Bruce Lee on the ‘hard part’ of language learning

 

What’s the hard part of language learning?

I’m often moved to quote my Japanese teacher’s opening comments in my first-ever Japanese class: “Learning Japanese is not difficult; it will just be a little challenging for your spirit, and you’ll need to work hard!”.  As the years go by, and I continue to explore other languages and cultures, the wisdom of her words continues to ring true.

You may have never imagined that the great Martial Artist, Actor (and Dancer!) Bruce Lee also expressed a philosophy of language learning.  Just like my Japanese teacher’s brevity, Bruce Lee captured an essential truth about language learning in just 30 seconds during this TV interview (an old Canadian talk show btw)–before you hit play, take a moment to imagine the one thing you think is the ‘hard part’ of language learning.

On a similar note, I read a wonderful book many years ago by Kevin Carroll, entitled “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball“.  One of the themes that he talked about was the “lonely” work that is part of positive growth in any domain.  He doesn’t take the word lonely in the sad sense of the word; rather, he talks about the significant personal work (i.e. at home work) that we must invest, and how we really should pursue that time, effort and attention with a sense of Joy.

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Super Bowl LI: Winning play, called in 8 languages!

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Check out this great video that is up on the NFL.com website–the game-winning touchdown from Super Bowl LI, called in 8 different languages: Chinese, French (Canadian), German, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Japanese, Korean and Danish.

Each one is epic in a fresh and fun way, even if you don’t understand what they’re saying!

Message on the bottle: Mind Game Moments for language learners

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Someone gave me a free (swag) water bottle the other day–looking at the picture on the box, I could see that the design was one that seems to be pretty popular these days. With a somewhat subdued design that wasn’t dominated by a corporate logo splashed everywhere (hidden here), it seemed like a keeper. Before throwing out the box, however, I thought it would be a good idea to check if I was going to be able to wash my water bottle in the dishwasher.

That’s when it happened– I picked up the box and….found myself looking at the French version of the description and instructions.  The language learning mind games had begun.

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As someone who likes to speak French sometimes (still a rusty B2), I was essentially faced with a question: read the French, or take the easy route and flip over to the English?

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Cantonese is a Living Fossil of Ancient Chinese [粵語是古代漢語的活化石]

This is a really interesting video by Professor Tang Keng Pan from the University of Macau.  I had heard tidbits of this idea before, but he paints a clear picture of the connections between modern Cantonese and ancient Chinese— fascinating to know that ancient poetry (i.e. Li Bai, Du Fu) that is still treasured in modern Mandarin today, sounds even better when read in Cantonese.

The video is subtitled in Chinese and English.   The University of Macao has a Facebook page with some other interesting clips as well.

Google Neural Machine Translation system (GNMT)

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “Star Trek VI: will computers ever emulate the charm of human language learners?“— I was essentially conjuring the vision of the Star Trek “Universal Translator”, and wondered how language learning will look when our future gadgets are smoothly interpreting for us.

I only bring it up this week because I saw the news about the Google Neural Machine Translation system (GNMT) , and it seemed like another reminder of just how quickly things are moving. Gradually, those ‘future gadgets’ are getting closer and closer to the here and now.

Google Translate launched ten years ago using phrase-based machine translation, and it just keeps getting better— to see that they’re moving to GNMT and starting with a challenging pair of languages (Mandarin to English) shows that they’re really not fooling around.

In addition to releasing this research paper today, we are announcing the launch of GNMT in production on a notoriously difficult language pair: Chinese to English. The Google Translate mobile and web apps are now using GNMT for 100% of machine translations from Chinese to English—about 18 million translations per day.

I wonder what will happen when machine translation starts to surpass human translation for most situations?  Sound far-fetched?  The image below (from Google Research Blog) shows the results after “human raters compare the quality of translations for a given source sentence. Scores range from 0 to 6, with 0 meaning “completely nonsense translation”, and 6 meaning ‘perfect translation.'”. Look at the gains that GNMT made on the old phrase-based technology and how close it is to human translation!

I bet some cool language learning tools will eventually come out of this technology.

 

 

Clay Calligraphy: Li Bai’s Jìng Yè Sī 静夜思

I’ve been wanting to try this idea for the longest time– In the end, it was good fun that was quite relaxing!

If you imagine “claymation meets calligraphy”, then you’ll understand exactly what’s going on in this video: I used plasticine (borrowed from son’s art table) to ‘write’ each stroke.

Studying poetry may seem snobbish to many North Americans; however, it’s quite common in many parts of the world and China is no exception.  I can almost guarantee that you could say the first two syllables of this poem to any Mandarin speaker and they could finish the poem for you.  Studying poetry is a great chance to practice pronunciation— ‘writing fancy’, whatever that means in the language you’re working on (i.e. brush calligraphy/interesting fonts) is also a great way to practice writing skills.  Playing with pencil crayons and finger paint is OK too!

 

Talking about big numbers in Chinese and English

I put the chart below together for someone I know who, despite having a strong grasp of English, often seems to get tripped up when talking about large numbers. It may seem like a trivial topic but this particular person works in a financial institution in a sales capacity…… I’m sure you can understand how a slip of the tongue in this kind of context might make someone lose confidence in their abilities.

I figured I could put something together that they could put beside their desk and refer to in a pinch– maybe it will work for you?  Feel free to print/cut it out.

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As it happens, this can be an issue for English speakers learning Chinese as well— the primary challenge being that English and Chinese (this is actually true of Japanese as well), put breaks at different points in large numbers. While English leaves things in clusters of three digits (thousands, millions, billions, trillions), Chinese groups the digits in clusters of four (i.e. units of 10,000: 万,亿,兆).

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2012 year-end: reading more Chinese, thanks to Lingq

I’ve been reading quite a bit of Mandarin lately–after following Luqiu Luwei’s blog essays (闾丘露薇 ROSE GARDEN) for awhile, I’m starting to feel like I can call myself one of her ‘regular readers’.  Luqiu Luwei is a world-travelled Chinese journalist and one interesting bit of trivia is the fact that she was the first female journalist (from any country) to go to Iraq to cover the war in 2003.

Her essays are always insightful, but after reading one of her recent posts (Why do we care about America?),  it occurred to me that I might have finally (at long last) succeeded in creating a regular Chinese reading habit that is challenging, yet doesn’t necessarily feel like ‘studying’.

As any intermediate/advanced student of Chinese will tell you, reading Chinese can be quite intimidating. Long after you’ve started to feel comfortable reading relatively complex sentences, you still find yourself constantly running into strings of unfamiliar characters that leave you absolutely stumped.  Sure, you can guess at the first few, but soon enough you’re stumbling through prose feeling completely lost.  It’s not hard to understand why it’s hard for some people to ‘keep at it’.

I’ve commented on this before, but because of what I just described, my Chinese study was always completely lopsided, to the point that I could pass an advanced spoken Chinese test but still fail the reading/writing test at the same level.   Looking back on the last year, I can definitely say that I’ve made some meaningful progress after a looooooooooong plateau, and I really have to thank the Lingq platform for helping me through a critical period with Mandarin.

[full disclosure: I have no connection with the folks at Lingq–it profits me nothing to share what I’ve written here; this post does not contain affiliate links]

training_wheels_by_rivulette-d54u2ph (Creative Commons)

Lingq is like putting training wheels on a two-wheel bike

From my perspective, Lingq is basically like putting a pair of training wheels on a bicycle; because the platform allows you to input your own content, you feel supported, and still remain in control of the direction in which you steer your studies.   The different parts of the Lingq platform collectively conspire to help you keep your balance, even if you’re challenging terrain that is a little above your skill level.

For an explanation of how Lingq works, you can click on the screenshot of my avatar below to be taken to a youtube video by the system’s Canadian creator, Steve Kaufmann.

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click to watch a video by the creator of Lingq

You still have to do the work

One caveat I need to throw in—Lingq makes no promises that it will do the work that you need to do.  I had a free account on Lingq for a couple of years (mostly dormant), before I finally gave it an honest effort.  Like so many useful language resources and tools out there, I could have picked it up earlier, but somehow I didn’t.

Beyond the significant boost in the number of characters that I can now recognize, I think the biggest benefit that I’m taking from Lingq is that I can now dive into harder texts, both online and in print, with an increased feeling of ‘forward momentum’.  I definitely feel renewed enthusiasm for reading and I feel like I’m well-prepared to forge ahead as I head into the next language learning plateau.

The starter membership at Lingq is free, so I would recommend taking it for a spin to see if it works for you.  The platform supports the study of at least a dozen different languages.

As a DIY guy, I’m pretty stingy when it comes to spending money on language learning tools, but I think the year that I spent with the basic membership ($10/month) was definitely worthwhile.

Wishing everyone success with their 2013 language learning goals.