Category Archives: Spanish

Best language learning site for me: WordChamp

I really like WordChamp to help me with learning foreign languages. It was good for me when I was learning French. It is good to me now that I am learning Spanish. And the last couple of months it was getting better nearly on a weekly basis.

That did not used to be the case. I looked at them just over a year ago and they had some interesting ideas, but the best features (like Web Reader) were for paying customers only. They received a reasonably good review from Calico Journal (Computer Assisted Language Instruction COnsortium), but the interface was a bit busy with trying to be all things to everybody. You also had to be online and on their website to use it.

How things changed. Everything is now free. Interface has been simplified, so most of the time only the language you learn and the language you know show up. They have added downloadable version of the audio from the flash card lists. They have even released a Firefox plugin, so you can use their translation while browsing the web, rather than always starting from their own website. Finally, to notify people of all these exciting new features, they setup an RSS feed.

And here is the clincher, they have contacted me directly to talk about the latest and greatest feature they just released: developer/reader API. I was planning to test the API already (I saw it in RSS feed notification), but being contacted about it made me feel like an important A-list’er. They knew my email because I submitted site feeback, error reports and suggestions to WordChamp before, but usually all these reports are one way.

The thing is – I have submitted feedback to other companies plenty of times before, but rarely got even a confirmation back. With WordChamp, I received a personal email from the company’s founder with thoughtful commentary on features and bugs I talked about. In fact, I think at least one of my suggestions has since been implemented. This is what I call listening to the users.

As it was, I was going to test the reader API anyway, but now I will make sure it gets done soon. I will need to dig a bit into the internals of my blogging software, but it is doable.

Now, all this does not mean that I think WordChamp is the best thing from the sliced bread. I still think there is a lot of room for improvement. I would really (really, really) like the flashcard quiz interface to use Leitner spaced repetition system. I think there is a lot more that can be done with podcasts. I believe adding stories (audio+text) with a bit of computational linguistics magic would take the service to new heghts. But – even without all that – I still like WordChamp more than hundreds of other sites I have reviewed and I recommend it to language students (and teachers) any chance I get.

I am really looking forward to new features WordChamp will bring in and I will certainly keep them notified if I will notice a problem or think of a feature they could add. And if you haven’t tried it yet, do!

International Mother Language Day

Сегодня – Международный день родного языка. Мой родной язык – Русский! Я горд моим родным языком даже если я не использую его каждый день.

Today – 21st of February – is the International Mother Language Day. My mother language is Russian! I am proud of my mother language, even if I do not get to use it every day.

Apart from Russian, I know reasonably good English and have dabbled in French, Esperanto and – now – Spanish. I feel that starting from Russian, many other European/Germanic languages are easier, because Russian has a very complex grammar system with its conjugation and cases, tenses and moods. This helps with relating features of other languages to the examples in the one(s) I already know. This, of course, does not help at all with pronunciation, which for me is now atrocious in whichever language I speak.

Studying Spanish, I do find omitted pronouns in Spanish, but even that has its equivalence in Russian. Unfortunately, there is no equivalence for conflating conjugation for he/she and you (él/ella y usted). Using accents to differentiate words is a bit confusing too (él y el, qué y que). I am sure as I progress in Spanish, these things will become the second (3rd? 5th?) nature, but for now they do grate a bit.

I find Esperanto the easiest language of all, which is not very surprising, since it was specifically designed to be really easy. If I had to design a language from scratch, I don’t think I would be able to come up with anything significantly simpler than Esperanto, while still addressing the real use.

The podcasts I listen to and how BusinessWeek got it wrong

Is Podcasting revolution over before it began? BusinessWeek seems to think so and quotes Pew Internet & American Life Project’s statistics. The topic is also generating some buzz in the blogosphere, with BusinessWeek’s interpretation being gleefully accepted by some and thoughtfully rejected by others.

I believe into podcasting‘s future because it is here already for me. I have a 40 minute walk to work each day, so I have over six hours of content a week I can consume. And being quite busy during days, nights and weekends, I try to use that walk time constructively as well. I have been listening to the podcasts from before they were called that and, so, had some time to get my bearings. And they are basically aligned with what the concept of Long Tail teaches us.

Strangely enough, BusinessWeek did not even mention any of the concepts that are important for me and my podcast consumption. That’s how I know the article is missing many points. It is not really unexpected, as it takes a while to get past the beginner’s understanding and actually see the real depth of the concept.

My current collection is at 25 podcasts and I have discarded over time probably twice that number. Less than a third of the podcasts on the list would be considered even vaguely popular by normal measures, the rest are plainly hyper-specialized to my needs and interests.

Over time, I had dutifully sampled and eventually discarded Adam Curry, Dave Winer and Gillmor Gang podcasts. They sporadically have some interesting content, but so infrequently that I find myself frustrated with all the filler. Gillmor Gang specifically I have given 3 or 4 tries over years, but I think they were most interesting during their ITConversations’ days.

I also don’t have any popular radio podcasts. I find the latest news to be easiest to consume in an aggregated or RSS format on my computer. That way if a news item is interesting, I can follow up on its references or setup keywords alert for the future notifications. Podcasts, in my mind, are much more suitable for content that has already undergone some thought process by its producer. I know that for some people, the reasoning is different but just as valid (for them).

I break my subscriptions into roughly 5 categories:

  • Technical News – In my industry (IT) it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. Without these podcasts I feel that I would not notice what is coming down the line until it would be too late and I would be stuck maintaining Cobol-equivalent systems forevermore.
  • Trend watching – Many interesting things are happening in the world if one just happens to be in the right place at the right time. These podcasts put me into that place and do it very early in the ideas’ lifecycles: somewhere between a cutting edge and an early adoption stage. I may not have time to participate, but sometimes the knowledge I get allows me to leapfrog the conventional process. For example, I have been on a cheap Voice-over-IP service (Lingo) for nearly two years and saved myself money and hustle of dealing with Verizon and its ilk.
  • Learning new skills in a background – I may not have time to allocate several active hours a week on a useful, but not currently essential skill, but podcasts in these category allow me to learn something through osmosis over time. Later, when I would need those skills, I would have already absorbed enough to be a very quick learner.
  • Language learning – I am studying Spanish now and before that I was learning French and Esperanto and there is always some improvement I could do to my English. These podcasts provide additional learning (or meta-learning) material. Some of them are also good edutainment.
  • Entertainment – Some podcasts are just funny or interesting or have my friends in them. They round up the collection nicely.

My full list is available publically, but here is the breakdown by the categories as I see it:

Are there more podcasts I would have liked to listen to? Certainly. I would love a podcast on computational linguistics. At the moment, even the bloggers on the topics are extremely rare.

I would also love a podcast on Scottish Country Dancing. There is just so much one could do with that. I know that at least one person have thought of it and given up as unsustainable, which is a real pity. I am tempted to start one myself just to prove her wrong.

Finally, I think there is a way to make a better language-learning podcast/video cast than the ones I found so far. I have mentioned some of the ideas to at least one person in a position to do that. Nothing happened yet, but such things take time. I will wait a while and, if nothing happens, will blog it here instead. I don’t mind prividing competitive advantage to a company that deserves it through good service, but will not sit on the ideas forever either.

To summarise the long post, I think that podcasting has legs and will succeed in the content niches that appeal to people based on their individual interests and needs. There is a lot of fluff and junk podcasts on the web at the moment, but it is getting better and, as with blogging, the absolute number of interesting podcasts is growing fast. It takes some time to find good content, but it really pays off in a long run.