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Let’s face it. Most people spend a lot of money on foreign languages either directly or through their public schools and the results aren’t usually that great. [1]

What are the problems? Well the biggest one is probably that most people studying foreign languages don’t want to be studying them! Some of my old students in Taiwan showed up hating everything about English! It took countless months of benevolent brain washing and fun materials to get even half of them genuinely interested in a language they only needed at school. But I’m basically going to set that problem aside and talk about the difficulties for people who really do want to learn. Let’s look at the main options and then the problems (and strengths) of each.

The main options

  • Classes
  • Self study courses
  • Online tutoring
  • Offline tutoring
  • Conversation exchange
  • Immersion
  • Other online tools
  • Self-designed study methods

Classes

  • Classes with professional teachers are expensive.
  • It’s cheaper to be part of a large class, but most students want talking time.
  • It’s very difficult to handle students with very different levels of proficiency.
  • Most classes focus too much on grammar.
  • Most classes focus too much on intensive activities instead of extensive reading.
  • Classes tend to be very rigid in terms of when students can start or stop studying.
  • There are limited times when students can join or leave.
  • Group classes motivate people to study regularly.
  • Native speaking teachers can correct students.

Self-study courses (books + CDs/MP3s)

  • Most are of poor quality (this can be mitigated by looking at online reviews).
  • There’s no correction. This is a huge problem for pronunciation.
  • Don’t generally get students to the level where they can use native materials.
  • Good for learning vocabulary and basic grammar.
  • Usually a reasonable value for the price.

Online tutoring

  • Online tutoring extremely expensive due to its one on one nature.
  • Teachers don’t generally have the same incentives to make study plans as those making courses for schools.
  • It’s difficult to become friends with an online tutor and some platforms forbid it.
  • Due to the individualized attention, tutoring is very time efficient.
  • Students able to continue spending $5 to $30 per hour can learn to a very high level. 
  • Students anywhere can learn from teachers anywhere.
  • It’s easy to switch teachers.

Offline tutoring

  • It’s more difficult to find offline tutors if you aren’t at a university or hostel.
  • There may not be a tutor for the language you want to learn where you live.
  • Offline tutors sometimes become genuine friends or introduce students to other native speakers who become friends.
  • There are no middleman costs from a platform or payment processors.

Conversation exchange

  • It takes some effort to find a good match (online or off)
  • Many conversation exchanges devolve into a struggle over which language to use.
  • There’s a MASSIVE imbalance between who wants to learn what languages. For every English speaker who wants to learn Arabic, there are probably 100 Arabic speakers who want to learn English.
  • People doing conversation exchange have to or at least should spend 1/2 of it helping the other person.
  • Conversation partners often end up becoming friends.
  • Conversation partners understand each other’s struggles.
  • Conversation exchange leads to more cultural understanding.
  • Conversation exchange is free.

Immersion

  • People are remarkably capable of creating their own language bubbles and resisting immersion. Just living in a country is no guarantee you’ll learn much.
  • Moving to another place is a huge life decision affecting work and relationships.
  • It’s costly to move and figure out how everything works in a new place (either in time or money or both).
  • The ability to take advantage of immersion to learn a language really depends on social skills, and sadly physical beauty. Not everyone can recruit the locals to help them learn.
  • Combined with study, immersion is one of the surest ways to learn a language.
  • It’s exciting.
  • It generally forces people to grow.

Other online tools

There is an ever-growing wealth of online tools available for learners. I’ve often thought my Chinese would have improved nearly twice as fast if I’d been born 10 years later and had access to those tools while I was learning.

A lot of great tools have a narrow focus and will help you with one specific aspect of learning a language. Obviously these can’t be relied upon exclusively, but they can definitely be valuable additions to your other activities. Anki, for example, is a long-time favorite of many language learners. Lang-8 is popular for those who like doing and receiving writing corrections. Another interesting option is LingQ. I will definitely write more about them in the future.

I’ve heard great things about some of the language-specific programs, in particular Frantastique for French learners. Due to their very high prices, though, I haven’t tried it out.

Podcasts are definitely worthwhile. The key is to find podcasts that are interesting, are at the right level and don’t waste your time with too much branding or chit chat in English.

The 100% free resources available online don’t tend to be time efficient.

Some of the most popular, like Duolingo are highly gamified, very addictive and not very effective. I’ve known some people who have spent hours a day on Duolingo for an entire year without developing basic speaking or listening abilities. Students with time but no money would be far better advised to take advantage of the free tier on something like LingQ and then start doing conversation exchanges after getting a basic foundation (or even after just getting enough to make it through one conversation on a pre-prepared topic).

Self-designed study methods

  • Only really an option for people who have experience learning languages and know what they’re doing.
  • For veteran language learners, personal approaches developed over multiple languages of experience are often very effective even for languages lacking study materials.

Lowering your learning costs—the bottom line

Here’s the best advice I’ve got based on today’s tools:

1) Get a self-study textbook + CD set. I had a decent experience with Living Language for Spanish. It was like 3 textbooks (of which I did nearly two), plus CDs for only $30 on Amazon. Just work through that.

2) If you’re learning a language that it supports, use the free LingQ to build up some vocabulary through reading and download the audio for each lesson you’ve read. Listen to that when you’re out walking around. If you really like the service, then it’s probably worth the $10 per month.

3a) If your native language is popular enough (e.g. if you’re an English speaker learning French or if you’re a Japanese speaker learning Korean), then get a conversation partner on mylanguageexchange.com or on Italki.

3b) If you’re having a hard time finding a conversation partner because you’re learning English (or maybe Spanish or French), then go to Verbling, sign up and go to the community tab.

4) I’d suggest using tutoring on an as needed basis and make sure you have all the questions you need to ask prepared ahead of time. If you know exactly what you want, most teachers will be very helpful.

And repeat

As you improve, keep listening, keep reading and keep talking with people about whatever topics you can. You don’t need to spend a ton of time, but if you can do 30-90 minutes per day and keep at it, you will get at least basic proficiency and even counting a few intermediate-level books and tutoring sessions the cost will be under $500.


1. One exception would be northern Europeans. They’re outliers though. Their native languages are closely related to English, they’re pretty small in terms of speakers, and they can’t use their native languages abroad. They also from a very young age and get a great tons of input from English-language media that they don’t dub. A speaker of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese or especially English has a very, very different situation.

The Romajinator was tool I made for converting Japanese Katakana into romaji, i.e., roman characters. I’ve recently updated it so that it can also convert Hiragana into romaji. Any serious student of Japanese will have no more problems reading hiragana or katakana than a student of Chinese would have reading pinyin.

It’s mostly just for fun, but for people living in China or other countries in Asia, it might be useful.

Examples

さむらい   ->   samurai 
にんじゃ   ->   ninja 
いちご     ->   ichigo  ->  strawberry
いぬ       ->   inu     ->  dog

Pronunciation

In general, romaji vowels are pronounced fairly similarly to pinyin vowels. The big exception is the “e”, which sounds a bit closer to a “short e” in English. The “o” sounds somewhat like an English “long o”. Vowels with a macron bar over them are voiced for a longer period of time. Doubled consonants represent a pause before the consonant. For example “kippu” would sound like “key”, followed by a pause, and then “poo”.

The above is obviously a very rough explanation. For a more pronunciation guide, I recommend the Wikimedia Commons: Japanese pronunciation page.

The newest version of the Sinosplice Tooltip plugin for WordPress is out! I chipped in and helped John and Andy a little bit this time with code from my pinyin tools, so it now displays pinyin with tone marks in its pop-ups.

If you have a wordpress blog and you ever put Chinese phrases into your posts, this is definitely worth checking out. With the plugin, you can enter translations or pinyin to pop-up when when your readers mouse over the Chinese characters in your post.

Here’s an example: 中秋節

You can download the plugin at its page and you can see a usage and installation tutorial on Sinosplice.

I’ve long been an occasional user of the Perapera-kun plug-in for Firefox. It’s pretty handy for quickly looking up Japanese words online.

Once it was installed, you could right-click on any web page, pick “perapera” from the right-click menu, and then hovering the mouse over any word bring up a pop-up display with both the English translation and the pronunciation of the word in question. The Chinese version worked pretty much the same way.

Unfortunately, the developer decided to merge the Chinese and Japanese plugins and abandon the old right click interface and instead add an icon at the bottom right hand corner of the screen (incidentally, the same spot I use for my pinyin plugin). Instead of text, the developer decided to use flags.

Here is the result:

Why a flag?

Using flags is a poor user design choice

Needless to say there are a lot of people in Taiwan who would rather not fly the PRC flag on their desktops. Though I’m not a very political person myself, I felt a bit uncomfortable with this on the computers at my office after the upgrades today. I doubt the secretary would much care for seeing it and while I could explain it to her, it could be more awkward if students see it on the computers.

An icon with the character 中 would be a better choice. Also, from a purely functional standpoint, I miss the right-click interface. It was much quicker than having to go to the lower right-hand corner of my browser and make two clicks.

I’ve made a Firefox extension that converts pinyin with tone numbers into pinyin with tone marks. The specifics of the conversion process are identical to those of the online pinyin converter I wrote earlier.

After installing the extension, a blue square will appear on the right side of the status bar at the bottom of your Firefox web browser. To use the tool, type some pinyin with tone numbers into any plain text field on any web page. Then highlight the text and click on the blue 拼 on your status bar. It will convert the tone numbers into the appropriate marks over the appropriate vowels.pin

For example, if you type in “zhong1wen2”, highlight it and hit the button, then it will be converted into “zhōngwén”.

Thanks to John for feedback on the design, and to Wayne and Andrew for testing on Mac and Linux machines.

Go to the download page to get it.

Chinese Perakun is one of my favorite tools for reading Chinese online. It’s a Firefox plug-in for Chinese learners. When it’s enabled, it displays a pop-up with an English translation a pinyin pronunciation and larger version of the character. Below is an example, in which I hovered the mouse over the phrase “導體”.

perakun

Perakun pop-up translations work on anything displayed on a Firefox page, including news sites, email and chat windows. It handles both simplified and traditional characters and it’s got a pretty big dictionary. Go to the install page to get it.

Note: I’ve been big fan of perakun for years. The only reason I haven’t written about it sooner is that I thought everyone knew about it. I recently found out that a couple of my friends who are more motivated about Chinese learning than I am didn’t know about it and that’s why I’m writing now.

Muninn has made my Pinyin Tone Tool into something more useful– an OS X dashboard widget!

I’m happy to announce the results of a few hours of tinkering: The Pinyin Tone Widget. This OS X dashboard widget will take a series of Chinese pinyin words with tone numbers appended at the end of each syllable and will add the tone marks where appropriate (e.g. zhong1guo2 becomes zhōngguó).

Get it while it’s hot.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I liked the new dictionary at labs.chinesepod.com. After getting used to using it all the time via the search bookmark I made last week, I started wondering why I still had the MDBG searchbar up on my page.

After I quick consultation with David (CPod’s CTO), I had my answer. There wasn’t a searchbar for CPod’s uber-adsotated dictionary with audio recordings. So I decided to be bold and make one. You can see it in context in the picture below, and it’s now a part of toshuo.com’s sidebar. I’ve already run this by David, and if anyone would like to copy and distribute the image or the code to make the searchbar, go ahead!

My searchbar for the new Chinese Pod dictionary

Here’s the code:

<!-- CPod Dictionary Search -->
<div id="cdict">

<form method="get" action="http://labs.chinesepod.com/" target="_blank">
<div style="border: 1px solid rgb(192, 192, 192); padding: 0px 3px 5px;
background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255); width: 200px; text-align: center;">
<a href="http://labs.chinesepod.com/dictionary"target="_blank">
<img alt="Chinese Pod Chinese-English dictionary" src="labsdict.png"
title="Chinese Pod Chinese-English dictionary" border="0"/>
<input value="node/4" name="q" type="hidden"/>
<div style="clear: both;"></div>
The Dictionary<input name="search" size="26" value="" onclick="this.focus();
 this.value='';" type="text"/></div></form>

</div><!--End Dictionary-->

And here’s the image (which you’ll have to upload to your blog host):

I have no design skills! If anyone can improve upon the look of the searchbar, I’m sure people would appreciate it.

I recently stumbled accross a site called Fuzzwich, that automates cheesy video design. Here’s the result of my first effort:

Recently, Lonnie (of OMBW) wrote about a pretty nice web tool that tests to see if a site is blocked in China or not. It’s free, and you can check your site’s accessibility from servers in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing. The name of the site is Website Pulse.

It’s been pretty accurate as far as I can tell. I had been getting about 30% of my traffic from China, until the past couple of weeks, during which that percentage fell to about 1%. During this time, the tool has been saying I was blocked. Now, it says I’m no longer blocked, and my traffic logs seem to confirm it.

Why I was blocked briefly, and then unblocked is a mystery.