2017 International Mother Language Day

February 21st is officially recognized by UNESCO as International Mother Language Day. I didn’t know about this day until 2011, when a couple of international students from Bangladesh introduced me to the origin of the movement to protect Bengali—(they’re the first two students in the video that we put together that year in the International Centre at the University of Alberta).

“Je te parle dans ta langue, et c’est dans mon langage que je te comprends” Édouard Glissant (1928-2011)

As a language learner, this day always reminds me of a quote from the Caribbean Francophone poet Édouard Glissant, which essentially says “I speak to you in your tongue, but I understand you in my language”. On that note, I really appreciated the 2017 message from UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, recognizing the occasion:

“We are beings of language. Cultures, ideas, feelings and even aspirations for a better world come to us first and foremost in a specific language, with specific words. These languages convey values and visions of the world that enrich humanity. Giving value to these languages opens up the range of possible futures, and strengthens the energy needed to achieve them. On the occasion of this Day, I launch an appeal for the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged everywhere, in education and administrative systems, in cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade. The better we understand how to value languages, the more tools we will have to build a future of dignity for all.”

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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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Use your target language to learn something new

Since the middle of last year, I’ve needed to learn a number of new Excel skills to manipulate and analyze data at work; for the most part, this has meant paying regular attention to youtube videos by Bill Mr. Excel Jelen, and Mike Excelisfun Girvin.  They have both quick and easy “here’s something you might not know about Excel” videos, as well as longer “clear and concise instruction of an Excel function” videos.  In addition to their own ‘shows’, they also get together and share unique approaches to the same excel problem and share their differing answers together, as part of an ongoing series of “Dueling Excel” episodes.  I’ve learned so much from these videos, as well as their books (many available at my local ibrary).

Excel in French?

A while back, I wondered if it would be hard to track down similar Excel videos in other languages.  As it is with most things these days, all I needed to do was turn to Google and ask “comment utiliser index match excel youtube“. Once a youtube video that was remotely close to what I was looking for opened up, I was set— Youtube’s “suggested videos” eventually guided me (as expected) to videos with a decent number of views.  Without trying very hard, I found a short video introducing the =VLOOKUP function, which is evidently called the RECHERCHEV function French– voila!

Other hobbies?

If learning Excel in another language isn’t your thing, what about guitar?  In English, you can have James Taylor teach you how to play Fire and Rain, himself. If happen to enjoy the guitar and also want to learn Brazilian Portuguese, why not try learning how to sing and play a song? Or just sing along…. or just play along.. etc. etc.

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I don’t know how to say “how to play guitar” in Portuguese, so I used Google Translate, and then used copy/paste to put the results, “como tocar guitarra,” into a google/youtube search.  Once you start adding in the names of artists and songs that you like, you may find something.  In my case, I ended up finding a high-quality guitar lesson for Caetano Veloso’s ‘Sozinho’.  The video wasn’t done by Caetano Veloso himself, but this teacher quite cleverly incorporates great on-screen tabs as well as original audio from the song.

 

What if the language level is over your head?

At this point, I don’t understand more than a few words of this video (i.e. I don’t speak Portuguese); however, looking at the guitar instruction, it’s pretty clear that it’s a good video (over 80,000 views at this point).  If I stuck with this video long enough to pick up the song on guitar, I’m confident that at least a few of the phrases from the teacher would stay with me.

Don’t torture yourself

If you don’t feel like learning the whole song, remember you might just want to try learning the chorus before moving on to another song.  I don’t think I would ever encourage people to treat these kinds of videos as something to memorize; however, if you’re not using your target language as a tool for learning something new every once in awhile, then you may find that this kind of exercise is an interesting change of pace.

Again– if Excel and Guitar aren’t your thing, what about French instruction on how to cook?  Are you a student in the Sciences? Why not listen to how a French math teacher explains integral equations?  There’s nothing really revolutionary about anything that I’ve written here, but I think many language learners would benefit from giving it a try.

If you were held to the same standard as English learners….

The other day I got to thinking of the standard to which English language learners in my community are held every day.  I wonder how well I would measure up if the shoe were on the other foot?

Regardless of your performance on standardized tests, If you’ve developed some competency in another language, do all of the following describe your level of comfort in that language?

1. Able to write coherent text, explaining somewhat complicated circumstances? Able to do the same verbally, over the phone.
2. Able to persuade, teach or train?
3. Able to calm a tense situation?
4. Aware when you are being misunderstood, and able to get conversation back on track?
5. Develop professional rapport with someone who initially doubts your abilities?
6. Write a comprehensive report?
7.?
What makes a few of these difficult (I’m sure there are better examples), is the cultural context in which they rest. Added to that, the consequences of ‘getting it wrong’ tend to rattle your confidence and, over time, it get’s harder and harder to step out of your comfort zone.
Which part is ‘hardest’ will be different for everyone; however, in terms of being able to think on your feet in a professional context, I think the fourth one is especially valuable— and probably the one over which you have the most control (or at least practice).

Studying French (DELF) in Canada—why aren’t you watching the Charbonneau Commission?

“Two more bureaucrats admit accepting gifts from construction companies”

Reading the headlines about the ongoing Charbonneau Commission in Quebec, it occurred to me that the commission was probably available as a live stream in French.

Much to my surprise, I easily found the public page for the Commission, which not only includes video archives, but also transcriptions of testimony.

Allegations of public servants unabashedly taking bribes for years and years?  Accusations of politicians and mafia in cahoots? It’s almost too much to believe.

But there it is— probably much more engaging than your current French textbook– why not study something like this instead?

Instead of paying money to study, all you have to do is pay *attention*:)

homepage of archive: https://www.ceic.gouv.qc.ca/audiences/repertoire-des-audiences.html

Commission d’enquête sur l’octroi et la gestion des contrats publics dans l’industrie de la construction – Gouvernement du Québec.

Suspended City of Montreal engineer Yves Themens testifies at the Charbonneau Commission (click for Montreal Gazette story)

What works for you?

So many arguments about ‘the best way to go’ for language learners at different levels…

The tricky part, of course,  is that what works for one person might be totally off-base for you.

Ultimately, we can only really judge ‘what works’ for ourselves—if you find yourself arguing, it’s probably a sign that you should try something different…… conversely, what works for you may not work so well for someone else…..  “learn and let learn” I guess.

The designers of most language tests (DELFJLPTHSK, etc.) are trying harder and harder to make test scores reflect real world communicative ability; are you aiming beyond standard language tests (that really only mark the beginning of the next stage of learning)?

As you consider your goals (however broadly), what works for you?

Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners

I don’t count myself as a hyperpolyglot(!), but I can definitely agree that the key to successful language learning is simply finding a way to enjoy the process.  Judging from the book review in The Economist, this seems to be part of the message of Michael Erard’s new book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.

from the review: “Hyperpolyglots may begin with talent, but they aren’t geniuses. They simply enjoy tasks that are drudgery to normal people. The talent and enjoyment drive a virtuous cycle that pushes them to feats others simply shake their heads at, admiration mixed with no small amount of incomprehension.”

If you’re an active language learner, are you on an upward spiral, or are you stuck in the language-learning doldrums?  What kinds of things do you enjoy doing that other people might think of as ‘drudgery’?

[*After reading the review, I submitted a suggestion to my local library and they’ve already agreed to order the book.  I honestly can’t say it often enough: I love the Edmonton Public Library!  (update Jan 16/2012:  the book is now in the epl database]

DIY tools: make your own tracing sheets for DELF/HSK/JLPT writing practice

With a strip of  rainbow-coloured carpet weaving a path up the stairs and onto the wall around the whole store, it’s not hard to understand why any kid would love to spend a few hours hanging out in a bookstore like the Poplar Kid’s Republic Bookstore in Beijing (蒲蒲兰绘本馆).   Located right next to a cafe I used to visit in the Jianwai SOHO area, it had lots of great origami paper and Japanese (as well as Chinese and Korean) books. I picked up some books for my son the last time I was in Beijing but, if anyone knows of a similar kind of international children’s bookstore in Canada *please* let me know!

Tracing Practice

One book that I picked up from that shop is called (えんぴつで書いて読む日本の童話), which you might translate as “Penciling your way through Japanese children’s stories”.  The concept of the book is remarkably simple: famous pieces of children’s literature printed in an large font (I’d guess 36pt?), the font colour is probably about 35% grey so, as kids read it aloud, they trace over each character with their pencil.  One can assume that their parents would also read the story to them at the same time—neat way to experience a story, eh?

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DIY tools: language flashcards in a digital frame

The bulk of my language ‘study’ these days is listening to podcasts and other audio materials during my commute to and from work.  That’s pretty much been my pattern for the last couple of years– it works for me, but I’ve had a nagging feeling that I could/should be doing more work on reading and writing.

On my last HSK test, my suspicions were concerned— my listening section score was much much higher than the writing score.  Thinking about what I could do that wouldn’t take up tons of time (having a three year-old in the house means different priorities!), I hatched an idea.

I remembered that, awhile back, my mother had given us a couple of old digital photo frames– you know, the ones you can plug in and they will cycle through any images that you have on a USB key?  They weren’t the latest and greatest crystal-clear version of the technology, “but they were on clearance, and maybe we could use them to entertain [her grandson]?”  Because I’m still trying to keep him away from electrical cords, I didn’t really put the frames to use until a few weeks ago when the idea struck me to put one of them on my desk at work and make jpg flashcards of Chinese characters/phrases that I wanted to better remember.

The concept is pretty simple— use a free graphics editor like Paintbrush to type up two versions of an image, one with just the Chinese characters and the other with any pinyin or English comments that I wanted to add.   Naming them with sequential filenames ensures that they come up in order on the picture frame on my desk.  It’s not like I stare at it for hours, but every once in a while, a word will catch my eye and I’ll get reminded again about the strokes that make up that particular character.

When I’m reading something that contains an expression that seems worth remembering, I quickly open up paintbrush and make a white background flashcard.   Dumping it into a folder, I’m free to update my USB key whenever the inspiration hits.

When it comes to using flashcards, there are lots of folks talking about spaced repetition— sites like BYKI and Anki are good places to start if you want to give it a try.   I like the concept, but my ‘passive’ picture-frame cards are much more my speed these days.     This way I can keep some ‘word souvenirs’ from things I read and the review process weaves its way into my day.