How to create parallel texts for language learning, part 2

2011-02-23

I wrote previously about how to manually create a parallel text for language learning, which basically involved lining up paragraphs using a common spreadsheet program. Now I’m going to dive into my preferred method of parallelizing, which is by using special software to create a sentence-aligned text. This article is intended for a more computer-savvy audience, so if you’re confused by the tech terminology, then I recommend going back to the previous article.

The main feature of a parallel text is that it has aligned sections of text in at least two languages, enabling you to quickly understand the meaning in a new language using a language that you already understand. Having each section aligned means that you can totally eliminate annoying dictionary lookups, and you also get the benefit of having sentence-level translations that better represent the meaning of each word in context. This is an extremely valuable tool for language learning because it enables you to learn much faster, and to learn more in-depth features of the language quickly.
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Report from the Talenfestival in Leuven

2011-02-20

Yesterday we spent the day in Leuven at the “Talenfestival” (Language festival), organized by a group called “Esperanto 3000”. The idea of a language festival is to have an event where people can be introduced to many different world languages in a short period of time.

From what I can tell, the original Language Festival was a 4-day event in a city in Russia, about 12 hours’ train ride from Moscow. There’s a room for each language and you can just wander around attending talks about whatever language you’re interested in. The language festival we attended here in Belgium was a bit different; there were 4 1-hour sessions spread over a single afternoon, so you had to choose wisely.

There were about 6 to 8 different rooms active during the afternoon, each with a different language lecture. Only a couple of the languages were repeated, so you really had to choose well. There was a non-european languages track, so you could spend the afternoon learning about Tshiluba, Lingala and Swahili, and Sinhalese. Since it was anticipated that some people would be interested in several of these, they were timed so that they wouldn’t conflict with each other.

For my first choice, I went to a Polish course. It was all in Dutch, but I found it quite easy to understand, which was comforting. The intimidating part was when the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves first, and say why we were interested in Polish. I was 6th in line for that, so a had a few moments to prepare, but then got through it pretty easily. I also got many questions about my Dutch-learning methods later in the break, since people were quite interested in how I managed to learn so much in less than 2 months. I told them that Harry Potter is magic in more ways than one 😉

In the intermission, I went to grab a beer in the common room. As a Canadian, I’m still a bit amused at the situation, since I bought my beer from a teenager who was the drink selling volunteer for the event, and then it was assumed that I would naturally want to take my tasty Belgian beer with me to further lectures (which I did). In Canada, both of these things would be illegal…there’d have to be a tightly controlled area for beer drinking and selling where no one under 19 would be allowed, and you would never be allowed to walk to another room with your beer. It’s rather ridiculous. I love being treated like a rational adult here.

Next for me was a talk on Kurdish. I was rather disappointed with this one, since it started with a lame video with not much actual information on Kurdish. They had some video clips of kids being taught Kurdish in school, which is perhaps really important for the Kurds since their language is banned in Turkey if I remember correctly, but I wanted to actually learn something about the language instead of just watching a bunch of smiling kids in a class with a music track overlayed.

Things turned around when I went to the next talk though, which was about Lingala. It’s a Bantu language from Congo and the surrounding area, which is apparently expanding in usage because of the spread of Congolese music in the area. The talk was given in French, so I only understood the “technical” words that are common in many languages, but luckily there was a translation into Dutch so that gave me most of the nuances of the talk. Between the bits of French that I was able to grasp, and the concepts of Lingala that looked similar to those I had heard about Swahili already, and then the Dutch translation of it all, I managed to actually learn bits of both French and Lingala from the talk.

Lingala seems to share many Bantu features with Swahili, such as having many classes of nouns that are indicated by prefixes that must match with other words in the sentence. You can think of it like the European idea of word “genders”, but instead of two or three genders, you have more than 10, and each gender has a different way to indicate plurals. It’s mostly a spoken language, and there are many more people who speak it as a second language, using it for communication in the region.

Finally, I attended a talk on Czech. The instructor was an Esperanto speaker that I’d met before, who had actually studied for a while in Leuven, so he spoke pretty decent Dutch. He explained a lot of the basic structures of Czech, and I noticed that there were many close similarities with Polish from earlier in the day. This makes sense, since they’re both part of the Western Slavic language family.

It appears to me that Czech is probably easier than Polish, but as a language learner I’m drawn more to Polish because of the wide variety of resources available on the internet. Polish has a more difficult distinction between the “hard” and “soft” versions of several sounds, many of which I’m currently incapable of distinguishing, but I think I could remedy that with a lot of listening. I’ve met a lot of Esperantists from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, so I was interested in how much Polish would be understood by speakers of the other Western Slavic languages. Our instructor confirmed this by saying that through slow and careful speech, Czech speakers can make themselves understood by Polish speakers, and they have quite an easy time learning each others’ languages. This bodes well for my plan of entering the realm of Slavic languages through Polish.

After 4 sessions, the festival came to an end. We had a final beer and found more Esperanto speakers to chat with before heading out to find food. We went to a nice Indian restaurant (which actually gave me decently spicy food) and proceeded to have an amusing multilingual conversation. Most of it was in Dutch and Esperanto, but there were some brief interludes in English too. The most interesting of which was a joke that required all three languages to understand. To understand, you need to know first that the Dutch word for “to breed animals” is “fokken”, which always amuses me when I see it. This means a breeder of animals is then a “fokker”. The other word you need is “paarden” which is “horses” in Dutch.

So, the joke starts out with an Esperanto speaker asking “Kion vi faras?” (What do you do?). A Dutch speaker wants to try out his English skills, so he mistakenly responds “I fok horses”. An English speaker is appropriately shocked by this statement, and exclaims “Pardon???”, to which the Dutch speaker confirms “Ja, paarden!”. I found it extra amusing trying to explain all this in German to the guy next to me who didn’t catch all of it the first time. Needless to say, it was a wonderfully multilingual evening.

It’s now Sunday, and we’re having a relaxing day back in Brussels. I think we’ll take one more opportunity to drink some beer before we by some extra chocolate to take home, and then we fly back to Berlin this evening, carrying our heavy load of new Dutch books home with us. All in all, a successful trip, and I hope to come back here again at some point. Until then, I have tons of reading to do 😉


Belgium day 2: a visit to Antwerp and some Esperanto practice

2011-02-18

Today we set off to Antwerp to get a taste of a true Flemish city to get some language practice. We took the train from Brussels and got there quite quickly.

Antwerp was just as beautiful as Brussels, with lots of great architecture, and beautiful little streets. The train station was particularly beautiful inside. We got some lunch first, before starting to explore. As we fumbled our way through ordering things, I realized that this is a huge weak-point in my Dutch, since I’ve just never encountered that sort of situation in any of my learning materials. I don’t know any of the common everyday expressions that happen in regular business transactions.

After lunch, we went straight to a bookstore that we had researched. It was better than we expected; much better selection and prices than the Dutch bookstore in Brussels. I first picked up 3 novels for €10 on the sale shelf (nice and cheap compared with the €20 novels in Brussels). Then I found a big fat fantasy book that’ll take me a while to work through, but looks fun. As I wandered through the other sections of the store, I also found a book on Anarchism in Spain (by a Dutch author), so I’ll get my fill of political and philosophical sorts of words, to broaden my vocabulary. After hauling my bag of treasures out of the store, I felt great knowing that I have a new pile of books that I really want to read, rather than my previous materials that were just whatever I could find at the time that happened to be in Dutch.

Next we hung out in a cafe for a while, reading books and sipping coffees, then beers. We had arranged to go to an Esperanto club meeting in the evening, so we had some time to kill.

The Esperanto meeting was quite fun too. It was at a building in downtown owned by the Flemish Esperanto League (FEL), and they put on a big dinner. There were probably 30 people there for dinner, anywhere from beginners to advanced. I actually got to practice my Dutch a lot with some friends of attendees, who didn’t really know that much Esperanto. They were a bit reluctant to speak Dutch in front of the foreign guests at an Esperanto event, but we assured them that we understood Dutch too.

It was an interesting experience, since my Esperanto now seems to flow reasonably well. I chatted away to some people in Esperanto for a bit about various topics, but then decided to push Dutch a bit more with the others. They were quite happy to help me out, and nobody tried to switch to English at all. I was able to get my ideas across in Dutch without too much trouble, which was very gratifying.

So, now we’re back at our hosts’ apartment in Brussels, speaking Esperanto yet again. Tomorrow is the big day of the Language Festival in the neighbouring city of Leuven, which we’re all looking forward too. I’m now quite confident that I’ll be able to enjoy the talks in Dutch, and that I’ll be able to converse with people there. It should be a blast.

I’ve also been reading through my new books, and I find that I can actually read them pretty easily. I’m finally reaching the level of reading skill that feels very satisfying. I can read novels and non-fiction without too much trouble in Dutch now, so I just need to work on my vocab and reading speed a bit more. I’m nowhere near “done”, whatever that may mean, but I’m very happy with my level so far.

I still need more practice speaking, and that’s my goal for the next while. I don’t think I could really pass my “fun bar conversation” test yet, so I’ll have to search out some Dutch speakers in Berlin once I get back so I can practice more. I suspect I’ll be able to speak fairly well before I leave Europe, though.

Time for sleep now. I’ll report more after the Language Festival tomorrow 🙂


Language education in British Columbia, Canada

2011-02-14

There’s been some controversy in British Columbia lately, about the new proposed curriculum changes for teaching languages in public schools (available here in PDF: Additional Languages draft). The vast majority of the fuss revolves around the political ideology of nationalism, proponents of which believe that the country of Canada can only remain whole if everyone in the country has some education in both of the official languages, English and French. This ignores the reality of most peoples’ lives in BC, in which French is nonexistent, but languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Punjabi are everywhere, spoken by their neighbours and many other people in their cities.
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Spending time in the unknown

2011-02-03

I’ve noticed a few things that have been different in my experience with learning Dutch, compared to learning German. One that keeps coming back is that I don’t really hear that much Dutch “chatter” in my head. While I was studying German, it was common for me to continue to hear German phrases in my head if I had done more than 2 hours of listening, and sometimes sooner.

I took this as a sign that my brain was continuing to process things after the stimulus had gone, and while my attention was on something else. Perhaps I was working on it so intensely, that my subconscious got the signal that it should continue even while I had moved on. So why am I not experiencing this that much with Dutch?

When I look back at my notes and records about German, I see that I spent a lot of time watching German TV at the beginning, quite a lot of which was without subtitles, and I spent a lot of time reading Harry Potter in German while listening in German. I picked a couple of words per page to look up, but most of my time was spent doing solid German every chance I could get.

So, fast forward to Dutch. I’m spending more time each day on Dutch than I did on German (probably double), but my time is spent mainly with parallel texts. This has been great for my word recognition while reading, but not so great for my listening. I find dedicated listening hard to do anyway, because my mind wanders, but the more time I spend with just Dutch text and concentrated Dutch listening, the better my listening gets.

The challenge is choosing to do this when it’s much easier to understand the story when I can peak over at the English side. Going Dutch-only is more difficult, things are uncertain, I’m not getting as many details of the story. This is a necessary step though. At least some of my time, and perhaps a majority of it, would be better spent in the “sink or swim” situation of all-Dutch with no English.

I’ve spent far less time on Dutch so far than I did on German, so I probably shouldn’t expect too much yet…when I was at the point with German where I felt really confident in my understanding of both listening and reading materials, I had consumed about 350 hours of audio (ie, TV and audiobooks), and done 600000 words of reading. Currently I’m at the same place with reading in Dutch, and my reading skills are somewhat ok, but not to where my German skills were, and my listening is behind. The listening lag is to be expected with only 140 hours of total time spent.

So, where is this going? I plan to spend more time going back to the fundamentals that I used while learning German. I’ll listen to Dutch while reading Dutch, and try to get absorbed into the story and understand as much as I can. Less time will be spent with the parallel texts, although that will still add an important aspect to my study time.

I’m thinking that I need to adapt to something similar to Teango’s method, where he goes through the text carefully in segments at first with the translation, then more quickly, then just listening. Then he reserves time to just read freely, with no pauses. It seems to me that I’m spending too much time in the “comfortable” zone of looking up everything, and not enough time in the “sink or swim” uncertain place of just going through the story with no translation and trying to get whatever I can.

And getting back to the start of this, I’m hoping that such a change will bring back that feeling of subconscious “chatter” that I’ve been missing, because somehow I get the feeling that that is a key thing to achieve.

Comments or suggestions are welcome. Does anyone else experience the mental chatter that I’m talking about?


Dutch update: 60 hours

2011-01-18

I’m now past 60 hours of study time in my 6-week-challenge, and things are progressing steadily. I find it quite fun right now to read books, since the majority of the words seem familiar, but I’m still sticking to parallel texts because there are many words that I need to learn.

As each day goes by, I get a greater sense of understanding of the language. Sometimes it feels like nothing is happening, but I definitely notice the changes when I consider them on a multi-day scale. I can usually sense a change in my abilities after every 20 hours of study time, so I just try to avoid thinking about it on shorter time-scales.

Currently I’m almost finished Harry Potter #3, but today I’m finding it more fun to read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea (Aardzee in Dutch), even though I don’t have a corresponding audiobook for that. It’s nice to get some variety, even if the lack of an audiobook means slower progress.

I’m still having some problems with time-wasting activities, such as web-surfing. I’ve stopped following reddit on twitter, so that I get fewer time-wasters popping up in my twitter program. I should probably also turn off the twitter program, but at least I’ve managed to check it less often, and to ignore the toast updates.

My sleep schedule is slowly progressing, so that I have less and less tired time during the day. Yesterday I felt great for the whole day, but today i was quite tired between 10am and 11am, resulting in lower productivity. I also spent some time on paid work, so I lost some study time that way too.

I’ve had several days in a row above 5 hours of study time, but I haven’t been able to reach 10 hours, which is somewhat of a goal for me. With 20 hours available in my day, it just seems like I should be able to hit 10 hours of study time at least once, so I’m still trying. It’d be amazing if I could manage it consistently for a week or so, but we’ll see if that ever happens.

Next update at the end of the week, and hopefully I’ll be past 80 hours by then. 🙂


Dutch update: 2 weeks

2011-01-15

I’ve finished the first 2 weeks of my 6-week-challenge for Dutch.

I’m at 46 hours of Dutch study time total, and I’ve finished reading the first two Harry Potter books while listening to the audiobooks (using Dutch-English parallel text format, constructed from ebooks using hunalign). In the past 7 days I’ve averaged about 5 hours of study time per day.

At the start, I had a lot of trouble with the listening, and found it difficult to figure out which word currently matched up with the audio. Whenever I glanced over at the English translation, I’d lose my place easily in the Dutch. I didn’t understand anything if I just listened to the Dutch, except maybe the occasional word that was really close to either English or German.

Currently, I find it quite easy to follow along with the audio, and it’s quite easy to scan through the Dutch to find my place again after I look away. If I only look at the Dutch and no English, then I understand enough to follow the story, although I miss a lot of details still. I’ve got a moderate sense for Dutch spelling now, but there’s room to improve. I still accidentally spell words in more of a German way sometimes.

To test myself, I just opened up an adult novel (by Dean Koontz) and did a quick word comprehension test on a random page. There were 11 words that I didn’t know out of a section of 296 words, giving 96% word comprehension when reading (I’m sure listening would be much lower). This is just the individual words that I know, not necessarily their full meaning in that context. To confirm, I tried another book, this time by Tad Williams, and flipped to a random page in the middle. I missed 13 words out of 212, which is 94%.

I’m rather amazed at these numbers, but I guess it makes sense after starting with excellent vocab in both English and German. I think I recognized most of those words as Dutch words though, not through guessing from a German word. It appears that I’ve actually learned a lot from reading a total of 170000 words of Dutch in the two Harry Potter books so far.

From here on, I guess it means I should focus more on an Extensive style rather than the slower Intensive style of reading. I need Extensive reading to continue to develop my intuitive sense for the language by seeing large quantities of content, rather than focusing on every minute detail. I also need to pay much closer attention to the audio to train my listening abilities, which are still lagging far behind my raw scores for visual word comprehension.

To test listening comprehension, I listened to 3.5 minutes of Harry Potter that I hadn’t looked at or heard yet, and counted unknown words with my clicker. I counted 79 unknown words, and the total word count for that section was 592, so 86% word comprehension approximately. I’m rather surprised that it was this high already, so this is rather encouraging.

My plan is to continue with input only, until I’m past 100 hours of study time. After that, depending on how I feel, I may start to blend in some output exercises.

I’ll have another update at the end of week 3, stay tuned!