recently stumbled across some pretty interesting data on how quickly we forget things depending on how we were exposed to those things. From a post by AJ Kumar called "You Forget 80% of What You Learn Every Day!":

We learn:
  • 10% What we READ
  • 20% What we HEAR
  • 30% What we SEE
  • 50% What we SEE and HEAR
  • 70% What we DISCUSSED with OTHERS
So how do the four core skills of the language-learning trade—reading, writing, listening, and speaking—fare in the above?

Monday, May 20, 2013

How to automatically add foreign-language audio to Anki

A few weeks back I explained how to get MP3 audio recordings of your target language from Google Translate. My goal was to add those to Anki so that I could hear the foreign-language pronunciation while reviewing words. I did it, but it was a pain. And I thought to myself, "There's got to be a better way to get audio into Anki…".

Well, wouldn't ya know it? There is. It's in a little Anki plugin called AwesomeTTS, which I concur is a pretty awesome add-on for adding text-to-speech audio to Anki.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Getting reading materials in English

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

Extensive reading in English with the help of a good English dictionary on a variety of real life topics is one of the ways to learn English vocabulary. Since there is an enormous amount of reading material in English, a learner of English has to prioritize reading in subjects according to the learner's needs for using English to encompass first the most necessary, relevant and frequently used vocabulary. Day-to-day topics ought to come first in reading.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Top executives agree: You should be learning foreign languages

Cass Business School of City University London just put out an interesting report called After the Baby Boomers—The Next Generation of Leadership. As explained on Cass Business School's website:

To create this report, we spoke to 100 senior managers of global companies. Their responses provide an in-depth understanding of how companies see their marketplaces and workforces changing over the next two decades, and how ready they are to embrace these changes.
Would you be surprised if I told you they put a high value on language?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How to get MP3 audio recordings of your target language from Google Translate

The following instructions are a manual process to add audio from Google Translate, but you can also accomplish the same automatically for multiple cards at the same time using AwesomeTTS.

So I've been dabbling in Korean a bit and stumbled across a helpful suggestion on How to Study Korean: if you want to hear a word in your target language pronounced, you can go to Google Translate, copy and paste the word in, make sure your target language is selected, and then press the listen button to hear it.

While that has its uses, what I really wanted was a way to get an MP3 of that audio so I could add it to Anki for the Korean flashcards I'm making. Sure enough, there's a way to do that too.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Personal English-learning materials

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

I’ve always supported learning and practicing set phrases in context. In my opinion vocabulary should be learned and practiced first through input (listening and reading), and then used through output (speaking and writing) on each real life topic. But vocabulary is a broad concept; it includes not only phrases, but also separate words, idioms, proverbs, sayings, etc.

My idea below may be important to you to improve your English materials.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Language Bridge review: Like the multifaceted exposure, the mandated texts not so much

Last week I wrote about Arkady Zilberman's pessimistic evaluation of language learners and what how he thinks that can be overcome. But Arkady hardly stopped at theories; he has made a product based on his take on language learning called Language Bridge.

This is what I'll call a "mini review" of Language Bridge. I'll call it that because I haven't actually purchased the product (it ain't cheap, at $149 a pop) but I think the information available online is enough for me to understand how the product works and to put my two cents forward.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Is subconsciously translating from your native language to your target language hindering you? I doubt it

I'll get to that chart in a bit, but first let me relate a little anecdote. A while back a Japanese friend of mine had me give a speech at his wedding. He wanted me to do it both in Japanese and then in English; the vast majority of his guests were Japanese speakers, but there were a handful who only spoke English and I was the only speaker who they'd be able to understand. So I was giving the exact same speech in Japanese and then in English.

My usual method for giving a speech is having a list of points I want to cover and then just making sure I hit them as I speak; the purpose of the list is only to remind me of what I want to say and not to provide me with the actual words. As this speech was going to be in both Japanese and then in English, I was language agnostic when preparing the list and it ended up being a hodgepodge of both languages. Here's a sample:

① same high school, 教科書に載ってない言葉

② invited me to his house

③ vegetarian: 食べれる大盛りのパスタ

Even if you speak Japanese, that will probably only make vague sense to you, but for me it directed me right to what I was going to cover in the speech.

After giving the speech, a few people who spoke both Japanese and English enough to understand what I had said in both came up to me and asked me how I had managed to make the speeches so similar in both languages—nuances, jokes, etc., were all exactly spot on in each language (a wholly separate matter is how some jokes worked better in one language than the other, but I digress). Their assumption was that I had translated it word for word and committed it to memory. In fact, I had used my little list to simply point my memory to a concept and then just expressed that concept however it should be expressed in the appropriate language.

And that gets me to Arkady Zilberman and his concept that "we think in a code language of images and associations".

Friday, March 1, 2013

Methods for mastering English conversation and vocabulary

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

I have developed my own unique suggestions on mastering English conversation and vocabulary. They are based on my experience and knowledge, and my tips and advice may be valuable for all students of English. I hope that they will become a short but indispensable guide for many learners of English. I have thoroughly read on the issue of effective methods and aids for learning English. Those aids include audio, video, websites, study books, etc. I want to share with you that information for English language learners.

Monday, February 25, 2013

How to use Furigana Inserter in Chrome and Firefox to add furigana to any Japanese webpage

振り仮名ふりがなFurigana is a Japanese reading aid, consisting of small phonetic characters printed above a word with Chinese characters to indicate the characters' pronunciation (as seen to the right). It's used in materials for native-Japanese kids who are still learning the characters and in materials for native-Japanese adults for very difficult characters, but it also has obvious uses for language learners.

Furigana Inserter is an extension for Chrome and for Firefox that will let you add furigana to any open webpage. With Furigana Inserter, you can turn this:

into this:

So as you can see, it's a pretty useful extension for a Japanese learner. Once convenient use for this is adding pronunciation info to dictionaries that don't have them out of the box (ALC, I'm looking at you).

The following instructions lay out the simple steps to get it up and running in Chrome and the not-so-simple steps to get it up and running in Firefox on a Mac.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How to practice English listening comprehension and speaking skills

The following is one of a series of guest posts by Mike Shelby. Mike is a former ESL teacher who has been quietly (i.e., without his own blog) disseminating his thoughts on language learning around the internet for quite some time.

In order to have good skills in listening comprehension in English and to speak it fluently, a learner should practice listening to audio and video aids in English (dialogues, thematic texts and narrative stories) with subsequent speaking. It is preferable to have English transcripts of audio and video material. I suggest that learners practice listening comprehension with subsequent speaking on a variety of topics and with materials for all levels on a regular long-term basis in the following sequence:

Monday, February 18, 2013

Latin, Greek, and Russian characters in a Venn diagram

Above is my take on this Wikimedia commons Venn diagram showing Russian, Greek, and Latin characters. Basically I grabbed the three alphabets off of Wikipedia, matched characters used in multiple alphabets in a spreadsheet, sorted, and stuck them in the diagram. The only substantive difference between mine and the Wikimedia one is that I alphabetized the characters (by Latin first, then by Greek, and then by Russian), which makes it a bit easier to read.

So what's this got to do with language learning? Well, if you already know a language that uses one of those alphabets and you're learning one that uses another (or, better yet, you're learning multiple languages and need to learn both of the other two), then obviously this has some utility for you. But, more generally, this is a great example of using diagrams and similar visual representations of data (like these tables for Japanese kana) to make things easier to remember.

Monday, February 11, 2013

How many words do you need to know in a foreign language?

When looking into what seems to be the never-ending abyss of learning a language, it's nice to have an idea of where your finish line might be. Most of the individual pieces of language data that you'll be storing in your head consist of vocabulary, so knowing how much vocab you'll need to reach the vaunted native level is a pretty good indicator of where your finish line is.

So how many words does an average native speaker know? Good numbers are pretty hard to come by and the jury still seems to be largely out on any conclusive numbers, but there does seem to be a rough consensus that with 20,000 or so words you'll pretty much be covered in anything you want to use the language for.

Monday, February 4, 2013

How to make the most of listening to target language music

If you like music (and science tells me that you do), then you'll like listening to music in your target language. And if you like doing something in your target language, do it.

That just leaves us with figuring out how to milk every drop of language-learning goodness out of music.

Monday, January 28, 2013

How to get the text of the lyrics to your target language music (including copy-protected Japanese lyrics)

For the most part, getting the lyrics for your foreign-language music is a cakewalk: just search for the translation of the English word "lyrics" in your target language, the name of the artist (in quotes if more than one word), and the song title (again, in quotes if more than one word).

To take an example, if you want to find the lyrics to the song En el muelle de San Blás by the Spanish-language band Maná, Googling:

letra maná "en el muelle de san blás"
will get you the lyrics in the first search result, which you can then copy and paste wherever you like.

Japanese lyrics, however, are a bit more complicated, and perhaps surprisingly it's for reasons that have nothing to do with the language itself.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Using Learning with Texts with Anki 2, part 5: How to import LWT terms into Anki using your own custom set-up

So we've now covered how to export from LWT and how to import into Anki as simple two-sided flashcards and using LWT's fill-in-the-blank review template.

And that's all fine and good if one of those methods is how you want to learn your LWT terms. If that's not the case, then we'll need to get into the weeds a bit more and create a customized set-up.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Using Learning with Texts with Anki 2, part 4: How to import LWT terms into Anki using LWT's fill-in-the-blank Anki template

The default Anki template from LWT sets up cloze deletion flashcards for you, or, more simply put, fill-in-the-blank flashcards. The prompt will be the source sentence with the term blanked out together with the meaning of the term, and the answer will be the term itself and its pronunciation, if any.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Using Learning with Texts with Anki 2, part 3: How to import LWT terms into Anki as simple flashcards

If you just want to learn your LWT terms as the digital equivalent of simple, two-sided flashcards (e.g., a Spanish word on one side and its English translation on the other), the process is quick and simple without any initial set-up; all you need to do is import the terms and you're ready to go.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Using Learning with Texts with Anki 2, part 2: How to export LWT terms for Anki

As noted in my last post, the first thing you'll need to do is add a text to LWT and make terms for all the words and expressions you don't know. For more on how to do that, check out my review of Learning with Texts.

Once you've got all the terms from your text, it's time to export the terms from Learning with Texts.