Posts that are languages-ish

Thoughts on my family’s language

A recent Facebook thread had me thinking about my relationship with the languages spoken by my family. Almost all my relatives speak English to some degree, with the native/fluent proportion increasing with later generations, as immigrant generations tend to go. But we have others, including the regional Chinese-Filipino dialect I would identify as “my family’s language.”

My family’s language, but not mine. Probably never mine. In some ways, I have a heritage language I may never speak. I still can’t successfully lipread my family’s language, and can only speak a few childish words of it — brush your teeth, time to eat, go to bed. English had far more resources to learn with: libraries full of books I could read, drills on vocabulary and grammar so I had patterns I could guess at, speech therapists trained for the phonemes of that tongue. And so that was my language.

I’m used to being surrounded by that dialect when I’m home sometimes, and even more so when we’re in the Philippines. What I’m used to is not being able to understand it. That’s… just my experience with it. It’s ours, but it’s mine in a different way than it is theirs.

But if you asked what my family’s language is, I would still point to our dialect. And I want to see it preserved, and I want my own children (who are likely to be hearing) to someday learn it from my parents, aunts, uncles, brother, and cousins, even if I myself may never speak it. Many parents want to give their kids something they didn’t have themselves, and this is one of mine.

Black print on thick white paper, serif font.

Originally written a few weeks ago when I was sick. Posting now, because… well, you’ll see my next post in a bit.

English is not my native language. Text is. When I think, there’s a silent voice in my head that doesn’t pronounce the “th” and “s” sounds I can’t hear — but those letters pop out crisply in a mental picture, black print embossing character-by-character on thick white paper, serif font.

I usually forget my mind is working overtime to process speech until I’m sick and the massive machinery starts breaking down in ways I can see. It slips and struggles; my ability to listen and converse becomes a frantic clawing, grasping at a cliff I’m slipping from — and then I plummet and thrash alone in freefall, disconnected. My freezing fingers and sore wrists want to type, because writing is my talking; twice yesterday, I caught my hands reaching for ASL because communicating in a language I barely know (to people who don’t know it at all) felt easier than speaking.

Books taught me language, were my shields, were what I could always trust to be there and hold my hand. Ideas and thinkers worth the effort to understand, flat solid pages that wouldn’t accidentally turn away or place their hands over their mouths while speaking. Much has been made of geek kids finding solace from their solitude in books (or now, the internet). It was even more so, I think, for me.

English is not my native language; written English is. So it was with great triumph and joy that I discovered — recently, this spring — that I am at the point with German where I can understand bilingual tapes. The kind that say an English phrase followed by the German translation. I do not understand the English phrase when I hear it — but then I hear the German, and the complete English sentence pops, in print, into my head, immediately followed by the German one (occasionally with fuzzy words that pop into focus a second later when I’ve puzzled through some grammatical point). The first time this happened, I was startled. Then I started laughing. Then my sense of wonder exploded all through the minivan I was driving and I thought oh, hello, big wide world, I’m a Mel! I will see you and hear you and talk with and connect to you and and and…

It’s hard. But the hard is what makes it good.

When my brain tells me that I’m a language-learning failure, then… apparently I treat it like an engineering project.

Thinking out loud.

I have fear-paralysis and need to keep gently resteering and resteering myself out of it. It’s not more books that’ll help; it’s not my reading that’s in need of working on. It’s my fear of not being able to communicate, of sounding stupid when I do. It’s the same fear that language-learners everywhere have, but I excuse myself with “but I can’t hear!” — since when has that been an excuse? It’s not something to ignore — I can’t just suck it up and deal by trying “the normal route” harder — but rather something to hack cleverly around.

I recognize that I’ll sometimes use overanalysis as an avoidance mechanism to actually jumping in. I’ll “learn about” in order to avoid “doing.” So instead of going “hm, phonology might help me with my German,” I should dive into trying to do something very, very simple in spoken German using ideas like “ooh, phonology!” as scaffolding to help me along. Otherwise I’m just wasting four weeks on fear.

But I shouldn’t beat myself up over this, even if what I perceive as my failures in the language-learning department bring me to the verge of frustrated tears even just thinking about it now, let alone when I try to speak. The voices in my head sound something like this: “well, they were right after all, the people who said your hearing loss would make language-learning too hard; you’re not good or brave or smart enough to overcome this, so lie down and give up.” Those voices say that sort of stuff about a lot of things, and I’ve become good at ignoring them, proving them wrong — but this… I keep smashing, determined, into brick walls. And I find myself beginning to believe them. And I don’t want that. I don’t.

So, quietly. Small. Slowly. Take one small step every day, Mel. One small step in doing, not talking-about. (This blog post is talking-about.) And lift the restriction of transparency on yourself; when it helps, use it — when it doesn’t, don’t. I don’t need to tell people what I’m doing for language-learning now, when it makes me afraid to step into the open; I can always tell them later, and it’s okay. It’s okay to have some of your projects not be open; you of all people know what the tradeoffs are to that, what you gain and what you miss and what it costs. It’s okay to decide that tradeoff is best left untouched, and that decision can always be changed.

Engineering brain: ENGAGE.

What have I learned from 6 (7?) nights over 3 weeks with Jen? Let’s see. Aside from some grammar and vocab (which I’m picking up really, really slowly), I’ve learned a lot about my failure modes in listening and conversing. I hit those failure modes very quickly (translation: I listen and nod, but don’t talk — or respond in English because I’m too proud to reply in broken German). Here are the hearing-related ones (as far as I can tell).

(Not a failure mode) I can produce the “sch,” ach-Laut (/x/) and ich-Laut (/ç/) sounds correctly and consistently! I… I couldn’t do that before, and this knowledge is hard-won because these sounds are both inaudible and non-lipreadable to me. Now, I don’t know yet when to pronounce those sounds — can’t always look at printed words and go “aha, mouth goes like this” — but that’s something specific I can work on. And going in the other direction, having someone talk to me: these sounds aren’t lipreadable, and I don’t have enough exposure to the language to be able to predict the right words in a sentence from context — this seems like something I can’t tackle right now but might be able to later.

I know much more specifically what other sounds are hard for me and why – what feedback others get that I lack.

  • ‘R’, because it’s un-lipreadable. I think I can hear it, but I can’t consistently produce it.
  • All the vowels with umlauts and their variations without umlauts (there are six: a, o, and u). I can lipread them, but the differences are subtle for ‘o’ and ‘u,’ and a-umlaut reads like the English ‘eh’ to me, and… basically, it’s unfamiliar visual input that I really, really need to drill.
  • p/f/pf/v/t are indistinguishable in German. For that matter, they (or their closest equivalents) are indistinguishable in English, so I’m going to work on this in speech therapy first before I try to jump it to a different language.

I see the gap between my reading and listening abilities more clearly. I’ll hear simple words I know full well from reading, but won’t get them – then when I’m told the English meaning, the word (and sometimes the full sentence) will snap into clear focus in my head. When I think about German, I see typed letters appearing in my head, because that’s what I’ve been exposed to. There are a few types of gaps:

  • Failing to recognize word boundaries, especially for short words that frequently appear together in a phrase. For instance, I think of “wie viel” (“how much”)  as two printed words, so hearing it as a single two-syllable word gets me searching in the wrong part of my vocabulary database. (This is not a good example. I’ve also seen it written “wieviel” with no spaces. But it’s almost 1am and I’m blanking on a better example.) I’m not sure what the solution to this is; learn commonly-blurred-together word groupings as one auditory unit that breaks into multiple words?
  • Mapping heard syllables to the wrong letter clusters. If I forget “v” sounds like an English “f,” my brain searches for German words beginning with the letter “f,” which… naturally does not find the right word. Solution: mini spelling bees.

The failure mode of both these bugs rely on one underlying assumption — which isn’t bad in and of itself, but would disable both these bugs if it were eliminated. That assumption is that “text” is my mental storage format for German – that is, I fundamentally think of the language as a written one (because I have primarily encountered it as such), so anything I hear gets translated into imaginary printed text in my head and then into English, and when I want to say something myself I type it out on imaginary paper in my head and then pronounce it out loud. (This is really what I do – a monospaced serif font will appear, black-on-white, centered in the upper part of my mental visualization space.) Maybe I need to learn how to not do that for a little while.

Okay. This helps me make a list of miniprojects I can tackle.

Be able to look at printed words and recognize when they have “sch,” “ach,” and “ich” sounds in them, and then say those words (or at least those sounds in those words) correctly. This is me spending time with the phonology book I borrowed from Jen, I think.

Be able to listen to a word in German and ask (in German, and understand and act upon the answers) to the following questions:

  • is there an ach-Laut in that word, an ich-Laut, a… <list other sounds I can’t perceive here>?
  • How do you spell it?
  • What sound does this part make?
  • Can you repeat that word/phrase/syllable again?
  • Am I pronouncing it right?
  • What do I need to do differently?
  • What does it sound like to you?
  • I can’t hear the <whatever> sound.
  • Let me see if I can lipread the <whatever> sound.

This is doable. I’ll ask for help translating these sentences, learn them, and then use them during a session of learning new vocabulary words.

Be able to ask questions about German phonology in German. Ok. I need some vocabulary for this: first, parts of the vocal tract, which I have in a book and should make flashcards for until I can go back and forth between the English word, the German word, a diagram (I should be able to draw this diagram) of the vocal tract, and feeling/pointing/using my own anatomy:

  • lips
  • teeth
  • alveolar (ridge)
  • palate
  • velum
  • uvula
  • velic
  • nasal cavity
  • oral cavity
  • pharynx
  • tongue
  • apex
  • blade of the tongue
  • front of the tongue
  • root of the tongue
  • epiglottis
  • trachea
  • esophagus
  • larynx
  • vocal chords
  • glottis

Then words about speech sounds. Flashcards. I need flashcards.

  • mode of articulation
  • point of articulation
  • stop/plosive
  • fricative
  • affricate
  • obstruent
  • consonant
  • resonant
  • nasal
  • trill
  • lateral
  • glide
  • vowel

And then words and sentences so I can say…

  • should my lips be more or less rounded/wide/apart?
  • should my jaw be more open/closed?
  • is the tongue touching/above/behind/below/in-front-of the teeth/lips/alveolar ridge/etc?
  • do I need more constriction/aspiration? Where?
  • where is your tongue/teeth/whatever?
  • what are your lips/tongue/teeth/etc doing when you say the <whatever> sound?
  • can you say just the <whatever> sound/word/syllable/part/sentence again?

If I wanted to tackle this, I’d make flashcards. Many flashcards. And then practice with Jen using these things, talking about difficult words and sounds.

Be able to tell the 6 umlaut/non-umlaut vowels apart through a combination of listening and lipreading. In other words, if someone sits in front of me and says one of the six vowels in isolation, I should be able to identify which vowel it is. More difficult: say one of the six vowels in a word. I think I should be able to do that too.

Spelling practice, which we’ve done a bit of before (bonus: I started learning the alphabet). This is for building my sound-to-text mapping skills – it’s simple. Hear a word, try to spell it; if I get it wrong, get it spelled out to me letter-by-letter ’till I get it right. I could try doing this a little by myself if I can find the right audio input — I could maybe use a book-on-tape, but might need something broken down into the word-by-word level.

I could think of more things to do, but let me not spec out too much, because then I feel like getting through the list is an obligation rather than an adventure. Let me put this out here, without obligation to do any of it, and then see where my fancy leads me between now and Thursday.

And wow. I’m feeling better now. Inspired, even. Engineering brain, you win. I am so glad I have you.

Adventures in learning German: Why I love grammar but not finding word boundaries

My ability to understand German has spiked dramatically since the last time I posted about language-learning. I’m still nowhere near good (or even minimally functional), but some indicators:

Kaffeestunde. When I walked into Kaffeestunde (German coffee hour) in the German department on Monday, I was able to understand Jennifer talking about her new car without straining at all. My own attempts to talk back were more difficult because I had to grasp for vocabulary, and I needed to ask for explanations of some unfamiliar words, but it felt like there was a structure there that words fell into and that I could see and fix the bits I didn’t understand, instead of having everything be one confused morass.

Books. I can now read my Petterson und Findus book slowly on my own without a dictionary and get the gist of what’s going on at a rate of about 3 minutes per page. Again, I’m missing too much vocabulary to understand everything, but still; in the past I wouldn’t be able to grasp the plot at all until Sebastian read and translated it for me.

As a benchmark for Americans: this book is perhaps written around the level of the Little House on the Prairie series, but is much shorter. I remember Little House being pleasantly easy to read, so this means I now read German at slightly below the level I read English at when I was… 5. Which is comforting, because if I look at my (English) writing at that age, it’s somewhere around the level my German writing is now (albeit with more sophisticated topics now that I’m in my twenties).

What’s happened in the meantime? Well, I spent 5 days in Germany; on one of those days Sebastian took me to the largest bookstore in Hannover and I got a grammar workbook (PONS Power-Sprachtraining Deutsch als Fremdsprache) which I set to with a will. This occasionally meant a little bit of ridiculousness. One night in Valencia I fell asleep in the middle of conjugating the 6 modal verbs. (Sebastian was working from a nearby desk at the time and listening in great amusement; the next morning, what I pieced together was that I’d been lying in bed reciting conjugations, progressively getting slower and quieter and sleepier-sounding until I went from distinct words to occasional mumbles to silence.) Once classes started I was getting up before 6am in order to work chapters before school. But I finished yesterday, 10 days after we first got the book. Triumph!

As a side note: Valencia was beautiful, and the drive between Barcelona and Valencia was soaked with sun and hills and vineyards, ocean vistas, orange groves… I highly, highly recommend it.

Anyhow. Grammar! It makes things make sense! Cases and tenses and genders, prepositions and pronouns, grammatical terms I’d heard about in middle school but dismissed because I didn’t need them to understand English… it helped me articulate the patterns I’d been seeing in the language, and uncovered some I hadn’t noticed at all. Insanely motivating. After each chapter, I’d read something unfamiliar in German and notice that it made more sense. Which makes sense. Since I can’t hear, my language perception functions with highly predictive patterns that rely on my knowledge of how sentences can be structured — and grammar is, essentially, the rules for how to structure sentences in a given language.

I will say, however, that I needed all that past experience of trying to read German in order to go through the grammar book as quickly and as gleefully as I just did. The joy was in how learning a bit of grammar illuminated so much material that I’d previously read and not completely understood; without experiences in the past to illuminate, there would have been no spark, no motivation. In fact, I did try going through a German grammar book maybe a year ago before I’d really started trying to study German, and I got maybe 3 pages in before concluding it was boring crap; there was no context for the rules to cling to.

This way, however, I could read the section on softeners (words you use with imperatives in order to soften a command – the difference between a stern “EAT!” and a polite “Could you please eat a bit?”) and flash back to a picture of a frog Sebastian had sent me years ago to cheer me up when I was down.

I had previously held a vague understanding that the frog was trying to convey some sort of happy cheering-up message, but when I hit the grammar chapter I jumped up and went holy crap it’s the second person informal imperative form of lachen with two softeners I understand it now! (Literally. I ran over to Sebastian all excited and told him that more or less verbatim. His bemused reaction: “That’s very nice, dear.”)

Word boundaries have been… I won’t say “less successful,” but rather that as I’ve progressed, the precise nature of my difficulties surrounding individual word discrimination have become more clear (and loom larger than I anticipated). Here’s why.

Words are discrete units. That previous sentence consisted of four chunks; I know where the boundaries are between them (thank you, space bar!) and so I know that I can look at the chunk “are” separately from the chunk “discrete” and I’ll be okay. (As opposed to looking at, say, the chunk “iscrete” or the chunk “te uni,” which would be way less helpful).

In contrast, audio is a continuous stream. For me, it’s a continuous lossy stream. And native speakers (of any language) seem to blend their language into more of a continuous stream than non-native speakers – so a simple sentence like “Wir werden Kaffee trinken” (We will drink coffee) goes through my broken cochlea (which can’t hear consonants, etc) and hits my brain as something like “Vererdenatheethkphbltken.” And I go “uh, how many words was that?”

In contrast, if someone is speaking slowly — or if I’m talking with another non-native speaker, who also parcels out sentences word by word — that breaks up a bit neater: “Ver erden athee thkphbltken.” Now I know there are four words. “Ver” might be “Wer” or “Wir,” but it didn’t sound like a question, so it’s probably “Wir,” which means that “erden” is a verb, and knowing how verbs are conjugated after “wir” along with a rough guess of common possibilities might lead me to “Wir werden,” and then I see that they were pointing to the pot of coffee and go “oh, oh, Kaffee trinken,” and so on.

Figuring out how and where to put in word dividers in realtime conversation is something I haven’t quite figured out how to drill for yet. The best I can come up with is watching subtitled videos (audio in German, subtitles also in German) and learning how to correlate text with sound. Ideas would be very welcome.

Speaking a language I can’t hear: useful tools and strategies so far

I seem to be starting to figure this out. We’ve known for a long time that my hearing loss makes “normal” (i.e. sit in a classroom with 25 other people, teacher lectures) language classes mostly useless as a primary learning strategy, but I’m beginning to figure out what things work for me self-study wise. Rambly braindump notes follow; I may someday write this up in a better form.

The short version: since I understand spoken English via a Markov model, the trick to being able to understand spoken something-else is priming my Markov model – acquiring sentence structures and vocabulary words in a medium that works for me (text) and a “translation key” of how that looks and sounds like when spoken, because otherwise I end up with great reading/writing abilities and an utter inability to recognize spoken words, even if they’re exactly the same as the ones I’ve written down.

I think of language-learning in three parts: written language, spoken language, and the ability to go bidirectionally between the two. I want spoken language – that’s the final goal, conversation – but I suck at it, but I’m also really good at written language – so how do I capitalize on that and transfer some of that strength into my weak area?

Here are the resources I’ve found useful so far. This is not a final set of “thou shalt buy these!” recommendations – some can probably be made on your own for cheaper! However, this stuff  has caused me to learn something about my language-learning strategies and I’ve found them useful.

Basic phrasebook: Survival memorization of a couple vital things like where’s the bathroom?  Which is completely not to be discounted; when I need to ask where the toilets are, I don’t care whether I understand the grammar of the phrase or not, I just want to pee.

Pimsleur, Earworms: Helps with memorizing the contents of a basic phrasebook. I must know the words before I hear them on the tape; the tape is simply for drill – more on this later.

Basic grammar book: Also duh. Used as a reference rather than a study text – I generally touch the grammar book when I’m at the point of pain – what the hell is up with such-and-such a conjugation? - so the rules have context to grab onto when I learn them, and the book stays a happy “this causes moments of clarity and revelation!” item instead of “stupid thing I need to slog through.”

Michel Thomas: Gets me through the basics of a grammar book with much less pain than simply reading the grammar book. I need to pre-prime my Markov model by reading the transcript before or during the first round of listening. Again, more on this later.

German reading book: This is a slim little book for scholars who want to be able to read in German (Goethe and Faust and opera lyrics and so forth) but don’t give a fig about speaking it – this may be available in other common “scholarly” languages as well, but I haven’t checked. (Spanish? French? Search for books or classes labeled “for reading knowledge” or knock on doors at your local university and ask.) It’s like a grammar book, except written in a way you actually want to read – and it includes reading exercises and that sort of thing. It is much less comprehensive than an actual grammar book, and incorporates high-frequency vocabulary lists once in a while.

Books translated into German that I’ve read in English: Exercising my ability to guess in German. This is important – it’s how I learned English as a wee tot. If you know the story, then you know the meaning of the words in the book, and what you’re trying to figure out is how the meaning that you know already was expressed in German. I pick up an eclectic set of vocabulary this way; for instance, Der Kleine Prinz taught me the words for drunkard and thorns. I may soon start looking at translated versions of technical essays and books I’ve already read in English, or on topics I already know (thanks to Catherine Devlin for the suggestion). Note I said translated into. Especially if they’re nonfiction, books translated into your target language tend to have simple sentence structures and no unexpected cultural idiosyncrasies and references to trip you up; for the importance of this, imagine what it would be like for some poor unwitting English learner trying to read T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Or anything by James Joyce. It’s hard enough to figure out the grammar and vocabulary, so put as few barriers between you and the meaning of the text as possible.

Books in German that I haven’t read in English: A test of how well I’ve learned to guess – basically an advanced version of the previous resource. I’m currently limiting myself to books that also have English versions so that I can check my comprehension afterwards, because my brain needs feelings of closure (“yes, I’m sure I understood that!”) to feel satiated and reading stuff in English and going HAH! YES! gives me that closure and a big boost of encouragement. Without it, I get a growing pile of uncertainty that slowly eats my confidence away. Therefore: English versions too, please. For now.

Vis-Ed Flashcards: Drilling my ability to guess the meanings of more offbeat/complex vocabulary and sentence structures with minimal context. They’re like mini-books; you can pick them up and put them down and do them in bite-sized pieces. Sure, books give you the whole story structure in your head to help you figure things out… but you also have to load all that into RAM before it’s useful, which (at least for me) takes up the entirety of the few seconds I had to practice a flashcard anyway. I’ll note that I skipped straight to level II for Vis-Ed flashcards (discovered a lonely box, heavily discounted, in the back corner of my campus bookstore) so I’m not sure what the first set’s like.

Rosetta Stone: A bit of basic vocabulary memorization, but this was (surprisingly!) most useful at the start of my attempts to learn German, because I wasn’t speaking - I was too shy. I mean, hell, I was dating a native speaker and I couldn’t bring myself to try speaking German to him – it was just this mental block of oh noes I shall get it wrong frozen-in-terror-ness. But a computer? I can talk to a computer! I can repeat words into the speech recognition portion of a computer. I can do that while in the same room as my (very patient) boyfriend (who would barricade his ears with a WWII TV series so the gunfire and explosions drowned out my attempts to pronounce the number 12). And then I could ask him for help when I got stuck on a sound, because it was the damn computer’s fault. And that meant I was saying German words in front of him (not really to him, per se – but in front of him) and gradually I realized that wasn’t so different from trying to speak German to people and why didn’t I just do that too… so in effect, Rosetta Stone acted as a (very expensive) mediating artifact that tricked me into talking with people.

Kaffeestunde: The weekly German coffee hour at Purdue. Most universities with foreign language programs have some sort of language lunch table or club or something of the sort; there are also meetup groups or language partners or just plain talking with a friend who speaks the language. This is conversation practice, which is the point of everything else – after all, you learn a language (usually) so you can communicate with people. So… communicate! (I was so proud the first day I managed to tell some other grad students about my trip to a bookstore in Portland – I didn’t know a lot of the words in their responses and questions, but I could guess most of them, ask about the others, and understand the definitions they gave… without once resorting to English. There is hope for me yet!)

You’ll notice some of these are audiovisual or audio resources (Pimsleur, Earworms, Michel Thomas, Rosetta Stone). That’s where the “bidirectional transfer” part comes in. Basically, I know I want to understand audio, so I use these resources as goals – these are all-audio courses that you “don’t need a book” to use (if you’re hearing), so can I get to that point? What do I need to do to be able to use these as audio drills as intended?

The simplest way to do this is to either read the transcript before listening to the tape – or (more time-consuming but also more effective) listen to the tape while reading the transcript the first time. I suspect the reason the latter works better is that I’m naturally a speed-reader; I don’t often subvocalize while reading texts (which is one of the first things a good speedreading program will try to train you out of – you’re limited by how fast the invisible voice in your head can talk) so I get the words when I read transcripts, but I don’t link them to audio; the word-as-written and word-as-spoken remain separated by a large gap in my head. And given that I don’t want to lose my speed-reading ability or to inadvertently train myself to subvocalize all foreign-language words, I’ll take the extra time to listen through the first round – after all, I’d like to speedread in German someday.

The awesome thing is that once I’ve gone through an audio resource, I have a good enough memory and enough residual hearing to be able to understand it without transcripts on subsequent uses. It’s probably more memory than hearing; after listening to the first Michel Thomas CD twice, I could write out a reasonably accurate transcript from memory. But in any case, it becomes sort of like reading a book in German that you’ve already read (however long ago) in English; you know the plot, you’re just waiting to find out how they express the meaning you already know in the language you’re trying to learn.

Learning how to learn a new type of thing is awesome. I’m already thinking “whoa, how much easier is French going to be after this?” (Or Spanish, or Italian, or any other European language… I think Asian ones are in a slightly different class, but I have some strategies for those already.) Go go gadget metacognition!

Buenos dias. Kumusta ka? Sehr gut, danke.

A few friends and I have a reading group that meets every other week to try out cool topics and random stuff. Our current miniproject is learning Spanish (everyone else has at least some Spanish language background; I’m the only one starting from scratch), with the intent of coming back together to analyze what sorts of resources and techniques worked well for us, and what sorts of strategies different people used. The intent is not to learn Spanish particularly well; two weeks isn’t enough for that, but it is long enough to get a window into how you learn it.

We are supposed to try to do something towards language-learning every day. Today is Day 3. I have been extremely unsuccessful, mostly because something interesting has come up: it seems that my brain lumps languages into a couple categories.

  1. English
  2. Fookien (my family’s Chinese dialect)
  3. ASL
  4. Everything else

It’s pretty obvious why – English is my native tongue, and I learned rudimentary Fookien from birth to toddlerhood (when my parents decided they should stop speaking everything but English to me so that I would “learn English properly”). I still hear Fookien frequently today when I’m with family, so I’m used to sorting between English – which I’m used to hearing and understanding – and Fookien, which I’m used to hearing and not understanding. Not a problem there.

I learned ASL in middle childhood, and it’s physical rather than verbal, and thus easily separable. But the rest – Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog, German, Spanish – they get tagged with OH HEY LOOK A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Meaning I produce exchanges like this when attempting to talk to myself while walking down the street (for practice):

“Buenos dias. Kumusta ka? Sehr gut, danke.” (Which is “Good day” in Spanish, followed by “How are you?” in Tagalog and a reply of “Very good, thanks” in German.)

This was not intentional; it came out almost without me realizing it, and then I went “wait WHAT?” and slapped my forehead. I was actually trying to speak Spanish the entire time. But some words come more easily to me in some languages than others, so I think my brain goes “oh, you’re trying to speak Some Other Language!” and out comes the first word in something-that-isn’t-English-or-Fookien it finds.

This has happened before – I baffled my Mandarin teacher by occasionally reading the Japanese pronunciations of the characters in the text I was reciting, and now I do the opposite (I’ll look at Japanese text and hear the occasional character in Mandarin). Sometimes, at Kaffeestunde (German Coffee Hour) at Purdue, I need to bite my tongue to keep from inserting a Japanese word into a German sentence — because I know the word in Japanese, but not in German.

I’m absolutely nowhere near fluent in any of these other languages. At best, I’m beginning-to-intermediate in ASL, somewhere around mid-second-semester college-level in German, and able to converse brokenly with my relatives in Mandarin. But I’m far better at all of them than in Spanish, so when I try to say something in Spanish, it’s way easier to say it in something else that isn’t English, so I do.

Not sure how to get past this problem yet; I think that working on processing Spanish input for a while (say, this week) rather than producing output might help — listening and reading first, not speaking and writing. So… we’ll see if that helps. In the meantime, this is terribly amusing.

Meine Erste Deutsch Blogpost

I apologize in advance to any actual German speakers who may stumble across this post; I have not gotten my writing checked by anyone who knows the language properly. In fact, I wrote it on an airplane without a grammar book using the dictionary on my cell phone to help me figure out how to translate weird but crucial words like “Free/Libre and Open Source Software Communities” – the everyday vocabulary is my own. This means that things like “proper spelling” and “appropriate word choice” are absent. (Yes, I know that “typen” is not a direct translation of “dialect,” but I don’t know the word for “dialect,” ok?)

This is basically the best German I can produce (mostly) unaided right now. It is probably terrible, but… release early, release often! I’ll provide an English translation at the end for what I think I’m saying so that non-German speakers can nod in sympathy and German speakers can shake their heads in despair at the atrocity I have committed to their language. FAIL FASTER, LEARN FASTER!

Hallo – ich heisse Mel. Ich bin Studentin und Ingenieur, und ich wohne in Indiana (in dem USA), aber ich komme aus der Internet. Meine Grosseltern kommen aus China, und sie sprechen zwei typen Chinesische (Mandarin und Fookien, unser Familie Chinesische typen) und Philippinisch und ein bisschen Englisch. Meine Eltern kommen aus Philippines und sie zwei typen Chinesische und Filippinisch und Englisch sprechen. Ich in dem USA geboren, heirfuer ich sprache… Englisch. Ich bin Amerikaner! (Dieses Stereotyp ist nicht so guet.)

Ich studiere Open Source Gemeinden: wer arbeiten, was machen sie, weshalb hilfen sie, wasfuer ein Wissen sie gelernt. (Open Source Gemeinden heisst auch FLOSS/FOSS/OSS Gemeinden – das bedeutet “Free/Libre (befreite?) und Open Source (erkennbar Code? Ich weiss nicht, was Wort ist richtig hier) Software, daher ich will sagen “FOSS.”) Gibt es viele FOSS-Volk in Deutschland, aber ich verstande nicht, was sie sagen. Sie verstanden Englisch, aber wir (Amerikannern?) sprechen kein Deutsch, daher sie wissen, was wir machen und wir wissen nicht, was machen sie. Ich moechte nach Berlin fliege (gibt es eine wichtig Hackerspace in Berlin) und sehe, was sie machen. Das ist eine Anlass, warum ich Deutsch lerne.

Aber ich habe ein kleines Problem. Ich bin auch schwerhoerig, darum viele Deutsch Klasse ist schwer… “Hoeren Sie und wiederholen Sie” ist nicht ohne Frustration, wenn sie hoeren nicht! Ich kann nicht wiederhole, was ich kann nicht hoere… ich muss lese. Ich hierfuer die Buecher kaufe, und jetzt ich habe ein Blog fuer schreibe. Ich weiss nicht, was ich schreibe… ich habe viele Fehler! Dennoch, das ist der Weg fuer Wissen.

Ich habe eine Fragen fuer Sie, mein Dozentenstellung. (Ist das Wort richtig, “Dozentenstellung”? Mein Handy hat ein kleines Worterbuch und er sagt “Dozentenstellung.”) Ich suche etwas fur lese. (Mein Grammatik ist heute vermutlich falsch.) In dem USA wir haben etwas heisst “Simple English” fuer Erwachsene, das ein bisschen Englisch verstanden. Haben Deutschland etwas fuer Erwachsene, das ein bisschen Deutsch verstanden… “Einfach Deutsch”? Oder Buecher fuer Kinder… ich lese heute “Der Kleine Prinz,” was sollte nach ich lese?

And now in a language I actually know!

Hello, I’m Mel. I’m a student and an engineer, and I live in Indiana (in the USA), but I come from the Internet. My grandparents come from China, and they speak two dialects of Chinese (Mandarin and Fookien, our family’s Chinese dialect) and Tagalog and a little English. My parents come from the Philippines and they speak two dialects of Chinese and Tagalog and English. I was born in the USA, therefore I speak… English. I’m an American! (This stereotype is not so great.)

I study open source communities: who works, what they do, why they help, what sort of knowledge they learn. (Open Source Communities are also called FLOSS/FOSS/OSS Communities – that means “Free/Libre (free?) and Open Source (transparent Code? I don’t know what word is correct here) Software, so I will say “FOSS.”) There are many FOSS people in Germany, but I can’t understand what they say. They understand English, but we (Americans?) don’t speak German, so they know about what we’re doing and we don’t know what they’re dong. I want to fly to Berlin (there’s an important hackerspace in Berlin) and see what they’re doing. That’s one reason why I’m learning German.

But I have a little problem. I’m also deaf, so most German classes are hard… “Listen and repeat back!” is not without frustration when you can’t hear! I can’t repeat what I can’t hear… I need to read. Therefore, I’m buying books, and now I have a blog for writing in. I don’t know what I’m writing… I have lots of mistakes! However, that is the way to knowledge.

I have a question for you, my readers. (Is that word correct, “Readers”? My cellphone has a little dictionary, and it says “Readers.”) I’m looking for something to read. (My grammar is probably incorrect today.) In the USA we have something called “Simple English” for adults that understand a little bit of English. Does Germany have something for adults who understand a little bit of German… “Simple German”? Or books for kids… today I’m reading “The Little Prince,” what should I read next?

Learning kana by butchering the English language

I was recently asked how I learned the Japanese writing system. Actually, there are three: hiragana and katakana, which are phonetic systems, and kanji , which are basically Chinese characters embedded into Japanese text and pronounced as Japanese words.

The answer was that I was really bored the summer before I started high school, and had no qualms about butchering the English or Japanese languages. I’d also recently read Ladle Rat Rotten Hut – so when I pulled out Japanese stuff from my local library, I went “wait, these are phonetic systems… they’re just different ways of writing sounds.” So I happily started writing English sentences in the Japanese phonetic writing system.

For instance, a poem beginning:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere


りすてん まい ちゅづれぬ あん ゆ しゃる ひる
li-su-te-n ma-i chu-du-re-nu a-n yu sha-ru hi-ru

おぷ で みづないっと らいど おぷ ぱいる れびる
o-pu de mi-du-na-i-t-to ra-i-do o-pu pa-i-ru re-bi-ru

…and so forth.

Basically, I learned kana as an alternative phonetic system with which to write English, then switching to use the same phonetic system to write Japanese once I had it down. (I never did build up a good Japanese word vocabulary – but I can still read and write kana fluently to this day. I just don’t know what the words I’m saying mean.)

Kanji, on the other hand, I never did find a good way to learn. It helps to think in terms of breaking characters down into radicals, but beyond that you just have to memorize each one, as far as I know. I did learn that studying Chinese and Japanese back-to-back is a bad idea, though; to this day, when I’m reading Chinese, sometimes the Japanese pronunciation of a word will pop out in the middle, confusing the heck out of everyone – and the reverse happens as well. I still haven’t figured out a way to learn grammar, either. But that’s what further explorations are for.

Language learning for deaf autodidacts: Praat

My friend Erin Dowd, a talented linguist (and engineer, musician, and cook, among other things) who spends her days thinking about things like phonological inventories and has better Mandarin pronunciation than I do, shot me an email last week.

I was using Praat for a paper I’m writing, and I thought you might like to play with it, especially if you’re still trying to change your accent. I use it to analyze formants in sound files, but it’s got a lot more functionality that I haven’t explored.

Praat is an open source phonetic analysis suite developed by Paul Boersma and David Weenink at the University of Amsterdam. It’s GPL(v2) licensed, ridiculously cross-platform (Mac/Win/Linux/FreeBSD
- but also SGI/Solaris/HPUX), has been around since at least 2007, and is still under active development (the latest version was uploaded on April 15, 2011, which is 4 days ago as of this writing). There’s no public version control repository – I’ve emailed them about that – but you can download the source tar and dig around; it’s mostly C++.

It’s fun to play with. I know Praat’s intended for speech analysis, but couldn’t resist playing some guitar into the microphone (on the theory that the guitar – even with its many harmonics – would produce purer frequencies than my speaking voice). And you can see it picked up on the short 4-step ascending and descending scale I played before I confused with with chords at the end – the blue line in the bottom graph (the spectrogram) goes up and down in sync with the notes of the guitar.

Voice data was even more fascinating. I’ve been trying to work on my “deaf accent” for several years now, and Erin’s been amazing with helping me explore that whenever we get to hang out together; she’ll notice strange little things nobody else does. It was her observation that the “accent” decreased when I tilted my head back that eventually led to the discovery of how to control my oral-nasal resonance, which makes me sound a lot less deaf when I remember to do it.

Pratt – which has a ton of features I don’t fully understand – is sort of a computerized Erin. In addition to plotting the spectrogram, it gives you pitch contours (in blue), formants (red), and intensity contours (yellow) – and all of these can be manipulated. Oh, and you can annotate the images with phonemes and words pronounced if you want. The graph below is for the spoken words “hello, world!” (what else would I say)?

Erin suggested using Praat as a beefed-up version of language software that “trains” your pronunciation to be like a native speaker’s. Plot your voice, see how close you are to average formant values in a phonological inventory for your desired accent, plot again, do it again until you hit it right.

She showed me an interesting variant on this theme; Praat can also manipulate the formants, intensity curves, pitches, etc. of audio waveforms, meaning it can take your voice and change your intonation, accent, etc. So these researchers took second-language learners, recorded their voices in the target language (where they had an accent), used Praat to transform the learners’ voices into non-accented speech, and gave them back their “perfect” pronunciation records to imitate and measure themselves against. Holy cow, I thought. I could hear myself with a perfect American English accent. Or gorgeous Mandarin pronunciation. Or…

I’d love to see this made into a language-learning game. Imagine the possibilities! Pronunciation training like this could blow away any of the “speech recognition” functionality in commercial language-learning software currently on the market; instead of matching against one native speaker’s recording (no matter how hard you try, you’ll never sound like someone else), you could norm your own voice into an accent-average compiled from data from thousands of native speakers, and match against that. When combined with something like librivox, an initiative to make open-licensed audiobooks from public domain works like Project Gutenberg, the by-products of language learning could actually accelerate the building of a shared cultural library. Anyone looking for a software engineering, game design, linguistics, or signal processing project?

Praat is, by the way, not yet packaged for Fedora.

Language-learning for deaf autodidacts: Tell Me More (tool review)

I’m deaf. I love learning foreign languages, but group classes tend not to work so well for me – the rest of the students can hear, so that’s how classes are built. No problem, I thought in high school when I started struggling in Japanese immersion class. I’ll just become an autodidact. This sort of worked; I found out that I could teach myself how to read text quickly in almost any foreign language by piling through books (I didn’t really try writing; I didn’t have anyone to write to), but listening and speaking remained complete blanks. I couldn’t get much out of the books, either. Most self-teaching language learning resources also assume (for good reason) that their users can hear.

Well, shoot. If I’m deaf (or a non-auditory learner for some other reason) and teaching myself foreign languages, what can I use? I asked around to the best folks I could think of. Jen, a French major alumni from Gallaudet with a hearing profile similar to mine, informed me that the prestigious university for the deaf just skips the auditory part of language learning completely, and that I could ask for special allowances if I needed to take fluency exams. Becky, a childhood friend of mine who learned ASL when I had an interpreter and is now studying French language education out in Monterey, did a literature search on my behalf and came up with just two articles on language-learning for the deaf; the breathless conclusion was that oh my gosh, deaf children are actually capable of learning foreign languages.

Well, duh. Of course we are.

This was starting to drive me nuts, so I decided I’d just start working on it.   As an engineer, the first thing I want to look at are the tools and materials I’m using – just like in cooking or woodworking or anything else, my theory is that good tools will make hard work get good results, and poor tools are a waste of everybody’s time and money. And if I hadn’t found the right study plan and tools to sit down and learn something every morning, then I should spend that morning time trying out different tools until I find things I do like. If you’re blocked, then fix the blocker. Simple.

For consistency and sanity, I’ll stick with one language at a time. Right now it’s German. I concede that Spanish would have been an easier choice to find a broader range of study materials for in the US, that Mandarin is the foreign language I’m closest to fluent in, and that ASL presents the fewest barriers to learning it as a deaf person. However, my boyfriend is from Germany, and we agreed that if I learned enough to pass a basic exam, then he would learn some ASL, so there you go. German Also, I do have some residual low-frequency hearing, so I want to learn to deal with audio somehow; the trick is that my auditory input is extremely limited compared to most people, so I need to learn how to rewire the coping strategies I use for English (lipreading, a very good predictive model, and so forth) for languages I don’t yet know. So I will be dealing with audio here, just drastically adjusted.

This morning I worked through a full beginner’s lesson of the demo version of Tell Me More ($530 for full 10-level set), based on this review and others like it. It sounded like a good resource for the hardcore. I found that there’s a ton of material in here and a lot of great exercises; if I could take advantage of the audio components, this might make a nice tool for practice and intensive study. However, nearly 70% of the exercises (as measured by the program’s final count of which lessons I completed and which I skipped) are audio-dependent with no “hooks” that I can use for compensation.

Exercises deaf folks can’t use

There are plenty of exercises that depend on audio. Audio crosswords, audio word search, “listen and repeat this pronunciation,” audio questions to which you must select answers… not so accessible for deaf people. Similarly, “listen to this word, then find it in the puzzle” is not so useful for learning if you can’t listen to the word.

I’ll note that if the same word had been spoken in context in several sentences in unsubtitled video, I could probably build my lipreading and predictive models from that, figure out which word they meant, then find it in the puzzle – but there was no context and no visuals, just the standalone word. I have the same problem on one hearing test, which asks you to repeat random words uttered in isolation with no lipreading; imagine a disembodied voice speaking nonsense to you (“Baseball. Hotdog. Cheesecake. Pumpkin.”) and having to echo it, and that’s basically the test.

Without the context and the visuals, I fail miserably; I don’t remember my exact results, but with wild guessing – they always use the same limited word set, so I can guess decently – I think I get way less than 50% correct. Add in lipreading – still the same isolated, random words (the only reason I know the contents of the word set is that they do it both without and with lipreading, by the way) – and my score suddenly jumps to 90-something percent. Change that to conversational sentences, and most people have no idea I’m deaf at all. I understand the program is trying to isolate vocabulary words for learners. But what do you hear in real life when you’re trying to communicate with people? You hear sentences in context, and you can lipread. I need something that’s going to help me navigate the messiness, because I need that mess for context.

Actual usefulness

There are some nice exercises that don’t depend on audio. In particular, I enjoyed synonym-matching – a number of words in the target language are piled on the left, and synonyms from the target language are piled on the right, and you have to pair the two. “Photo” and “picture” go together, “Nice to meet you!” and “pleased to meet you!” go together. They also do this for related words – match “Fall” with “Spring,” “Parents” with “Grandparents,” and “Mountain” with “Mountain range.”

Also good: the word-transformation exercise, which lines up a bunch of unconjugated verbs along the left side of the screen and makes you type the conjugated versions on the right. It’s not that I couldn’t do this myself, but the software lining up the material for me is something that makes me go through a lot more material, a lot more words and vocabulary, and more difficult vocabulary at a faster pace than I would if I had to make all these materials myself.

Useful resources I can find elsewhere

I also appreciated the “phonetics exercise,” which gave text descriptions of the physical motions used to produce various sounds (“place the tip of your tongue behind your teeth… the vocal cords do not vibrate…” As someone who can’t simply “hear and imitate,” I do need a resource that will help me figure out where my tongue and teeth and throat go; I wonder if an international phonetics book would be a good resource. There’s got to be something out there that will painstakingly describe, and draw in detailed cross-section, the physical movements needed to produce most sounds in most languages around the world.

There’s also tooltip translation – you can choose between “word” and “sentence” translation, and if you right-click on a word (or sentence) a mini-dictionary will pop up. That’s wonderful for learning; hidden, but easy to access. I loved that and would like to find software that does that for my whole computer – there must be something like this that draws from an online dictionary database. I know StarDict exists and I’ve used it (semi-successfully) for Chinese – I need to try that out for German, and to see if something else out there is better. It’s easy enough to get this one in standalone software.

There are transcripted short videos, which is a great idea – real-word content, at real-world speed, with text. I should find short video clips that are subtitled or transcribed in German, with the subtitles and/or transcripts in a format that easily lets me deploy tooltip translation on it. Listening to audio while reading the corresponding text works well for me, because I think of language primarily in text format, and audio as “stuff I mentally translate into text I can visualize in my brain” – and when I see the words in my head, then I understand it. (Yes, I do this for English, which is my native language.) So I do need something that will play audio over text. Maybe podcasts with transcripts, or subtitled YouTube videos – not sure yet.

If I could just buy those parts alone, I’d go for it. However, for the high price (over $500, gah!) I need something that has more non-auditory material.

My end recommendation: Nice if you’re hearing and looking for tons of interactive material for hardcore practice, not worth it if you’re deaf – you need to hear too much of that material.

What else should I try?