6 April 2014

I spoke too soon, as things heat up again in Ukraine.

Demonstrators in the Eastern Ukraine cities of Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv have stormed government buildings, waving Russian flags. The scenario has some resemblance to what happened in  Crimea. I have no idea what the people in these regions think, how many want to join Russia, how many support the government in Kiev, how many just want more autonomy within Ukraine. I guess time will tell.

The Kiev government is in a difficult position, probably afraid to put down the demonstrators too harshly for fear of giving Russia an excuse to intervene. Putin has created a popular mandate with his program of stirring up patriotic feeling on the one hand, and reducing independent media and freedom of expression on the other hand.  I am following these events daily, via the international, Russian and Ukrainian media, with all of the biases and inaccuracies we usually expect from the media. But at least there is some independence of views and some genuine attempt to find out what is happening. I avoid the government controlled Russian media which is nothing more than a propaganda machine, reading from a script.

30 March 2014

Some words of wisdom from Tolstoy’s War and Peace

As the tension eases a little, at least for now, around the situation in Ukraine, it is useful to reflect on the words of one of my favourite authors, and a major  incentive for me to learn Russian, Lev Tolstoy.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” 

― Leo Tolstoy

“A Frenchman’s self-assurance stems from his belief that he is mentally and physically irresistibly fascinating to both men and women. An Englishman’s self-assurance is founded on his being a citizen of the best organized state in the world and on the fact that, as an Englishman, he always knows what to do, and that whatever he does as an Englishman is unquestionably correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets. A Russian is self-assured simply because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe in the possibility of knowing anything fully.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“Kings are the slaves of history.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“To us, it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg was wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have the with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west slaying their fellows.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“When it is impossible to stretch the very elastic threads of historical ratiocination any farther, when actions are clearly contrary to all that humanity calls right or even just, the historians produce a saving conception of ‘greatness.’ ‘Greatness,’ it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong, there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“Napoleon, the man of genius, did this! But to say that he destroyed his army because he wished to, or because he was very stupid, would be as unjust as to say that he had brought his troops to Moscow because he wished to and because he was very clever and a genius”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power — the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns — should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals…”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“On the twelfth of June, the forces of Western Europe crossed the borders of Russia, and war began–that is, an event took place contrary to human reason and to the whole of human nature.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“The combination of causes of phenomena is beyond the grasp of the human intellect. But the impulse to seek causes is innate in the soul of man. And the human intellect, with no inkling of the immense variety and complexity of circumstances conditioning a phenomenon, any one of which may be separately conceived of as the cause of it, snatches at the first and most easily understood approximation, and says here is the cause.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“And so there was no single cause for war, but it happened simply because it had to happen”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

27 March 2014

Fighting Over Language: Russian and Ukrainian

Language is supposed to be a huge issue in Ukraine, at least the question of making Russian an official language there. As I follow Ukrainian television via the internet, I am amazed at how well most Ukrainians seem to speak or at least understand both Russian and Ukrainian. I wonder if the same is true in Catalonia, for Spanish and Catalan, also somewhat similar languages.

In Canada, only a minority of people are comfortable in both of the official languages of Canada.  As to the question of official status, although English and French have official status in Canada, only one of the ten provinces is officially bilingual, New Brunswick. Quebec is unilingual French and the other provinces are officially unilingual English. Only federal institutions need to offer bi-lingual services.

Ukraine is a unitary, not a federal state, so I don’t know how they can solve their language issues. It appears to be a burning issue politically, but not a big issue in real life.

22 March 2014

Do we learn a language for culture or for travel?

An interesting article at our LingQ Central blog shows the results of a survey of those participating in the 90-Day Challenge. Almost half of the respondents to a question on why the want to learn a language, chose an interest in the culture as the main reason. This was the largest group, and almost three times larger than the next group of respondents who want to learn a language for travel. This may seem to go against conventional wisdom. Most people whom you ask will usually answer that they want to learn a language for travel.

I think the difference is that those who say they want to learn a language for travel are not really prepared to put the effort into language learning that is required in order to achieve success. Those people who are serious about language learning, know that success depends on an interest in the culture.

I agree with this approach and always put the emphasis on exploring those things in the language that interest me, rather than polishing up a few phrases that I hope will work when I travel. In fact I have never had success in using the language in a country, when I have not previously invested a great deal of time in listening and reading and learning about the culture. In a way , the following video about my learning strategy reaffirms this principle.

12 March 2014

Sharing our language learning experience

How is the 90-Day challenge going? I would like to hear from others, from you about your language learning experience!!

I certainly feel my Korean has improved and in fact is gathering some momentum. How about you? Please let me know.

Here is a video on this, in which I also display my Korean, such as it is after 56 days of the Challenge. Remember I did Korean some 6 years or so ago for about 6 months so I am not starting from scratch. My Mandarin and Japanese also help me.

10 March 2014

The importance of not understanding when we learn languages

I am often surprised at how concerned people are about understanding every word and every sentence when they learn languages. I think that this holds us back. Just as we need to make mistakes in order to progress, we need to accept that often, very often, when we listen or read, we simply will not understand. It doesn’t matter. In fact we need to confront things we don’t understand, in order to learn. If we understand too well, maybe we are not learning enough. I elaborate on this in a recent video:

6 March 2014

The last 40 days, and I have found some great Korean resources

Kim Youngha’s podcast on books and literature is a great Korean resource, and I am arranging to have the episodes transcribed. Once you are past the beginner stage in a language, interesting content becomes the key to staying with your learning. I have what I need for Korean, as I point out in this video.

12 February 2014

My 90-Day Challenge – One third of the way

milestone Korean challenge

On January 15 of this year, I committed to spend the next 90 days in intensive study in order to learn Korean, or at least significantly improve my Korean language skills. This meant stepping up my daily language learning activities from roughly one hour a day, to three or four hours a day, giving me a total for the three months of roughly 300 hours.

I was not starting from scratch. I first studied Korean about 7 years ago, about one hour a day or so, mostly listening and reading. I have also done short spurts of Korean at LingQ, mixed in with my study of Russian, Czech, Portuguese, Romanian and other languages at LingQ over the past 6 or 7 years.

But this was to be different. I wanted to devote myself to more intensive study of Korean in order to make a breakthrough. I was tired of being able to say a few things in Korean, just to impress some Korean friends, and then not being able to understand most of what was said back to me. I also wanted to get to a level where I could listen to podcasts, read Korean newspapers, and even watch Korean drama on TV!

This was not to be just my own challenge but I invited LingQ members and my YouTube channel viewers to participate in this project. This was the genesis of the 90-Day Challenge at LingQ. To date almost 2000 people have joined me in the challenge. I hope they are enjoying the experience.

I am now almost one third the way through. I started 4 weeks ago. This is a good time to take stock of what I have learned and what I have achieved, and what I plan to do for the next two months. Hopefully my experience, as well as the experience of others who are taking part in the challenge, can help language learners everywhere achieve their goals. We will probably want to do this again, if it proves successful.

Some issue to ponder

Finding the time

I am in the lucky position of being self-employed and semi-retired. But I am busy. I still have business meetings. I play old-timer’s hockey three times a week. I like to go cross country skiing on the local mountains. I have a social life and a family life. So I cannot devote myself to language learning the way I did when, as a bachelor diplomat, I studied Mandarin Chinese over 45 years ago. At that time I was an employee of the Canadian government and my full-time job was to study Mandarin.

This 90-Day Challenge is different, even though I am applying many of the techniques that I developed way back then, and which I have refined over the years while learning other languages.

The first issue is finding the time.

Not only am I committed to more intensive study of Korean, but I am also vlogging daily and keeping a diary, while also maintaining this blog. Here are some of the ways that I have been able to stay on track.

Don’t study, just learn

Studying is hard work, and often amounts to an uphill struggle to force knowledge into our reluctant brains. It is hard to maintain this activity except for short spurts, in preparation for exams and the like. So I don’t study. I don’t do exercises. I don’t try to memorize rules or tables. I just expose myself to the language in ways that become more and more enjoyable as I progress in the language.

At least half of my daily study time is listening. I listen while doing household chores, while exercising, while cross country skiing, while sitting in the car, and elsewhere.

Some people say they can’t concentrate on listening to a foreign language while doing other chores. My answer to them is: ”Don’t concentrate, just listen”. Of course we fade in and out. Sometimes we understand more and sometimes we understand less. It does not matter. The more we do this, the better we get at it, and the more we accept that it is OK not to be focused all the time. It is simply not possible to do so.

If done right, this exposure to the language, through somewhat passive listening, is extremely valuable. It is my major language learning activity. I could not learn languages if I could not listen while doing other chores.

In order to have a chance to understand what we are listening to, it is important to have access to transcripts. We improve our comprehension by reading what we are listening to, and by listening and reading the same content more than once. Mostly I use LingQ for this.

Make use of dead time, even a little bit count

If I have small task to do at home, I grab my MP3 player and ear-phones. I keep one or several books by my bed and even by the toilet (Yes, sorry to be a little vulgar here).

I have my iPhone with me at all times, and if I have to wait somewhere I can either read, or listen, or do Flash Cards, using the iLingQ app on the iPhone.

It does not matter when you get the learning in. Three or four chunks of 5-10 minute learning sessions quickly add up. Even three minutes of exposure here and there is an opportunity to keep the new language fresh in your brain.

Vary the nature of the activity to avoid burn-out

The brain likes variety and novelty. If you only study the same material over and over again, in the hope of “mastering” it, you may burn out. You will encounter the law of diminishing returns.

Try to vary the nature of the learning activity, the nature of the content you are learning from, and the difficulty level.

If you feel like listening, listen. If you feel like reading, read. If you feel like watching a TV program in the target language, do so.

If you are still at the stage where you are mostly using beginner material, try to find different sources covering similar beginner vocabulary and phrasing. That is what I have done with Korean, going back to the beginner books I bought 7 years ago.

If you are intermediate, intersperse some easy material with more difficult content. Challenge yourself to new and interesting content even while you are still working with material where your comprehension is about 60-70%. It is natural to want to complete lessons, but understanding everything in a lesson is not necessary. When you feel the urge, move on to something else.

Move to authentic content as soon as you can

To learn a language you have to get closer to it, make it part of you. What is foreign, strange and inhospitable has to start to feel comfortable, “homey”, ours. The more intensively we study, the sooner we can integrate the new language and feel at home in it. I am starting to feel this now with my Korean.

The language of beginner courses is artificial. It is not spoken by real people who have real and meaningful things to say. It is language created for the learner. Such language content has the advantage of being spoken more slowly than in the real word. The vocabulary is more limited. You have a sense of comfort in that it is easier to understand. By all means use this kind of material to get started.

Soon, however, in order to get make the language yours, you need to venture into the world of the real language as spoken by real people. You need to hear or read what the speakers of that language have to say. What are the daily preoccupations of Korean people, for example? It is difficult and occasionally frustrating to move out of the comfort of the learner environment. But it is necessary.

With my Korean I started with small amounts of difficult content using our LingQ library, I was able to find many courses that were difficult for me, yet attracted my interest. I started with a small number, and read them and listened to them quite a few times. I also started reading articles from a Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, which I imported into LingQ. This gave me an idea of what people are thinking and saying and doing in Korea.

At the same time I regularly review easier material, grammar patterns, or starter books like Assimil and others. Variety keeps things fresh and stimulating.

Whatever the level we are at, there will be contexts or structures in the language that seem strange, even illogical. This is certainly the case in Korean. This is because the language and its logic are strange, or at least strange to us. But they are quite reasonable and normal in the target language. We just have to get used to them. This takes time, but with enough exposure things start to become clearer. We need to believe that this is going to happen for us, even as we are struggling.

Find your “catalytic converter” and stay with it

In every language I have found content items where the interest level was high, the difficulty level just manageable, and the sound and voice quality pleasing. These have been audio books, podcasts, radio programs and the like. For Russian it was audio books of Tolstoy or Turgenev or Kuprin for which I also had the transcripts, or Echo Moskvi with its daily interviews on topical subjects. For Czech it was the range of programs and podcasts from Czech Radio. The same was the case in other languages.

This pleasing, interesting and yet challenging material is what takes me through to the next level. The interest level keeps me engaged. The voice and sound quality, if they are really good, will enable me to listen over and over, even if I don’t fully understand. At first it seems at times as if I can only understand some short snippets when I listen, even though I hear the words clearly. Yet this constant exposure to high quality authentic content gradually forges a new level of association with the language in our brains. Bit by bit, the fog lifts, as we listen to our favourite language content. Eventually we listen less often to the same lesson. Soon we are in a position to attack other content of the same level. This content is the catalyst that converts us into comfortable listeners and readers of the language. Along the way we acquire a large vocabulary.

My search for this “catalytic converter” has been difficult in Korean. However, I think the recent courses placed in our library by member Imani, will fill this role. The timing is about right now. Let’s see where this takes me over the next month or so.

When you are ready, speak and speak a lot

My experience in learning Mandarin Chinese over 45 years ago was that exposure, intensive exposure it the key to rapid acquisition of new language habits.

So where does speaking fit in? It is very important.

With my stepped up learning activities in the challenge, I have more time to speak with my tutors at LingQ. Since I like my learning activities to be meaningful, I am not a fan of speaking in the target language before I have the ability to understand what is said, and have enough words to have a meaningful conversation. On the other hand, I am not starting Korean from scratch, so I was able to start speaking quite early on in the challenge. For the first few weeks I mainly wanted to recover to the level that I had achieved before. Then I started speaking.

For this first month or for the first 100 hours or so, my speaking amounts to 3.8 hours or 3.8% of the total. Here you can compare my conversation with our LingQ tutor, Juhyun now, and a year ago.

As I enter the second month I intend to speak about 2-3 hours a week, with several of our LingQ tutors via Skype. They are an interesting group of individuals who provide stimulus, empathy and guidance. I hope to get in at least ten hours of speaking for the month or 10 % of my time. I am also going to try to arrange opportunities to get together with Korean speakers face to face, here in Vancouver. I would not want to do this with local Koreans, if I were not able to maintain at least a minimally intelligent level of conversation

If I look back on the first month, I feel that I am about where could expect to be. I would like to be further ahead, but the truth is that it takes time to learn a language, and to achieve the level of Korean that I set as my goal, good comprehension, oral and written, and a basic ability to have meaningful conversations.

I will report again in a month. I hope those of you who are taking the challenge are also finding success.

4 February 2014

An optimist’s view of the changes in education and in our lives

changes in education

Changes in education are inevitable. An optimist always thinks that change is for the better. In his book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley describes the progress of human knowledge, a process of accelerating, spontaneous, change. Larger and larger human communities connect  and exchange goods, information, and ideas. Only the best ideas survive. As these ideas accumulate, they become part of our collective intelligence. The result, in the last few hundred years, has been a dramatic improvement in living standards, health standards,  and a reduction in the number of hours of work necessary to acquire basic goods and services.

In a book which I recently bought and read via the Kindle app on my iPad, “The Better Angels of our Nature”, Stephen Pinker shows that violence has been declining in the world, and this decline of violence is largely attributable to the modern, capitalist, democratic world we live in. These optimistic books run contrary to the negativism about the modern world that is so often passed on to young people in our schools and universities and pervades the media. Things are good and going to get even better.

Perhaps our education system needs a little closer scrutiny. The efficiency and effectiveness of public education, in fact, is a bit of an exception since it has not improved in most societies. In the US, the cost of K-12 education, in constant dollars, has increased by 350% since the 1960s with no improvement in results.

The solution to this is less public monopoly and more entrepreneurship. There are more and more sophisticated “smart phones” and mobile phones being bought everywhere. These are really hand-held computers, and they are already the main way people access the Internet in most countries. There are as many mobile phones as people in the world, 7 billion. This is true more or less on every continent and in most countries, rich or poor.

These are mobile learning devices and  with increased educational entrepreneurship surrounding mobile telephones, handheld computers and internet learning, we can expect education to finally take a significant step forward.

1)  Larger learning communities: The Internet is an almost limitless space for the creation of communities with common interests. Learners, teachers, schools and universities, and just plain entrepreneurs, are exchanging course content, ideas, learning systems, and other resources using a variety of media. A search for “French verbs” on google finds 653,000 pages.

2) Differentiation: The web is not only large, but it enables people of different cultures, with different perspectives, different skills,  and different ideas, to interact. This creates a dynamic marketplace where people can learn from from each other and influence each other.

3) Accessibility: With handheld computing devices, not only iPhone/iPad or Android, but many others devices that are coming forward to compete with them,  learning communities are more accessible. People are now able to connect anytime and anywhere,  while waiting for the doctor, reclining on a sofa, or lying in bed. Traditional concepts of time and space related to learning in a classroom or lecture hall are being cast aside.

4) Rich content: The distinctions between radio, TV, Internet, telephone, school, university, entertainment, education, are becoming blurred. Education is the acquisition of information, and the variety of ways in which information can be presented is constantly being expanded. Entrepreneurs are creating literary millions of applications for the hand-held devices,while books are becoming more accessible with the expansion of e-books and e-book readers.

5) Cost and speed: In many countries, companies are competing to develop faster and more powerful processors and higher speed wireless connectivity. This will further accelerate the pace of interaction and change, and bring in more participants with more diverse perspectives.

6) Customization: All learning depends on the motivation of the learner. Our brains learn all the time, on their own timetable. Traditional learning has been top-down, one size fits all, seeking to impose a curriculum. The Roman school child had a wax tablet to write down the lessons dictated by the master. Nothing much changed for 2,000 years. Now with individualized hand-held learning devices, the learner can be in control, choosing what to do, where, and when. The teacher’s role will increasingly be to coach, helping learners find what they need and what suits their interests.

Sugata Mitra, an Indian scientist and educator, has placed computers in remote villages and Indian slums and watched children learn without teachers, using the Internet. According to Sir Arthur Clarke, famous science fiction writer, “a teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be”. As Mitra said in concluding his inspiring TED lecture, education can be a self-organizing system.  The explosion of mobile access to the internet through hand-held computers symbolizes how a bottom-up, spontaneous, self-organizing system of education will change how we learn and how we live.

14 January 2014

Motivating language learners through statistics

Traditionally, language learners have been divided into three groups: those who learn informally on their own, those who attend school, and those who do both. In a classroom environment, the teacher can assign tasks to the learner and provide some overview and even coercion to ensure that the learner carries out these tasks, regardless of whether these tasks match the interests and preferences of the learner. Regular tests also provide some degree of measurement of progress, or at least the appearance of such measurement. Nevertheless, a majority of classroom language learners do not become fluent in their chosen language, and results are often disappointing considering the cost of the classroom learning model.

Recently, the opportunities for independent language learning have increased significantly, offering more variety and greater opportunity for learners to find study resources that match their interests and preferences. The Internet, MP3 technology, social networks, and a range of other language learning websites such as Duolingo, Lang-8, italki, LingQ, Busuu, as well as a multiplicity of apps for smartphones, have changed the nature of language learning. Language resources in the form of podcasts, radio station websites, YouTube videos, digital dictionaries and online grammar resources and more, are literally available at everyone’s fingertips.

The range of tools and resources is so great, that it is easy for an independent learner to feel lost, or to be distracted by the sheer variety of opportunities, not to mention the other distractions of the Internet. In addition, for most language learners, progress in the language is often slow. The goal of one day becoming fluent may seem far off. In this regard, the use of measurement and statistics can be extremely helpful.

Keeping track of time spent on different tasks

Time is perhaps the most important ingredient for success in language learning. If the learner is engaged in meaningful language learning activities, the expenditure of the necessary amount of time is bound to deliver results. The American Foreign Services Institute has estimated the length of time it takes English speakers to learn different languages based on classroom instructional hours. In today’s learning environment, where there is just as much opportunity to learn outside the classroom as in the classroom. these FSI numbers are a helpful indicator of the amount of time required to achieve fluency, whether in a classroom or studying independently.

It takes a long time to learn a language. The learner needs to commit to regularly spend time with the language, listening, reading, reviewing, speaking and writing. At least an hour a day is often recommended as a minimum in order to achieve significant success. For busy people to find an hour a day to spend with the language, requires them to study at different times during the day. It means using a lot of “dead time” during the day, in other words short snippets of time while commuting, doing other chores, waiting or simply going for a walk.

That is where time tracking software can be helpful. There are a number of apps available to help learners keep track of their learning activities, Harvest,Toggl and an app called ATracker, are some examples.

The learner simply starts the app when he or she starts an activity and turns it off when the activity ceases. The results are often surprising. Here is an example of one language learner’s activities as tracked by ATracker.

The advantages of tracking time

1) Learners can see how much time they actually spend on different learning activities.

2) The time report represents accomplishment, and thus motivates learners to study more.

3) Learners can set goals and plan their activities based on this data.

4) The total amount of time spent is usually more than expected,which can boost confidence.

5) Learners tend to stay on task,in order to avoid having to stop the time tracker.

6) The learning process becomes more structured and goal oriented.

Keeping track of learner activities and achievements

Language improvement is gradual, and can be imperceptible for long periods of time. Often learners don’t know if they are making progress. Many learners, whether classroom learners, or independent learners, take language tests like TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, or their equivalent for other languages, in order to obtain third party certification of their level in a language.

Success in these tests is mostly dependent on putting in the required time on effective learning activities, such as reading, listening, vocabulary review, and eventually speaking and writing. Sustaining these kinds of activities, with or without instructional hours, ensures increasing familiarity with the language and continued vocabulary growth, necessary for success in these third party tests. Providing ongoing measurement and visual proof of learners’ activity and vocabulary accumulation, provides valuable motivation for learners.

LingQ.com tracks both achievements and the activity level of learners and compares them to goals. Known words, saved words and phrases, words read, hours of listening, hours of speaking and more, are reported on each learner’s profile.

Typical LingQ profile

While these statistics do not always match the progress of the learner towards fluency, they do provide a snapshot view of learners activity and vocabulary growth. Measuring and displaying the evidence of ongoing activity and vocabulary growth gives learners a concrete sense of achievement. This can be valuable motivation when the learners doubt their own progress in the language. The experience at LingQ is that learners become quite dependent on these statistics in order to stay committed to their tasks.

A variety of factors influence the ability of learners to achieve fluency and then mastery in a language. Measurement can be a valuable tool in creating the pre-conditions for a breakthrough to fluency for independent learners.