Category Archives: Learning Other Languages

The Gradual Progression

Being able to understand 99% of what people say in French is a huge accomplishment, I feel. I remember constantly struggling to understand movies or songs in French when I was in college and then trying to understand actual conversations when I first arrived in France. Today I have no problems understanding any of those things. I like being able to watch Amélie again and understand it perfectly, when I know I couldn’t do that before. Today it seems so easy. And that’s why I get so frustrated while studying German or Italian. I cannot understand 99% of what people say and it makes me feel like a failure. But I haven’t been exposed to those languages nearly as long as I have been to French.

I’ve been in France for over 3 years now and I need to keep in mind the enormous amount of information that my brain absorbed. I do remember struggling to speak even a year after my arrival. By the following summer, things were better, but still not good. Finally during my 3rd summer, I felt more and more confident and had real, normal, long, in-depth conversations with French people!  I had been learning how to communicate the entire time, but I never noticed when I picked up new vocabulary or when I was able to speak more coherently without stumbling because there is a gradual progression to learning a language. One day you just realize that you can understand, and that you can respond to questions, and that you can function like a human being in a genuine conversation instead of just saying yes or no or I don’t know.

If I had come to France to study French, I’m sure that my acquisition would have been quicker. But I came here to teach English, and even now I feel that teaching English prevents me from perfecting my French. That’s a huge concern for me since I would like to teach French someday. Of course, I was also preoccupied with studying a little German and Italian, so I can’t say my focus has been all on French. Nevertheless, the simple fact of being immersed in French everyday – even when I didn’t want to be or didn’t notice it – has helped immensely. Now I’m trying to replicate that with German, which obviously can’t be done the exact same way as I do not live in a German-speaking country, but I’m really trying to listen to German as much as possible. And maybe one day I’ll notice that I can understand every word in Good Bye, Lenin! and all of this hard work to acquire yet another language will feel as if it had been so easy all along.

Free Audiobooks in Foreign Languages

It’s a great idea to use free audiobooks in foreign languages to improve your level of comprehension as well as increase your vocabulary. Here are some sites to get you started:

Some of these sites also include the text and translation into English.

Audio Links Roundup for Language Learning

Books can’t exactly teach you how to speak or understand a language. Listening is the most important skill to master when learning a language. And that is where the internet comes in. So here’s a short list of audio-heavy websites, most of which I’m sure I’ve already posted about, and many of which are multilingual:

Words & Simple Sentences

  • Forvo: All the words in the world. Pronounced.
  • Swac: audio collections that can be downloaded
  • Le Dictionnaire Visuel: French only obviously, but very specific & technical words
  • LanguageGuide: pictorial vocabulary guides
  • Internet Polyglot: vocabulary in several language combinations, with games
  • Learn Verbs: verb conjugations pronounced
  • Book2: 100 lessons of basic phrases; mp3s can be downloaded
  • Learn with Youtube: collection of videos specifically for language learning
  • HearDutchHere.net: very extensive site with thousands of sound files
  • LangMaster: hundreds of hours of free lessons in French, Spanish, German, and Italian

Slow Speech, Natural Speech & Reading

  • Yabla: language immersion through videos and subtitles; more videos can be accessed for free through the podcast
  • LangMedia Videos: everyday situations and cultural information; transcripts & translations available
  • Ashcombe School MFL Videos: conversations, talks, interviews; transcripts & translations available
  • Audio Lingua: short recordings on various topics; no transcripts available however
  • ListentoFrench and Sonsenfrançais: great collection of French listening resources mostly from TV & films; transcripts available
  • Radio France Internationale: listen to the “easy” news and read the transcript, though it does not match exactly what is said; no translations
  • Un Giro in Italia: videos of Italian culture, with transcripts but no translations
  • Librivox: audio books in the public domain; with texts provided
  • Logos Library: famous children’s books; with texts provided
  • Euronews: videos of news in (mostly) Western European languages
  • Catálogo de voces hispánicas: videos and transcripts of the various varieties of Spanish (and even some Catalan)
  • RAI Corso di Lingua: interactive elementary Italian course
  • France-Bienvenue: interviews on various topics, with transcripts and explanations of cultural vocabulary
  • Deutsche Welle: tons of learning German resources! Why can’t other countries produce material like this?
  • Slow German: articles read at a slow pace, with transcripts and translation of individual words possible
  • 2bDutch.nl: watch videos with subtitles in Dutch or both Dutch and English

Podcasts

I am too lazy to list other language podcasts and I cannot decide which ones I like best. Search for them in iTunes because there are a lot available nowadays. One caveat about podcasts is that many require fees for the transcripts. I’ve tried to include mostly free websites in the links above.

Other Audio Findings that I was Happy to Stumble Upon

  • Agricultural Labor Management: the University of California provides audio for learning basic phrases and agricultural words in Spanish
  • Italian Lives: the University of Western Australia did an audio-video project on Italian migrants in Western Australia

Hot Potatoes and Audio Flashcards

As of September 1, 2009, Hot Potatoes (and Quandary) became freeware software. Anyone can download and use the flashcard and exercise authoring programs, whether or not you’re affiliated with a university or upload your work to the web. I use HP for work and for my website. I’ve made several flash cards and quizzes for French, Italian and German so far. With the help of flash mp3 players, I’m starting to make audio flashcards too. I started with FSI Italian and now I’m focusing on French since I know that’s the most popular tutorial on my site.

I also use the Before You Know It flashcard program for my own personal vocabulary learning. Unlike HP, it does not create independent webpages in which to study the flashcards or do the exercises, but rather everything is within the BYKI software (or you can study through their site). It does have a lot of  functionality (create your own lists, import photos and mp3s, generate multiple choice quizzes, dictations, etc.), but only if you buy the Deluxe version. The Lite version is free, but limits you to studying only the lists that can be downloaded through their website.

There are some websites like Wordchamp (free) and Quia (not free) where you can create flashcards, games and quizzes, but the main problem with these sites is that all of your work is stored on their server – so if the website goes down someday, you will lose everything. At least with HP, you have the original HP files and the HTML files saved on your hard drive. The same is true of BYKI, obviously.

I wish there were some way to integrate BYKI and HP flashcards though. I like using them both, but BYKI helps save time because the exercises are automatically generated; however, HP is completely free and can be made into webpages so you can share them with everyone with an internet connection.  There’s no need for learners to download and install software. In addition, the BYKI word lists can only be printed, and not copied into a word processor or exported into HTML as with HP.

I would like to be able to create both versions of flashcards for my website for those who prefer BYKI. As it is right now, I would have to type in the lists and import the mp3s separately for each program which means twice the work. I’ll probably just stick with HP for now though since I can share the flashcards and exercises with the most number of people.

Hazardous Effects of Dubbing

Ok, maybe not hazardous, but the effects sure are annoying. France dubs almost all foreign TV shows and movies into French instead of leaving the original spoken language and adding subtitles. I absolutely hate it because the lips don’t match the words, the voices don’t match the actors, and it’s really distracting when the French voice of Gibbs is also the voice of Bones’ dad! (Are there really not enough voice actors in France for all the shows?)

It is much, much cheaper to subtitle than to dub, it helps people learn foreign languages, and it keeps the original work closer to its intended form. So why do countries insist on spending extra money on dubbing? To create a few more voice acting jobs? Because the general population doesn’t like to read? I would really like to know the reasons because it makes no sense to me.

The last time I went to the movies, five out of six of them were American and dubbed into French. It got me thinking about growing up in a country where most of the entertainment is from a different country (usually America), and having to watch everything dubbed. Would it annoy me? Would I just get used to it? I have never watched a foreign movie dubbed into English so I don’t know what it’s like to hear your native language, but know that everything about the movie is completely foreign and different. What do the French think about American high school movies? Don’t they find it weird when the characters talk about things that don’t even exist in France, like cheerleaders or Prom? I know these words translate into French (pom-pom girl and bal de la fin de l’année) but do the French really know what they are? Or why they’re so prevalent in American culture and entertainment?

Another thing I don’t understand is when people say that a certain actor is their favorite actor ever, and yet they have never heard his real voice. The voice is so important!! Even the body language can’t be conveyed or interpreted the same since that’s highly dependent on culture. Are they simply referring to his physical look or perhaps to the French voice? (A lot of the really famous American actors have the same French voice actor for all of their movies so they can be more recognizable.)

Of course, the main reason I prefer subtitles is for their effect on listening comprehension in other languages. Scandinavian and Dutch learners of English always outperform French, German, Spanish and Italian learners of English. Hmm, I wonder why? Last year only about 5-10% of my students said they ever watched movies in English, and it certainly showed in their listening and speaking abilities.

Countries in red do dubbing, those in blue do subtitles (with some dubbing for childrens’ programs).

I know I’m a bit biased being a language teacher/linguist who highly values listening comprehension in order to learn proper pronunciation and who views audio-visual input such as television and films as major language learning tools that everyone should utilize. Unfortunately, I also know there are some people out there who don’t actually want to/refuse to learn another language or culture.  I’d like to think even if I weren’t so passionate about foreign languages, I would still prefer subtitles to dubbing for the simple reason that it doesn’t destroy the authenticity. It’s just a few words at the bottom of the screen.

Language Learning Quotes

To get back into full language learning mode, here are some quotes from scholarly journals and books to keep in mind. Citations are on the bibliography page.

1) why textbooks will not teach you to speak a language….

“Textbooks often present forms that are not commonly used, and most non-natives acquiring a language in a classroom learn a style that is too formal.” – Walz

“Books often teach written forms twice and oral forms not at all for words frequently spoken and almost never written.” – Walz

“[Textbooks] tend to teach items simply because the items exist and not because of any usefulness or frequency.” – Walz

“Writers present as many forms as possible without considering whether students can learn them or native speakers use them.” – Walz

“Despite today’s widespread acceptance of teaching language for oral communication, current textbook grammar is still a reflection of classical grammatical rules based on formal, written language.” – Glisan & Drescher

“Formal instruction (i.e., grammar analysis and discrete-point grammar practice) can temporarily improve performance on discrete-point tests, but apparently has relatively little influence on spontaneous language use.” -Schulz

“Language learning – regardless of theoretical orientation – necessitates frequent recycling of lexical and grammatical structures in different contexts. While we pay lip service to to the cyclical nature of language learning, indicating at least an awareness that the frequency in which vocabulary and grammatical patterns are encountered in the input contributes to their eventual retention and use, a large percentage of the words and structures we expect in the students’ active command appear only once or twice in the textbook.” – Schulz

“Teaching vocabulary without incorporating the necessary recycling is wasted effort.” – Harwood

“The belief underlying the use of drills is that production of the correct form is acquisition. However, as we indicated above, this is not the universally accepted position of SLA theory and research, and flies in the face of all the evidence when it comes to the creation of an implicit system. Acquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system. By consistently and constantly having to process linguistic data in the input, learners push the linguistic system along. Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.” – Wong & VanPatten

“There is no SLA theory or hypothesis that suggests that practicing a form leads to its acquisition.” – Wong & VanPatten

2) the importance of listening, cultural input and pronunciation in learning vocabulary…

“L2 learners cannot learn a language if they never hear it; the sounds, the words, the structures have to come from somewhere.” – Cook

“Many important elements of languages, especially those that are unspoken or implicit, do not really exist outside of the culture in which the languages are spoken… not only can culture and language be taught together, they probably should be.” – Bush as in Kramsch

“Too much time is spent teaching imaginary content about fictional people and places rather than real content that tells the students something about the real world and real people.” – Cook

“Authentic materials, particularly audio-visual ones, offer a much richer source of input for learners and have the potential to be exploited in different ways and on different levels to develop learners’ communicative competence.” – Gilmore

“To keep information in working memory from fading it must be constantly repeated.” – Cook (this is called the articulatory loop – the faster you repeat things, the more you can remember)

“If we cannot say the sounds quickly, our short-term memory span will be very restricted and consequently we will face severe difficulties with the processing of language and with storing the language in our long-term memory. The lack of emphasis on pronunciation in language teaching in recent years has hampered not only the students ability to pronounce words, but also their fundamental capacity to process and learn the language. Pronunciation should be taken more seriously, not just for its own sake, but as the basis for speaking and comprehending.” – Cook

3) to summarize the best way to learn new vocabulary…

Notes from Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition edited by Coady & Huckin

New vocabulary items need to be learned in a meaningful and authentic context with plenty of audio-visual reinforcement. They should not be learned in isolation or by rote memorization.  Repetition of words and phrases (out loud!) and linking this new vocabulary to existing knowledge is also essential.

“Rehearsal at regular intervals is much more effective than massive rehearsal at infrequent intervals.” – Hulstijn (i.e. study in short bursts!)

“Learning items together that are near synonyms, opposites, or free associates is much more difficult than learning unrelated items.” – Nation & Newton

The easiest words to learn are:
1. Concrete words that can be  visualized
2. Frequent words which are mostly functional
3. Cognates with the native language

The hardest words to learn are, of course, abstract words and as they are usually forgotten first, they should be the focus of the majority of time devoted to learning vocabulary.

Videos & Subtitles are Best

In my nerdy, just-for-fun independent research on language acquisition, I’ve come across several articles about using video with subtitles in the classroom and how it vastly increases the rate of vocabulary acquisition. Hearing and reading the words in context is very important – now I just wish someone would tell producers of DVDs that… Subtitles in movies or even the closed-captioning in TV programs are not exactly consistent with what the actors actually say, but it’s better than nothing.

Here are a few free language websites that use video with subtitles or transcripts so you can read along and have a better chance of understanding:

French: Imagiers.net and ClipClass.net

Italian: Impariamo Italiano

German: My German Class (hilarious videos too!)

Dutch: 2BDutch.nl

(Of course, you can always just search Youtube and DailyMotion for free language learning videos and I’m sure you’ll find many more.)

In addition, Yabla is a nice site that has many videos with subtitles and translations into English, but only a few are free as demos. You can slow down the speech, click on any word to get a translation, and play dictation games. It’s not cheap, but it seems really useful. It’s currently available in French, Spanish and English for ESL learners.

And thanks to a tip from roam2rome.com, there’s a free library program called Sing & Study that allows you to copy & paste in song lyrics in two languages, and then add a Youtube video so you can listen to the song and read the lyrics in your foreign and native languages side-by-side.

Links Roundup for Learning Languages Online (Audio Version)

I’ve been slowly going through my Language Links page to delete dead links and add new ones. Some new language sites that I’ve come across since my last links post include audio prominently:

SWAC Audio Collections provide pronunciations for a wide range of words in 11 languages: Bielorussian, Czech, Chinese, German, English, French, Dutch, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Ukrainian. The audio collections can be downloaded as well, in flac or ogg format. (If you’re looking for a pronunciation dictionary in Italian, try DOP from Rai.)

LangMedia “features authentic language videos filmed in country, depicting everyday situations and conversations. These videos were filmed between 1999 and 2002 by international students from the Five Colleges. Transcripts, translations, audio clips, and still images are also included.” Over 30 languages available.

Sit back… Watch… Learn is a blog that gathers YouTube videos for learning languages: Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese, Italian, Swedish, Sign Languages, and Welsh. More languages will be added over time.

Internet Polyglot has vocabulary lists and games for over 20 languages, most with audio. You can also choose a combination of languages rather than just the target language + English.

Sons en français is a large collection of audio and video clips to help with oral comprehension of French. A great resource for advanced learners who need more listening practice.

Spanish NewsBites is a “free language-learning website designed to help you learn Spanish at the same time as you learn about what’s happening TODAY throughout Spain and Latin America.” Listen to the article, and then do the exercise to reinforce the vocabulary.

Transparent Languages recently started language & culture blogs for 9 languages: Chinese, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish. They still have their Word of the Day widgets as well, with pronunciation of the word.

Multilingual is always better than monolingual

From the New York Times:

Nashville Won’t Make English Official Language

Published: January 22, 200

Nashville voters on Thursday rejected a proposal to make English the city’s official language and largely to prevent government workers from communicating in other languages.

The proposal was introduced by Eric Crafton, a metropolitan councilman. It was opposed by a broad coalition including the mayor, civil rights groups, business leaders, ministers and the heads of nine institutions of higher education.

“The results of this special election reaffirm Nashville’s identity as a welcoming and friendly city,” Mayor Karl Dean said in a statement.

Mr. Crafton had said the policy would encourage immigrants to learn English and save the city more than $100,000 in translation and related costs. The policy allowed exceptions to its English-only rule for issues of health and safety.

Critics said the proposal would tarnish Nashville’s reputation as a cultural mixing pot and drive away immigrants and international businesses. They also accused Mr. Crafton of worsening anti-immigrant sentiment and wasting at least $350,000 of taxpayer’s money on a special election.

[ Full Article ]

I can see the reasoning behind wanting immigrants to learn English, but forcing it upon them is not the answer.  Immigrants in France must learn French because it is the official language, but France has always had an assimilation policy. The US has no official language because we prefer the “melting pot” idea. Keep your culture, keep your religion, keep your language! Learning English will obviously help with everyday life in America, but it is not what makes you American.