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 Message 489 of 1317
16 March 2013 at 1:14pm | IP Logged 
tastyonions wrote:
Heh, one of the weirdest things in my experience of French
phonology is that I sometimes feel a strange urge to tap the Rs in "acquérir", but in
no other word.

I'm pleased to note that my R in chérie is no longer tapped, unless I'm really
tired. That only leaves a handful of increasingly rare phonetic contexts where I need
to fix it, and many of those are also linked to fatigue.

Weirdly, two things seemed to have helped:

1) Singing along with MC Solaar songs. He has a really nice R.
2) Watching documentaries about the history of Quebec, where R's used to be tapped and
sometimes even rolled. This helps me because it provides a really strong contrast.

jhaberstro wrote:
I saw a talk given by a developer from the Siri team, and it was
fascinating to see the lengths that they go through to get cultural references and
jokes correct for each target language. They have whole teams of linguistics and
translators devoted to making sure Siri "acts" correctly dependent on the language, and
even the region dialect that the user speaks (ie, different jokes and references for a
French-French speaker and a Canadian-French speaker).

It's not quite the same as writing software for French speakers, but still a way to
work on software while using French :-).

That's pretty cool information about Siri! One job I'd actually love would be working
on Google Translate, which involves both languages and statistics.

But at this point, what I really crave is to use my French with French-speaking
clients. I'm pretty confident that I could do standard programmer stuff in French with
no major problems at this point. (Keep in my that I've been speaking almost exclusively
French at home for over a year now.) But I'm going to need more verbal skills than many
programmers, because I also need to sell people on projects, negotiate the scope and
cost of a project, and keep my clients informed as the project progresses. This
actually requires pretty high-level verbal skills. Frankly, all this is just a bit
beyond my current limits even on my best day, unless I find a sympathetic and desperate

Still, this is a pretty good problem to have. I suppose it says something when my goals
for French are now things like, "Learn how to pitch a project to a client, and to calm
them down if they start to stress out."

Anyway, I've been crazy busy with English-speaking clients recently, and I'll be
working insane hours between now and early April. So my French goals for this month
basically boil down to "maintain my French well enough that I can undo any backsliding
in a week of fairly intense French." But having a few good months of business at the
start of the year will give me more time to look for French-speaking clients and to
worry about the DALF C1 later.

In the meantime, I picked up a box set of Ulysse 31 DVDs on, so I have
plenty of French children's sci-fi from the 80s to keep me amused. And I managed to
track down a copy of My Tailor is Rich, an official history of Assimil the
company. It's written in French, despite the English title. Oh, and will be
sending me some more BDs soon, so I can finally figure out what's up with the
mysterious sea creature in Les Mondes d'Aldébaran.

Did I mention that I have a huge amount of fun with French, and that it's totally been
worth the huge amount of time that I've invested? :-)

Edited by emk on 16 March 2013 at 2:44pm

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 Message 490 of 1317
16 March 2013 at 1:47pm | IP Logged 
Ton progrès est admirable. J'ai mis des années à atteindre ce niveau-là. T'es sûr que tu n'as pas encore le niveau C1? Bonne continuation en tout cas.
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 Message 491 of 1317
18 March 2013 at 2:46am | IP Logged 
Sterogyl wrote:
Ton progrès est admirable. J'ai mis des années à atteindre ce niveau-là. T'es sûr que tu n'as pas encore le niveau C1? Bonne continuation en tout cas.

Hélas, je ne suis pas encore à la hauteur. Dans ma vie quotidienne, je parle encore un peu lentement, et il me faut un peu plus de temps pour améliorer ma compréhension à l'oral. Heureusement, je peux lire la grande partie de choses que je croise sans problème. Donne-moi un peu plus de temps. :-)


I just got back from another fun trip to Montreal. Unfortunately, I had to spent much of my time programming, but there was time for some good conversations and a visit to a pub which sold traditional pub food, good local beer, and a number of Sri Lankan dishes. While there, I discovered a new variation on a traditional Quebec dish: poutine au curry.

This is like regular poutine, except the gravy is replaced by a really tasty curry sauce, and the fries are amazingly good. This is a brilliant idea: the world is full of sauces which are much tastier than gravy, and a good sauce transforms poutine from a dish that's fun to eat once every other year into the sort of thing that's dangerously good.

I'm rapidly getting over my occasional embarrassment with speaking French to people who are probably bilingual, or close to it. These days, I increasingly take my French for granted when interacting with people in Montreal. It's weird—I've spent much of my life within a short drive of some amazing French cities, but its only in the last year that I've been able to move through them freely.

EDIT: I was also deeply amused to learn that my wife and the other family members of her generation can still sing the theme song of Ulysse 31 all these years later. This was 19€ well spent. It's a fun kid's show from the 80s.

My tailor is rich : Assimil, 80 ans d'histoire

Did you know there's a history of Assimil, written in French?

The first and last 10 pages were pretty boring corporate hype, but the rest of the book was really interesting. Alphonse Chérel was born in the late 1800s, and traveled throughout Europe working as a private language tutor and doing other odd jobs. By the start of World War I, he spoke French, English, German, Russian and Italian. During the war, he worked as a translator, and he was wounded in Greece. Like many of us, Chérel was frequently annoyed by the language courses on the market, and had strong opinions about what the typical language learner would need in order to succeed.

The first version of Assimil was apparently a calendar, with one English lesson per day. This was followed by a small, leather-bound book starting with the famous phrase, "My tailor is rich." Even that first edition is recognizably an Assimil course.

Chérel felt it was important to have short, daily lessons that took up about 30 minutes, and which were sufficient to get people to a basic conversational level within about 6 months. So if you apply modern definitions, Assimil has been aiming at A2/B1 proficiency all along—enough to get you bootstrapped to the point where you can interact with natives and your options really start to open up.

The Chérel family was blessed with several good managers, and Alphonse's son was another enthusiastic polyglot. The son managed Assimil's product line until just a few years ago.

This is also the first French history book that I've read which makes heavy use of the present and future tenses when writing about the past. Everyone always mentions that this happens, but it's fun to see an actual example.

Figuring out how to do business in French

While we were driving home from Quebec, I decided to work on my business French with my wife. I gave her my usual sales pitch, explained how unit tests actually save money, and talked about a number of other business and technical topics.

As long-standing readers of my log may know, I have essentially two conversational "modes" in French:

1. Day-to-day. This assumes I mostly talk about familiar subjects, or that I have a couple of seconds to think about my response. My grammar and accent are often quite respectable, and my French may be fairly idiomatic. But if I try to explain something complicated, my fluency suffers and I may get frustrated.

2. "Pumped." This takes a certain amount of mental energy, and I may need five minutes to get rolling. Once I'm underway, however, I can talk at length about a wide variety of subjects without pausing. I may make slightly more mistakes, and my accent may slip a little, but I can normally discuss complicated subjects at a respectable conversational speed.

During the car ride, I was delighted to discover that as long as I'm in mode (2), I can actually give a pretty decent sales pitch, and I can explain many of the things I often need to explain to clients.

So maybe I'm closer than I think. I still need plenty of practice, but this is starting to feel doable.

Edited by emk on 18 March 2013 at 3:26am

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 Message 492 of 1317
18 March 2013 at 8:20pm | IP Logged 
emk, tu as déjà entendu parler des BDs de Bretécher? Aujourd'hui, en lisant ce livre 'L'Agence', j'ai lu à son sujet, elle a été mentionnée par le personnage principal. Ses BDs me semblent toujours un peu trop féminines, tout à fait comme L'Agence, qui a été aussi écrit par une femme, mais ça a l'air tellement moderne et intéressant quand même.

Edited by Expugnator on 18 March 2013 at 8:21pm

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 Message 493 of 1317
21 March 2013 at 4:35am | IP Logged 
Expugnator wrote:
emk, tu as déjà entendu parler des BDs de Bretécher?

Non, je ne les ai pas lues. Elles m'ont l'air intéressantes, mais je préfère les BDs avec les vraies histoires. Et je viens de recevoir les deux deniers tomes des « Mondes d'Adébaran ». Maintenant, il me faut une heure pour lire ce mois !

Je continue à regarder Ulysse 31 avec ma femme, et on chante toujours « Je suis Nono, le petit robot, l'ami d'Ulysse » ensemble. Ce n'est jamais trop tard d'avoir une enfance heureuse ! Et je veux le vaisseau spatial d'Ulysse.

Extensive reading and a tipping point

Expugnator mentioned in his log that he was making progress with his first contemporary paperback in French, but that intensive reading was proving slow, and he was considering reading more extensively, with a lot fewer dictionary lookups.

In general, I found extensive reading to be enormously useful in boosting my reading speed from really slow to about 33–50% of my speed in English. The idea is that you stop worrying about new vocabulary for a while, and just try to increase the speed at which you can read what you already know. In other words, merely being able to decipher correctly isn't enough. You want to be able to just look at the words and understand them with barely any effort at all. And that's a separate skill that you can't really master through intensive reading. You need raw volume. For me, something like 5,000 pages made an enormous difference. That's about 15 ordinary paperbacks, which is almost nothing when you think about it.

Generally speaking, I learn a lot vocabulary through extensive reading. Sure, I often need to see a word 10 or 20 times to really understand it. But on the other hand, extensive reading can easily be 10 times as fast as intensive reading, so I'll see the same words more often. And when I learn a word this way, I'm less likely to mess up the associated prepositions or to use it an overly "English" way.

I'm not saying to ignore intensive reading or give up on Anki. They're both amazingly powerful tools. But devote some time in you life, if you don't already, to reading for pleasure. If you still want to look up words, look for those tiny arrow-shaped Post-It notes from 3M and keep a stack at hand. Then look up words later, when you're done with the book.

Everyone always says that it's a cinch to learn words from context if you already understand 98% of something. (That's equivalent to maybe 5 unknown words on a page.) But I'm finally reaching the point where I understand 98+% of most of what I pick up, and 99.5% of some easier native texts. It's an amazing sensation, because at least half the unknown words are clear from context, and I can browse the bookstore at will.

I'm seeing similar effects with TV. I can pick up a series like Ulysse 31, watch maybe 2 hours worth of episodes, and have 90+% comprehension. I still get beat up by things like Intouchables and Engrenages and some of the background conversations in Amélie, of course. My listening isn't nearly as strong as my reading. But the same feeling of a "tipping point" applies. And there's something special about TV as a tool for language acquisition—it's entertaining, it's full of dialog, and it has lots of images to help make vocabulary clear. I really think you can learn passive skills by watching TV—but only if it's significantly comprehensible, which is hard to achieve much below a strong B1, and then only by plowing through an entire season of a series. Once children's TV becomes accessible, you've got a great tool.

(On a related note, French students may not get useful subtitles all that often, but we do get BDs, which have most of the virtues of TV in written form. Seriously—BDs are excellent training for TV, and TV is amazingly useful. And who can't find the time to read a comic book or watch TV at the end of a long day?)

Yeah, I had a good evening. :-) I'm sure I'll have another "stupid" evening soon, as always. But even though I still struggle, and I still crash and burn on a regular basis, there's a lot to be thankful for these days.
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 Message 494 of 1317
21 March 2013 at 7:16am | IP Logged 
Ulysse 31 et MC Solaar - les souvenirs heureux... :)

A 98 to 99.5% reading comprehension rate is a remarkable achievement, and one that's well deserved with all the hard work you've put in. I'll be rooting for you passing the C1 DALF with flying colours this year mate.

(zut alors...I've just got in from work, and that poutine au curry and stout is looking real good right now!)
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 Message 495 of 1317
21 March 2013 at 5:52pm | IP Logged 
Teango wrote:
(zut alors...I've just got in from work, and that poutine au curry and stout is looking real good right now!)

I know, I was just looking at the photo again and salivating. I've got to learn how to make something like that. Or keep visiting Montreal on a regular basis. That works too. :-)

Some notes on language acquisition

These are disorganized personal notes. Someday I should try to unpack them and explain them better. This contains untested hypotheses and personal speculation!

- Childhood and adult acquisition are much more alike that popular wisdom would have it. Kids are only guaranteed to acquire a language if it's used >30% of the time by people around them, and they can't get by without it. Kids get conversational quickly, but full mastery takes years. Adults will generally do fine under similar circumstances (but they'll normally just use their greater adult resources to avoid contact with the language).

- About 5% of kids show significant language delays or weird fossilization, which will clear up more quickly with speech therapy. Adults are much more likely to have delays and fossilization, and they will also benefit from professional intervention. Having seen both an excellent speech therapist and an excellent French tutor at work, I can barely tell the difference between their methods.

- Krashen's Input Hypothesis is at least 80% of the real story. The vast bulk of learning comes from understanding messages, and from using strong context to get a temporary advantage and repeated exposure to cement it. If you speak with a native speaker at home and you do a Super Challenge, it's really hard not to reach B2+, even if your other study is haphazard. And once you hit B2+, it's transparently obvious you can get better simply by watching a scary amount of TV—you understand 90% of what you hear, and you'll eventually internalize everything through brute repetition of 10s of millions of words.

- Grammar study, Anki, drills, etc., are all useful, no matter what Krashen says. But for me, they'll all basically fiddling around the edges, speeding things up, and troubleshooting. (Not that I ever do drills.) I have a soft spot for weak forms of the "noticing hypothesis", which states that paying close attention to details can really help. And you need speaking practice to speak.

- Getting strong context is very hard at first, because you have no "hooks". Kids work around this by massive amounts of parental repetition and knowledge of what's going on in their immediate environment. Getting strong context becomes much easier as you approach B1. As you approach C1, strong context is everywhere.

- You should always cheat outrageously to get stronger context. There's basically no downside.

Some notes on artificial intelligence and statistical natural language processing

- Google Translate is an amazing demonstration of why language (and other intelligent behavior) is all about sloppy probabilistic calculations. But ultimately Google Translate knows nothing about the world other than what can be learned from bilingual texts. It matches words against words, and never matches words against the world.

- To build a machine that really understands language, we would need a machine which can understand the world, or at least that portion of the world which appears on TV. This means we would need robust visual processing (which is finally starting to happen), and some kind of folk model of living beings with goals. Even the equivalent of what 2-year-old can do would be enough. Once the machine can grasp some of what it sees, then it can start to match words against the world. Eventually you'll have enough context that this becomes self-reinforcing.

- Human language acquisition starts with isolated words, then simplifications of fixed phrases, then fixed phrases with buggy attempts at generalizing the patterns, and finally all the details and exceptions. Chomsky's models of Universal Grammar (and government and binding) are ultimately a bad match, because they see language as a mathematical system with a few configurable parameters, and not the end result of partially generalizing the patterns in fixed phrases. Any theory of grammar must be able to deal with a million weird special cases like, "I demanded that he be ready on time."

- Computers have gotten vastly, unimaginably better at understanding text in the past 15 years. (Witness, again, Google Translate, or the recent thread on bilingual text alignment tools.) But vision is still a specialized research niche. Once consumer-level products start doing heavy visual processing, computers will make huge strides in understanding the physical world.

- Google Glass, to be truly useful, would have to solve two problems: (1) make glasses that are expensive status symbols (which may take from 2 years to half a generation), and (2) successfully understand what those glasses see and hear.

Thus, a conjecture: If anybody can build a commercially viable product along the lines of Google Glass, computers will almost inevitably make huge strides in matching words against the world. Thus, there's an excellent chance that many of us now alive will live to witness a machine which can watch a scene on TV and narrate what it sees. We're also likely to see a version of Siri/Google Now which can say, "Hey, didn't your wife mention going to a play tonight? Don't you need to go iron your shirt if you want to look presentable and leave on time?" Whether this is actually desirable is left as an exercise for the reader.

Edited by emk on 21 March 2013 at 5:56pm

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 Message 496 of 1317
21 March 2013 at 7:16pm | IP Logged 
emk wrote:
Any theory of grammar must be able to deal with a million weird special cases like, "I demanded that he be ready on time."

This weird special case can be explained very easily. "To demand" requires the subjunctive mood.

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