Technology-assisted language learning #1

Recently I’ve been quite busy with language-learning related stuff (mostly Spanish, but also bits of several other languages) and I’ve been exploring some technological aids to help me.

My previous language learning efforts have mostly focused on traditional media such as books and tapes/CDs, although I have made a fair amount of use of things like flashcard software (Anki is my favourite) and internet radio stations.

In the past couple of years, I have explored some of the language apps available for my Android phone.  However, this is a device of fairly limited capacity running on an old version of the Android OS (2.something) so there were several apps I’d heard of from friends (including Simon who runs the Omniglot website) and other sources that I wanted to check out but couldn’t get to run on my phone.

A few weeks ago I got myself a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 tablet.  This has a much beefier processor than my phone, as well as a lot more memory and storage space, and runs Android 4 (the wonderfully named Ice Cream Sandwich), so should have no trouble running the pick of the current crop of apps, language-related or otherwise.

Since then I’ve been trying out several different apps for Spanish and other languages.  I will probably write about some of them in forthcoming posts.  For now, though, I want to talk about the latest one I’ve been checking out: Duolingo, which exists as both a website and an Android app (I think there’s also an iPhone version).

As far as I can make out, Duolingo is basically a community-driven project.   On their website I found the slogan “We believe everyone should have access to education of the highest quality – for free”, which is a sentiment I share.  As the name suggests, their particular focus is on language education.  They provide courses in a variety of languages, both as source (the language via which instruction is given) and target (the language you’re learning).

A couple of the friends with whom I went to Spain in August used Duolingo to pick up a bit of Spanish in advance of our trip (the most notable result of which was one of them declaring “Yo soy una manzana”, which means “I am an apple”) and have been continuing to use it since then.  At the time, I didn’t check it out myself, partly because I didn’t have my tablet and didn’t know if my phone could handle it (nor that there was a website interface) and partly because I mistakenly assumed it would only be a beginner level course that wouldn’t have anything useful to teach me.

Yesterday, I got round to installing Duolingo on my tablet for a closer look and I was pleasantly surprised.  There are courses for English-speakers on about 8 or 9 languages at present (though a few of them only seem to be available via the website), as well as courses aimed at speakers of other languages.  One nice feature is that when you start a course you can either go from the beginning or take a placement test to assess your existing level of knowledge of the target language and fast-track you to a suitable starting point.

Out of curiosity (and a desire to learn/improve all the languages I can) I started the courses not only for Spanish but also French, German, Dutch, Italian and Irish, opting for the placement test in each case.

I was quite gratified to reach Level 10 in Spanish (I’m not sure how many levels there are, and it may vary between languages, but I seem to have ended up about three quarters of the way through the available units, and poised ready to start a lesson on the subjunctive).   There seems to be a reasonable variety of different lessons and exercises, with a combination of reading, writing, listening and even speaking, so I expect that working my way through the rest of the course should be quite useful. Apparently it is based on a generalised Latin American version of Spanish, in contrast to the peninsular Spanish focus of most of the instructional material I’ve used to date, but I don’t think that should be too much of a problem.

Given that I still consider my French to be a lot stronger than my Spanish (and I can generally string together a vaguely correct sentence in French much more easily than in Spanish) I was moderately surprised that I only reached Level 7 in French.  This is probably largely due to mistakes with accents, which are generally much harder in French than Spanish (as there are more to choose from and they aren’t always entirely obvious from pronunciation) as well as the fact I’ve done a lot more writing in Spanish than French recently (I think it was mostly the written exercises that let me down in the French test).

In German, I achieved Level 5 – not too surprising considering my German was never quite as strong as my French (though in theory I studied them to the same level) and is much rustier.  I was pleasantly surprised to get up to Level 3 in Dutch since, although it’s less than a year since I last had a go at learning it, I didn’t get very far in my lessons then. Both my Irish and my Italian are languishing down at Level 1.

My main goal remains to focus primarily on Spanish for the moment but also to do some gentle revision of French and German and probably do a bit of Dutch, using Duolingo alongside various other tools for each language.  Doubtless I’ll do at least a bit with both Irish and Italian too, although those are definitely lower priorities at the moment.

Amongst the other languages apparently in development (for English-medium courses) on Duolingo are Swedish, Russian and Hungarian.  All three have for some time been on my shortlist of languages to work on (I speak some Russian, though considerably less than German or French, and a little bit of Hungarian, though only a negligible amount of Swedish as yet), so I’m looking forward to trying out those languages when they go live.

There’s no sign, yet, of any courses in English for non-Indo-European languages on Duolingo, which is a shame as I’d definitely like to break further out of the Eurocentric mould in my language studies (Swahili being the non-IE language that interests me most, though there are plenty of others).  For now, at least, it looks like I’ll have to stick with other tools for explorations in that direction, as well as for IE languages such as Catalan that are not on the Duolingo menu.  However, for the languages that are available I think Duolingo will be a very handy addition to the toolbox.



Space Watching

When I decided to get an android phone a few months ago, there were several reasons why I thought it would be a good idea (some of which I wrote about at the time).  However, there was one single app that tipped the balance from “I’d quite like to get an android phone sometime” to “I must have one NOW!!!”.  That was Google Sky Map.

As the name indicates, this is a planetarium app, i.e. one which provides a map of the night sky.  I’ve used several planetarium apps on various computers over the years, since first seeing one demonstrated in the early 1990s and then getting one for my Amiga a couple of years later.  However, what sets Google’s offering apart from the herd is that this one makes use of the position / location detection features on your phone to provide a map that updates in real time as you hold your phone up to the sky and move it round.  This makes it ideal for identifying stars, planets and other astronomical features that you can see (no more guessing whether it’s Venus or Jupiter that you’re looking at).  For those of us who live in cloudy climates, you can also identify where the astronomical features would be visible if the clouds weren’t obscuring them, and you can similarly locate them if hidden behind tall buildings, trees, or even the earth itself (i.e. you can always use it to find Uranus, no matter where you are).

It may not be one of the most practically useful apps on my phone, since I don’t generally find myself needing to navigate by the stars, but it’s certainly one of the most exciting (at least if, like me, you have some interest in astronomy).  It is an example of augmented reality, which until fairly recently was very much in the domain of science fiction.

Very thoughtfully, they have programmed Sky Map with a night viewing mode that renders the map in dull red on a black background and hence preserves your night vision (a moot point if you’re in an area with lots of street-lights, but potentially helpful if you manage to find a nice dark place for stargazing), as well as an ordinary mode that uses a full range of bright colours.  As well as being able to pan the map round the sky and identify what you’re looking at, you can search for a specific feature (by name or by browsing through an image gallery) and it will then give you pointers so that you can line up your phone and your eyes in the right direction to see it;  of course, it can’t do anything about the clouds or terrain features that may be in the way, but it sure beats panning madly round the sky in the hope of being able to spot when M62 shows up on the map.

I haven’t yet tried using Sky Map in conjunction with binoculars (or a telescope, not that I have access to one) for viewing and identifying features that are not visible to the naked eye, but it has enabled me to know what I’m looking at when I stand and gaze up at the night sky on clear nights, or know what I’m missing the other 90% of the time.


Japandroid (Part 2)

Yesterday, I started talking about some of the Android apps I’ve been using to help me try and learn Japanese.   I shall now continue where I left off…

Another limited free version of a payware app that I have looked at is one called Survive Japanese!  This one’s a bit different from the others in that it is an adventure game.  The premise is that you have just arrived in Japan armed with little more than a desire to get stuck into learning the language; you have to wander round, exploring and interacting with things, gradually building up a knowledge of Japanese as you go.  There are regular quizzes, some listening-based and some reading-based, and you can initially approach them in a trial-and-error fashion if you don’t already know how to read hiragana or kanji.  I first tried the app when I was just starting on the hiragana (I had tried to learn them several years ago, but forgotten pretty much the whole lot) and found that it worked well in combination with the other resources I was using as a means of cementing the knowledge of the kana, as well as helping me to learn some basic vocubulary in context.  Unfortunately the free version seems quite limited in how far you can get (or perhaps I just wasn’t patient enough).  Again, I might consider getting the full version at some point if it’s not too expensive, but for now I’m concentrating on other resources.

In anticipation of a time when I’ve learned a bit more Japanese and will want to be able to look up words, I have installed a Japanese dictionary.  The one I found is called aedict, and seems to be a pretty good one.  You can enter Japanese words in kana (if you have a suitable input method – see below) or romaji (i.e. Japanese written in the Roman alphabet) or English words and there is also a kanji search option, which appears to offer several search methods.  The only one I’ve tried so far (since I haven’t yet done much with kanji) is drawing recognition, which gets you to trace the kanji on the screen with your finger and then tries to match it and gives a list of its best suggestions.   I have found that it quite often seems to completely miss the kanji I’m aiming for, even if I’ve drawn what appears to be a fairly good approximation, and offers some suggestions that look nothing like what I drew.  I assume that with a bit of practice I’ll probably get better at making it recognise what I’m drawing.

There were quite a few options available to enable Japanese input.  The one I’ve settled on, at least for now, is called MultiLing Keyboard. As the name suggests, this actually supports many different languages, so it’s potentially quite useful to me beyond my Japanese learning endeavours (for instance, its Welsh mode has a very handy dead-key feature for adding accents to characters, which is a bit quicker to operate than the default keyboard’s accented character input and supports accents on ‘w’ and ‘y’, which are needed in Welsh).  Regarding Japanese, it seems that you have an option of typing the characters in romaji and having them automatically converted to the kana syllabary of your choice (using the equivalent of caps shift to switch between hiragana and katakana) or having a keyboard arranged by initial consonant, where you hold down the key and flick in the required direction to select the vowel of your choice).  So far, I’ve mostly been using the latter method, as it gives extra practice at recognising the kana.  There is also a drawing recognition mode, a bit like the one in aedict (see above) and seemingly just as flaky; this can (in theory) recognise kana and various non-Japanese symbols, including Roman letters, as well as kanji.

Finally in this round-up of Japanese learning apps I must mention one that I’ve actually been using for some time and have just started using for Japanese.  This is Anki, a multi-platform flashcard program that operates on the spaced repetition principle (essentially, reviewing material less frequently as you get a better grasp of it).   The Android version is actually called ankidroid.  There are desktop Anki clients available for various operating systems (I have one running on Linux) and also a web interface.  You can synchronise all these together using a free web account, which enables you to create or revise flashcards wherever you are.  I’ve found that having it available on my phone makes it a lot more convenient than having to go to a computer in order to run a set of flashcards.  There are quite a lot of shared decks of cards available or you can create your own.  So far, I’ve mostly used my own decks (although I did download quite a good one of frequent New Testament Greek vocabulary) and I’ve only really used Anki for language learning purposes, although it can also be used for all kinds of other things.

Japandroid (Part 1)

Amongst the many languages I’ve dabbled with over the years is Japanese.  I’ve always (or at least for quite a long time) had  an interest in the language and culture of Japan, partly because they are very different to what I’m used to.  My previous attempts to learn more than a few basic phrases of Japanese have, however, been hampered by the difficulty of learning the writing system.

Having recently acquired a new Android phone, I decided to have a look at the facilities that had to offer for learning Japanese, especially how to read it.  I was pleasantly surprised.  So far I have only explored some of the free apps that are available, but there are plenty of these and some of them are extremely useful.  All of these apps are (or at least were) available on the official Android Marketplace.

I won’t go into great detail about the Japanese writing system here, since there are plenty of good sources of information available, such as this Wikipedia article.  However, learning to read the two kana syllabaries (especially hiragana) is a high priority for learning the language, as is beginning to get a grip on the basics of kanji.  Learning to write them too is not a bad idea.  Repeated exposure is essentially the only way to achieve these goals.

The main app I have been using to learn the kana is one called TenguGo Kana, which provides a series of quizzes on both hiragana and katakana,  with diagrams and animations to show how the characters are written (stroke order is quite important for correct writing of Japanese; the same is true for kanji), as well as examples of words using them.  I’ve just finished working through all the quizzes, but they will still be useful for revision purposes later on.  The app also includes handy kana charts for reference.

For learning to write (or draw) the kana, I have found an appropriately named app called Kana Draw, which has been quite useful.  This puts up outlines of the various kana and gets you to trace them using the appropriate stroke order, which helps to get the shapes better established in your mind so that you can more easily write them as well as recognise them.  I’ve found it quite helpful to name each kana out loud as I trace it, as a means of consolidating my knowledge of the sounds represented as well as the way of writing them.   Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward way of selecting just a subset of each syllabary to test, which means that while I’m still learning the katakana I’m getting faced with a few symbols I don’t yet know (I had already become familiar with all the hiragana before I found this app).

I have also installed an app called Kanji Flashcards.  You can probably guess from the title what that one does :-).  I haven’t made much use of it yet, as I’m still concentrating mostly on learning the kana, but when I get on to learning kanji this promises to be a handy study tool.

Another useful app I found is an interactive textbook called HJ Lite.  This is actually a free, limited preview of a payware app called HumanJapanese, which is essentially a complete basic Japanese course with about 40 chapters.  The free version is limited to the first 8 chapters, which introduce the hiragana and a few basic phrases.  There’s quite a lot of discussion surrounding the basic information that’s presented, including useful observations such as several observations about how perceived difficulties in the Japanese writing system are in fact similar to features of our own system, e.g. the addition of a single stroke can completely change the meaning of a word, just like there’s only a subtle difference between “interior and inferior” if you actually stop to think about how the letters are written. It also has some advice for things to look out for when writing the characters. I was impressed enough with this course that I am seriously considering getting the full version, although I’m inclined to give some of my existing Japanese learning materials another try first, now that I’ve got my phone to help me learn to read and write.

As this post is getting quite long and I still have several other apps to mention, I’m going to split it into (at least) two parts.  The rest will follow shortly…

Sufficient added value

I mentioned the other day that I had got rid of my car, cunningly timed to avoid having to renew my road tax.   The money I thus saved was almost enough to pay for a shiny new android phone (OK, so I could have gone for a cheaper model but I decided it was worth spending an extra bob or two in order to get one with greater capabilities).

Previously I’ve always gone for the cheapest, most basic possible mobile phones I could find, as they have been capable of doing all I wanted on a phone: making and receiving phone calls when out of reach of a landline, sending and receiving text messages, and acting as a clock.  Having recently had a chance to play with a couple of smartphones (both android ones), I have decided that these offer sufficient advantages to make it worth getting one (and to offset the significantly shorter battery life they have).

I am especially keen on being able to access my calendar more easily, since I have been using a Google calendar as my main personal organiser for several years now and it is sometimes inconvenient to have to get to a computer in order to be able to check whether I’m free on a particular date.   Ready access to emails, my twitter stream and other things will also be handy and I think that the increased access potential will transform things like Evernote into extremely useful tools.

It will also be useful to be able to carry a whole raft of devices such as a guitar tuner, a camera, a torch and several shelves worth of books around in a single pocket.  I don’t anticipate getting rid of all my existing gadgets and books just yet, but having the tools available on my phone will be useful for occasions when I need one and don’t have the dedicated item to hand.  In this respect, the phone is a bit like a Swiss army knife – it’s not quite as good as a dedicated screwdriver for driving screws (and similarly for the other tools) but certainly beats trying to use your fingernail!

I did have some teething troubles with getting my existing phone number transferred to my new phone, but that seems to be sorted now.  The only problems now are to resist the temptation of playing with my phone when I’m supposed to be doing something else (such as going to bed) and to get used to my new set of ring tones so that I can recognise my own phone when I hear it.