hey all. just letting you know that these days i’m mostly blogging about language learning, over at Language Fixation.
I’ve felt a bit of pressure to blog lately, so i’ve been purposely ignoring it. It used to be something that just came out and i felt fine posting it here, but somehow it feels like too much of a “thing” now. I think i was worried that each blog post had to be a finely crafted post and that the blog as a whole had to have a super-specific focus on one topic, but there are plenty of unifocal blogs out there these days.
I’m starting back to it now, but with the attitude that people can take it or leave it. This is how it is. I’m alleviating some of my worries by starting a new blog specifically for language things, though, since that seems to be a recurring theme and might be helped by more focus. it’ll free me up to talk about other things here. The new blog is Language Fixation, and i’ll be talking about my day-to-day activities related to language learning.
I’ll try not to be such a stranger. you’ll hear more from me soon.
ride hard, ride free
hey all. i just posted something the other day, but then today a friend said “dude, why are your comments turned off?”. A quick inspection showed that my most recent article had been replaced by penis-enlarger pharmaceutical spam.
luckily, i had already started doing an upgrade in december, so i had a site backup from then. I’ve now restored from backups and upgraded the wordpress version to the latest (2.7). It seems that somewhere along the line, the chinese characters in my comments have been nuked, but maybe i can fix that later. Test for now: ????. we’ll see if that saves properly.
I hope to be blogging more in the near future. come back soon :)
ride hard, ride free
Here’s a little taste of the articles i’ve been reading online lately. Firstly, i’ve been curious about what obama is gonna do as the new emperor of the world. I think it’s a good bet that the character of his appointees will indicate his direction. Along those lines, check out what Paul Craig Roberts has to say on Counterpoint. We can also see that outside of his personal policy advisors, obama is making moves to reassure big business that he’ll be thinking of them first.
Now, on the topic of patriarchy, there was a neat link from Feministing about working to change the sexist beliefs of men on campuses. Make sure you find the link at the bottom of that article that says “continue to next page”, otherwise it might appear to only be 1 page. It’s actually 4 pages, and a decent read. Maybe a little shy on details though. Next is a link from Muslimah Media Watch about the argument that patriarchy is not an inherent part of Islam, but rather a feature of local cultures in places where Islam is prominent. The article is called “Unpacking the culture argument“, and is quite interesting. They look at assumptions about western cultures (like ‘neutrality’, or even that the west is ‘culture free’), and how this influences westerner’s claims about other cultures. Somewhat short, but a worthwhile read.
Ride hard, ride free
It was my birthday today, and also “Guy Fawkes day” to some, where they either celebrate or pretend to burn the man who tried to blow up the English parliament a few hundred years back. I’m not much for birthday celebrations, so i tried to keep things quiet and have a couple people over so i could cook dinner for them. It seems to me that birthdays in north america have been turned into yet another consumer occasion. I’m more in favour of birthdays along the lines of that wonderful quote from Albert Einstein; “The value of a man [sic] resides in what he can give, not in what he receives.” So for my birthday tonight, i put my best effort into some food made from whole ingredients, with several contributions from my garden, along with the last remaining bottles of my home-made beer.
Since my birthday falls near the end of the year, it’s usually a time for me to reflect upon the year. For me, the value of the past year is in what i learned. This year i seemed to focus a lot on languages (again), and i feel that i really made progress in chinese in particular, and overall language and learning methods in general. I found that a lot of what applies to languages applies to other things as well, like music and math, or just about any topic of great depth. With learning as my metric for the value of the year, this year’s increase in my ability to learn was especially satisfying.
In the coming year, i hope to work on persistence and concentration, so as to push my multitude of half-ass hobbies to the next level of expertise, and to more efficiently gain some new ones. I think i’ve done well with mostly sticking to chinese over the past 6 months, and i plan to do that for at least the next 6 months. But i also want to work another easier language in there, between the cracks. For a native english speaker, German or Spanish takes about 1/4 the time to learn that chinese does, and i already have the basics down in both of those, so i might give one a shot. I’ve heard that “linguistic cross-training” can help you with both languages, but we’ll see. I’ll have plenty of time to hack on that over the winter while i wait for next year’s growing season to arrive.
Ride hard ride free
I went out to the local Mandarin Meetup tonight, which happens twice per month. Lately i’ve been a bit worried about my ability to speak, but i think this is more of a symptom of my perfectionism. I want to be fluent already, dammit! Anyway, in the past few times i’ve gone to mandarin meetup, i’ve tried to avoid worrying about speaking, and just enjoy the event. I’ve met new people, tried to teach the newbies a bit, and tried to learn some new words from the native speakers.
Tonight i actually felt more comfortable with speaking, however. I can’t purely mark this up to being less worried about it. In the past few weeks i’ve tried to refocus my listening efforts and also practice some speaking on my own. I haven’t actually spoken in conversation with anyone in a long time, except for brief moments at chinese meetup, but i really think my speaking has improved. Really, speaking in conversation isn’t necessarily that great…a lot of times, you just hear a lot of confusing words and struggle to get your intended meaning out. You end up saying a bunch of incorrect things too. Better to just concentrate purely on correct speech, on your own.
Firstly, you need a strong grasp of pronunciation. Lots of listening, and in the early stages you need someone to correct you. Later on, you may have the ability to critique your own pronunciation even if you can’t always say it 100% perfect in practice. This is fine, because it means you can practice on your own. What i’ve been doing is reading out the phrases from my flashcards. When a phrase comes up, i read it, understand it, and carefully turn it over in my head. Then i try to slowly say it completely correctly. Even for me, with months spent in china and in classes, it can be challenging to say a new phrase perfectly the first time. I listen carefully to what i said, and try to figure out the problems. Then i repeat it. Right now, with a phrase that may have some new words in it, it takes me between 3 and 6 repetitions until i’m happy with my production of it.
After purely focusing on pronunciation and getting it right, i then move on to making up a scenario in my head. I try to imagine a conversation in which i might use that particular phrase. I try to imagine myself making a response to someone using the phrase, and then i try to very minorly modify the phrase to convince myself that i’m using it authentically. I don’t want to change it too much, because i don’t want to be practicing an incorrect sentence. Just minor modifications to make the mental scenario seem more real.
I usually notice immediately that these imagined scenarios really help me convey the sentence fluently. My delivery of the phrase goes from “slow, but correct” up to “smooth and effortless”. This is the only way i can hope to verbalize these sentences at the speed of a newscaster. The phrase and all of its parts have to be part of my thoughts, they have to be what i want to say rather than just a mechanical motion of mouth and tongue. Imagining the scenario and imagining my mental state in such a situation, and then coming out with this perfect response…it’s all a sort of act that i put on, but it works. The phrase eventually comes out smoothly at a high speed, just like the newscasters i listen to all the time. This can be really fun when it’s a complicated phrase about the increase in share prices and the effects of oil prices on consumer spending, or whatever phrase i happen to be practicing.
I’m curious to see what further effects this sort of practice will have, since i’ve only been doing it quite recently. I’m sure that after doing this sort of mental acting for several months, my speaking will even more drastically improve. It just feels so good, and has such immediate results when i’m practicing, and now after speaking much more smoothly at the meetup tonight i feel that it has some medium-term effects too.
All of this has to be combined with listening, though. Background listening where i just have chinese news playing all the time, and also intensive listening where i try very hard to hear every single word that the newscasters say, and determine if each word is a word that i know. Words that i don’t know must be heard precisely and written down, and later looked up in the dictionary. Then, after looking up that round of unknown words, i listen to the whole newscast again. When listening intensely the 2nd or 3rd time, those words i looked up really stand out. All of this listening is accustoming me to how people speak at a fast pace. I know what chinese sounds like at a realistic pace, rather than the kid’s chinese that they spoke in all the listening exercises at school. I have to have this real sort of chinese stuck in my head if i’m going to be able to successfully imitate it when i play my little acting game on my own.
The great part about all this is that i just need some real recordings of real speech. I don’t use any “easy” stuff, because it isn’t real. I don’t need a “language exchange” partner that encourages me to speak before i’m ready, and i don’t have anyone around to make me feel embarrassed about having to repeat a phrase over and over again to get it right and let it sink into my head. Nothing holds me back, mentally or socially. I just get in some pure practice time without any performance anxiety. I think this is very important in any practice that you do. At this stage, speaking with real people is just a test of where my skills are at, and i don’t have to depend on such conversations as a learning mechanism. On my own, i can intensely fill my head with correct input, and then later it just comes out automatically in my speech.
Ride hard, ride free
Beans! i decided that since it’s getting pretty cool at night now, i should bring in the meager bean harvest. There were a lot of green pods, but there were a couple of yellow ones holding mature beans. The two kinds that i grew were Kidney and Black Coco (which look just like kidney beans except that they’re solid black and shiny). I planted 8 plants in the garden, and 6 survived. Only two really got to a decent size, however. Most stayed quite small and only yielded 5 or 6 pods. The biggest had maybe 30 pods on it, although not all of those reached maturity.
Next year, i’m going to start them much earlier (because i start this year in late may/early june). I’m also going to put them closer together, maybe with 8 inches separating each plant, and maybe alternating the spacing of the rows so i can put them closer together. Seems like i had a lot of unused dirt in the garden this year, but i really didn’t know what each plant was going to look like so it was hard to space them properly.
Ride hard, ride free
I just harvested some late radishes from the garden. I have to say, these were the easiest plants i’ve ever grown. In the first week of september, i took my radish seeds out to the garden and put them in two rows, about a half-inch deep. then i waited until today (Oct 27), and picked them. I might have watered them once or twice to help them sprout, but that’s it. They taste quite good too. Crisp, lightly spicy (similar to mustard greens)
When i do these again next year, i think i’d change the spacing. I put my rows about a foot apart, but i could have done them more like 4 inches apart, maybe even less. The leaves only need about a 4 inch diameter circle to grow in, although i had plenty of them that did well even though the roots were almost touching. So i guess it might work with rows separated by 2 inches on each side. Mine took 7 weeks from seed to harvest, but much of that time was some rather cool weather, around 10C much of the time. Also, there were far fewer hours of sunlight in September and October. I bet these things would go super fast if it were July.
Ride hard, ride free
This morning i was once again inspired by the latest post over at AJATT. Having Khatsumoto’s advice compressed into a short video talk was quite helpful. He goes over a couple of really important points.
One relates to the common perception of “learning”. Through our experience in the school system, we sometimes come to believe that “learning” involves sitting in front of a boring textbook that explains a bunch of principles. Then we think about those principles, maybe do a few exercises that reinforce the principles, and then we declare that we’ve “learned” the topic. This really excludes the natural way in which the brain adapts to situations and acquires practical knowledge. Really, this description is only valid when we learn about languages, not when we acquire languages. The only way to acquire a language is to be exposed to huge amounts of input, letting the brain naturally adapt to it and become used to it, until it just becomes part of you.
I think this is the big reason why people who take university language courses almost never become fluent through that. These classes typically teach a bunch of grammar rules and phonetic principles, which is really more like linguistics or language appreciation. Ya, it can be interesting, but it usually doesn’t help you speak normally. At best, you can labouriously compose an email or a letter, and haltingly ask where the train station is (but you typically don’t understand the answer if it’s nontrivial). In contrast, when you have acquired a language, you just talk. you don’t need to compose every sentence individually, you just go.
Knowing this distinction doesn’t give you all the answers, though. Lately i’ve been feeling sorta down about my chinese skills, and some of this is due to not being able to exactly see what i’m learning each day. Khatsumoto had some good reminders about this too, though. In the video he reminds us that “for a long time you can’t tell how much you’re getting, so you have to concentrate on how much you’re doing” (ie, how many hours you’re listening and reading…gaining input to feed your hungry brain). “The whole process is a process of sucking, but you’re sucking less each day.” You just have to realize that you’re sucking less each time. Most of the learning is incidental, and nonlinear. Different things stick each time, but you just need to give your brain more and more chances to catch on. Little kids get thousands of hours of listening before they can talk. Same for you. You need to expose yourself to input all the time, and your brain will grasp all sorts of little details each time. Slowly but steadily you will progress toward fluency.
I liked his analogy about skateboarding…if you just read some books and learn *about* skateboarding, but you only spend 10 minutes per week on the actual skateboard, then you’re gonna find skateboarding incredibly hard. Same with languages…if you only listen to small amounts, it’ll be hard. You have to listen lots and lots and lots, and it’ll sink in. The amount of input you get is proportional to the speed of the reduction in your suckage.
Trust your brain. it’s good at picking things up. just give it as many chances as you can, and you’ll suck less each time. And it’s not like chapters in a textbook in class…you can’t assume you’ll be perfect at everything in that “chapter” after you’ve worked on it. Maybe you’ll get some things now, some things later. Don’t try to predict or force which ones you want to “click”, because it doesn’t work like that. Just keep exposing yourself to it and your brain will pick up different pieces each time.
Ride hard, ride free
In the past few weeks, my main strategy for learning chinese has been to saturate myself with input. I’ve been reading books, and going through lots of understandable example sentences on a couple of websites. One of them is dict.cn, which has plenty of example sentences for every word i look up, and it also has a nice pop-up definition thing whenever i highlight a word. Another is nciku.com, which is similar in that it has an abundance of example sentences. One difference is that they have a little app that will do handwriting recognition so that you can draw characters with the mouse. This saves me tons of time when i’m reading a paper book and i want to look up a character quickly. They also have a question-and-answer section where both english speakers and chinese speakers ask and reply to questions.
Normally what i do to study is to just look up things that i’ve read elsewhere and try to find more examples of the same thing. You can’t really get good intuition for a word until you’ve seen it in several different sentences. The dictionary definition for it is some times vague, because many words have different meanings in different contexts. I’ve found that the best way is to just find lots of different example sentences that use that word, and then to make a bunch of flashcards in Anki for those sentences. That way when the cards come up again, i get reminded of that word (and any others in the sentence) in the proper context. The flashcard part of this process ensures that i’m not going to forget any of these new things that i just learned. I don’t have to keep track of any of them myself, or flip back through old notebooks. I just have to review whatever Anki decides to give me each day and it does the other work for me.
The last piece of the puzzle is finding some understandable content that’s interesting. Lately i’ve been using Project Syndicate. It’s sort of a centrist liberal-capitalist newspaper site where they translate their english language articles into many other languages so that they can be reprinted in foreign newspapers. The content is similar to the vapid pro-capitalist analysis found in mainstream north american newspapers, with the occasional mildly critical article, but the great part is that absolutely every article has a chinese translation. It’s great having a chinese newspaper article with a precise native-english translation that i can read side-by-side. Any time i come upon a new word that seems sufficiently interesting or useful, i take it to the aforementioned dictionary sites and find more examples to get a firm understanding of it. I’m hoping that if i can consistently do 20 new words this way every day, then i can gradually make significant progress in my reading.
Ride hard, ride free