May 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
To an outsider, the Chinese language “seems to be as impenetrable as the Great Wall of China,” says ShaoLan Hsueh in today’s talk, given at TED2013. Hsueh’s mission over the past few years has been to break down that barrier, making reading and writing in Chinese accessible to people who didn’t grow up doing it.
Her solution? A method she calls “
May 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Well hello there!
This is a very quick post to help people solve the following little problem: how do I use Spanish accents in Anki if I have a Mac?
Normally with a Mac, to accent a character you do not need to switch to a Spanish keyboard, you can simply hold now a key and it will present you with accenting options like this:
For anyone who has tried using Anki for Spanish decks, you will know that when you hold down an ‘n’ for example, instead of getting ‘ñ’ as an option, the key simply repeats itself and you get ‘nnnnnnnnnnnnn…..’ – very frustrating!
I looked onto a few forums about how to do this and couldn’t find an answer. I posted the question in the anki help google group and received a response from a forum posting dude (is there a word for he who posts on forums?) responded letting me know that ‘This is a known problem with Anki’s Qt toolkit’ and that it may be fixed in future, but what to do until then? I also saw a fair few people had asked this question on various blogs…but…no answers. Anyway, I figured out an alternative in the end and it’s quite simple. I should have known better as I’ve used this simple approach for Greek in Windows!
Step 1: In the top right hand corner of Safari, change your language to Spanish
Step 2: Then, in the same menu, click on ‘show keyboard viewer’ like this.
Step 3: A Spanish keyboard will appear that shows you the position of Spanish characters on your existing keyboard. e.g. ‘ñ’ is the key to the right of the letter ‘L’ or the colon/semi-colon ‘:;’ key:
Once you know the main characters it will become second nature.
That’s it! Easy.
March 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I had a really great experience on Verbling this week.
I was really nervous when the “find friend” ticker was running but then a smiling face appeared on my screen and I was put at ease. The person smiling back at me was Daniel from Spain. His English was at an intermediate level and my Spanish is of course still fairly basic, so it was a really good match. We didn’t stick to the 5 minute timeline for each language, instead we were running a bit of a Spanglish vibe. This might seem like a bad thing but I think it was actually quite close to reality and mimicked the way you might interact with someone while travelling. We kept the conversation flowing for over an hour and surprisingly covered some pretty serious topics even in basic terms. One of them was the Economic crisis about which I received some really good insights from Daniel. So far, the people I’ve spoken to on Verbling that are from Spain are trying really hard to improve their English for better job prospects. It felt good to know that two randomly assigned people, from opposite sides of the world could work together to help each other with their goals.
One thing I’ve realised after using Verbling, is that one of the keys to success with a language partner is meeting the same person regularly. It allows you to gain a bit more depth in your conversation practice. With Daniel for example, I asked that next time he tell me about some of the sports posters he had hanging in his room and he asked me to do the same. Now I have something specific to practice for.
I thought I’d share some of my tips for being a good conversation partner on Verbling. Some of these I am conscious of myself, and some are behaviours I’ve picked up from conversation partners:
✗ If you’re nervous, you may be tempted to hang up as soon as Verbling finds you a partner. Try and remember that doing this will also force your partner to the back of the queue and avoid it where possible. I find that starting in my native language, helps calm the nerves.
✗ Don’t continuously correct the other person’s grammar especially if you can get the gist of what they mean. It can really knock the person’s confidence.
✔ Smile to put the other person at ease and don’t be afraid to use gestures in place of words if you’re unsure
✗ Don’t talk super slowly or in a condescending way, your language partner will ask you to slow down if they need you to
✔ Complement the other person on the things they are doing well e.g. they may have really good pronunciation or be really inquisitive
✔ If a new phrase comes up in conversation, I ask my partner to write out the phrase in the chat bar. Later, I add the phrase to my deck of verbling conversation flashcards.
✔ If verbling pairs you up with someone who has a very strong ability in their target language and your target language ability isn’t so strong, don’t give up or succumb to talking in your partner’s language the entire time (I’ve done this before). Use your five minutes to talk about something you do know e.g describe the city you live in or the people in your family. Which leads me to my next point…
✔ Go into each session prepared with a ‘Show and Tell’, by this I mean, a single topic that you are confident talking about for a couple of minutes. I’ve seen other verbling users do this really well. When it’s their turn they say things like “now I’m going to talk about the people in my family” and then they launch into a spiel about their family. It gives me some cues and allows me to ask them questions about the topic which makes for really good conversation while allowing me practice my listening and comprehension ability too.
On that last point, one of the exercises I am finding really helpful in terms of my conversation skills is the Everyday Question Cards activity from the fantastic site The Everyday Language Learner. I haven’t quite figured out how to reblog a non-wordpress site so that it still looks pretty so I’ve linked the post in. Basically the activity entails asking yourself: what are the common questions that I would like to be able to answer better and what common questions would I like to be able to ask other people? Then you need to sit and formulate questions and responses and put these onto your flashcards. I think this is a really simple and effective way to build up conversation skills and it takes the focus off learning grammar and words out of context. Thanks Everyday Language Learner!
Some more notes on Verbling:
Verbling connects you with a native speaker in your target language on demand. All you do is create a profile, select the language you are fluent in and your target language and Verbling will pair you up with someone for a language exchange over video chat. There are some nifty online features that make the Verbling experience a good one. For example, you can easily select whether you want to be paired up again with a conversation partner, adding an element of safety. There is also the onscreen timer which counts down five minutes in each language. The idea here is that you might speak in English for five minutes then when the timer tells you to, you switch to Spanish. Verbling has an on-screen translator as well which really comes in handly if there is a specific word you’re unsure of.
Verbling also offers online Spanish classes. You can watch classes online for free, or sign up to the premium service for US $25 per month and get unlimited classes. Each class is labelled as beginner, intermediate or advanced, has a description and runs for one hour. Some classes have pre-supplied material that you can work on both before and after the class. I took my free beginner’s class today. It was a reading class. The teacher pre-supplied a document with some classic children’s stories, then class took turns reading and trying to explain some unknown terms. It was actually quite challenging for beginners but I think you’re always going to get some people in your class who are really solid intermediates or as one person in the class put it, ‘fake beginners’. Overall I think the $25 per month is value for money if you’re willing to commit to doing a couple of classes a week.
March 18, 2013 § 5 Comments
Okay, so let me explain the situation I’ve got going here: I’ve now wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how I’m going to structure my flashcards. Sounding ridiculous already? Well wait until you hear what my brain is doing:
Do I handwrite flashcards? Then they won’t be transportable.
Do I use electronic flashcards? Yes, it makes sense to do that.
Which flashcard application do I use? I’ve heard that two of the best are Anki and Quizlet. What are the pros and cons?
Research pros and cons, go to forums, get no definitive answers, wait… there are other apps like Mnemosyne to look at too?! What if I start using one app and theres a better one out there but I’ve already built all the flashcards? Fear of missing out……………………… brain does not compute………………smoke starts coming out of my head…… information overload.
I am clearly “not in a good way” as the English would so politely say. I wanted to write a bit about this perfectionism and technology overload as both things are really detrimental to language learning.
Perfectionsim can manifest itself in a lot of ways that are detrimental to language learning. For some people, it’s waiting until that day when you’re fluent to start talking to people in your new language (a catch 22). For me it’s waiting until you’ve figured out the right flashcard program to use before you start actually learning your vocabulary. It is a really destructive practice and a big time waster.
An important figure in my life recently explained the difference between perfectionism and excellence to me. Before he explained this, I thought they were one and the same. Perfectionism is the high expectation that excellence will occur and often results in a fear of failure. Perfectionism is hard work and involves little joy and taking few risks. It is the guy who needs to buy a pair of shoes before a wedding, puts it off until the day before the event, stands in the shop for an hour stressing about which pair to get and in the end leaves with nothing except for the worry that the shop assistants thought he was weird. Excellence, on the other hand, involves plenty of enjoyment. There is no expectation to achieve, there is simply a healthy obsession with the topic at hand which naturally results in good outcomes. Even when failure occurs, it is no big deal, because there weren’t too many expectations around it to begin with. Excellence is the guy who buys six pairs of shoes for the wedding and goes home and tries them all on. Because he’s bought six pairs he finds a pair that goes really well with his suit. He then returns five pairs to the shop the next week without a care.
It’s really important to recognise this distinction and when you might be leaning into your perfectionist tendencies. The way I’ve dealt with this specific incident is to start using Quizlet as my main database but try out as many other apps as I can when I get the chance. That way, I’m not procrastinating with my learning and I’m also not afraid to take risks. What’s the worst thing that can happen, I end up exporting every deck I’ve created and re-importing to anki? It will take me a while, but no one will have died!
This is another thing that can be detrimental to language learning. Mainly, it can make you feel like you’re putting a lot of work into your language learning when you’re really not. In my case, I’ve spent more time reading forums and looking through apps for flashcards than I’ve actually spend testing myself with the flashcards. But I’ve seen it with other people too… bringing your ipad to class and being more worried about using it to take notes than actually listening to what is going on, or, buying heaps of language learning software only to get nowhere… I truly believe in the power of a pen, paper, a good grammar book and a coversation buddy to get the most from your language learning experience. These things can be complemented so well by other digital resources. But I don’t believe you can do it with digital resources alone.
So I’ve learn’t my lesson this week and am trying to get back to basics with my language learning goals.
Having said that, if you do have an opinion on Anki v Quizlet, let me know (jaja)
March 14, 2013 § 1 Comment
The more common the verb, the bigger the text! It’s a word cloud that I created. It looks pretty. It’s based off this ranking: http://www.linguasorb.com/learnspanish/most-common-verbs.aspx
March 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I just finished reading The brain that changes itself and can’t stop talking about it to everyone I come across. I’m surprised nobody has pulled me aside to suggest that I stop harassing people already. The book provides so much insight into the brain that it has revolutionised the way I think about language learning.
The main premise of the book is that for centuries the brain was considered to be fixed and unchanging, where each part of the brain controlled a specific function human function. But now, there is a whole body of work showing that the brain can change its structure and function even into old age. They are calling this discovery ‘neuroplasticity’. Neuroplasticity, as the name suggests, means the brain is malleable.
The book gives some different analogies to further explain the concept of neuroplasticity, but I’ve come up with one that makes sense to me (my economics degree is coming through here):
The old school view, it goes a little somethin’ like this: The brain was once considered to be like a city that only had one building (brain location) for each business (brain function). There was no competition in this city and therefore the number of buildings remained the same year in, year out. If there were a catastrophic event that wiped out a couple of the buildings (for example a stroke), there would be no re-build as the city is static (the patient would not recover the functions they lost when they had the stroke).
The new school view: Neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is more like an ever-changing city. In this city, if there was a catastrophic event that squashed some of the buildings and businesses, that new buildings could be built, businesses could re-locate. There is competition in this city too; it can grow or shrink based on the demands placed upon it.
Now, I don’t want to provide a book review here, you can probably find hundreds of those on the Internet, but I do want to give you the language learner’s reading of The brain that changes itself.
1. The notion of competitive plasticity explains some of the challenges of learning a new language as an adult
I’m sure we’ve all heard people say “I’m too old to learn another language” or “you stop being able to learn a new language after the age of three”. The adult brain knows what it knows, right?
The Brain that Changes itself provides a different explanation for the adult language learning struggle: it’s not that our brain stops being capable of learning a language as an adult, it’s that we haven’t used the language enough for it to be entitled to space in our brain. Using the city analogy from before, not practicing a language is to the brain like a shop that closes down because people stop frequenting it. However, if people go to the shop often and demand a lot from it, the shop grows from being a small store to potentially sharing a large store with another business (your mother tongue) to being a supercomplex with a huge footprint:
The competitive nature of plasticity affects us all. There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills… the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, “How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” you are asking a question about competitive plasticity, you are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure it’s brain map space is not lost to another…think of the difficulty most adults have in learning a second language. The conventional view now is that the difficulty arises because the critical period for language learning has ended…but the discovery of competitive plasticity suggests there is more to it. As we age, the more we use our native language, the more it comes to dominate our linguistic map space. Thus it is because our brain is plastic – and because plasticity is competitive – that it is so hard to learn a new language and end the tyranny of the mother tongue.
The neuroplasticity explanation is certainly a lot more hopeful that the notion that “you’re too old to learn”. It tells us that with plenty of practice, we can all get there eventually.
I’ve also been thinking about how well the concept of competitive plasticity explains a problem I am currently experiencing in my Spanish language learning. When I try and think of the Spanish translation for an English word, the Greek translation always pops into my head first! I try and think of the Spanish word for ‘book’ and the Greek word ‘biblio’ pops into my head instead of ‘libro’. This tendency to think in Greek first when I’m telling my brain to switch languages was also apparent when my teacher asked me about what activities people do at the ‘gimnasio’ (Spanish for gym). I responded with things like ‘they study, they read books, they ask the teacher questions’. My teacher looked at me quizzically…at which point I realised I was thinking in Greek again, where gimnasio translates to ‘high school’! Under the notion of competitive plasticity, clearly Greek is fighting to retain its territory! I’m wondering whether anyone else going for their third language is experiencing similar problems?
2. Rote learning is not the enemy
FLASHBACK: ten year old me is sitting at Saturday Greek School repeating, “I walk, you walk, he/she walks” wishing I was out at tennis or swimming like all my other friends. While it sounds like torture repeating these verb conjugations over and over again, funnily enough even at that young age, I picked up on a fundamental: repetition helps etch things into your brain and at some point you will have enough information that all the pieces click into place and you begin to understand as opposed to purely memorising. I also knew that this rote learning ‘skill’ was helping me in other subjects like mathematics and economics.
At the time it was hard to marry this epiphany of mine with what was happening in the Australian education system; rote learning was shrouded in negativity, associated with the inability to think critically, solve unfamiliar problems and with the production of ‘parrot learners’. English grammar had been dropped from the curriculum. Interestingly within a decade this was recognised as a problem. What has occurred since is somewhat of a rote learning renaissance; teaching grammar has been reinstated. This is why the following paragraph in The brain that changes itself resonated with me (Note that Doidge is referring here to the American system):
For hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children’s brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages which strengthened the auditory memory…then in the 1960s educators dropped such traditional exercises from the curriculum, because they were too rigid, boring, and “not relevant”. But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols
What Doidge argues in this book is that rote learning is essential brain exercise that helps to build skill in areas such as speaking, reading and auditory abilities to name a few. So say for example you tried to memorise a set of vocab on aeroplanes, which you never subsequently use, the actual vocab may not benefit you, but you are still benefiting your brain as you are training it to become a good processor and warding off age related memory loss and devastating illnesses such as alzheimers. It is just another reason why learning a language (which every language learner knows requires rote learning of vocab and verbs) is good for you and a further source of motivation for pushing through any language learning obstacles.
I don’t know if I’ve done this book justice here. It certainly has a lot to say about language acquisition in specifics. However I do hope I’ve done two things, encouraged you to read the book in its entirety and provided two ideas from the book that motivate you to continue on with your language learning goal. Don’t give up because of traditional ideas on how the brain works!
February 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I have a really good Spanish teacher. When we are trying to say something in Spanish but we get stuck, he always asks us “what would a baby do?”.
One time, a girl in my class was trying to say ‘helmet’ but didn’t know the word for it. Of course my teacher said, “what would a baby do?”. So instead of bike helmet she said “sombrero de bicicleta”, literally, ‘bicycle hat’. I though this was brilliant! We all immediately understood what she was trying to say and in a travel scenario this would have served her well.
It was a good reminder not to get stressed when I can’t remember something and just go with what I know, however basic it may be. After all, as adult language learners we are like big, ugly, adult babies, learning from scratch.
Another thing we can learn from babies is the usefulness of picture books in helping us learn to read. With lots of repetition, simple sentences and pictures that help us remember, I reckon picture books are the ultimate resource. I’m fortunate enough to have a public library nearby that has a Spanish collection. This is where I came across my favourite Spanish picture book of all time, Taro Gomi’s “todos hacemos caca”…jajaja!
If you can’t get your hands on any physical books, the International Children’s Digital Libraryis a great resource. At the time of writing there are 173 different Spanish children’s books available for anyone to read. You can search books by language, age range, storyline, length and even cover colour! The site also allows you to easily switch interface languages.