Something to smile about :-)

As I’ve previously mentioned, the main impetus for me to get a smartphone (nearly 2 years ago now!) was the decidedly cool Google Sky Map app.

I still rate this as my favourite app ever, as I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of being able to point my phone at a patch of sky and have it tell me what stars I’m seeing (or not, if it’s in the middle of the daytime or a cloudy night, or there’s a building, a tree or the bulk of the planet Earth in the way!).  However, it’s not an app I actually use on a daily, or even weekly, basis.

By contrast, the keyboard is a feature of my phone that I use regularly.  Another of the attractions of a smartphone for me was the opportunity to use a proper, albeit touch-screen, keyboard rather than faffing around with a standard mobile phone multi-letters-per-key setup.

The standard Android keyboard is not too bad, and certainly much better (for me, at least) than the aforementioned clunky keypad on my previous (non-smart) phone.  However, there exist many alternative keyboards and after trying out a few I settled on one I’m very happy with – MultiLing Keyboard by Honso.  It’s available on the Play Store if you have an Android device and want to check it out (I don’t know whether they do versions for other phones).

The thing that first attracted me to this keyboard is the facility to switch quickly between different languages, with suitable keyboard layouts and predictive text dictionaries.  Not only does that make it easier to flip-flop between Welsh and English, which I do frequently (sometimes within a single note or text message), but it also makes it possible to write in a completely different script (e.g. Cyrillic if I want to write something in Russian, which does happen from time to time).

In addition to being able to fully switch between languages (which is accomplished by holding down the spacebar and selecting the language of your choice from the ensuing menu; NB you have to select the list of available languages in the app’s settings first), you can access menus of accented or otherwise-related versions of characters (or in some cases, unrelated punctuation symbols etc.) by holding down (as opposed to tapping) the various letter keys.  The ones I use most often are undoubtedly the numbers, which are obtained by holding the top-row letter keys (there is also a separate numeric mode, which is useful if you’re entering more than a couple of digits at once).

All this stuff I discovered quite a while back (having installed this keyboard probably within about a month of getting the phone).  This morning, however, I accidentally stumbled on another nifty feature.  Actually, it’s another one of the extra-character menus accessed by holding down a key but it’s not one I’d thought to try.  The “enter” key, located at the bottom right of the keyboard, gives you a fairly comprehensive selection of smileys (aka emoticons), as well as a tab and a few other random symbols.  I doubt I’ll be peppering my text messages with hearts or crosses (or, indeed, most of the available smileys) anytime soon but it’s nice to know there’s a slightly quicker way to insert the old standby : – ) than constructing it laboriously by hand (not that entering three punctuation characters is that laborious; NB I’ve added spaces to ensure the ASCII emoticon doesn’t get automatically converted into one of those new-fangled graphical gizmos).

I doubt this emoticon menu would, on its own, be a major selling point of the app for many people and I was certainly happy enough with MultiLing Keyboard when I was blissfully unaware of this feature.  Still, it’s quite a nice extra and has certainly given me something to smile about. 🙂

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A little Chinese with me

This month I will mostly be learning Irish and Chinese.

That is, the relatively small proportion of my time which is spent on languages other than Welsh and English (both of which I use on a regular basis) will be mainly divided between these two languages.  I’ve looked at both languages several times in the past, and continued to find quite fascinating, but never got very far with either of them.

At the start of October, I decided to set myself a challenge of doing a bit of Irish every day for a month, largely with a view to getting a handle on singing in the language.  While I wasn’t quite as systematic in my approach as I set out to be, I did manage to give myself a bit of exposure to Irish every day throughout the month, whether it was working through lessons in one or more of the Irish textbooks I’ve acquired over the years, watching Irish language TV programmes online (on the TG4 website) or listening to lots of songs in Irish and attempting to sing a few of them.

In fact, the month has gone so well that I’ve decided to try to keep my Irish going for a bit longer on a more-or-less daily basis.  Rather than go for intensive study, I’m just trying to do a little bit at a time and let it gradually seep into my brain.  It’s a bit different from how I’ve tried to study languages in the past but may turn out to be an effective method.  Even if I never become fluent in speaking Irish, I’ve already managed to get a lot more enjoyment out of Irish songs than I had without understanding the language at all, so it certainly hasn’t been a wasted effort.

One thing I learned fairly recently is that the way (or at least, a way) to say “I speak [insert name of language]” in Irish is Tá [language] agam, which literally means “There is [language] with me”.  For example, I could truthfully say Tá Breatnais agus Béarla agam (I speak Welsh and English) and Tá beagán Gaeilge agam (I speak a little Irish).  Alternatively, I could say Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge (I am learning Irish).  Sadly, as yet, I can’t say very much else, but it’s getting there slowly.

Originally my plan, assuming the successful completion of my one-month Irish challenge, was to put that language on a back burner for a while and choose another language to concentrate on instead for November, then another one for December, etc.  As mentioned, I decided to keep going with Irish until I’ve got a slightly firmer grip on it but, never one to be content with doing just one thing for too long, I’ve decided to simultaneously make a start on the language I had selected for this month’s study, namely Chinese (specifically, Mandarin).

This has a reputation for being a fearsomely difficult language to learn, although I think the main difficulties are to be found in the tonal nature of the language and the writing system.  Grammatically, it seems to be relatively straightforward, although quite (excitingly) different from any other language I’ve studied.

The tone system is often taken to mean that the same word means different things depending on how you say it.  For example, quite famously, the word ma can mean either mother or horse (or a couple of other things), distinguished only by the tone (ma with a high level tone is “mother”; I can’t remember off-hand which tone is used for “horse”).  Actually, it’s better to think of them as completely separate words and this is how they would, apparently, be viewed by native Chinese speakers.  The tone of each word has to be learnt as part of the word itself, but really that should be no more problematic than learning the gender or inflection of words in other languages.  The fact that I have a fairly musical ear should help quite a bit too.

The Chinese writing system is, unquestionably, complex but it is also quite fascinating.  Fortunately there is a standardised romanisation system (pīnyīn) that means you don’t necessarily have to master the written language in order to get a good handle on spoken Chinese.  I am aiming to have a go at learning to read and write the characters as well as to understand and use the spoken language.

More so than most languages, I suspect Chinese is one that benefits hugely from having a teacher rather than trying to learn solely from books and other self-study materials.  Fortunately my friend Simon, who runs the Omniglot website as well as the Bangor Language Learners’ Conversation Group (formerly known as Bangor Polyglots), is a fluent Chinese speaker (having done it, along with Japanese, for his degree) and, since we are usually meeting at least twice a week at the moment, he will be able to give me a hand with the language.  He’s also lent me a couple of textbooks that I will be using in addition to my own resources for Chinese study this month.

I’m certainly not expecting to be fluent in Chinese or Irish by the start of December but I hope to have a better grasp of both languages by then than I do now (which shouldn’t be too hard).  I’ll then have to decide whether to stick to these two languages or move onto something else, either revisiting another language that I’ve looked at in the past or trying something completely new and different.  Perhaps I’ll see if I can get going a system whereby I have two main languages on the go each month, replacing one of them every month (i.e. I’d do Chinese and something else, perhaps Italian, in December then, say, Italian and Swahili in January and perhaps Swahili and a bit more Irish in February, etc.)?