Saturday, May 31, 2008

Language learning

I am by no means any sort of language guru. I only speak one language fluently. My other attempts at language learning have gone either completely nowhere (Latin), or nowhere fast (Chinese, Japanese).

There's a few reasons why my attempts thus far have been met with such little progress, 1) difficulty, 2) poor course material, and 3) laziness. I'd like to focus on the second one, because people trying to learn a new language might find some of my own personal discoveries in that department interesting, but I'll hit the other two as well.

1) Difficulty
Latin, from a practical "I want to communicate with a lot of different, living people" standpoint, is a dead language. This means that learning it is hard because, well, how do you find a teacher who is fluent in a language that nobody speaks. It can be done, I'm sure, but it is probably difficult. My Latin teachers in elementary and highschool sure did there best, and I respect them for it, but if you honestly want to learn a language well, you need to have an instructor who is fluent in the language.

As far as Chinese and Japanese go, there is an interesting government website here, that compares the average study hours needed to attain professional proficiency in a variety of languages. Languages are divided into categories. Category 1 languages, for example, require about 600 hours of study to become proficient, category 2 languages require about 1100 hours of study for proficiency, and category III require about 2200 hours of study for proficiency. Some example languages:

Category I: Afrikaans, Danish, Romanian, Norwegian, Italian

Category II: Zulu, Lao, Hungarian, Croatian, Mongolian

Category III: Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean.

I would guess Cantonese and Korean are harder than Mandarin and Japanese for the following reasons: Cantonese is basically Mandarin but with harder tones and sounds, and Korean is basically Japanese but with nearly impossible sounds. However, Korean has the bonus of having a writing system that actually makes a lot of sense. Maybe that equalizes things. I don't know much about Arabic to compare it to the others. But according to the numbers on the website, I just haven't put the time in yet, to attain profficiency.

2) Poor course structure/material

This is what I have found very irritating, thus far, in both my attempts to learn the languages. When I first moved to Japan, Elton was thinking of hooking me up with a language teacher, because he said that if I relied on the language course at the university, I'll have gotten almost no where by the time I leave. When I asked him why this was the case, he thought about it and said that it probably has something to do with the education system. From the school's perspective, it is beneficial from a financial standpoint to prolong the education process. He wasn't certain about this, of course, but I ended up taking a university class instead of having a tutor and he was right on the money. I got almost nowhere because it was soooooo sloooooow.

And, it has been somewhat the same in my Chinese education. I don't want to put any of the blame for this on my Chinese instructor, she was fabulous. But there is something clearly wrong with a textbook that doesn't teach you the words for "left" and "right," or how to call a Taxi, or order food (wait, my textbook still hasn't taught how to do that), until the second year. And all that coming after teaching students the finer points of Peking Opera. The order is all screwed up.

Nothing made this clearer to me than when I actually visited Myron in China. When I got there, I found that the Chinese I had learned was essentially worthless. Not because I forgot all the words (I forgot a great deal, but upon review later I saw that it wouldn't have really mattered), but because the words I had learned just weren't very useful. You can't ask for directions if you haven't learned the words for "left", "right", "go straight", etc. You can't order kung pao chicken if you don't know the basics of how to order. You can't buy a train ticket if you don't know the words for soft seat, hard seat, soft sleeper, or hard sleeper. Or the word for round-trip, for that matter. You can't ask to find a hostel if you don't know the word for guesthouse. Etc.

The same thing goes for the Japanese lessons I experienced. I did not learn my most-frequently-used words from the text book I studied. I learned them from hanging out with friends or encountering situations in real life where I didn't know what was going on and realized "uh, next time I better know the words for that."

Maybe the first year/semester of learning a language should be structured like a language survival guide for travelers, supplemented with grammar. I can't see how focusing on the necessities for daily living and/or traveling would be a bad thing, because chances are, any student who is learning the language will study abroad and do at least a little bit of that before getting too far in the program anyway. Even if there is something unappealing about structuring the first few classes in a survival skills manner, it would at least be nice to see textbooks that put learning basic skills like buying batteries or toothpaste before learning Confucian proverbs.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that every textbook I've had so far was written by native speakers of the language. I wonder if there are any textbooks out there written by people who at one point needed to learn the language, and have successfully become fluent in the language about which they are writing. Such a textbook would be useful because it would be written from the perspective of someone who knows what is and isn't important.

3) Laziness.
This last one is highly dependent upon the individual. I was fairly motivated in class, some of the others preferred to listen to their ipods, sleep, or just not attend at all. However, one thing I did not do, because it was a pain and I wasn’t willing to put in the hard work, was memorization. It is such a pain to sit there with 500 flash cards and go through each one every day. But you need to do this. Actually, you need to do more, 500 words won’t get you far, you need to memorize thousands of words. Memorizing vocabulary is just a painful reality for anyone who actually wants to buckle down and get good at a new language. If you are willing to do this, than any program or textbook, no matter how crappy, won’t be able to hold you back. I tried to go the easy route, thinking that by watching a lot of subtitled movies/anime etc and thinking about the words, I would somehow slowly catch on to what the words mean.

I don’t want to say that watching these had no value. Listening to a language is also incredibly important. One thing watching movies and anime did is help me recognize words much faster, and as they are actually said. My ability to comprehend the language has increased greatly. However, watching cartoons did not add much to my vocabulary.

So, I guess the point of this post is that if you really want to learn another language, you can't neglect the hard work of memorization. I just realized this, and so the last week I’ve been going through my old textbooks of both Japanese and Chinese and making flash cards. The texbooks don't contain the most useful words, however, so I’ve also been listening to language podcasts from come as well (incredibly excellent if you are learning Mandarin) because they teach you how the language is really spoken, and put you in many day-to-day scenarious. The whole pod-cast thing for languages is actually a really great idea, if you are currently trying to learn a language I would suggest finding a website that has podcasts for your language.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


So, yesterday evening I went to a small discussion/debate at my church. It was a little different than I was expecting. I was hoping there would be a lot of people there, with people debating in front so I wouldn't have to get involved. Unfortunately, when I got there I found out it was a small-group style. There were about 8 or 9 people there, 2 of whom I knew (from the Chrisitan grad group).

The topic of discussion was the recent movie "Expelled." Expelled was a movie not so much about the idea of intelligent design, but the "academic persecution" suffered by proponents of intelligent design. The movie is basically a string of interviews, interspersed with clips of WWII Nazi and concentration camp footage.

Jared, (God bless the guy, he's virtually unflappable) was the moderator, and sympathetic to the movie. Most of the group that were present were not members/attenders of the church, and highly unsympathetic to the goal of the movie. The guy who ended up being the most vocal came for the sole purpose of discrediting every interview in the movie. He was very worked up about it. A biology professor was also present. They sort of tag-teamed throughout the night, taking pot shots at the movie.

Actually, this is very interesting. In pop culture, the Christian fundamentalist, young earth creationist stereotype is a zealous, un-reasonable person. The scientist, however, is calm, reasoning, intellectual, and able to approach questions in an "objective" manner. However, in this particular instance the biology teacher could hardly keep a level voice, and the other fellow was making dangerously violent motions with his arms the whole night. He must have been exhausted by the time he left. Ironically, the fellow with the levelest head was Jared, who is also a young earth creationist.

I would like to say the discussion was interesting, but unfortunately, it was mostly a "loudest person has the floor" type situation, in this case being the prof and they other fellow (I'm not really sure what he does). The intellectual jousting that peppered the "discussion" was irritating because people refused to be consistent with what they were saying. I didn't get so far as proposing any idea all night, simply because I kept asking people to clarify what they were saying. I might post more on this later, I'm at the Holleman's house right now missing out on some discussion of sorts

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Finally updated links on the side. Hope I didn't forget anyone


An interesting fact about State College [yes, interesting. "Surely you jest" I imagine you saying.] is that the official birthplace of Memorial Day is a small town a couple miles south of here called Boalsburg. I even lived for a few months last year. Every year they have a festival on Memorial Day, and Tracy:

had the genius idea of getting the Christian grad students together to bust around for a while at the carnival. Isaac:

told me the night before that he'd call me about carpooling the following morning. However, with gas prices at $4 buckaroos per gallon, and a solemn decision by myself not to drive anywhere that I can bike, we ended up cycling to Boalsburg instead. I was very surprised at the large numbers of people at the fair/carnival:
(There were rides and the whole carnival thing, but they were standard issue so no photos).

After a while of wandering, Isaac and I met up with Jared, Tracy, Tracy's room mate Amanda, Ashley, a whole bunch of people from Ashley's department, as well as Jared's, Ash (PSCG coordinator guy), his wife Heather and her children.
Jared, my future room mate.

Ash and his second child (I forget her name)

(Ash's first daughter, Sarah)

Ashley and Ash's kids, uh... "frolicking"

Part of the fair is a big pie competition. After the judging, the pies are sold for $1 a piece. $1! And the pieces were huge!! I got a giant slab of apple pecan pie. I'm sampling it here. It was pretty good. I guess I've just been conditioned from upbringing to have ultra high standards for this sort of thing. But since I'm on my typical grad student diet, it tasted really excellent.

After doing this sort of thing, we headed over in a big pack to the big park where the car show and all the military equipment was.

For some reason Ashley wanted a picture of her and Tracy "gallivanting."
I took another, funnier picture of them, but Tracy said she didn't want me to post it. Oh well.

Oh yeah, before that, we watched the "Deacons of Dixyland" busts out some, uh, Dixyland on stage. This here is the president of PSU playing the washboard:
He had a very unusual expression on his face the whole time.

And before getting to the military museum/car show, we were stopped by a civil war processional (apparently Memorial Day began in 1866):

Then we got to the car show. It was alright, I've never been really into cars. For someone who likes to build things and take things apart, I suppose this is sort of weird. But anyway, they had Corvettes:

Old looking cars:

Even a smart car:
[I think that's a smart car. Is that a smart car?]

But the most interesting...
A DELOREAN! I checked for a flux capacitor. There wasn't any.

Actually, of all the vehicles on the field this would be my ride of choice.

Then, we sat under a giant tree. Well, everyone else did.

Hmmm about this time, everyone went their separate ways, & Isaac and I biked back. We were really hungry, so we thought we'd go to chopsticks express. Unfortunately, because of Memorial Day they were closed. Hmmm. Aren't they Chinese, though? Hmmm. Still feeling the urge to chi some fan, we headed over to the Big Bowl, (or, "da beeg bough" as my excellent Chinese professor used to call it). Closed. Ok, fine, we decided to head over to the Cozy Thai. A little more expensive, but hey it's a holiday. Closed. All the American restaurants are open on Memorial Day, but the foreign restaurants are closed?! We ended up going to Subway.

I was burnt to a crisp and wanted to just veg for a while. Isaac still wanted to hang out with people. So I ended up vegging and he headed over to wherever John and Ruth were. Then, later that evening, we had a barbecue at Ruth's place. I normally prefer ground beef to meat factory floor sweepings but for some reason that night I only ate hot-dogs:
They were all laughing at me for taking a picture of a hot dog for some reason.

Tracy has a Wii, which is good enough reason too hang out at her place, but this time we just sat around for a couple hours and laughed at each other for various reasons. It was actually really fun. John and I threw an uncooked hot dog at each other. It might have started because he claimed his home brewed ice tea was better than the $1.99 gallon of pre-sweetened store-brand ice tea that I brought. Meanwhile, Jared the walking weather tower was making various forecasts for the next few days, Jen's talking about her exploits in Germany during the world series and Isaac's trying to convince people to eat his steamed Broccoli.

After that, we headed over to Ash and Heather's, where we played this power-grid game that Jared had been insisting the whole day was really interesting. I'm not a huge board-gamer, (though I love Risk), and wasn't expecting much. But it turned out to be a boatload of fun.
Actually, that's probably just cause I won. Heh heh heh.

Anyway, that was my great day yesterday.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

kono goro

haven't had a whole lot to say/update my blog about recently, but here's some miscellaneous things that have been happening

1) Jacob&Marian got back from Venezuala, Jacob wrote some observations on his blog that were interesting. I especially agree with his last point

2) Watched American Idol for the first time last night. Well, because of the eye-rolling technically I can probably only say "I watched half of American idol for the first time".

3) Played Guitar Hero III on a friends Wii. creative.

4) While I was at Lowe's trying to find parts for a gizmo this morning, I was missing a party for one of my committee members who was promoted to a full tenure status professor. I wish I had a rewind-erase button for my life.

5) Got really pissed off at someone today because they were asking me for help with something that they clearly should have known how to do. Um... Marston? Aren't you glad God isn't so impatient with you? Darn it, this means I'm gonna have to apologize.

6) Set something straight that I wanted to for... um... ok how long has it been... 1 year plus 4 years plus 4 for college, then another 3 after that... 12 years?

7) Met a friend at the airport at 5AM. Returning to Korea and not coming back. I was previously angry with this person, but that completely dissipated, things were fixed, and it ended up being a really good thing.

8) Watched everyone in the office nearly faint when they walked into the lab that morning and saw me already there and working.

9) Stumped every professor I've talked to with the strange results I'm getting on my apparatus downstairs.

10) Read that "kono goro" translates into English "these days" according to a common textbook, thus explaining the high useage in a whole lot of emails from days past

11) Realized that you can't actually learn a language just by watching subtitled TV programs. It was worth a shot though...

Hmmm and more things, but they are pretty mundane, like, bringing my Hulusi to work but not playing it even once, having a strange hunch about the phase response reported by this array-evaluation code I'm working on, debugged the phase error, made some pretty graphs, built a strange thing out of PVC, still not sure what it really does but I'll figure it out tomorrow, um... bought some tasty looking sausage, and cereal, ripped a big hole in my jeans, decided I need them patched but that I'm not the one to do that, and other stuff along those lines. 12:40 is my cue to go home, I took some pictures recently of a PSCG outing, (highlights include Dan jumping over people), here's to hoping I'll post some later this week, actually here's more to hoping that Jacob will post some photos of Venezuela on his blog...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Stages of disaster.

Physical need
Stomach. Grumbling. Hungry.

Vending machine... wasn't there a nice looking pastry-ish thing in there last time I walked by? Hmmm... approximately 15% bigger than everything else available for a buck. Hmmm yes... there it is... Oishii sooooooo....

I ROOCKK!!! I have a dollar!!!! What's the button... F4? Yes... F4... just a few seconds... only a few more seconds... hunger, sayonara! HA HA HA

YOU FOOL! F6!! It was F6 not F4!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGHH. WHY??!? I'm HUNGRY!!! ok.... ok... recoup here. I had to have gotten something... even if it wasn't that... delicious looking ... whatever. What did I get...?

WHAT?!?! a chocolate POP TART??? No. That can't be. That's the absolutely worst thing that could have happened to me. Heh heh. Can't be true. Right? Probably just need to [bang] rock this [bang] [crash] vending machine and see if my [wham] real order comes out...

I HATE chocolate pop tarts!! Why? WHY???? Of all teh flavors they're the worst... THIS is the worst. I'm HUNGRY and all I have is a CHOCOLATE POP TART. This sucks. EVERYTHING SUCKS.

Well, urgh... it's true I hate chocolate pop tarts, and just thinking of the texture of the fake marshmellows compressed inside makes me so sick I feel like vomiting. But the stomach is rumbling, the void must be filled. "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius, will you remember to pay the debt?"

The colors... look... so many... pretty... colors... and my pistonphone - why is it moving so slowly? Why is everything moving so slowy? I thought I had it set to 25 Hz, wait, it still is... what's wrong with this place... ?