Manny's Reviews > How To Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own

How To Learn Any Language by Barry Farber
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Sep 11, 11

bookshelves: linguistics-and-philosophy, what-i-do-for-a-living
Read from January 16 to 18, 2010

Trevor gives a good summary of what you'll find in the book, and I don't have much to add. Instead, I'll talk about how it relates to work that we're doing at Geneva University, developing speech-enabled software to help people learn a new language. If there's one thing that comes across in Farber's advice, it's the importance of regular practice. As he says, you get better at a language by using it, and you should use it in as interactive a way as possible.

There's a sliding scale here. The very best method is to develop a romantic relationship with a speaker of the language in question. (A smugly multilingual Swedish friend, who's used it more than once, calls it den sexualpedagogiska metoden. I'll leave you the translation as an exercise). If, for whatever reason, it doesn't work for you to get involved with a native speaker, then living in a country where they speak the language is still pretty good. The longer you can live there, and the less you speak your own language while you're doing so, the better you'll get on. After that, the next step down is talking regularly with a native speaker, while staying in your own linguistic environment.

But alas, many language students can't find any way at all to talk with native speakers, so they have to descend further still. Farber gives you some useful recommendations. The cassette courses he describes are now generally available in MP3 form. There are Internet-based courses too. Flashcards let you practice vocabulary in odd moments. And don't undervalue the simple idea of just carrying around a book in your language of choice, and reading it when you have a chance. It's all worth doing. None the less, you aren't going to become fluent if you don't practice speaking.

I got the idea for the project we've just started during our last project, where we developed a speech translation device for doctors who wanted to be able to talk to foreign patients. (If you're interested, there are more details in this 2008 paper). I spent a fair amount of time talking to different versions of the medical speech translation system, and discovered to my surprise that I'd noticeably improved my fluency without even trying. Perhaps this was something worth investigating! We looked around, and discovered that people at MIT had come to similar conclusions, and reused English/Chinese speech translation software to build what they called a "translation game". The system gave you an English sentence, you tried to say it in Chinese, and it performed speech recognition to try and decide whether you'd got it right. If you did, you scored a point. The level of difficulty of the examples was adjusted up or down depending on your average score.

We liked the MIT idea, and saw that we could not only build the same thing, but could probably do it better than they could. Their statistical framework required thousands of examples to train the recogniser; we only needed a couple of hundred, because our platform is based on grammar rather than statistics. So while they were limited to an area where they happened to have data (airline flight reservations; not very interesting to the average language student), we could do pretty much what we wanted. Our prototype system, which we've been working on since August 2009, lets students practice their conversational abilities in a tourist restaurant scenario; it's simple, and everyone thinks it's useful. It runs in English, French, Japanese and German with vocabularies of between 150 and 400 words, reasonable for beginner/low intermediate students.

Here's an example session with CALL-SLT, our prototype system; I'll show you the French version, since it's probably the easiest one for most readers to follow. I start up my browser (Firefox or Chrome are recommended) make sure I have a current version of Flash installed and plug in my headset. I go to the system home page and log in as "guest" (you don't need a password). I get a screen that looks like this. Note the instructions on the right-hand side:

description

I then click on the "choose lesson" button (the green stack of books, top right). I get this menu:

description

I choose the first lesson and click on the green tick mark underneath. Now it shows me in telegraphic English what I'm supposed to say:

ORDER POLITELY LAMB

I'm not sure how to say that in French, so I hit the "help" button (blue question-mark, bottom right). I get:

description

I double-click on the first example that appears at the bottom and I can hear my colleague Johanna saying "Je voudrais l'agneau". Now I try saying the same thing. I press down the "recognise" button (purple, top right), speak, and release when I've finished speaking. The display now looks like this:

description

I got it right (the green bar on the left) and the system shows me the words it heard.

It's simple, but I can say from experience that it works; I couldn't do restaurant Japanese at all when I started, but after practicing with the Japanese version for a few says I was quite confident that I could order a beer, get a pair of chopsticks, ask where the bathroom was, or reserve a table for two for seven thirty. When I went to Japan in September I was able to test my knowledge in real situations, and restaurant staff understood me fine!

Please try out CALL-SLT yourself if you're curious, and feel free to let us know what you think! If it doesn't work for you, or you run into problems, we're particularly keen on hearing why. And if you want to read more about it, we have a couple of conference papers here and here.
_______________________________________

I was trying to put into words what it is that our system offers, compared with the existing internet-based alternatives that Meredith and Not mention. I think it's a Goldilocks deal.

On the one hand, you have these things like TellMeMore, where they give you a sentence and you have to repeat it. There are also listening-type exercises - I tried one yesterday on LiveMocha. It asked me questions about the time, and I had to point to one of four clocks to select the right answer. But these things were too easy, and I didn't feel any sense of achievement from doing them. They weren't any fun as a game.

On the other hand, you can sign up to talk to a real person. My spoken French isn't nearly as good as my reading skills, and I need more practice, so I did that. I considered doing the same for Japanese. But my Japanese is terrible, and I would just bore anyone who decided to talk to me. I can't impose on them like that. As far as Japanese is concerned, talking to people is too hard.

Now CALL-SLT. It's a challenging game, and I get a nice glow from learning how to say things well enough in Japanese that it understands me. At the beginning, I had to think for thirty seconds before speaking on the hard examples, and I still missed most of the time. Now I can just do it. And I never have to feel that I'm boring it, or that it's humouring me. It's my willing language teacher slave. As Goldilocks says, exactly right!
_______________________________________

We have now added a clever course in elementary Japanese ("Survival Japanese") designed by Ian Frank at Future University, Hakodate, Japan. You can get it by logging in as described above, then choosing "English for Japanese" from the "Choose Language" menu (orange button, top left), then "WMDF". After this, you can select eight possible lessons from "Choose Lesson" (green button, top left). The course is meant to take a few hours, and will teach you a range of useful things to say in common situations - greeting people, at a restaurant, shopping, party, etc.

We did an evaluation last week using the Amazon Mechanical Turk, where we paid subjects $2 a session for up to 7 sessions to try and use it to learn some Japanese. Nearly all of the dozen or so subjects who stuck with it to the end were very complimentary... one of them said he was sure when he started that he'd never be able to remember a single word, but now he's going round irritating his family by constantly using Japanese expressions they don't understand. So be careful. You wouldn't want that to happen to you.
_______________________________________

We're now constructing an elementary French course together with the University of Bologna, Italy - you can find it by choosing "French for English Speakers" in the "Language" menu, then "Bologna". We've also added an initial course for Greek, and a Swedish version should be coming up some time next week.

If you find this stuff interesting and want to know more, check out our new website!
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Reading Progress

01/16/2010 page 37
19.27% "Heard the boasting, now let's get the method..."
01/17/2010 page 75
39.06% "His system. Immediate reactions: 1) very sensible, 2) the book is 20 years old, and now you could do so much better!"

Comments (showing 1-33 of 33) (33 new)

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message 1: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Superb!! Can't wait for it to become commercially avaiable. And for the language options to expand. I love picking up basic tourist language before going to a foreign country.


Manny Thank you! We're definitely thinking about possibilities for commercializing this, if we can find the right people to partner with.

Though we're probably going to develop the basic system a bit more first. The next thing we're doing is to make it possible to split up the material into "lessons", so that you can select a lesson with examples that focus on a specific theme: politeness, requests, numbers, times, etc. Each lesson will come with explanations of the relevant grammar, if you need to look at it. It's pretty straightforward, and we hope to have that in place soon.


message 3: by Jen (new)

Jen Wonderful!




message 4: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow I only had a chance to glance at your review (which looks so interesting!), but have you seen this website: http://www.livemocha.com? It's not exactly what you're talking about in terms of technical language and translation software, but in terms of learning a language, it seems really interesting. I posted a response to a lesson, not really thinking about it, and within 20 minutes I had corrections from 6 native speakers. I think there's an audio component, too, but I haven't gotten a chance to look at it. Any thoughts on the way they do it?


Manny Thanks Meredith! I've just been looking at the site, and tried out a lesson. I think that what we're doing would integrate well with their scheme.

Maybe we should contact them - will see what the other people in the group think.


message 6: by notgettingenough (last edited Feb 07, 2010 12:24PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

notgettingenough There are lots of interactive language sites like livemocha online these days...I'm wondering why on earth old-fashioned ways of learning languages still exist.

This is a useful summary

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/28/tec...

Of livemocha, by the way, it says:

As with all social networking sites, this feature is open to misuse. Within hours of signing up for Livemocha, I received a note from a young woman, ostensibly from Poland, “wanting to meet me.”


I wonder if that's because it's free/cheap. Maybe you are best of paying more to avoid that stuff. Well, of course, unless you want to meet young women from Eastern Europe, that is...


message 7: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow Ha! From my limited experience, I could TOTALLY see that happening. Then again, that just makes it that much more of an authentic culture exchange.


message 8: by Manny (last edited Feb 07, 2010 01:34PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Manny Yes, we've looked a bit at TellMeMore and RosettaStone. They're nice, but the speech recognition facilities are extremely primitive. It's hardly recognition at all. All you can do is repeat the sentence you're meant to say, and it grades you - not very well, in fact.

But of course they have many other good things. What we're able to offer might complement their capabilities.



message 9: by Bram (new)

Bram Wow, as someone whose been trying mostly unsuccessfully to learn foreign languages within my own environment, this sounds fantastic. Keep us posted on commercial availability, Manny.


message 10: by [deleted user] (last edited Feb 09, 2010 12:43PM) (new)

Well as this system is going to have my Swedish woice as a help on the learn Swedish part of the system I give you a vote.

It is quite good actually. As soon as they have someone speaking help sentences in french I will start trying it out.


message 11: by QA (new)

 QA Beautiful.


Manny Thank you! Did you try using it?


message 13: by QA (new)

 QA I intend to do it shortly.Pl accept my regards for the wonderful work you are doing as we see on Goodreads .Thanks.


Manny Well, thank you again! And if you do try out the system, I'd love to hear what you think of it. Negative comments are fine - if things don't work, we want to know.


message 15: by Vivi (new)

Vivi King Looks awesome, I'll give it a try. I'm also sending you a message related to this, so check your inbox!


message 16: by Scribble (last edited Jan 22, 2011 01:38AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Glad to hear it's gone live. Now I've some bandwidth I'll check out the real version. I've seen a similar set up with Wall Street English which I meant to tell you, the difference being that it is DVD based and requires completion of courses. I taught with a school in Paris for 6 months that used this technique and students really liked the autonomy and interaction at their own speed. Goldilocks, indeed.

EDIT: Your CALL-SLT link is returning a 404 error. http://www.issco.unige.ch/en/staff/ts...


Manny EDIT: Your CALL-SLT link is returning a 404 error. http://www.issco.unige.ch/en/staff/tsour...

Ah... maybe I posted this a little too soon. Down for maintenance, and should be up again shortly. Will say when that's happened. Sorry!


message 18: by Pavel (new) - added it

Pavel What do you think about Rosetta Stone software? It uses voice recognition. I tried it once with Swedish. Can't say it was a miracle but still learned a lot of words and expressions.


Manny Pavel wrote: "What do you think about Rosetta Stone software? It uses voice recognition. I tried it once with Swedish. Can't say it was a miracle but still learned a lot of words and expressions."

I have not used Rosetta much (though I think some other people in the group are better acquainted with it). My understanding is that the speech recognition is very limited. You might want to try logging into our system and trying it out - it should now be up most of the time. Would be interested to hear what you think.


message 20: by Natalie (new)

Natalie 2 good 14 bad for ordering a beer, typical! Usually takes me that long to be heard at a crowded bar too! I finally discovered that I had to talk R E A L L Y slow for the program to translate correctly? I could say the 'same' thing fast or slow and it would only accept as accurate the very slowly spoken phrase . . . or maybe when we speak slowly we ARE more accurate?


Manny Thank you for trying it out, Natalie!

If your Japanese accent is good, you can speak quickly. All the help examples are recorded by a Japanese native speaker, and the system is set so that it only keeps ones which resulted in a match. So if you imitate the help examples closely enough, you should get recognized too. Several of the subjects in our evaluation experiment last week complained that they would have liked Yukie to speak more slowly...


Manny Oh, wait... I see you were talking about French, not Japanese. Yes, the French recognizer is horribly unforgiving. But then the French are, aren't they?


message 23: by notgettingenough (last edited Apr 28, 2011 11:08AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

notgettingenough Manny wrote: "Oh, wait... I see you were talking about French, not Japanese. Yes, the French recognizer is horribly unforgiving. But then the French are, aren't they?"

I had never realised what complete utter bastards the French are until I started trying to speak it. I'd always thought they liked Australians, but clearly they have a profound hatred of us probably due to our ongoing refusal to colonise New Zealand and punish it for standing up to France and the US.

This hatred is channelled into creating a language the pronunciation of which will leave all Australians unable to order food in French restaurants for ever.

Thus, in Australia, we do French the way other cultures do Chinese. You know, the list of pictures and numbers next to them. 'We'll have a 56, two 28s and...' Then the French hate us even more because it is all very well doing that to a cuisine like Chinese, which is practically not food at all, but French food? Numbers? French people slap hands against forehead and explain 'Mein Gott'.

But it is their fault.


message 24: by Tuck (new)

Tuck Manny wrote: "Thank you! We're definitely thinking about possibilities for commercializing this, if we can find the right people to partner with.

Though we're probably going to develop the basic system a bit m..."


mango has been marketing to libraries in usa, i am not sure if you can get free trials or not. i like yours though Manny

http://www.mangolanguages.com/


message 25: by Tuck (new)

Tuck notgettingenough wrote: "There are lots of interactive language sites like livemocha online these days...I'm wondering why on earth old-fashioned ways of learning languages still exist.

This is a useful summary

http://w..."


maybe they are just going straight to Manny's "very best method.." of learning a language


message 26: by Tuck (new)

Tuck notgettingenough wrote: "Manny wrote: "Oh, wait... I see you were talking about French, not Japanese. Yes, the French recognizer is horribly unforgiving. But then the French are, aren't they?"

I had never realised what co..."


hah, the basques do the same thing to the french, just have pics of food and numbers, because the basques hate the french more than vice versa, generally speaking (that is, the basques hate the haughty french attitude and their refusal to try and learn another language, not hate the french folks in general. i think they REALLY like their euros)


message 27: by Ian (new)

Ian Paganus Fascinating, Manny.

How generous or lenient is the voice recognition?

Does it force you to get better by not recognising what you have said (a bit like the French used to do in real life)?


Manny Ian wrote: "Fascinating, Manny.

How generous or lenient is the voice recognition?

Does it force you to get better by not recognising what you have said (a bit like the French used to do in real life)?"


Thank you! And I like the "used to" :)

Well, notgettingenough and I have been talking about this today! If you try out the system (go to http://callslt.org if you haven't done so already), you'll see that you can change the degree of leniency. Our feeling is that the default setting of "hard" is not the best one, and that "medium" or "easy" makes the system a better teacher. But I'd love to hear other opinions. The problem is that we only introduced this feature recently, and we still don't have much direct data.


Manny PS For people who are interested, we just added Swedish. It's still pretty rudimentary, but the recognition works quite well.


message 30: by Donna (new)

Donna Ian wrote: "Fascinating, Manny.

How generous or lenient is the voice recognition?

Does it force you to get better by not recognising what you have said (a bit like the French used to do in real life)?"


Then it would just switch to English.


message 31: by Ian (new)

Ian Paganus Or your screen could freeze on you.


message 32: by Donna (new)

Donna bastards!


Laura Manny, I quit reading your review in the first paragraph in my haste to reply "Do you need beta testers?" After 10 mins of testing I'm heartbroken that you only have one of my languages!

Small comment on the French: my "je voudrai du fromage" was rendered repeatedly as "je voudrais *le* fromage." Not a big deal, and probably reflects the software's priorities of getting the verb ending and the noun right.

I agree with you about Tell Me More: I was stopped dead in the first lesson of Mandarin by its inability to recognize my "zhou" (not a hard sound for Americans), and its refusal to let me continue until I got it "right!" Since native speakers understand me just fine, I gotta think the program is being just a tad persnickety.

If you ever need beta testers for Mandarin...!


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