Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Language Acquisition

Moving from Canada to live in Japan exposed me a lot to issues of acquiring and using language.

In Canada, Japanese is considered an exotic, difficult, but cool-to-know language. Often people would stop me while reading Japanese and exclaim "how on earth can you read that?"

In Japan by contrast, Japanese would always complement me on my Japanese, regardless of how poorly I was speaking. The Japanese believe their language is hard to learn (a common enough bias, after all they don't know how they learned it), and they know from experience that English is "hard". They naturally assume its because all language acquisition is hard.

(Aside: a joke among expats: "How can you tell when your Japanese is getting good? When people stop complimenting you on it!")

The problem with Japanese and learning English, is not that English, or any other language, is hard to learn. The problem is with the Japanese and the way they try to learn it.

They approach foreign things as one might approach alien things: with a certain distance born of trepidation; and not without a little touch of fear. Japanese culture teaches that it is polite to be reserved, and that verbal outbursts could land you in real hot water.

They are also taught that since speakers are circumspect, listeners hold the burden of interpreting the meaning of those choice words, and must act without need for further clarification.

The result is an intolerable internal state for many Japanese people; marked by a sensation of stress owing to the conflict between the demands of society, and their individual failure to meet those demands in a foreign language. This angst can be avoided in education by sticking to completely sanitized forms of learning, specifically wrote memorization of vocabulary and grammar being the most common teaching method throughout Asia.

When I was there, I tried to explain this to some of my exasperated Japanese friends when they complained how hard English was. I would say, "No, no; you just have to adjust your strategy to include more human-human practise! Just speak and listen often! And don't care about making mistakes!"

Another problem I found was that Japanese always wanted to learn English in little convenient to chew pieces -- an hour once a week -- after work as part of an involuntary training program at the local English Conversation school. They'd spend .5hr turning their brain to English mode, then just when they'd have succeeded, the next 23.5hrs were spent forgetting all about it.

Another frequent recommendation that was fairly abhorrent to most inquisitors was the suggestion to spend a month overseas. I never understood how one could spend so much time and effort on consistently proven ineffective methods, then balk at such a simple, proven, effective ones. No one had ever heard of "language immersion!"

Now living in Finland, its such a shock to me how it is that so many Northern Europeans are so good at English. One might be able to argue that Swedish and Norwegian are distant relatives of English, and that's why its easy for them. But there is no arguing that Finnish is any way related to English -- and yet the Finns are astoundingly good at it.

If you ask them why it is, they'll tell you, "Because we are only [4] million people. No one is ever going to bother to learn [Finnish], so we learn English. And its not just in the schools. Almost all of our (imported) television is in English, with subtitles."

In other words, from youth they are exposed to a lot of English speaking, with Finnish translations. And in time, probably years, it becomes easier to listen to the (native) English than read the Finnish. Repetitive exposure.

I am not sure how really "revolutionary" this study is, since it just validates what I knew already from experience. However perhaps if it gets more exposure, it will quiet the old-school thinkers who actually think text-books and memorization will ever help. Or that one can learn a language in "X minutes per day!" Or speaking two languages to a (my) child will only "confuse" them (her).

Bottom line: if you don't indent to spend a significant amount of time surrounded by a language, you should not be surprised that its not sticking, or its "hard". That includes the majority of Japan.

What was a bit of a surprise to me, now validated by the above study, is that exposure to a lot of TV-with-subtitles appears to be enough (along with basic grammar in schools) to attain a surprising level of proficiency.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Never Buy Salsa Again

One of the best part of visiting Mexico was the food. After trying the local dishes prepared as they locals enjoy them, I don't think there is any way I could ever buy "Old El Paso" again. The fresh stuff is just so much better in every way. I highly recommend you don't ever either.

Salsa Mexicano

  • Fresh Tomatoes and Onions in 3:1 ratio
  • Fresh Cilantro
  • Fresh Lime
  • Jalapeño
  1. Dice Tomatoes finely
  2. Dice Onions finely
  3. Add chopped Cilantro, Jalapeño, and Lime juice to taste
  4. Store in fridge for flavours to mix at least 1 hour
It's best to peel and seed the Tomatoes, and chop everything by hand. A food processor will tend to mush things, leaving some pieces too large and some too small, and the salsa will lose its character.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Finally a work-related post -- about Windows?!

I decided to force myself to make a technology blog. Its because I have made a very important discovery.

For a long time I've been a linux user working in a world where windows is overly common. Luckily though, I have often been able to make the argument to my bosses that cross-platform development is important, and that free-software tools are high quality and save much time and effort.

What often stymied my noble efforts however, was the pain in the arse, not in making cross-platform code, which is a problem well attended to over the decades, but the trouble of getting something to build on all platforms.

You have autotools on the unix side, Visual Studio solution-files on the windows side, and well-meaning cmake in the middle, with a down-trodden, lonely, underused look on his schoolboy face.

This is issue is oppressing me as we speak at work, with us trying to integrate the powerful and flexible Telepathy messaging framework, and its companion libraries GStreamer and D-Bus. All of it portable C. All of it buried under mounds of steaming autotools.

For the past week we have been doing the slop-work of trying to reverse-engineer the intended build process codified in the dead languages that make up autotools, and re-implement them in cmake in the hopes that it might be accepted upstream, and one day be liberated from the shackles of 1987.

It's not Happy.

And neither was I until I stumbled across this little gem. Long story short: Fedora 11 will ship with a fully functional windows cross compiler.

Autoconf-based programs can generally be cross-compiled by doing:

yum install mingw32-*
./configure --host=i686-pc-mingw32

Project page here.

That however means that the binary will not be build with VC++, rather GCC, which may cause some windows programmers to cringe. I'd like to learn just how much performance is really lost. I also wonder what sort of ABI boogie-men are lurking.

To summarize

1. Portable code - Done
2. Cross-platform build system (with no need for windows license!!) - Check
3. Broad binary compatibility - Future is Hazy

Sunday, January 11, 2009