Product Review- ASLU

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From time to time I hope to review language learning products- be they websites, applications, old-fashioned software, books, or other (who knows what the future holds)- to try to give my fellow polyglot consumers some guidance as to what tools to use and, just as important, to NOT use.  Of course, these are just one gal’s opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.

Product Name: ASLU (Found at lifeprint.com)

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Type of Product: Website/App

What’s it do: Essentially an ASL training program in a website.  It has lessons, fingerspelling practice, a dictionary, and more.

Languages it offers:  ASL (American Sign Language)  This is taught through standard English, with a sense of immersion placed into the video lessons.

Available Formats: Website: lifeprint.com

On the website, there are apps for fingerspelling practice and an ibook, as well as apps for Android.  I have not checked these out myself so I cannot vouch for them, but the site does seem to be constantly expanding to add positive new features.

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Strengths: This website is awesome and I could go on about its strengths for days.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • IT IS FREE.
  • It has a structured syllabus, with a practical layout.
  • It has ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC videos, taught by Bill Vicars.  They are silent, which takes some getting used to, but it’s fantastic to force yourself to really focus in on the signing for that 30 minutes.  Plus, I feel it gives you a sense of how the Deaf actually perceive their language.
  • Each lesson comes with a video, a vocabulary list, a set of example sentences to try (usually with hyperlinks to demonstrations of said sentences), stories to practice, and 2 quizzes.  Talk about a plethora of awesome resources.
  • The lessons have discussions of Deaf culture embedded within them.  This is important, as many hearing people are unaware that there are cultural differences between them and the Deaf.
  • There are in-depth discussions and explanations of ASL GRAMMAR!!!  I can’t stress how important this is- so many resources act as though ASL is “just signed English.”  I cannot emphasize how untrue that statement is– ASL is its own language with its own grammatical structure.  In order to use it properly, one must study this element.
  • The site includes a dictionary and fingerspelling practice, which are both key to learning ASL.  The dictionary links primarily to videos of the signs, which are much more useful than diagrams and written descriptions in my opinion.
  • The site includes encouragement, a suggestion for self-study, opportunities to contact Bill, and more.  It’s truly amazing how many awesome resources this guy has put together.

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Weaknesses:

  • The site is not aesthetically pleasing.  I realize this shouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but honestly it was a turn off to me for a long time.  The first time it was recommended to me, I kind of turned up my nose at the apparent “messy layout.”  To be fair, this guy is doing all of this for free and constantly adding new content- trying to do that and make it look all pretty is not an easy task.  Especially when he has a family and a real job, so Mr. Vicars if you are reading this, please understand I’m intentionally nitpicking.
  •  There are some pages missing links.  For example, Lesson 2 has links to the awesometaculor Practice quizzes (20 minute videos of the signs and some sentences with multiple choice answers and it grades you at the end!).  However, I haven’t had this link on any other lesson.  There’s links to the small quizzes (usually done through written descriptions and diagrams).  But not ones to the big quizzes.  It’s no big deal- I just go back through the link on Lesson 2, but it would be better if there was a link for each lesson.  Again, I get that this guy is doing all this for free on his own time, so completely understandable.  He is apparently open to some volunteer coding, so if you have those skills to share and it’s a project you’d be interested in, this is a great chance to build some language karma. 🙂

My Overall Rating and Thoughts?

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4.5 Globes out of 5

This site is utterly amazing and I am indebted to Bill Vicars for making ASL learning so easily accessible and fun.  I spent years looking for materials in bookstores and on the web, often only finding “Signed Exact English” materials or fingerspelling practice sites.  I did take two courses in college which helped, but certainly did not cement my learning.  This site has given me new hope and direction in my quest to master ASL.

If I had the computer knowledge, I would gladly offer to help make the site a bit more aesthetically pleasing so that it would get the notice it rightfully deserves.  I’d also love to see the site add a social component to help connect ASL learners (and helpful Deaf persons) so that they can find language practice partners even across the web.  We live in a world with Skype people- this IS an option.  I live in an area where there isn’t much of a Deaf community so finding a language partner online is probably my best option for continued practice.  I could pay for an online tutor, but well, I’m cheap.  Plus I think we all benefit from helping each other.  I’d also love to see some links to quality ASL vloggers on YouTube and related sites.  I struggled to find some- finally locating Trix Bruce and an ASL stories set that have been helpful.  I’d love to know more- I know there are a LOT of great Deaf performers out there who are sharing songs, theatrical performances, and more on the web- I’m just apparently not using the right search terms.

Again though- I’m literally making suggestions to take an already awesome site into the level of Polyglot Perfectionist Nirvana.  Bill Vicars has already created an unbelievably awesome resource and if ASL is of interest to you, you NEED to check it out.

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This is your trusty Polyglot Products Private Eyes, signing off.  Hope this scoop is useful to you!

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 06/23/14.

Conducting an Experiment… Mwa ha ha!

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So as a language learner and language teacher (and of course, avid Polyglot Blogger extraordinaire 🙂 ), I like to try out new methods and tricks of language learning from time to time just to see what’s fun and/or efficient.  I share a video a few weeks back from a self-described PolyNot who discussed the role of vocabulary in language learning and how one actually needs a lot less words than one thinks in order to start reading a new language.

This got me thinking.  Yes, in theory, in most languages, the first 100 words can really take up a large percentage of text.  Some studies suggest that in English that first 100 words makes up as much as 50% of text.  (Let that sink in friends, it’s a big number.)  One might think they’d found the Holy Grail of language learning hearing that.

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But (there always is one) the one thing those studies seem to neglect to mention is that most of those words are function words– that is conjunctions, linking verbs, prepositions, articles, etc…  All the words that are more difficult to define and that your brain doesn’t grab onto as easily- in fact it often just skips them when you’re reading because it doesn’t need them too often.  So the question becomes HOW do we make use of this knowledge in a legitimate way?  If we read big pieces of text, we may recognize the words but not have any sense of meaning.

The answer came to me like a lightning bolt.  Small pieces of text… in everyday language… oh my gosh did somebody say TWEETS?!?

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So for the last 3 weeks I’ve started an experiment that I call “A Tweet a Day” (clever titles are my specialty as I’m sure you are all aware by now ;).  Here is how I went about it.

First I found a list of the 1000 most high-frequency words in Japanese.  (Okay I cheated a smidge in that I had a friend of mine who is much more skilled at Japanese find me said list because I trusted his judgement.  I suggest you use this cheat if you have the choice.  If not and you are concerned about finding a quality list, hit me up with your language of choice and I’ll help you find one.)

I then decided that each week I would add 10 words and ONLY 10 words to an Anki deck.  Studies show that most people really only retain 5-10 words max a week in terms of new vocabulary over the long term.  I have a very good memory so I went with 10.  If memorization is a struggle for you, I suggest you start with 5.  Remember, a lot of these beginning words are function words, and therefore aren’t going to come as naturally.  (You can also use old school flashcards or a different SRS system of course.  If you don’t remember what an SRS is, refer to this post I made earlier this year.)

Then each day I logged into Twitter and found a tweet.  I try to just choose one of the early ones on my feed for the day, but as I follow a news group, they tend to monopolize the feed so sometimes I just pick a random Twitteratti that I follow and go with an earlier one from their direct feed.  I can hear the panic already: “How do I find people to follow if I don’t know the language yet?”

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I suggest finding music artists and sports stars first, as well as maybe 1 major news outlet.  Usually if you do a quick Google search of the country of your language (or one of them) and the word “musician”, “athlete”, or “news”, a Wikipedia article or two will lead you in a solid direction.  After that, Twitter will often send you lists of suggestions to follow.  I tend to click on ones with interesting pictures- I can always UNFOLLOW them if they turn out to be stupid.  (Yes, you CAN unfollow- social media need not consume your soul with overwhelming amounts of information to read!)

(I’d stick to only one news outlet solely because those suckers post A LOT.  BBC Mundo and NHK flood my newsfeed to the point that I can’t find anyone else by skimming it.  They are, however, solid sentences with actual correct grammar, so they have their pros as well as their cons.)

Lastly I copy and paste the Tweet into a OneNote Journal I set up for this purpose.  You could physically copy it down, which would actually be good for your memory, but I’m lazy hehe.  I then break my reading into 3 steps.

FIRST, I do a cold “read” on the tweet.  I label this pass 1 and I attempt to mark/translate any words I know off the top.

SECOND, I run through my Anki flashcards (if I have any due that day).  I then take a second crack at translating what I can of the tweet.  This usually includes writing a quick guess at what the gist of the Tweet probably is.

LASTLY, I get a Google translation of the tweet. I know I know, Google translate is not always accurate and if you have a better option, use it.  Sometimes I ask the aforementioned friend for a translation but he’s got a life and isn’t always available. Usually for 140 characters or less, Google can manage something that I can draw a solid translation from.  I then make a few notes to myself about what I understood, what I misunderstood, and whether I’m making progress.

Today, after having only entered 30 words thus far into the deck, I managed to translate half of a news tweet correctly.  I may have looked something like this:

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The best parts of this?  At 140 characters, I’m not overwhelmed by trying to read something with such little vocabulary knowledge.  It also takes me less than 10 minutes generally to do all the above steps, with about 20 minutes on the day I put in new vocabulary.  It’s simple, it’s daily, and it’s practical.  Yes, you will run into slang and bad grammar but to be honest, that’s part of learning how to speak and interact like a native speaker.   I’m finding it a fun addition to my language learning routines.

So that’s my current language learning experiment in progress.  I’d love to hear if any of you have any such experiments underway and what the results have been.  Feel free to inbox me with that or any other feedback and suggestions.  Until then, Polyglot out!

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 06/17/14.

Language Binging- The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

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Hello, my name is Colleen and I’m a language addict.

     Yes, you read that right.  I confess- I’m hopelessly addicted to linguistic play in multiple tongues.  I crave grammar charts and vocabulary lists.  I lose my mind over multi-lingual adaptations of my favorite Disney tunes.  I can’t help but organize the language learning materials every time I visit Barnes & Noble.

Normally, I manage to keep my addiction under control.  I stick to one language at a time and take small sips occasionally throughout the week.  But now and again, I find myself on a language binge.

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What is a language binge, you ask?

I define it as the period of time when one goes a bit “language” happy.  For myself, I consume loads of material in a variety of languages in a very short time.  This week for example, I’ve cycled between my Japanese study materials, ASL videos, Spanish telenovelas, and of course, standard English input.  Beyond that, I find myself perusing Italian learning blogs and contemplating French words, and wondering if Swahili is really my best choice for an African language.  In short, I’ve been going overboard in my language studies.

The question I put forth today then is:  Is this a bad thing?

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  My loyal followers can probably guess my answer by now… it depends.

     A friend of mine and I were discussing this recently.  He’s been finding himself poking here and there at a variety of new languages, while still focused on learning Mandarin.  Korean and Spanish both have his eye but he hasn’t decided to commit yet.  He wondered whether by spending time looking at new languages if he was hurting his Mandarin study.  After all time spent looking up the Korean writing system or discussing Spanish verb conjugations is time he’s not spending studying his current language, so it’s wasted, right?

Not necessarily.   We talked about it, as I’m in a similar space right now.  And we both came to a conclusion- looking around at other languages was actually helping re-invigorate our interest and appreciation for the languages we were currently working on.  In turn, this meant we not only put in our daily study time on our current languages, but also approached the time with more enthusiasm and drive.  Personally, I get more out of my learning if I’m excited about it.

 image(I mean, look at how excited these two are!  Don’t you just want to join their thirst for knowledge?!?)

    You see, when you’re a linguaphile (someone who adores languages and their structures in and of themselves), you sometimes get bored looking at the same language day after day.  You love your language, you do.  But the verb conjugations just won’t seem to stick or you swear you’ll never draw those ideograms quite correctly.  Taking a break to look at another language can help remind you why you became interested in the first place.

Sometimes it can even lead to random breakthroughs.  Personally I finally learned to roll my “rr”s in Spanish after learning to sing in Italian for a Solo & Ensemble piece.   Comparing the honorifics and social niceties of Korean may help you better grasp the system in Japanese.  Or maybe you’ll just learn a cool new word- libélula is a particular favorite of mine. 😉

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So what’s the downside to a language binge?  It can turn into language burnout if you aren’t careful.  You can actually get sick of all that new as quickly as you got excited.  Moreover, you can become overwhelmed.   You can convince yourself that you are going to actively learn all the languages right now!  And then become very frustrated when you realize you probably can’t juggle that many tongues at once.

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The key is to use your language binge wisely.  Let it be a source of excitement and wonder but don’t let a few days of exploring turn into obligatory daily web searches.  When the binge stops being fun, it stops being useful.  The same is NOT true of steady language learning.  There will be days when you don’t feel like doing flashcards on your target language, but should recognize that it’s good for you to do them anyway.  But a binge is different- it’s an opportunity to try on a bunch of different linguistic systems but not necessarily buy any of them right then.  And that’s why when the fun is gone, it’s time to go home while you still have your wallet and your dignity.  Your target language will be waiting there, a cup of tea and an understanding smile ready to greet your return.

Hope you all are reaching your Polyglot Potential this summer.  Thanks for reading and never forget- POLYGLOT POWER!

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 06/09/14.