Duolingo opens Mandarin

Quick interview from Duolingo VP Gina Gotthilf about their new Mandarin course—- as someone who has put in the time with Chinese, I can only say “It’s SO WORTH IT”. Coming from English, there’s a bit of a learning curve for sure, but it’s definitely doable.

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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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