Found 13 comments on HN
tokenadult · 2016-01-22 · Original thread
沒錯。After reading the fine article kindly submitted here and all the previous comments, I think I should draw on my education and life experience to comment too. I have been studying the Chinese language since 1975, my undergraduate major subject in university was Chinese language, and have I lived after university graduation in the Chinese-speaking world for two three-year stints (mid-1980s and spanning the turn of the last century). I have worked for many years as a Chinese-English translator of written texts and as a Chinese-English interpreter for official visitors to the United States. Besides learning Mandarin well enough to work as an interpreter, I have also studied other Sinitic languages, such as Taiwanese, Cantonese, and Hakka. My university studies acquainted me not only with Modern Standard Chinese but also with Literary Chinese.

The blog post kindly submitted here is by a linguist, Geoffrey Pullum, who specializes in the English language and who co-edited the most definitive grammar of the English language.[1] Pullum is not a specialist in Chinese language but he cites the numerous writings of Victor Mair,[2] who does have deep professional knowledge of the Chinese language. Simply put, the author's comments are linguistically and sociologically correct. My nieces and nephews who grew up in the Chinese-speaking world were faced with a considerably more difficult task in learning to read and write than was strictly necessary, solely because of clinging to the tradition of writing Chinese in the traditional characters rather than the alphabetical writing systems that are used EVERYWHERE in the Chinese-speaking world for initial reading instruction.

The late Y.R. Chao, an eminent Chinese linguist, made the simple point about alphabetical writing of Chinese: if one claims that alphabetical writing cannot be understood, that is equivalent to claiming that Chinese people cannot speak to one another over the telephone. But in fact Chinese people can speak to one another over the telephone just fine--I have seen it done, and I have been party of many international voice-only conversations in Chinese. See a whole book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by the late John DeFrancis,[3] a linguist who specialized in the study of the Chinese writing system, for more details.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/The-Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language...

[2] http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?author=13

[3] http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Language-Fantasy-John-DeFranci...

tokenadult · 2015-12-09 · Original thread
It says a lot about the broken sensibilities of higher education that an Historian

The author of the blog post kindly submitted here is not a historian by occupation or training. He is a linguist who specializes in the study of the English language.[1] (He is a co-author of the definitive grammar of English, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.[2]) He writes "Let me state very clearly that I don’t intend any of this in triumphalist spirit" because that is the way that all scholars trained in linguistics write about language differences: languages are not better or worse, if they are natural human languages, but just arbitrarily different in interesting ways that seem to have an arbitrary relationship to their use in human society. That includes the issue of which languages become widespread around the world and which do not--that appears to have very little to do with specific features of each language, despite some of the discussion here.

[1] http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/

http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/wikipedia_is_wrong.html

[2] http://www.amazon.com/The-Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language...

tokenadult · 2015-11-28 · Original thread
One of the great benefits of the Hacker News community compared to most online communities is that Hacker News is truly international. We are blessed here with comments by participants from all over the world, many of whom did not grow up speaking English. But English is the common language (ἡ κοινὴ διάλεκτος, as the Greeks would say) here, so learning English is an interest of many Hacker News participants.

I had to learn Chinese up to a high level of proficiency as I studied Chinese as a major subject at university, lived for three years in Taiwan in the early 1980s, and then worked for several years as a Chinese-English interpreter all over the United States. I'll try to share here some information that helped me learn Chinese as a second language after starting out as a native speaker of English, in hopes that it will help readers here learn English better.

Any two languages, even closely related languages like Spanish and Italian or standard Thai and standard Lao (and, for that matter, different regional dialects of English or of Italian) differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.[1]

But anyone learning a second language past the age of early adolescence will usually simply not hear many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the language to be learned unless the learner is very carefully trained in phonetics. Disregarding sound distinctions that don't matter in one's own language is part of having a native language (or native languages). You can't imitate what you can't even perceive, so learning to perceive the sound distinctions in the language to be learned is the crucial first step in learning a second language.[2]

For most people it is brutally hard (especially after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to notice sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is extraordinarily hard when the sound distinction marks a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. To give an example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and in Mandarin Chinese there are no such consonant clusters at the ends of syllables at all. Even worse for a Chinese person learning English, Chinese has no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs, so it is difficult for Chinese-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

If software authors who write foreign-language-learning software simply included information about the sound system of the language to be learned, such as a full chart of the phonemes in that language, with descriptions of the sounds in the standard terminology of articulatory phonetics,[3] that would be a big help to language learners. Even better would be for all language-learning materials to teach the notations needed from the International Phonetic Alphabet[4] for each language to be learned.

Language-learning books, sound recordings, and software always need to include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the language to be learned. No software program for language learning should lack pronunciation drills and listening drills like that. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That's a hard problem that needs more work.

Even before learners think about learning pronunciation, they think about learning vocabulary. But the vocabulary lessons in many language-learning materials are very poorly focused and ineffective.

The typical software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. The map is not the territory, and words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. Every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The best way to learn vocabulary in a second language is day-by-day steady exposure to actual texts (recorded conversations, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, and so on) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. The late John DeFrancis was a master teacher of Chinese, so I'll quote him on this point here. In the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of his book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, DeFrancis writes, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language.[5] It is well worth your time to make formal study of the grammar of your native language and of the language you are trying to learn, especially in materials for foreign learners.

[1] http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

[4] http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

[5] http://www.amazon.com/Soluzioni-Practical-Contemporary-Routl...

http://www.amazon.com/Modern-Italian-Grammar-Practical-Gramm...

http://www.amazon.com/Reference-Grammar-Modern-Italian-HRG/d...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

tokenadult · 2014-12-28 · Original thread
I've been developing a FAQ on language learning as this interest is mentioned on Hacker News from time to time. The article kindly submitted here mentions learning French in France by a (native?) speaker of English who had previously learned Spanish. All of those are Indo-European languages, more or less cognate with one another. I've taken on some tougher language-learning challenges over the years. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution.

I hope the FAQ information below helps hackers achieve their dreams. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

(By the way, the International Phonetic Alphabet was invented by language teachers in Europe to help native speakers of English learn French and native speakers of French learn English, so it could help the author of the article submitted to open this thread. The International Phonetic Alphabet was eventually extended to be useful for writing down any human language.) Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,

http://www.amazon.com/French-Grammar-Complete-Reference-Guid...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-French-Grammar-Glanville...

http://www.amazon.com/Mandarin-Chinese-Functional-Reference-...

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

http://www.amazon.com/English-Grammar-Students-French-Learni...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying.

A special bonus for learners of French (which I have used) is that many classic French literature books (novels, collections of short stories, collections of essays, etc.) are now in the public domain, and are available as free-of-charge ebooks. You can practice a lot of reading French with resources like that, and relearn classic tales you knew in youth. Similarly, today there is boundless free audio, for example in the form of online movies and streaming news broadcasts, in all of the major world languages. Take advantage of that as you learn.

Bonne chance. 祝

好运。

tokenadult · 2014-11-21 · Original thread
There should be a lot more information here. Because the blog post kindly shared here is just a teaser for some wordy blog posts without a lot of actionable information, I'll share my own draft FAQ about language learning in this comment. I've been developing the FAQ because an interest in learning human languages is mentioned on Hacker News from time to time. I hope the FAQ information below helps hackers achieve their dreams. As I learned Mandarin Chinese as a second language up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution.

PHONOLOGY LEARNING

For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.[1]

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.[2]

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics[3] with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.[4]

Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

VOCABULARY LEARNING

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,[5] and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

GRAMMAR AND SYNTAX LEARNING

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language, for example Modern Standard Chinese,[6] Portuguese,[7] and of course English,[8] and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying.

[1] http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

[4] http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

[5] http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

[6] http://www.amazon.com/Mandarin-Chinese-Functional-Reference-...

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

[7] http://www.amazon.com/Modern-Brazilian-Portuguese-Grammar-Pr...

http://www.amazon.com/Falar-Ler-Escrever-Portugues-Exercicio...

[8] http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

tokenadult · 2014-10-30 · Original thread
In reply, I say bravo for trying to become a better writer. And if English is not your native language, don't become discouraged too soon if your progress seems slow at first. I've been very impressed by the English writing here of some people who plainly grew up speaking some other language in a non-English-speaking country. Keep practicing, and you will become better.

For specific writing advice, I recommend the new book The Sense of Style[1] by Steven Pinker, which is about not just fussy rules of English but also about THINKING in a way that helps improve writing. I will have to practice with the ideas in that book for a long time.

For specific advice on improving English, I have some tips I've shared before here on Hacker News that other readers have liked. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying. Good luck.

[1] http://stevenpinker.com/publications/sense-style-thinking-pe...

tokenadult · 2014-08-18 · Original thread
After reading all the comments posted here till now, I see that they are almost all about foreign language learning, with few mentioning other applications of spaced repetition systems. I had better apply my own background in foreign language learning (I learned Chinese as a second language beginning at age seventeen well enough to spend most of my twenties working as a language teacher, translator, and interpreter) to letting my friends here on HN know what else is useful to do for learning a human language well.

I hope the FAQ information below helps hackers achieve their dreams. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,

http://www.amazon.com/Mandarin-Chinese-Functional-Reference-...

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying.

tokenadult · 2013-08-30 · Original thread
Learning foreign languages to high levels of communication proficiency was the first adult learning challenge I took on. I majored in Chinese at university and worked for quite a few years as a Chinese-English interpreter and translator. I'll back up what pg said with a data point from academic research. The online article "How to Become a Good Theoretical Physicist,"

http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~hooft101/theorist.html

by a Nobel laureate in physics who is a native speaker of Dutch, makes clear what the key learning task is to be a good physicist: "English is a prerequisite. If you haven't mastered it yet, learn it. You must be able to read, write, speak and understand English." On his list of things to learn for physics, that even comes before mathematics.

I like to share advice on language learning, because this topic comes up on Hacker News frequently. I hope the FAQ information below helps hackers achieve their dreams. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,

http://www.amazon.com/Mandarin-Chinese-Functional-Reference-...

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying.

tokenadult · 2013-06-30 · Original thread
The submitted article had some interesting tips, and several of the previous comments are quite good too. I've been developing a FAQ on language learning as this interest is mentioned on Hacker News from time to time. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task that most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,

http://www.amazon.com/Mandarin-Chinese-Functional-Reference-...

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying.

tokenadult · 2013-04-16 · Original thread
One point to bear in mind in discussing this issue is that not all natural human languages reach the same result in ordering adjectives. For example, speakers of Chinese (Cantonese, specifically) have to be taught English adjective order

http://www2.elc.polyu.edu.hk/cill/exercises/adjectiveorder.h...

and it is generally familiar to persons who have had a strong first-year linguistics course at a university or who have studied a modern foreign language in depth that adjective order varies from language to language. So the one thing we can be sure about here is that the grammatical sense of native speakers of English (or native speakers of Chinese, etc.) does NOT reflect some kind of underlying universal rule of human thought.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

is an expensive reference book well informed by worldwide investigation of English as it is actually written and spoken. It is a useful tool for informed discussion about the interesting issues brought up by the Stack Exchange question kindly submitted here.

tokenadult · 2013-02-03 · Original thread
Since you asked, insofar as the participle "burned" is functioning as an adjective here, it is in positive degree. The comparative degree would be "more burned," and the superlative degree would be "most burned."

This classification of adjectives by degree comes, of course, from Latin,

http://www.dl.ket.org/latin2/grammar/ch34-degofadj.htm

and English doesn't operate completely in the straitjacket of Latin grammar, but has its own very intricate grammatical rules.

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

tokenadult · 2013-01-27 · Original thread
Here's a new comment, based on the other comments that have come up in this thread now that discussion is active. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).

Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.

After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task that most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.

The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.

The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A couple years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.

I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.

The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,

http://www.amazon.com/Mandarin-Chinese-Functional-Reference-...

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying.

P.S. I'm puzzled about the pattern of upvotes and downvotes on my first comment in this thread (which was the first comment posted, when it wasn't clear whether this story would move from the new page to the main page here on HN.) I'm not aware of any factual mistakes in the first comment I posted here, which was a response to the submitted article, nor anything about it that violates the Hacker News guidelines.

dchest · 2009-04-12 · Original thread
Well, he wrote a book on this topic http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

Edit: and they're kind of shy:

"Our aim is to describe and not prescribe: we outline and illustrate the principles that govern the construction of words and sentences in the present-day language without recommending or condemning particular usage choices. Although this book may be (and we certainly hope it will be) of use in helping the user decide how to phrase things, it is not designed as a style guide or a usage manual."

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