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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
How To Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own - Barry Farber Trevor gives a good summary of what you'll find in the book, and I don't have much to add. Instead, I'll talk about how it relates to work that we're doing at Geneva University, developing speech-enabled software to help people learn a new language. If there's one thing that comes across in Farber's advice, it's the importance of regular practice. As he says, you get better at a language by using it, and you should use it in as interactive a way as possible.

There's a sliding scale here. The very best method is to develop a romantic relationship with a speaker of the language in question. (A smugly multilingual Swedish friend, who's used it more than once, calls it den sexualpedagogiska metoden. I'll leave you the translation as an exercise). If, for whatever reason, it doesn't work for you to get involved with a native speaker, then living in a country where they speak the language is still pretty good. The longer you can live there, and the less you speak your own language while you're doing so, the better you'll get on. After that, the next step down is talking regularly with a native speaker, while staying in your own linguistic environment.

But alas, many language students can't find any way at all to talk with native speakers, so they have to descend further still. Farber gives you some useful recommendations. The cassette courses he describes are now generally available in MP3 form. There are Internet-based courses too. Flashcards let you practice vocabulary in odd moments. And don't undervalue the simple idea of just carrying around a book in your language of choice, and reading it when you have a chance. It's all worth doing. None the less, you aren't going to become fluent if you don't practice speaking.

I got the idea for the project we've just started during our last project, where we developed a speech translation device for doctors who wanted to be able to talk to foreign patients. (If you're interested, there are more details in this 2008 paper). I spent a fair amount of time talking to different versions of the medical speech translation system, and discovered to my surprise that I'd noticeably improved my fluency without even trying. Perhaps this was something worth investigating! We looked around, and discovered that people at MIT had come to similar conclusions, and reused English/Chinese speech translation software to build what they called a "translation game". The system gave you an English sentence, you tried to say it in Chinese, and it performed speech recognition to try and decide whether you'd got it right. If you did, you scored a point. The level of difficulty of the examples was adjusted up or down depending on your average score.

We liked the MIT idea, and saw that we could not only build the same thing, but could probably do it better than they could. Their statistical framework required thousands of examples to train the recogniser; we only needed a couple of hundred, because our platform is based on grammar rather than statistics. So while they were limited to an area where they happened to have data (airline flight reservations; not very interesting to the average language student), we could do pretty much what we wanted. Our prototype system, which we've been working on since August 2009, lets students practice their conversational abilities in a tourist restaurant scenario; it's simple, and everyone thinks it's useful. It runs in English, French, Japanese and German with vocabularies of between 150 and 400 words, reasonable for beginner/low intermediate students.

Here's an example session with CALL-SLT, our prototype system; I'll show you the French version, since it's probably the easiest one for most readers to follow. I start up my browser (Firefox or Chrome are recommended) make sure I have a current version of Flash installed and plug in my headset. I go to the system home page and log in as "guest" (you don't need a password). I get a screen that looks like this. Note the instructions on the right-hand side:


I then click on the "choose lesson" button (the green stack of books, top right). I get this menu:


I choose the first lesson and click on the green tick mark underneath. Now it shows me in telegraphic English what I'm supposed to say:


I'm not sure how to say that in French, so I hit the "help" button (blue question-mark, bottom right). I get:


I double-click on the first example that appears at the bottom and I can hear my colleague Johanna saying "Je voudrais l'agneau". Now I try saying the same thing. I press down the "recognise" button (purple, top right), speak, and release when I've finished speaking. The display now looks like this:


I got it right (the green bar on the left) and the system shows me the words it heard.

It's simple, but I can say from experience that it works; I couldn't do restaurant Japanese at all when I started, but after practicing with the Japanese version for a few says I was quite confident that I could order a beer, get a pair of chopsticks, ask where the bathroom was, or reserve a table for two for seven thirty. When I went to Japan in September I was able to test my knowledge in real situations, and restaurant staff understood me fine!

Please try out CALL-SLT yourself if you're curious, and feel free to let us know what you think! If it doesn't work for you, or you run into problems, we're particularly keen on hearing why. And if you want to read more about it, we have a couple of conference papers here and here.

I was trying to put into words what it is that our system offers, compared with the existing internet-based alternatives that Meredith and Not mention. I think it's a Goldilocks deal.

On the one hand, you have these things like TellMeMore, where they give you a sentence and you have to repeat it. There are also listening-type exercises - I tried one yesterday on LiveMocha. It asked me questions about the time, and I had to point to one of four clocks to select the right answer. But these things were too easy, and I didn't feel any sense of achievement from doing them. They weren't any fun as a game.

On the other hand, you can sign up to talk to a real person. My spoken French isn't nearly as good as my reading skills, and I need more practice, so I did that. I considered doing the same for Japanese. But my Japanese is terrible, and I would just bore anyone who decided to talk to me. I can't impose on them like that. As far as Japanese is concerned, talking to people is too hard.

Now CALL-SLT. It's a challenging game, and I get a nice glow from learning how to say things well enough in Japanese that it understands me. At the beginning, I had to think for thirty seconds before speaking on the hard examples, and I still missed most of the time. Now I can just do it. And I never have to feel that I'm boring it, or that it's humouring me. It's my willing language teacher slave. As Goldilocks says, exactly right!

We have now added a clever course in elementary Japanese ("Survival Japanese") designed by Ian Frank at Future University, Hakodate, Japan. You can get it by logging in as described above, then choosing "English for Japanese" from the "Choose Language" menu (orange button, top left), then "WMDF". After this, you can select eight possible lessons from "Choose Lesson" (green button, top left). The course is meant to take a few hours, and will teach you a range of useful things to say in common situations - greeting people, at a restaurant, shopping, party, etc.

We did an evaluation last week using the Amazon Mechanical Turk, where we paid subjects $2 a session for up to 7 sessions to try and use it to learn some Japanese. Nearly all of the dozen or so subjects who stuck with it to the end were very complimentary... one of them said he was sure when he started that he'd never be able to remember a single word, but now he's going round irritating his family by constantly using Japanese expressions they don't understand. So be careful. You wouldn't want that to happen to you.

We're now constructing an elementary French course together with the University of Bologna, Italy - you can find it by choosing "French for English Speakers" in the "Language" menu, then "Bologna". We've also added an initial course for Greek, and a Swedish version should be coming up some time next week.

If you find this stuff interesting and want to know more, check out our new website!