Archive for the ‘Hints and Tips’ Category

Computers vs. humans

Posted on October 20th, 2009by Michelle
In Afrikaans, Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Technology, Translation, Yiddish | 1 Comment »

Computer brain vs human brainOK, that sounds a little ominous, but it’s not the end of the world as we know it (yet).

Whilst learning a language, there are many resources we can use. A good resource should be accurate and reliable. That’s why you need to be careful when using translation websites.

Google Translate for example, currently has around 50 languages, from Afrikaans to Yiddish. Google uses something called statistical machine translation, which is useful for getting the general idea of documents, but may not be completely accurate.

Pros and cons: Google’s computerized approach means it can translate tons of content — and fast. But computers aren’t quite up to speed with ever-evolving modern speech, so reports of translation errors are fairly common.

On the plus side, the service has been vastly improved in the last five years, Och said. Also, Google lets people spot translation errors, suggest new wordings and translate its interface into languages Google’s computers don’t speak just yet. (Source:

Sites such as Babelfish and offer a similar service to Google Translate, and again are machine powered. also offers human translation, but at a cost. So when translating a specific phrase, it’s a good idea to double check the translation – perhaps try cross-translating it into the original language.

The popular social networking site Facebook, however, has a different method. Through crowdsourcing, they are translating their site into different languages using human knowledge.

Pros and cons: People are good at knowing idioms and slang, so Facebook tends to get these right, but there are limited numbers of multi-lingual volunteers who want to spend time helping Facebook translate things.

Also, Facebook’s site is available in many languages, but its human translators don’t touch wall posts, photo comments and other user-submitted items, which is a big con if you want to have friends who don’t share a common language with you. People who use Facebook Connect to translate their sites can choose which text they want users to help translate, according to Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich.

What are your experiences of using Google Translate, Facebook and other machine translators? Do you find them more or less helpful than human translation?

Speak up!

Posted on October 18th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Spanish | Leave a Comment »

Recently I moved temporarily to Spain and, with no previous knowledge of the language, have been attempting to learn Spanish.

Whilst I’ve had some success picking up individual words, and can already read some simple Spanish, speaking is my real ‘problem’ area.
My biggest fear is getting words wrong – I dislike being incorrect. This fear is very unhelpful in language acquisition, as you learn from your mistakes!

And as a recent study shows, conversing is essential to language development. A UCLA study found that activities that got children talking were more conducive to language acquisition than other methods.

Each day, children hear an average of some 13,000 words spoken to them by adults and participate in about 400 conversational turns with adults. More conversations mean more opportunities for mistakes and therefore more opportunities for valuable corrections. Furthermore, they also provide an opportunity for children to practice new vocabulary. (Source:

Whilst the study focused on language acquisition in children, I think the findings can be applied to all language learning. Make the most of any opportunity you have to converse in your chosen language – and don’t be scared to make mistakes!

Mangling the language

Posted on September 15th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

A new poll has exposed those who mangle the English language.

Inspired by the British based Plain English Campaign, the online poll voted former US president George Bush number one for this contribution:
“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”

Bush also takes the number nine spot with “I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe – I believe what I believe is right”.

OK then. The poll highlights one of the most important things in language acquisition – making yourself understood. The quotes above show that even people whose job it is to make themselves understood can make mistakes. So keep on trying and remember: make yourself clear!

See the full top ten here.

Financial lexicon

Posted on September 9th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, English, Hints and Tips, Language acquisition, Words | Leave a Comment »

Financial lexiconIf like me you get a confused look on your face whenever you hear financial terms like sub-prime, recession and inflation adjusted, help is finally at hand.

You’ve probably heard of the Financial Times and (again, like me) thought “too complicated!”, but the international business newspaper is helping out those of us without an MBA with its newly launched financial lexicon.

The Lexicon allows visitors to search for specific terms and definitions, or simply navigate through the always growing list. Terms used across all Financial Times websites offer highlighted keywords and terms which will link directly to the glossary, allowing users to learn about words instantly that are used in their articles. Alternatively, when a user searches for a term in the Lexicon, it will display a list of articles where that term has been recently used. (Source: World Business News)

Just one problem: now when someone asks your opinion on the sub-prime mortgage crisis, you have no excuse for not having one!

Idioms by kids

Posted on September 6th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, English, Hints and Tips, Idioms | 1 Comment »

Cloud 9 idiomA friend sent me the link to this website, which has quickly become a favourite. is a project run by a schoolteacher in Nanaimo, Canada. He explains:

These pictures illustrate what an idiom actually says and not what the idiom actually means. We used a loose definition of idioms to basically define idioms to be idiotic. In other words they are expressions that generally need explanations to be understood. They often have very interesting origins but sometimes their origins are not even known. What each student did was draw pictures of exactly what the idiom said, not what the idiom meant.

(For the full definition of an idiom, along with a list of English idioms, click here.)

Idioms can be hard for language learners to understand, so perhaps drawing pictures could be helpful. You could even add your pictures to the website – and see if you can be funnier than the kids! My current favourites include dead meat, a bit at sea, and doggy bag.

The Rosetta Foundation

Posted on August 27th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips, Technology, Translation | Leave a Comment »

I recently took a look at the Rosetta Stone and the Rosetta Project, and now there is the Rosetta Foundation.

Based in Ireland, the Foundation aims

to make information accessible to people independent of their social status, their linguistic and cultural background and their geographical location through the development and the deployment of an intelligent translation and localisation environment. (Source: The Rosetta Foundation)

More specifically, the Foundation wants to make ‘life critical’ information available in native languages. As the chief executive of the service provider Welocalize said:

“This initiative could help extend the benefits of the translation industry to the people that most need it. Individuals all over the world are deprived of critical information in their native language that could potentially save their lives. We believe that in order to grow and meet global content demands, we must collaborate to innovate.” (Source: IWR)

The project is being jointly run by The University of Limerick (Ireland), the Centre for Next Generation Localisation (CNGL) as well as the service provider, and backed by the Irish government.

Hopefully it will be as successful as a smaller-scale service run in the UK, which offers translations to questions and answers for medical staff. SignTranslate provides short video clips of questions, and also links to live interpreters for more complex translations. This means that there is no lengthy wait for an interpreter, helping to save lives and lessen distress for patients.

Thankfully I’ve never needed to go to hospital in a country where I don’t speak the language, but this project gives me hope that if I do, I will be able to communicate my needs effectively.

How to learn: choosing a language school

Posted on July 7th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

With seemingly endless choices out there, it can often be confusing trying to choose a language school that is right for you. Of course, first you need to consider your reasons for learning as they will impact on what school you choose. For example, are you hoping to progress your career or do you simply need some phrases for a holiday?

Once you’ve done that, here are some further questions to consider, which I have grouped into general categories to make reading easier:

Location and environment

  • Is the school close to where I am living and working?
  • Are the teachers suitably qualified?
  • What setting will I be learning in?
  • Classes

  • Do the class times and length suit me?
  • Do they offer my current language level (e.g. beginner, intermediate)?
  • How much homework will there be? Can I keep up with the homework?
  • How many people are in the class?
  • What is the teacher to student ratio?
  • How much individual attention will I get?
  • What is the teaching methodology and does it match me? (For example, are there a range of activities? Or is it lecture based?)
  • General

  • Can I afford the cost of the course?
  • Does the school offer the chance to progress to the next level?
  • Can I attend a ‘taster’ session to see if I like the class and the language?
  • What happens if I cannot attend a class?
  • Does the class lead to a qualification?
  • Can I chat with former students or see testimonials from them?
  • If you are planning to study abroad, it is worth checking if the school is accredited, especially when learning English. In the UK, English schools are accredited by the British Council, and overseas you should look at IALC and EAQUALS.

    Finally, this is an interesting article from a writer who has personal experience of choosing a language school overseas.

    How to learn: so, which method do I choose?

    Posted on June 14th, 2009by Michelle
    In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

    ConfusedI’ve presented here the main ways people tend to learn a new language, but modern technology will always come up with more. You could meet a native speaker on Skype and chat with them for example, or try this video-learning site.

    From my own experiences of learning languages, I would say that a combination of all the above methods is perhaps best. I know that without deadlines and a place to be I would not make the effort, so a class is probably my best fit. However, when I’m travelling I like short and simple podcasts so I can revise and practice on the way and whilst in-country. In the end though, it’s all about trial and error and finding the right method(s) that are right for your style of learning. For a list of free language products, try this as a guide.

    So, having weighed up the various pros and cons, considered how much time and money you have to commit, and how tech-savvy you are, it’s time to get out there and start learning!

    How to learn: correspondence/distance learning

    Posted on June 12th, 2009by Michelle
    In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

    CorrespondenceI once took a course in Esperanto by correspondence. Back in the days before email was widespread, it was a time-consuming process to send letters back and forth, and I soon lost interest.

    Receiving a hand-written letter in the mail was lovely though, and the words of encouragement and tidbits of personal information helped me feel connected to both the tutor and the language. It’s a great way to learn at your own pace, and good for improving both reading and writing skills.

    However, the lack of instant feedback can be frustrating, and you need to be dedicated. With set deadlines for certain pieces of work, you will need to be motivated to put aside the time to meet these. It’s all too easy to leave the work until the last minute, but by doing this you’re not maximising your chances of success!

    For more detailed information on correspondence or distance learning, take a look at this article.

    How to learn: the book

    Posted on June 10th, 2009by Michelle
    In Hints and Tips, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

    Book learningLearning from a book has a similar advantage to the podcast, in that it’s very portable. Unlike the podcast though, it’s more suitable for those wishing to improve their writing and reading skills, as there is generally no spoken element apart from practicing aloud to yourself.

    Although learning from a book is a flexible method – you can learn when and where you like – there is no one to ask questions of if you are struggling. Also, the book cannot correct you if you are making mistakes! Books are generally well-structured, and you can move at your own pace. If you feel you’ve mastered a section, you can quickly move on to the next.

    In addition, the initial price of the book is the only cost you’re likely to bear. It’s worth doing some research before buying though, to make sure the book is the correct one for your level and what kind of skills you want to get out of it. Online book store sites often have user reviews, and this site has some reviews for a handful of languages.

    Cheryl from Manchester has been learning Russian:

    I’ve found my book really useful for learning the Cyrillic alphabet and can now read Russian to quite a good level. I put aside time each week to go through the next chapter, although it’s hard to stick to it sometimes as I have to say no to dinner or going out with my friends. It hasn’t really helped me with speaking skills though, so I’m trying to find someone who speaks Russian to converse with, like a language exchange.