Hyperpolyglot help

One of the things that I’ve become increasingly more fascinated with (and have been fascinated with since as long as I can remember) is the question of how fastest (and most efficiently) to learn a language to a basic level.  By basic level I mean well enough so that your next step would be to study intermediate language learning material in that language: you’ve mastered the alphabet, the phonemes (but not all of the conversation speed phonetic change “rules”), all but infrequently used (or especially formal) syntactic patterns, and a vocabulary of at least 500-1000 of the most common words.  You should be able to pick up a newspaper article in that language and say what it’s about (and not be too far off).  You should be able to complete simple everyday tasks that require speaking and listening in that language.

When I was fresh out of grad school (mid ’90s), I remember discovering a company that specialized in quick language learning through reading.  They had a neat program that had translated mouse-overs for words, and ways to save vocabulary lists — something that we take for granted now, but was quite revolutionary back then.  The other day I was wondering if they were still around.

The company is called Transparent Language, and when I looked up their website I found that they have quite a lot more languages than they did before.  A few years after I bought some of their software, they contacted me and said that since I was one of their very early customers, they wanted to offer me some new material at a big discount.  I declined only because I was mainly interested in Japanese then, but they didn’t have that yet (they were working on encoding issues).

But now they have all kinds of languages!

I’m bringing this to your attention because I see they have something new — free Byki language software for more than 70 languages.  This is flashcard software with audio pronunciations.  The free flashcard decks that you get are pretty basic (which of course is great for getting a quick introduction to a new language), and also there are user-made decks available.  The interface is simple and very utilitarian.

I usually use Anki for all of my language flashcard needs.  However, I’m impressed enough with Byki that I can certainly see myself using it here and there on my laptop.  Anki requires a fairly high level of computer literacy; whenever I’ve had students use it, I’ve always had to set it up for them.  Byki is much more user-friendly.  You will see on their website that if you want to pay for more, you can get quizzes and assessments and more decks if you like.

Anyway, I’m very glad to see that this company has survived and developed into something cool.  They even have a nerdy soft spot for endangered languages!

10 responses to “Hyperpolyglot help”

  1. Lao Lo says:

    Your readers might also be interested in the MDBG reader/dictionary that allows the translation of Chinese characters on your computer screen.

    R.Taubman, Ottawa, Canada

  2. TS says:

    “how fastest (and most efficiently) to learn a language to a basic level. …. You should be able to pick up a newspaper article in that language and say what it’s about (and not be too far off).”

    Well, which one is it, picking up the language to a basic level, or being able to read? For Chinese languages, these things don’t mix well: if you want to learn the basics fast (how to have basic everyday conversations), the first step is to forget about the dang characters for the moment. You can learn those later. I have seen so many people who never learned to speak because their teacher required them to memorize each character before moving on to the next chapter. So, I suspect the best strategy depends on the language.

    But thanks for the pointer to the software. Unfortunately, Mandarin is the only Chinese language they seem to support.

    • Kellen says:

      I’m not sure they’re that different. In think for the definition of ‘basic level’ given here, reading is an obviously necessary component. I speak survival Korean but I’d be hard pressed to make sense of anything I read beyond being able to sounding out the letters. I’d never claim to meet the requirements for claiming ‘basic proficiency’. I think it’s not the ability to read every word and understand each character. Instead it’s just getting the gist of the article.

      In my own opinion, the issue that’s bigger than characters when it comes to the newspaper is the fact that so few articles are written about things about which we’d otherwise talk in our normal everyday lives. If i were to make any change to the sentence which you’ve quoted, I’d swap out ‘newspaper’ with ‘magazine’.

    • My apologies for not excluding languages that use Chinese characters. In most languages, orthography and pronunciation are linked, and it’s those languages that I was intending to refer to. With Chinese (and Japanese) it just can’t be like that (unless you are only including pinyin and kana).

      See David Moser’s excellent article about Chinese reading, especially the 4th section.

      So excluding languages that don’t have alphabets (or alphabet-like writing systems), my idea of a basic level of proficiency in a language (ready for intermediate study) is that you should be able to pick up a newspaper article (and yes there are going to be a lot of big words that you don’t know) and say what it’s about (by recognizing some important keywords, etc) and not be too far off. This doesn’t mean you would never be wrong.

  3. Syz says:

    I’m with TS: picking up a newspaper in Mandarin and having some clue about the content is waaaay more advanced than I think Randy is talking about. Kellen may be in that bizarre class of savants who think characters “just make sense”, but for me, it was a slog that continued long after I could hold a passable conversation.

    • Kellen says:

      Nah I totally agree that newspapers are more advanced in Mandarin. I can read them in Spanish without too much trouble but mostly that’s because the words are close enough to English, Italian, Latin or Portuguese. In a non-Germanic, non-Romance language, I doubt I’d do very well with a newspaper. I chalk that up to the class of vocabulary that appears in newspapers. It’s not stuff I use to talk to people. But, I think if we said magazines instead of newspapers, I think it would change a lot.

      Im not sure what you mean by “just make sense”, but I do think they do make some sense.

  4. Chris Waugh says:

    I’ve been kinda thinking about learning a bit of Mongolian for a while now, so downloaded their Mongolian flashcards. I was a little disappointed that they use Cyrillic script, but hey, at least I know the script already. However, simply learning lists of words isn’t going to help much. Must try and find some grammar, too.

    • Randy Alexander says:

      I think the cyrillic makes it much easier. The vertical script (this is my impression) doesn’t seem to be as explicit as cyrillic. It seems that more than one cyrillic character maps on to one vertical character.

      I’ve started asking people from different countries to bring me back basic language learning books for me and was lucky to get one in Mongolian (cyrillic). It also came with a CD. Mongolian has to be the best candidate for sounding like Black Speech that I’ve ever come across.

  5. chris h says:

    It just depends how much time you spend on either system and if you have enough opportunities to practice, I know for one that learning french and english was way easier for the exposure was far greater than learning japanese for example. I doubt that there is only one miracle system to learn a language fast, it is a combination of motivation, exposure and pure hours put in to memorise the vocabulary and use the grammar.

    • Randy Alexander says:

      I don’t think there is a miracle system per se, but having been exposed to thousands of Chinese students who have studied English for 10 years or more and can’t put an utterance together correctly, I think that there are lots of things that can go wrong in language study. Even in my own first attempts at foreign languages, I failed miserably.

      The brute force method can be effective — Li Yang is an example of a successful student in this method. But while it worked well enough for him, it didn’t for most of his “students” (mostly people who purchased his materials). I believe this is because his materials emphasize quantity over quality. His hard work paid off — he can now speak English at a near native speaker level, but I think that he worked too hard and that he was lucky.

      Of course, hard work is necessary in language learning; nobody can deny that. But what are the minimum necessary tools? What is the minimum necessary knowledge?

      If there are grossly inefficient ways to learn a language, then there must conversely be highly efficient ones. Perhaps the “most” efficient way varies for each individual, but starting out with the right stuff — clear explanations of how the syntax works, recordings of the speech, explanations of how the speech is articulated, lots of real examples of how the language is used (organized in a logical, step-by-step presentation), vocabulary lists ordered by frequency, etc, — will make a huge difference.

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