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Archive for the ‘Language acquisition’ Category

The podcasts I listen to and how BusinessWeek got it wrong

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on December 3, 2006

Is Podcasting revolution over before it began? BusinessWeek seems to think so and quotes Pew Internet & American Life Project’s statistics. The topic is also generating some buzz in the blogosphere, with BusinessWeek’s interpretation being gleefully accepted by some and thoughtfully rejected by others.

I believe into podcasting‘s future because it is here already for me. I have a 40 minute walk to work each day, so I have over six hours of content a week I can consume. And being quite busy during days, nights and weekends, I try to use that walk time constructively as well. I have been listening to the podcasts from before they were called that and, so, had some time to get my bearings. And they are basically aligned with what the concept of Long Tail teaches us.

Strangely enough, BusinessWeek did not even mention any of the concepts that are important for me and my podcast consumption. That’s how I know the article is missing many points. It is not really unexpected, as it takes a while to get past the beginner’s understanding and actually see the real depth of the concept.

My current collection is at 25 podcasts and I have discarded over time probably twice that number. Less than a third of the podcasts on the list would be considered even vaguely popular by normal measures, the rest are plainly hyper-specialized to my needs and interests.

Over time, I had dutifully sampled and eventually discarded Adam Curry, Dave Winer and Gillmor Gang podcasts. They sporadically have some interesting content, but so infrequently that I find myself frustrated with all the filler. Gillmor Gang specifically I have given 3 or 4 tries over years, but I think they were most interesting during their ITConversations’ days.

I also don’t have any popular radio podcasts. I find the latest news to be easiest to consume in an aggregated or RSS format on my computer. That way if a news item is interesting, I can follow up on its references or setup keywords alert for the future notifications. Podcasts, in my mind, are much more suitable for content that has already undergone some thought process by its producer. I know that for some people, the reasoning is different but just as valid (for them).

I break my subscriptions into roughly 5 categories:

  • Technical News – In my industry (IT) it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. Without these podcasts I feel that I would not notice what is coming down the line until it would be too late and I would be stuck maintaining Cobol-equivalent systems forevermore.
  • Trend watching – Many interesting things are happening in the world if one just happens to be in the right place at the right time. These podcasts put me into that place and do it very early in the ideas’ lifecycles: somewhere between a cutting edge and an early adoption stage. I may not have time to participate, but sometimes the knowledge I get allows me to leapfrog the conventional process. For example, I have been on a cheap Voice-over-IP service (Lingo) for nearly two years and saved myself money and hustle of dealing with Verizon and its ilk.
  • Learning new skills in a background – I may not have time to allocate several active hours a week on a useful, but not currently essential skill, but podcasts in these category allow me to learn something through osmosis over time. Later, when I would need those skills, I would have already absorbed enough to be a very quick learner.
  • Language learning – I am studying Spanish now and before that I was learning French and Esperanto and there is always some improvement I could do to my English. These podcasts provide additional learning (or meta-learning) material. Some of them are also good edutainment.
  • Entertainment – Some podcasts are just funny or interesting or have my friends in them. They round up the collection nicely.

My full list is available publically, but here is the breakdown by the categories as I see it:

Are there more podcasts I would have liked to listen to? Certainly. I would love a podcast on computational linguistics. At the moment, even the bloggers on the topics are extremely rare.

I would also love a podcast on Scottish Country Dancing. There is just so much one could do with that. I know that at least one person have thought of it and given up as unsustainable, which is a real pity. I am tempted to start one myself just to prove her wrong.

Finally, I think there is a way to make a better language-learning podcast/video cast than the ones I found so far. I have mentioned some of the ideas to at least one person in a position to do that. Nothing happened yet, but such things take time. I will wait a while and, if nothing happens, will blog it here instead. I don’t mind prividing competitive advantage to a company that deserves it through good service, but will not sit on the ideas forever either.

To summarise the long post, I think that podcasting has legs and will succeed in the content niches that appeal to people based on their individual interests and needs. There is a lot of fluff and junk podcasts on the web at the moment, but it is getting better and, as with blogging, the absolute number of interesting podcasts is growing fast. It takes some time to find good content, but it really pays off in a long run.

Posted in General Education, Language acquisition, RSCDS, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

Language learning and public content – ‘I am Tarzan’

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on November 29, 2006

I frequently say that public domain books are a great source of further innovation and small business ideas. Today I found another example that brings together several of the themes I track: Language acquisition, Publishing and Public Domain books.

Mark Phillips has taken Tarzan of the Apes book that is now available in public domain and rewritten parts of it to teach grammar as part of the story. The resulting self-published book Tarzan and Jane’s Guide to Grammar (or Amazon link) has been selling quite well in schools for a year or so. The book’s idea is similar to the one of The Twisted Doors, but is targetted at English readers wishing to increase their vocabulary rather than at learners of a foreign language. It also feels to me like a precursor to my 3rd idea from the earlier article on How e-books could revolutionize language-learning.

About a month ago (from what I can tell), Mark decided to push the book to the general public more aggressively. He set up the website and sent some copies out as promotion. I heard of it in one of the Grammar Girl‘ podcasts.

He did not contact me (this is not a sponsored post), but I liked the idea of the book since – as I mentioned at the start – it connects to multiple of my interests. I hope his work will become more known and spur other people to experiment with using public domain material in innovative ways. Especially, if they are innovative language-learning ways.

Posted in Language acquisition, Publishing | Leave a Comment »

Learning language like children do – as if!

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on November 13, 2006

I keep hearing the claims that one should try learning a foreign language like children do. Roseta Stone is a famous example of software that convinces people that they can do just that.

I have a couple of problems with that approach.

First one is that even if the immersion method was sufficient, it would have to be as immersive as what a child gets – 24 hours a day minus sleep. One hour a day is not sufficient in my opinion. And if you are studying foreign language in an immersive environment, Roseta Stone is just a way to concentrate your mind more than anything. And with its price tag, a very expensive way to concentrate the mind.

The other reason is that when people say immersive environment, they usually mean no grammar rules. Just listening and talking, reading and writing. That’s what children do, right?

Wrong! At least it is wrong for the Russian language. School in USSR used to have a class called Russian Language which run for several school years. It was not about the Russian literature, that was a second, separate class. Russian Language class was about learning the orthography and grammar of our own mother tongue and – trust me! – it was hard.

Declensions were hell. Russian language has six of them and we had to have mnemonics to just remember their order (I still remember «Иван Родил Девчонку, Велел Тащить Пелёнку») The rules for when to write soft and hard sign letters were a story of their own. And dictations! That is when you think that the teacher’s whole purpose in life is to make you want to cry. When every misspelling and a missing coma would drop your grade! And then (the next year) you get rephrasing exercises where you listen to a story three times and have to write it out in your own words afterwards. And you are marked for style as well as orthography.

And, I am sorry to say, we made fun of Georgians and Armenians, because – trying to learn their own complex languages – they never sounded quite right speaking Russian, even though they were also part of USSR. We learned how to say things correctly, because we had anecdotes being told and retold on exactly how they got it wrong.

I always admire people who decide to learn Russian and persevere with its alphabet, its grammar and its pronunciation. But those who think that ‘learning like children’ approach means learning through absorption and with no grammar study, I don’t have much time for. It did not work for us, when we were children. I don’t see how it will work for you, however much you will pay for the software with the fancy claims on its cover.

Posted in Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

Interlanguage and fossilization – thoughts of the language learner

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 24, 2006

I got suckered again. Steve Kaufmann – founder of has been asked by a learner who is also studying to be a second language teacher about the concepts of interlanguage and fossilization. Given that Steve does not hold much respect for educational theories, I thought it would be interesting to see him stretched a bit on the concepts that he must have observed first hands multiple times. My mistake. But I did spend time thinking about it, so I might as well put it down.

Interlanguage is basically a concept that while learning a language L2, a person native in language L1 will go through particular stages dependent on the original language. Interlanguage is acknowledging that those stages exist, that they can be defined and, therefore, some special rules can be applied to them.

As an example, going from Russian (L1) to English (L2) I did not have much problem with tenses and genders, because both languages have it and I just had to map the concepts. A friend of mine with Chinese as a first language has to work extra hard with he/she or future/past tenses in English, because in chinese (from what I understand) those aspects are inferred through context or through standalone words line ‘yesterday/today/tomorrow’ without affecting a sentence further on (like English he/she, went/go/will go) . On the other hand, I have major problems with a/the because Russian does not have those constructs.

So, does interlanguage matter to the learner? Steve said it does not, which I have no problem agreeing with. Learner needs to learn and the esoteric labels are not going to help in any way. However, Steve continued to say that because the concepts are not much use to the learner, they are not useful to the teacher as well. And here is where we strongly disagree.

In the business, there is a concept of Capability Maturity Model (CMM). According to that concept, a (good) company will progress through stages of improvement. Basically, the company will start with results happening because there are a couple of very good people just knowing what to do. Then, as it grows, it needs to figure out ways to not depend on just those people and being able to train anybody else to be as good or better. So the company climbs up the CMM lader, which (among other things) means it has to define terms for particular situations and best ways to react to those situations.

So, how is CMM related to the interlanguage concept in ESL? Without this concept, a teacher has to treat every student’s attempt to learn language as completely individual progress without any expected progression steps. This means no decision can be made on the sequence in which L2 concepts are presented, no expectations on how long something will take to teach can be made and no learning shortcuts (X is just like Y in your language) are allowed. This may work in one-on-one learning setup where both student and teacher have infinite time, but it is certainly not the most efficient way.

With the concept of interlanguage, one can actually look ahead and know that Chinese native speaker will need a special attention with he/she concepts and that Russian native speaker will need extra help with a/the concepts. There could be specialised learning material for a particular L1->L2 path. With smart language teaching sofware, there could even be a way to explain the concept by contrasting and comparing the constructs in L2 and L1 language.

Again, none of this meta-knowledge is very useful to the learner, but without it, the teachers as a profession cannot climb the CMM ladder and will not be able to efficiently scale beyond one-on-one mentor model that is no longer economically feasible for most people.

From what I can see, Steve’s company is currently running at CMM level 1 or – at best – 2, so they haven’t had the need to introduce the concepts of interlanguage. That, in my eyes, is not the reason to spent 10 minutes renouncing it.

Same thing with fossilization – a term for somebody’s state of learning where they no longer get better even though they are exposed to more language. For some reason, Steve thought it was a derogative term applied to a person and therefore treated it as a pep talk opportunity to convince people to never give up. Great idea, but not necessarily applicable to the question. Under the law of diminishing return, at some point the cost of studying further does not bring any additional visible benefits. For example, most of the ESL learners do not bother with past perfect tense constructs as it is not useful all that often and has subtlety that can be also expressed in simpler ways. So, when people stop learning the language, that’s their fossilization point. There is nothing special about that term, it just exists so that language teachers did not have to reinvent the term.

Of course, if a learner is not happy with the state of their language and need to have it improved, then we are talking about methods and motivation and Steve’s pep talk on never giving up becomes justified. It is just that motivation is a completely different issue than the one asked about originally.

In summary – interlanguage, fossilization and many other concepts used in L2 acquisition studies are there because the language teaching professions needed to get better as a group, rather than rely on heroic and misaligned efforts of individual teachers. To a person outside of that group (and Steve has repeatedly distanced himself from that group), the jargon may seem meaningless and useless. That does not mean, that the jargon is useless (of course, it is only useful when it does have a well-defined meaning).

Disclaimer: I am not a language teacher. I just like to understand meta-concepts involved. My position might be just as misguided to a knowledgable educator, as Steve’s position feel to me. I have tried to provide my reasoning and links and my comment box is always open to corrections.

(Update: November 13th, nearly a month later)

Gentle Reader :-), why are you here? This article – completely against my expectations – had more visitors than anything else I have written to date. Even now, I get a couple of visitors each day coming in, reading the article and leaving.

Are you here, because you had read Steve’s article and wanted to see my side? Are you here, because you googled for the term interlanguage and fossilization and opened all of the first ten results (you are probably not reading this then)? Or are you here because the topics in the discussion are important to you and I said something of interest (what)?

I do not think my article has any great wisdom in it, just connecting dots that others I am sure have done better. The topic is fairly obscure, even if important for some. Tell me, please, what is it that you are looking for here, as your continuous attention makes no sense to me, happy as I am to receive it. The comment section is open and is begging to be used.

Posted in Language acquisition | 16 Comments »

E-book discussion at the Philips’ Simplicity forums

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 9, 2006

Philips recently had a Simplicity event, where they showcased a number of concept products that may or may not make it into the real world in the future.

To go along with the event, Philips also setup a voting board for a number of discussion topics. One of the topics currently under discussion is whether e-books are a good idea. You can pick a side and argue out your position or vote on the arguments of others. At the end of the discussion (3 weeks from now), the results are summarised, based on the vote counts.

I have added my opinion to the forum and pointed to the TeleRead hosted copy of my article on the issue and I invite you to join in the conversation either at Philips forums or in the article’s comments area for your view on the situation.

I believe that the more interesting functionalities we can point out now, the more likely they will be incorporated into the future e-book design. Waiting until e-books are avialable, will lead to those design having just some of the advantages of a paper book, but all the disadvantages of an electronic device.

In fact, Sony’s e-book reader seems to have proven that point already. It does not even seem to have dictionary lookup, something most of the handheld e-book readers provide.

Posted in e-books, General Education, Language acquisition, Publishing | Leave a Comment »