うっす. So, it’s been a while since I posted one of these, but anyway here we are all the way at #10. I’m going to try to keep this one short (I’m not just saying that!) because these suuuuuuuuuuuck to edit afterwards. Actually, they’re a lot better since I started using Microsoft Word a word processor from a certain major software manufacturer. But still, I’m tired of ending up with sentences like “you nee’ a use SRS-lah. I’s so simpo!” in long posts. OK, here we go!
A lot has changed. A lot. And I haven’t been telling you jack. Not because I’m a bad person, but because I don’t like to talk about things I’m not sure about. Because, generally, one of two things happens when you do this:
a. People get too excited, try it, but if it doesn’t work (since it wasn’t fully tested), then they feel bad, and maybe they tell you that you suck.
b. People shoot you down before you’ve even tried it, and (if you’re delicate like me) it kills your will to try, and we all know that not trying is the source of all failure. But I digress.
This “not talking until the doing has been done” thing is one of the main reasons why I didn’t put up AllJapaneseAllTheTime.Com at the start of my Japanese journey. I left it till the end, when I had nothing left to prove as such, and any barbs directed at my person, real or imagined, would be functionally useless, since they cannot negate the simple fact that I have near-native Japanese ability now. You know, kind of like how only people who don’t have money are hurt by people thinking they don’t have money? Or something to that effect…I’m sure you understand what it’s like – the Internet is full of the most negative, demoralizing, borderline-to-overtly racist crap when it comes to East Asian languages, and normal, sensitive (see Fig. 1) people are easily harmed by it.
By the way, the other main reason is that making a website used to be annoying. Blogs have been around for a while, but I honestly thought that blogs were just for keeping diaries for a limited audience because that’s all that people used to do with them. That is, until I saw someone using a web log other than for logging, with articles actually written to be read by non-insiders, and that changed the game for me. Speaking of logging, Momoko encouraged me to keep a log of my Cantonese progress, even if I don’t actually post on it for a while. I am more or less doing that.
But you didn’t come here to hear that kind of beanbag philosophy (“dewd, like, isn’t it amazing how..”), back to the article.
Crap…what was I gonna say. OK, first stop is Anki and Text-to-Speech (TTS).
Text-to-Speech (and Anki)
In Chinese Project Notes # 8, I discussed changes I had made to my SRS entry format. Based on the effects of those changes, I have made even more alterations. Some I will discuss in this article, some may have to wait for later; there’s seriously that much going on.
First, why did I make these alterations? Well, I discovered that while the Chinese Project Notes # 8 changes were definitely a step forward for my handwriting – I can produce hanzi/kanji from memory with great speed and accuracy and exactly when I want them – the changes have not (yet?) given me the aural benefits that I had expected. My Chinese writing advanced to pwnage level, but my listening comprehension was not being all that it could be.
To the chase I am cutting. My calculations indicate that at this time it would not be economical to add free sound support for everyone on KhatzuMemo. Plus, Anki is a really good SRS, so why not try it out, right? That’s what I did. After tons of pride-swallowing, trial, and error, my Cantonese (and some Mandarin) SRS items essentially consist of:
Here’s an example:
你去邊? [Text of sentence: this is what you have to write out, given the audio]
你去哪裡? [Translation of sentence, if necessary]
Néih heui bīn[Phonetic reading for clarification, if necessary]
The process is basically that I am both chorusing (or parroting, or whatever) and taking dictation at the same time. I think dictation is one of the best language-learning exercises out there in that you are connecting the verbal and written parts of a language, something that a lot of people fail to do. It’s a hybrid input-output affair that puts almost all the skills that matter on the line – you have to understand what’s being said, and you have to know how to write it out exactly correctly. Chorusing, or what I am calling chorusing, is really good, too — listening to (native) speech and imitating it. Step-by-step it goes like this:
1. Play audio (as many times as necessary).
2. Say audio.
3. Write down text, based on audio (audio may be repeated).
4. Compare my text to the correct answer.
Where do you get the audio? I use text-to-speech (TTS) software. It set me back a bit, but I like to think of it as an educational expense. The TTS software I got comes in two parts – a reader, and voices. As far as I know, you need both. My reader and voices are:
- TextAloud – the reader. It does cool things like managing text and converting it to MP3. I believe it comes with a basic, default English voice, but good voices and voices in other languages need to be purchased separately. There is a free trial version of TextAloud available here.
- Voices. I use Lily for Mandarin, Sin-Ji for Cantonese and Misaki for Japanese. I chose female voices because I found them easier to understand. Maybe it’s a high-frequency thing? Or maybe it’s just my imagination – I don’t actually know for sure. Currently, I only use the Japanese one for reading me long articles, like the ones from this site.
TTS has been around a relatively long time. Why am I only now getting into it? Well, it used to suck; it was a running joke. TTS is much better now than it was 5 years ago, and while the voices are not yet perfectly human, if you’re a beginner, they’re almost certainly much closer to perfection (accurate pronunciation) than your voice is in your target language, which is what counts. The Japanese voices are especially blowing me away [audio sample of the first paragraph of this article].
There is also something special about the nature of Chinese that drove me to TTS. Other than Bopomofo/注音符號, there are no satisfactory phonetic systems for representing Chinese. By “satisfactory”, I mean “consistent, easy-to-understand, and will lead to native-like pronunciation if followed”. Pinyin sucks. Jyutping sucks even harder. Yale Mandarin is decent. Yale Cantonese is an improvement over Jyutping but still not all the way there. I needed to know how to pronounce Cantonese without, like, balancing an equation every two seconds (because that’s what tone numbers turn life into). The tone markers had no meaning to me – I could not differentiate them – until I actually heard a lot of Cantonese. I needed to focus on what Cantonese sounds like, because that’s what matters, not some trainwreck of a Romanization system. This is what led me in the direction of TTS. The results are good so far – one Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong on Skype accused me of lying about not being Chinese, despite my insistence that “it’s not that good…yet”, so I had to borrow a friend’s webcam (see Fig. 2), and then the Skype guy made me undress. It just goes to show that watching and/or listening to Cantonese dubs of American cartoons 18 hours a day doesn’t not have an effect. And, yes, I do randomly find Cantonese speakers on Skype to talk to. I learn a lot from them if I shut up. Skype chat records are automatically saved, so you can go back later and sentence-pick, and also to absorb the corrections you no doubt asked for.
One annoying problem with the Chinese TTS voices I use is that they cannot pronounce certain characters correctly or at all, especially ones used in written colloquial Cantonese, even some commonly used ones. Not only that, but they have no “learning” ability – you can’t “teach” (customize) them to pronounce certain things correctly. Misaki does have such ability; she can even be “taught” intonation…I look forward to a customizable Cantonese voice. At any rate, TTS is still a great tool, and I imagine many people could benefit from using it.
Note – you could try just cutting sound samples by yourself instead of using TTS. I have tried this; it’s good but it has its limitations – it takes time to do and it obviously won’t have the same vocabulary range as TTS. I primarily use TTS, but a mix of TTS and manual sound-clipping seems like it would be a great combination.
Cantonese: What’s Up With That?
As you may be aware, Cantonese has been “on my radar” for quite some time. When I made the decision to learn it, I was already focusing on learning Mandarin. The reasonable thing to do, and what I initially chose to do, was to continue doing Mandarin until my Mandarin got really, really good.
So I started building a Mandarin immersion environment. That involved getting Mandarin dubs of my favorite American cartoons — stuff like 蝙蝠俠/Batman, 飛天少女驚/Powerpuff Girls, almost all the Disney/Pixar movies. As it turns out, almost all of these DVDs had a Cantonese track as well. Occasionally I would switch to the Cantonese track for laughs — it sounded so funny!
Anyway, this “funny-sounding” language or dialect started to grow on me. The Bruce Lee effect and the fact that (until recently) the Chinese that most non-Chinese people heard was in fact Cantonese, certainly played a part. Cantonese is even more “magical”, more BS-ed about, more Orientalized, more feared, more hyped than Japanese; this, I am sure, tickles my reverse-BS glands.
So it got to the point that I was just trying to “get through” Mandarin in order to get to what I really wanted to do – Cantonese…After much, much, much, deliberation and gnashing of teeth, I decided to go all Cantonese all the time; Momoko had gotten fed up of hearing me whine and worry compare and contrast. I continue to learn token amounts of Mandarin out of a feeling of necessity, no, duty, even. But I do Cantonese out of love and therefore Cantonese gets all my time now. If Mandarin and Cantonese are in danger of drowning, and I can only save one, Cantonese gets saved every time. There is so much Cantonese playing in my house that Momoko sometimes randomly says things like “開開心心”/heppy, whether or not she understands them. Repetition will do that.
Everyone who reads this site is incredibly good-looking and positive. And that helps. In fact, most of my fears and doubts are self-induced. But anyway, to keep me from sinking into fear, doubt and I-can’t-do-this-ism, I have made myself what I call a “Victory Calendar”. Wait, before I tell you about the calendar, let me just say this. I finally understand the sheer disbelief that I sometimes read from people who read this site. Because the method explained on these pages is so simpo. Just DO it. It’s THERE. You CAN. It’s so simpo that it would seem that anyone could do it, right? And anyone can. But if it’s so simple, why isn’t everyone doing it? Why are there people who have been living in Japan for 20 years and can’t even read hearmegana? Can’t even write one kanji?
Because, it’s just like Jim “the Rohnster” Rohn said – “the things that are easy to do, are easy not to do”. It is just as easy to eat fruit as to eat a candy bar. Just as easy to watch Powerpuff Girls in Cantonese as to…not watch Powerpuff Girls in Cantonese. What the Rohnster is saying is that the results, the achievements (or lack thereof) of our lives are the sum total of tiny, “insignificant” decisions. “Surely it couldn’t hurt just this once”, they say. “Even Jesus drank alcohol”, they say. “You need to let your hair down a little bit once in a while; it’s just not healthy to be so healthy”, they say. We kid ourselves with these little lies that seem to make sense, that seem so reasonable, and then someone comes who has been making the right little decisions for a long time, and we call them “talented”, we say they were “lucky”, it was “in their blood”, or maybe we outright accuse them of lying. Expletives cannot describe how angry that makes me – so angry that I can’t even get angry at it…because arguing with people who refuse to see sense only makes you stupider.
Anyway, back to the calendar, it’s basically a list of 18 months of days (540 days in total), dating from when I started Cantonese. Every day has a space for me to evaluate my SRSing, listening and reading, respectively. My task is merely to honestly evaluate and record whether or not I did my SRS reps, added SRS items, read some Cantonese/Chinese material and listened to Cantonese for the greater part of my waking (and maybe even sleeping) hours. X is “did nothing”, circle is “did it fully” and triangle is “half-done”. Doing SRS reps and additions takes 90 minutes or so, listening counts as “full” when it amounts to 10-12 waking hours or more, reading is 60-90 minutes. Listening can overlap with everything else, but for my purposes I consider SRSing and reading to be separate, if related.
I’m noticing that whether or not I do/live/play Cantonese has nothing to do with how busy I actually am, and far more to do with how organized I am that day. In fact, on my “perfect” Cantonese days (all circles), I have been berry, berry busy with other commitments and projects. Also, keeping Cantonese on while I sleep really helps. For one thing, it ensures that there’s no “morning warm-up”, whereby I forget to start doing my Cantonese immersion until, like, midday. It also gets me listening during my half-awake states (like just before falling asleep and just before waking up).
The last day on the calendar is fluency. Giving my fluency a date really makes a difference; it brings it from the realm of dream to the level of an actual calendar event. Maybe you can try making your own Victory Calendar 🙂 .
Indeed, one thing that drove me to go all the way with Japanese was that I had to be ready to go to a technical career fair at the 18-month mark, where I would have job interviews in Japanese. Money had been paid, air tickets bought and a hotel room reserved, months in advance. Cash and face were on the line. Through the Victory Calendar, I am trying to bring some of that “encouragement”, and concreteness, to my Cantonese process.
That was seriously me keeping it short.[Edit: here’s a copy of my victory calendar].