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Tag: Language Learning

Since the first interview with Chris Parker went well, I did second video interview for Lingsprout. This time I interviewed Jeremy Ginsburg AKA “the Vietnomad”, whose incredible story was on Benny Lewis’s blog.


Unlike the previous interview I did, this one was more of a “how to” than a story. I dug in and pushed pretty hard on one topic—What can you do in terms of social interactions to learn a foreign language in a country as a beginner?

Check it out here: How to befriend locals and learn their language with Jeremy Ginsburg

I’ve come to value learning phonics well. Both through my experience teaching English as a foreign language and as a student of a number of foreign languages, it’s become clear to me that it’s time well invested. I don’t worry too much if my pronunciation lags a bit, but not being able to distinguish the various sounds of a language is a serious, serious problem. I can’t really remember ever having had that problem with Spanish or Japanese, probably due to the limited set of sounds in each language. Mandarin tones definitely challenged me back when I first moved to Taiwan, but Taiwanese Hokkien has presented a far, far bigger hurdle. Yes, the tones are harder, but that wasn’t it. For at least the first week or two, I couldn’t distinguish the consonants!

Enemy #1: g vs. k vs. kh

Taiwanese includes three consonants that correspond to the two English consonants “g” and “k”. The chart below links Taiwanese POJ romanization with standard IPA symbols.

Taiwanese POJIPAClassificationEnglish example
gɡvoiced velar plosiveget
kkplain velar plosiveskit
khaspirated velar plosivekit

The problem for English speakers is that while we do have both [k] and [kʰ] sounds, they’re in complementary distribution. There’s never a situation in which a an aspirated [kʰ] could be used in place of a [k] or vice-versa. Similarly, we don’t use [g] sounds in positions where a plain [k] could appear (e.g. “sgip”). As a result, our ears are well trained at differentiating [kʰ] vs [g], and not so good at differentiating between the plain [k] and the other two sounds. For me, this has been the biggest listening comprehension challenge I’ve faced in any language I’ve ever studied.

Here is an audio recording with pairs words contrasting the plain k and the g:

How easy was it for you to differentiate between the two sounds? What kind of language background do you have?

Note: Taiwanese also includes [b], the plain [p], and the aspirated [pʰ]!

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been learning a bit more of the Taiwanese (AKA Minnan) language. One interesting thing I’ve recently discovered is that Minnan is one of the many languages included in the spaceship voyager’s greeting message.

I was listening to the greeting message NASA sent out of our solar system to see how much I could understand, and was very surprised to hear something understandable as Minnan at about 2m50s into it. After a quick check at NASA’s website, sure enough there was Amoy, the prestige Minnan dialect! Below is the Amoy clip from NASA’s page.

I never would have guessed this would be one of the languages we sent in our greeting, though in terms of the number of native speakers, I suppose it makes sense.

There are some great Chinese study apps out there on the iTunes store! For anyone with an iPhone, or iPod Touch, there are enough apps available to outclass dedicated electronic dictionaries in many cases. Better yet, there are enough free apps to satisfy quite a few language learners!

The Basic Tools

The things that I’m looking for are as follows: A dictionary, a lot of audio, flashcards (preferably with an SRS), and maybe some games.

Study Arcade

This is one heck of a study app! It can import vocabulary lists from ChinesePod, Anki, or a dozens of its own archives. These include HSK lists (in simplified or traditional characters!), resources for other languages ranging from Esperanto to biblical Greek, and even prep materials for standard tests such as the GRE or LSAT. The includes a flashcard “game”, that can be set to either cram mode or a spaced repetition mode based on Super Memo 2. Amazingly, the only limitation on the basic service is downloads from its own server. It starts by allowing the user to download five modules, after which it is necessary to “earn” them by reviewing 500 flash cards. Talk about motivation! Here’s the iTunes link for StudyArcade.


The Pleco dictionary has been a popular choice on PDAs for years. Many, many people have sung its praises. The iPhone/iPod Touch version just released this week doesn’t disappoint. As usual, the interface is snappy and the choice of dictionaries is top-notch. In addition, they’ve gone to the trouble to improve upon Apple’s already good Chinese character recognition software. While I hadn’t had any complaints about Apple’s character handwriting recognition, Pleco went the extra mile and added full-screen input, cursive recognition and a time-saving double-tap interface. Very impressive.

In the past, I’ve been put off by Pleco’s absurd prices (their palm version cost as much as an iPod Touch!), but with this version, things are a bit better. First of all, the complete package is now “only” $150. Secondly, dictionaries can be downloaded from within the app (after registering). The initial dictionary is somewhat pitiful, missing even common words such as “Sydney”. Some free dictionaries offered are a notable improvement, such as the ever growing Adsotrans dictionary. One final improvement in the value offered by Pleco is that the options are very modular. I have no interest in voice readings of the dictionary entries and it’s possible for me to avoid them. If I wanted to purchase just the Guifan Chinese-Chinese dictionary without paying for the ABC dictionary as well, that’s possible, too.


DianHua is a free dictionary available on the iStore that I found via some discussion boards. It’s based on the CC-CEDICT, which has some advantages over the built-in Pleco dictionary. Like Pleco, DianHua supports traditional Chinese characters fully and is fairly friendly to Taiwan-based learners. The one major advantage of DianHua is its integrated flashcard system. It makes it easy to review the words they’ve looked up, and it uses a spaced repetition system to make sure that you’re reviewing at optimal intervals. It’s a great dictionary, and it’s better than a number of non-free competitors in the iStore.


Clearly, iPods were made for podcasts. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In any case, load it up! Seize back that time on the subway that would have otherwise been wasted!


This is an area where I haven’t found anything compelling yet. I’ve heard of a game something like a Chinese version of Boggle, but I haven’t seen it. Anyone who’s found an app that manages to educate and amuse, please share!

Over the past month as made my way through the phenomenal guide Remembering the Kanji, I’ve learned some interesting things. Not only am I writing all the Joyo kanji with an accuracy I could only have dreamt of before RTK, but I’m starting to recognize some of the systematic aspects behind the post WWII Kanji simplifications. Some are fairly mundane, but one is a more abstract sort of simplification than I had realized existed.

Simplifications of radicals and other components

The PRC simplified a large number of radicals and other character components components after the second world war. Very few Japanese radicals were simplified, though some of the less manageable ones such as “turtle” (龜) were. In complex components of radicals that are not radicals, the Japanese and Chinese simplifications were often the same.


Nothing in the above table was anything very new or interesting to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to be able to remember those kinds of systematic relationships between the different writing systems. But they’re not the kind of thing to make me say wow.

Simplification via the “tripler” component

This was, though:


I love that. Any time you see something tedious to write repeated three times, there’s a good chance that it can be written once with four sparkles under it, instead. It saves time, and unlike Chinese simplifications, it preserves all the original information. It’s like writing a function.

Notes: 渋 is a bit problematic.

Looking back, it kind of amazes me that I’ve just this month truly discovered James W. Heisig’s landmark work, Remembering the Kanji. Back in 2001 and 2002, I heard Heisig’s name pop up a couple of times while I was studying Japanese at UC Boulder. I think my very first Japanese teacher may have even used some RTK-inspired methods when she taught us hiragana.
continue reading…

Anki is a free software program designed to help people remember what they have learned.anki-logo It’s a flashcard program, with support for a variety of media, including text, sound files, mathematical equations (using Latex) and even images. My use of it so far has been restricted to foreign language learning. Anki runs on Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux.

The value of spaced repetitions

Anki is a spaced repetition learning system. Unlike traditional flash card systems in which the user decided what to practice and when, spaced repetition systems schedule practice for you. The first time someone learns something, it will be forgotten quickly. The next time, it might stay for a day or two. The time after that, a learner can usually remember an item for over a week. The length of time increases exponentially. If an item is forgotten, though, much of the progress is lost. By scheduling review for each item right before the learner is expected to forget it, Anki makes it possible to learn material well enough to remember it for months or even years in just ten to twenty repetitions.

My own learning experiences have made me a big fan of spaced repetition review. I have been a reasonably hard-working student ever since my last stint in college, but a depressing amount of the work was wasted. I have entire notebooks full of things I’ve painstakingly learned, probably reviewed more often in the early stages and then forgotten because failed to go over them months later. As much as I like the idea of deciding when and what to review, following the algorithm is more effective.

Differences from Supermemo

As far as the algorithm is concerned, Anki is very similar to SM2. When answering correctly, you still get three options (easy, good and hard), but there is only one option for wrong answers. Anything you answer wrong is put back into the stack, to be reviewed after you finish your other cards for the day. One very good change is that wrong answers don’t really affect the card’s “difficulty rating” before you’ve really learned a card well, i.e. to the point at which you have about a month between intervals. In other words, you won’t keep seeing a card too often a year from now just because you hadn’t really learned it before putting it into your deck.

The biggest way Anki is different from Supermemo is the clean interface. It’s a nice, simple program and it’s a joy to use. You can also copy decks to the Anki site for free (up to 10MB), and sync decks after you finish with them so that you can review from other computers. This isn’t a very important feature for me, but it would be if I had a decent cellphone.

Other features

Anki has some specific features for learners of Chinese and even more features for learners of Japanese. There are “deck models” for both languages. Each card has a field for the “question” (the word), the “answer” (the English translation) and a special third field for the reading. Upon entering a Chinese word, Anki fills in the pinyin for you! For example, if I enter the word 嫻靜, Anki fills in xián jìng for me. This is a great time saver. Unfortunately, it’s still necessary to choose the right pronunciation in the case of 破音字. The recognition for Japanese characters is far better. Anki has automatically selected the correct hiragana for the vast majority of the Japanese words and phrases I’ve entered so far. It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, it would be necessary to choose from half a dozen readings on a regular basis. On other feature for Japanese study is that the program tracks how many of the Jouyou and Jinmeiyou Kanji have appeared in your deck so far. It also tells you what percentage of the kanji for each grade of elementary school you have learned.

Graphs and Statistics

Anki’s charts and statistics are outstanding.ankichart You can see charts of when cards will be up for review, of how much time you’ve studied each day, of how hard your cards are for you, and all kinds of other things. Deck statistics are similarly impressive. Have you ever what percentage of the time you answer correctly on cards you’ve been studying for a long time? Or what percentage you get right in your first review session? Anki can tell you. In fact, the charts and statistics might be a little bit too good. I’ve found myself checking them more than I really want to.


Anki is free software. As a proud free culture supporting geek, this makes me very happy. On the practical side, it also leads to cross-platform support and it’s easy to extend Anki. In fact, I’ve taken advantage of this by getting the Traditional Chinese localization of the program started. Damien, the original author and maintainer, was very helpful via email explaining to me how to edit the localization files. I’m sure others, with native Chinese skills, will build upon that work. If enough Chinese students get interested in Anki, I bet it will start keeping Hanzi statistics, too. By virtue of its license Anki is certain to keep improving for as long as it’s popular.


Anki is great. I’ve been using it daily for most of this month and I’ve even put in some time localizing it so that I could give it to one of my students. He’s been hard working, but continues to struggle to build his vocabulary. I’ve put all the vocabulary from my first semester CDs into Anki decks for him and have high hopes. I wouldn’t be using it myself and I certainly wouldn’t be recommending it to my students if I didn’t think Anki was the best of its breed.

Rating: 4.5/5

I’ve had a passing interest in the concept of spaced repetition ever since I read the Wired article about Piotr Wozniak’s fantastic human experiment.

Twenty years ago, Wozniak realized that computers could easily calculate the moment of forgetting if he could discover the right algorithm. SuperMemo is the result of his research. It predicts the future state of a person’s memory and schedules information reviews at the optimal time. The effect is striking. Users can seal huge quantities of vocabulary into their brains. But for Wozniak, 46, helping people learn a foreign language fast is just the tiniest part of his goal. As we plan the days, weeks, even years of our lives, he would have us rely not merely on our traditional sources of self-knowledge — introspection, intuition, and conscious thought — but also on something new: predictions about ourselves encoded in machines.

Given the chance to observe our behaviors, computers can run simulations, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we’ve read, help us track whom we’ve met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak’s scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.

The reason the inventor of SuperMemo pursues extreme anonymity, asking me to conceal his exact location and shunning even casual recognition by users of his software, is not because he’s paranoid or a misanthrope but because he wants to avoid random interruptions to a long-running experiment he’s conducting on himself. Wozniak is a kind of algorithmic man. He’s exploring what it’s like to live in strict obedience to reason. On first encounter, he appears to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

It was a long but thoroughly engaging piece that inspired me to try out Piotr’s software Supermemo. At that time, it never really stuck. I found the interface frustrating, and I wasn’t really interested in buying the full product. At the time, my motivation to study Chinese was on the ebb anyway.

Recently, spaced repetition has come back onto my radar, thanks to what John’s writing about his study of classical Chinese.

In fact it’s motivated me enough to not only give it a try for my own study, but I’ve decided to try to contribute to an open source spaced repetition program, Anki, over the Chinese New Year. The interface is great, it’s easy to use and I love it. I’ll definitely be writing more about it soon.

The program is fully free (gratis and libre), and I can see it as not only helping me with my studies, but with a bit of localization it can also help my students and other students as well. Maybe not being able to get a plane for a visit home wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

If anybody is interested in helping me translate the Anki interface into traditional Chinese, I’d love to have your help. I’m only a small way through and there are still about 6000 lines of messages left to go through. I’m not exactly a real translator either.

I caught this off of John Biesnecker’s recently resurrected blog*.

This is a pretty impressive display by Steve, the founder of Lingq. He definitely got a boost from his post-hockey drinking, though.

Related Entries:
A reformed blog butcher
Steve Kaufmann – Bilingual interview in Taipei

*He’s a re-reformed blog-butcher now… bordering on legend. And every incarnation of the blog is still great!

I recently received this email from a high school teacher in Florida:

I came across your textbook reviews online and they all seem to focus on college level chinese and traditional characters.
I just started teaching high school Chinese and I’m looking for a textbook that will allow me to focus on tones, simplified characters, and pinyin. A workbook or audio cd that goes along with it would also be helpful.
Do you have any recommendations?
Thanks in advance.


Then, in a follow-up email, she said:

… the focus is on language, culture and society. Unfortunately, the language aspect of the class is not supposed to be too intensive, but I would be happy if the students could get the tones down and learn some basic survival Chinese and sentence patterns. I’m thinking about using the New Practical Chinese Reader available on Do you have any experience with this book?

I haven’t ever used the New Practical Chinese Reader, but I know that the Far East series I reviewed has simplified versions of their books and they have some books for younger learners, too. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many books targeted at high school students. I’ll bet John might know, though. Can anybody else help Ruth out?