Wednesday, 29 June 2011

New Language Mission, Learn Python in Two Weeks

There won't be much on human language blogging for a little while, as I am very busy right now. I do need to return to the revelations made as I started learning Hindi at some point. I am not turning into Harry Potter and don't want to be able to talk with snakes, Python is a programming language (purists would say scripting language) and I have a good reason to get a good grasp of it in about two weeks. I already know a number of programming languages and that gives me a huge advantage, also I have learnt a lot about learning which is even better :)

There will be documentation of how I get on and how my approach will be similar to learning human languages (although the task is not so similar as many believe) the documentation will be elsewhere but the links posted here. The end result to prove to myself that I have made reasonable progress and after a quick look around will be to get Django (a Python framework for web development) running off of a web server on an Android mobile phone serving a prototype dictionary app that will look up Chinese words and return definitions. As far as I can tell I don't think anyone has done exactly that before. Python scripting on Android devices is possible thanks to Google, the app right now though is just an open source dictionary text file, nothing more than that. Getting an environment together to run a web-service using Django and code to run searches against the dictionary will be fun.

At the same time I have work etc. and a couple of other personal projects to fulfil.

Essentially the concept is a little bonkers, but part of it will help with learning for a real Android app. I want to develop and a real dictionary website (on a proper web-server ;)). Making a quirky prototype means it will get thrown away (which is what should happen).

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Perfectly learning a little of a language

My position

First things first, I may be making some posts soon on another blog, that might lead one or two people to resort to their standard defensive tactic of labelling people that disagree with them as perfectionists, non-speakers etc. etc. How you use a word is very important (as anybody learning languages should know very well). Most people would not like to be labelled a "perfectionist" however many of us would happily admit to "perfecting" a skill. Many of use may even admit to something like "when it comes to x, I am a bit of a perfectionist". Hey maybe if you are about to have heart surgery you may be happy to hear that your surgeon is a perfectionist. As with all language, context and scope are very important to meaning so let us throw the dictionaries away. I hope that the title of this post "Perfectly learning a little of a language" is clear enough.

I have nothing against learning a little of a language, in fact it can have many benefits.

One major benefit

There are many benefits to learning a little of a language, however I will introduce one that I have noticed many times. In many cultures people grow up knowing both their mother tongue and a little of other languages that are geographically close to them. They may not consider themselves able to speak the other language but they know a little, picked up from media, parody, eating places, friends, a year or two lessons at school etc. etc. Many American speakers of English probably know at least a smattering of Spanish words, many UK English speakers will know at least a little French.

Many Chinese speakers I meet know a little Japanese (if from Taiwan maybe more than a little). They may know a little Korean, at least how to greet and say thank you in Thai etc. They may be aware of new words or cognates that have been introduced to their language via the media from other Asian languages or vice-versa. Sometimes they will use these words in casual conversation with their friends, or at least they will be aware where the words have come from.

If you want to really get into a language then learning the same "little" of a few other languages that most natives will know is a huge boost. At the very least you will be able to start spotting and understanding cognates in their language that don't just come from yours. If I ever had doubts about this though, one time sitting at a table with people from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, England (including second generation Chinese) etc. and spending a evening chatting and eating would have dispelled that doubt. Even if I never pursue them further knowing a little Japanese and a little Cantonese has more then paid itself back on a number of occasions.


So in my book knowing a little of a language is perfectly fine (another incarnation of that word perfect again) but I am pleased to be constantly perfecting my Chinese (and selected other languages). In case it every comes up it should be quite clear what kind of perfectionist I am without having to resort to a dictionary.

An of course if you read my last post you can see how learning a little bit eventually doesn't require much effort.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Learning gets easier..... leading to a misconception


I said I would post some thoughts about recently starting to learn Hindi, a process that has caused a massive self-reappraisal regarding language learning. First some context, these days I say that I speak English (my mother tongue) and Chinese (mandarin). I am not fluent in Chinese, I get better at it, one day I will be fluent in Chinese, this lady (assuming she comes across as well in speech and I have reason to assume she does) is fluent in English, I can see the difference.

My goal is to learn to speak a number of languages and become fluent in maybe two or three (I don't know how long I will live after all). It is a hobby, a very engaging hobby and great fun for me, at some point it may interweave with my career, but after all no-body thinks it strange for someone to learn to play the Saxaphone (for example) and have no desire to be a professional musician.

Aside from Mandarin I have studied and am studying some other languages to meet my goals (Thai included obviously) I don't speak these (in the sense of being able to say I speak X) although in a case or two I may be "fluent" according to the loose standards for fluency that some have, I am sure that now I can "get by" in several (whatever that means).

The more you do something...

The more you do something the better you get. The more things you learn the better you get at learning, The more you learn languages the better you get at learning languages.

I can't see anybody having a problem with the above statements, we can speculate edge cases, or stubborn people, or people with brain damage, or learning tasks that are so vastly different that none of your previous learning experience counts, but it is not mathematical proof I am looking for here just general agreement.

So while it is quite obvious that the more you learn a particular language the better you get (let us not argue about the speed). It should also be true that the more languages you learn, the better you get at learning languages.

Starting Hindi

Starting Hindi was a shock, a big shock I have experimented with a number of languages, that first stage and guess what? I found out that now I am good at it, much better than I was. This should not be a surprise, anybody who has practiced learning and practiced learning languages should be getting better at it (shame on them if they are not). Somebody pointed out that Hindi was not similar to other languages I have looked at however consider the following...

  • hei ("is" in many contexts) appears at the end of many phrases just like the Japanese desu) you can hear it often enough to start splitting what you hear into phrase chunks.

  • Honorific ji like Japanese san

  • Masculine and feminine, Oh well at least I am used to the concept from German (and most Europeans aren't going to have a problem with this concept).

  • By now word order changes are so familiar I don't resist them at all.

  • Kya moving to the beginning of a phrase to turn the whole phrase into a question, already used to ka and ma etc. in Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese turning the whole phrase into a question when added to the end.

  • Long vowel sounds (ala Thai), I could hear them and their importance, so fully expected to find them in the alphabet.

  • Used to duplication in Asian languages, and the quick win freebie words you get, delighted to find much duplication of words in Hind: cubi "one time", cubi cubi (sometimes) etc.
There is of course much more. The end result being that I know I can learn the first few hundred words of a language, with good pronunciation, basic grammar structures (implicit rather than explicit) and be able to hear the words pretty well in the wild far faster than I would have ever thought possible. Fast enough to impress most people. You could easily convince yourself that you will be speaking the language like a native really fast. I knew this would not be the case, (beyond the scope of this post).

The misrepresentation

If you could see the "language learning physique" of somebody who had practiced learning languages, they would look like an athlete. The trouble is that you cannot see that physique. You have no idea. For a thought experiment, imagine a normal guy is plucked off of the street and exposed to the Highland Games in Scotland. He quickly becomes pretty good at tossing the caber, he doesn't win a prize or anything but he doesn't embarrass himself either among all those experienced Scottish guys. Impressive right. Imagine instead that the guy isn't a regular guy but a rugby player, a big guy, good physique, explosive strength, big muscles. Are you impressed now? You can see why he took to it pretty fast right? He may have never trained for that sport but his body has already picked up a lot of attributes that can only be acquired over time and training.

So why should we be impressed or surprised if someone who has a good "language physique" makes a quick start? I think it is because in the case of my thought experiment it is staring you in the face, it is easy to see the difference in the two guys, but not so simple to look inside somebodies head.

Transferable skills and training

In my thought experiment would you start teaching or training the two guys the same way?. Would you train an experienced musician picking up a new instrument the same way as a complete musical newbie? You could say to the rugby player "hey look this first bit is pretty easy, just ...". would it be fair to say that to the regular guy?

I have never explicitly studied grammar in my language learning, I am sure I don't need to now , exposure has taken me beyond being locked in the grammar of my mother tongue. Can I say that grammar instruction wouldn't have help me the first time? No I can't say that, I don't know, it is too late for me to know. I can't even test it by studying grammar in another language because I am already changed by all the things I have done before.


I am suggesting that many of the apparently impressive language learning stunts are really not that impressive at all. The most impressive ones are based on abnormal minds are amazing but don't help those of us with normal minds. All the rest are just what you would expect but cannot see just by looking superficially.

I am suggesting that a lot of language learning advice from experienced language learners is inappropriate for beginners (or at least the suggested time scales are way off beam).

I would also like to suggest that it would be a massive disrespect for the rugby player in my example to turn around and say to the regular guy "hey this is easy". Hard is relative if the rugby player wants to experience hard then he should strive to win a prize, it may well be harder for the regular guy to get to the point where he can toss the first size caber in the competition.

And last I would suggest to some of the followers that don't see the reality, get some respect, believe that you can do hard things rather than being afraid to try something unless someone tells you is easy and massages your ego. Learn to understand learning, learn to look under stones and question things, learn to improve yourself.

It was easy for me to make a quick start in learning Hindi, not so easy to pick up the experience to let me do it.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

A holiday from Thai

Been a little quiet recently, also taking a holiday from learning any Thai, there are two reasons for this. Firstly I have a short period (about three months or so, I hope), of an immense amount of work. On occasion working 16hour days and working at weekends etc. My current stage of Thai (more about that in a later post), does not fit in well with this work schedule. Having said that learning something can be relaxing, and also clears my mind of work when I need it to, so I have stared learning Hindi.

There is a real danger that I will dilute my language learning too much, but Hindi is on the list of languages that I want to learn and for a while at least I am working with a Hindi speaker, with whom I get on with very well. Starting Hindi and comparing it to learning Thai has been a real eye opener and has led to some surprising conclusion, expect a flurry of posts soon.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Loooong vowels and six tones in Thai


Going to get back to Thai language related posts for a while. But plenty of craziness stored in my head for later.

I am not a great fan of reading much about a language when I start, or finding out about grammar, or any other technicalities. I find that reading about language related things before I have some kind of feeling for them isn't very helpful, Sometimes when I have a feeling for them I then don't need to read about them at all. I don't completely switch off from reading about the technicalities of the language though, they can help things drop into place or be useful for discussing the language with other people.

Thai has long vowels, I read about them recently, it was a little helpful, but there again I already knew about them. Here is an interesting video about Thai vowels (more related to the writing system but sounds as well:

Long vowels are important

It is quite clear when listening to lots of Thai that the long vowel sounds are important, whilst I suspect that with any language there are short-cuts and laziness there are many words that consistently maintain their long vowel sounds when Thais are speaking, I would even go out on a limb and guess that the getting long vowels correct is as important as tones when conveying meaning in Thai. These kind of affects are no where near as important in English (usually a similar difference in pronounced vowel length just becomes part of an accent).

Long vowels are not rocket science but reading about them when I first started would just have added to a huge pile of new stuff to think about, long vowels, unstressed syllables, tones, b's that are a bit like p's, d's that are a bit like t's etc. etc. That new information can't be processed in real-time for either listening or speaking. Initially there are just sounds, there is the sound of words spoken by a native speaker and eventually a feel for the acceptable range of sounds for that word spoken by many native speakers.

My sixth tone

I really didn't know that long vowels were part of the phonetic writing system until a few weeks ago, and it wouldn't have helped me prior to that, When I read about them there were lots of little aha moments all rolled into one and I spent a happy 20 mins or so with a dictionary (which I hardly ever use for Thai to-date) confirming that a bunch of words I already "knew" had long vowels were actually written that way.

I also realized that long vowels were responsible for my "sixth tone". There is a very distinctive sound made for most words that have a long vowel in the falling tone, So distinctive that usually it is clearly different from similar falling tone words without long vowels. Some examples: five "haa", nine "gaoo", like "choorb", speak "poot", able "daai" etc. etc. are very clear to hear right from the start (disclaimer: don't be too upset by my made up romanisation and definitions).

I don't expect you to believe that Thai has another tone, however I did a little search and was satisfied to see that some people have ascribed extra tones to Thai for this kind of reason also extra tones for Cantonese have been based on certain vowel sounds (and their effect on the overall tone). My Thai has six tones, I suspect it always will, maybe I will add even more later.

The main reason I am happy to add an extra tone though is that the "sixth" tone of Thai is by far the easiest to distinguish and reproduce right from the start (at least for someone from my background) so for that reason alone the sixth tone (a long vowel over a falling tone) deserves a special mention :)


As I have stated many times before, language is fundamentally sound, it is important to me to learn predominantly from sound.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Testing your language learning


There may be a lot of heated discussion about the best way to learn a language, but ultimately if you have a way to test the progress of your learning then anything that progresses you at a satisfactory speed is a valid learning method. You can decide what your goals are and use testing to ensure that you are on target. This applies to any kind of learning, the key thing is that the testing has to be valid, it has to be relevant. If the methods used to test your progress are not relevant then you may not have idea what progress (if any you are making).

This is somewhat fuzzy, words like satisfactory are imprecise, if however you are a self-learner than you are perfectly justified to define them for yourself (I would suggest that if are not a self-learner then it is equally import to define them for yourself and see how they map to the course you are on/following) many people are happy to entrust the whole thing to somebody else.

There are a lot of negative posts these days (ironically often in places where negativity is supposed to be bad, and everything is supposed to be fluffy and easy.....) telling you that you must do this, or you can't do that, or you are anti-social, self-deluded, an apologist, moronic, cretinous, for believing in/using method X. Some will even "feel sorry for you"(WTF!), but the purpose of this post is just to highlight one key difference between you learning as a child and as an adult. As an adult you are responsible for determining the effectiveness of your learning, most people can't afford in invest time and money into something that is not working.

keep it real for testing

Whether your learning method is based mostly on "real world" language or not your testing method should be. The best way to test your progress is against real use of the language. listening to real content, reading real content, talking with real people. Grammar tests, tests against numbers of flashcards learned, classroom tests, the number of audio lessons completed, all indicate some kind of progress, but don't guarantee the correct progress.

Testing against real world material requires some discipline, the material you use for listening comprehension, reading comprehension, the people you speak to have to vary and have to represent varying levels of difficulty, when you may be able to understand a childrens story you might only still get a few words from a news report.


I have been testing my learning against real world application for a long time now, not just for language learning. Hopefully as time goes by I will get better and better at language learning by constantly testing my progress and adapting my methods. When I learn anything I can go down false trails or do something that doesn't actually help, everyone does. There is no reason however why anybody should be able say "I tried method X for two years and made little progress".

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Why Language learning classes won't work


More cobweb cleaning ready to start a new year, people often bang on about teaching techniques and why traditional language teaching won't work, etc. etc. but it seems to me that the truth is simple that a class, in school, for learning a language will never work, it simply can't.

What I mean here is a class as part of the normal curriculum for teaching children at school, or a regular weekly class at a night-school. And when I say it won't work, I mean that even years of attendance is unlikely to result in being able to comfortably speak and understand the language despite successfully completing the classes and passing tests etc.

The Problem

The problem as I see it is that learning a language requires learning and effort on a lot of different levels. Often language learning is compared to sport or learning a musical instrument, I think that mastering a language is broader than most of these comparisons, there are a lot of facts (or near facts, more on that in a later post) to learn as well as the need to spend a lot of time on task (actually playing the sport / instrument or listening to music).

If however we are generous and compare speaking a language (whatever that actually means) to playing a sport or instrument well then consider the fact that the standard education system can't achieve either of these goals with sport or music (and doesn't really try). Music classes teach about music, and introduce music, maybe even inspire some students, but they do not make competent musicians out of the vast majority of students. Standard sport lessons introduce sports, give the students a little exercise, but they do not produce competent sports people. In fact nobody expects these music and sports lessons to do much more than they actually do.

The students that progress in sports and music are the ones that have extra lessons, the ones who join clubs outside or inside school, the ones that attend extra practice for their class or school team. Most of them can't progress beyond a very basic standard without this extra effort, and nobody expects otherwise.

There is only so much time available in education, standards in Maths and Mother Language achieve what they do in the time available, there is some variation due to talent and interest and method but the employees and further education establishments take what is produced and work with it. In this way though what is produced by language classes does not offer functional abilities in the language.

Basic to intermediate communication skills could theoretically be taught in the time available but then we have the other education system problem of testing and assessment. Educationalists are not going to be happy with just being able to say that 80% of students leave the system able to have a "reasonable conversation" and leave it at that, far easier to test them on predetermined content and their abilities to do things with grammar that might even baffle a native speaker. A bit like teaching students to strip down, clean and re-assemble a saxophone, with little to no ability to play the thing (easy to grade though).

The whole thing needs to be turned on it's head, we need to review what we expect from language education, maybe not even call French lessons by that name, just call it "Language Education". Change the focus and the expectation, French lessons are now the thing that you do extra (like guitar lessons and playing for the soccer team) you won't get good unless you put the time in.


Most adults would not expect to attend a saxophone class for a couple of hours a week, do an hour or so homework on it a week and get any good at playing saxophone this side of the next ten years (especially if they have no previous musical experience to build on. Yet countless people regularly take on classes in a foreign language on this premise.

Is it bonkers or am I? comments gratefully received.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

An Infinite number of languages


image by Stephen Begin

The End of a year and the start of new one, forgive the cluster of peculiar posts you will see here for a while whilst I clear out the cobwebs. A heavier focus on Thai will resume next year at some point.

Whilst it is not strictly true that every snowflake is different (especially when small) it is true enough for me to compare them to language. It is not true that there are an infinite number of languages either but as a starting point, in my view there are at least as many languages as there are people on earth who can speak. That is just a starting point you would have to add each extra language that anybody can speak.

Saying that the language someone speaks is French or German or Spanish is just an approximation, it is applying some criteria to the individual language that they speak and own, a criteria that gives you a good idea which other peoples individual language is roughly mutually intelligible (near enough that they can communicate with little difficulty).

This viewpoint comforts me tremendously (I don't see myself as having to reach a standard that is fixed). All I have to do is insert a "new" language in my brain that gets near enough that a bunch of other people of a certain background can communicate with me easily. The more people #I can communicate with and the smoother the communication the more progress I have made. Not a trivial task but fuzzy enough to not be so scary as an absolute standard.


Every person has their own set of associations for every word, including their mother tongue.
Every person has been exposed to each word in a different way, whilst in different moods, under different circumstances. Every person (Ok there may be the odd freaky verbal doppelgänger out there) pronounces every word slightly differently to anybody else that speaks the same language (different pitch, different harmonics, different speed). We all have our preferred adjectives, greetings, swear words, words we like the sound of, words we don't like the sound of. Sub-groupings of similar languages within languages are formed by age-groups, professions, hobbies, sexual orientation etc. etc.

Dictionaries are approximations (or sometimes self-fulfilling prophesies if people learn most of their words from them). You could write a distinct dictionary for each individual. Many entries would be same across various people but each dictionary would be distinct, some would be considerably smaller than others.

Here is a prediction, I just know it is true (it has to be). Spain and Portugal share a border, there just has to some people somewhere that daily speak something that would cause people to argue about whether it was Spanish or Portuguese they speak. I won't even look on the Internet I am so confident this will be the case.


Some people won't like this view, it won't sit well, they will feel that they need an absolute standard to work to. I feel liberated by it.