TIL differences between reading in files using Python

In passing, a colleague at work was looking at my code and explained how the three read file modules: read(), readline(), and readlines() are different.

But I was focusing intently on the code and didn’t quite catch what the differences were. So afterwards, I did some googling and figured it out. [This page](https://www.digitalocean.com/community/tutorials/how-to-handle-plain-text-files-in-python-3) lays it out nice and clear. I’ll also post this link under Resources –> NLP and Data Science.

In short, the following are the differences:
* f.read() –> returns entire contents of the file as a single string
f.readline() –> will read a file line-by-line, and returns one line
f.readlines() –> returns a list of lines from the file, where each item in the list is a line

From that same article, something to bear in mind:

Something to keep in mind when you are reading from files, once a file has been read using one of the read operations, it cannot be read again. For example, if you were to first run days_file.read() followed by days_file.readlines() the second operation would return an empty string. Therefore, anytime you wish to read from a file you will have to first open a new file variable.


One Thousand and One Nights: Tales of Enchantment

King Shahryar and Scheherazade
I just finished reading NJ Dawood’s translation of selected tales from the well-known One Thousand and One Nights.

I picked it from a used bookstore a few weeks back before my trip to Europe in June, but I was mostly trying to finish reading 김수영’s “당신의 꿈은 무엇입니까?”, which was also a great read.

As is well known, the frame story for the all the tales features King Shahryar, who marries virgins and executes them on the next day, and Scheherazade, the daughter of a vizier betrothed to King Shahryar who escapes inevitable death by telling the king enchanting tales every night. She continues telling her tales for 1,001 nights, from which the name of this collection of tales is derived.

As a child, I had of course watched Disney’s Aladdin, and was drawn in by a story from an exotic land that featured sorcerers, a magic lamp, and jinn. When I came across this Penguin Classics edition, I knew I had to get it if only to read the original Aladdin tale. I never would have known that the story of Aladdin has its setting in China in the original tale 🙂

What impressed me first of all was the translator – NJ Dawood – who apparently was a translator of Arabic into English of renown. His classic translation was first published by Penguin in 1956, and apparently, has remained in print to this day. And according to this,

Previous translations had been so archaic and literal as to be virtually unreadable. Dawood set out to produce a modern translation that would be readily accessible to an uninitiated readership. To this end he rearranged the original surahs (chapters) into more or less chronological order, to make them easier to understand, in line with the approach taken by the Jewish rabbis and Christian scholars who compiled the biblical canon. At the same time his lively, idiomatic English translation aimed to bring out the poetic beauty and eloquent rhetoric of the Arabic original, giving the reader some sense of why the work has had such power over generations of Muslims.

I had always wanted to try reading the Koran, purely out of curiosity, and after such an introduction of such a well-esteemed translator – and especially after having read his translation of the nocturnal tales – I will doubtless make sure to pick up his translation of the Koran.

As a child, I had read storybooks with large pictures depicting the story of Ali Baba, but besides that, I had not heard tell of the other tales. Dawood’s selection of tales for this collection made for an enjoyable read and included the Aladdin story and the Sindbad story, but notably, did not include the Ali Baba story. Which to me was surprising – not to mention more than a little disappointing 😦

I had maybe reached the middle of the book when I began to wonder when the famed Ali Baba story would come out. I checked the contents, but it wasn’t there. I flipped through the pages to look ahead and see if it was tucked in somewhere. But no. It wasn’t there. I suppose Dawood has his reasons for its exclusion, but I very much wanted to read his translation of it.

The tales are amusing, whimsical, and downright absurd. Several times while reading, I just had to smile imagining in my mind what took place in the stories. As you can imagine, the stories feature tales of magic lamps, magic rings, Ifrit, jinn, hidden caves/underground halls filled with immeasurable riches, avaricious kings, virtuous men and women, sorcerers, treachery and deception, and…so much more. Reading the tales, I was transported to the medieval Arab world. I imagined myself standing in the marketplace as the merchants haggled and bartered, calling down blessings upon people and the name of Allah being invoked.

Of note was the way women were portrayed in the tales. There were descriptions of beautiful maidens and princesses. More often than not, they were depicted as seducing men with an evil aim (murder) or for their own salvation. There was also the story of the kind-hearted mother in the story of Judar son of Omar, who was deceived again and again by her two evil and greedy sons. And also women like Fatimah, the abusive wife who cursed her poor husband Mar’auf all night. Fatimah was described as being a termagant, an interesting word that I came to learn from the book.

I also noted that the people in the stories were all religious. There were numerous religious expressions such as ‘Praise be to Allah’ and ‘by Allah’. When the characters found themselves in a pickle, they would often say “There is no strength or help save in Allah!”, the Arabic phrase of which I was interested in finding since it seemed like an oft-repeated phrase. Each story would usually end with something like “so-and-so lived happily ever after until they were visited by the Annihilator of men, the Destroyer of earthly pleasures”. This I found to be an interesting personification of death. I wonder if there exists some expression like this that is still used to this day when saying that someone passed away. In line with all these stories that involve mystical jinn and Ifrit, an expression like that just seemed fitting. The idea that Death comes when it is time, and no one can be spared from it. That kind of closing comes at the end of a story, when the main problem facing the protagonist has been resolved, and (usually) they enjoy the bounties of immeasurable riches as princes and kings. But, as with all men, regardless of order and rank, Death visits them just the same.

And then there was mention of people like cadi, vizier, nabob, houri, among others. All of these were interesting to me, and I did some basic research to find out more about what these positions were. Obviously these words are Arabic in origin, and they were used in the text, so I was naturally inclined to learn more about what these positions were about. Oh, and houri is apparently from Islamic mythology, so they’re not real people 🙂

Baghdad is the home of Sindbad the Sailor, and every time the city is mentioned, it is described as “Baghdad, City of Peace”. I imagine it must have been a magnificent city in that time. I was a little sad to think that a city that was known as the City of Peace would be today one that knows little peace. To have seen Baghdad at the height of its influence and prestige must have been awesome.

캡처In doing some research about the tales (mostly Wikipedia), I came across this blog that apparently aims to have summaries of all the tales. The main page shows a three volume Penguin series of what I assume are the tales in their entirety. Sure enough, I found them on Amazon. I definitely do want to read those other tales as well some time.I’ll see how the translation of these tales fares against Dawood’s translation 🙂

Add1Challenge #A1C17: Learning German in 90 Days

Add1Challenge. Have you heard of that?

Snooping around YouTube, I came across some Add1Challenge videos and wondered what that was all about.

I watched videos of people from all over the world giving their shot at how much of a language they had learned over the course of 30, 60, and finally, 90 days.

This year, I made plans to (finally) attend the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki. Since the conference is only two days, and I’m going to be flying in all the way from Seoul, I figured I’d do some traveling in Europe after the conference.

I have some friends in Germany, so I decided to visit Germany after the conference. It will be my first time visiting Germany, so I figured that I should try to improve my German at least to a decent conversational level before going.

I learned bits and pieces of German when I was in high school from hanging out with a few German exchange students. I was intrigued by the fact that well, English is technically a Germanic language – albeit with many of the Germanic features gone. And I was also interested in the German-speaking cultural and intellectual heritage. I asked my German friends how to say this and that, and just picked up the bare rudiments of the language.

It was only when I was in university that I took a more focused stab at this language. At the time, I was just getting into LingQ, discovering Steve Kaufmann’s videos on YouTube and being amazed at his story and how he went about learning languages. His support of Krashen’s ideas about language learning also served as a mental bridge linking my own thoughts about language learning and the stuff I was learning in my linguistics classes.

At any rate, I began listening to a lot of German content on LingQ, creating LingQs, making flashcards and the like. German was my first case language, and as one can imagine, I had quite a bit of difficulty trying to learn all the forms.

I did that for several months, but I guess I lost interest or it was too hard. I remember I checked out the first Harry Potter book in German from the local library and tried reading it, to great difficulty. Given that I knew very few words, going through a single page of the book was a time-consuming, laborious task. Thereafter, I got interested in Chinese Mandarin, and took some classes as well. German was always still there in my language world, but other things got in the way, and I just didn’t give enough attention to it.

But now that I had plans to visit Germany, I figured I would take the plunge and try out this challenge. Learn everyday (or almost every day) for 90 days and speak for 15 minutes with a native speaker? And put it up on YouTube? For all the world to see? I can do that. Or so I thought when I signed up 🙂

Well, it is now Day 38 of the challenge as we speak, and let’s see what’s happened. I started out by getting into my usual language learning resources: LingQ. I upgraded my account to a paying one, so I could create more LingQs, and also used Slow German – which is an amazing resource – to listen to interesting podcasts about diverse topics. I highly recommend Slow German for all German learners out there. I really appreciate the person who runs that site..speaking of which, I should drop her a line.

I also got back into Duolingo. I think I tinkered with it a few years ago when I heard about it. I just wanted to check it out and see if it was worth all the chatter. My use of Duolingo dropped off after some time though – you gotta admit, it does get a little repetitive. But doing this challenge in German, I was looking for resources to learn German, so I got back into it. I was dutifully doing it everyday but as of late, I’ve been missing those push alarms telling me to get back into it. I think the first little while it was fun, but it’s becoming more and more of a chore to do Duolingo as well.

Oh and there’s also Deutsche Welle, another awesome resource! They have an Android app called “DeutschLernen” which is available for free download on the Google Play Store (I’m not so sure if it’s also available – free or otherwise – on the App Store). Another great resource for learning German!

Now in terms of progress, I recently began looking for some speaking partners on iTalki. As may be obvious, you can’t expect to learn a language and speak it for 15 minutes with a native speaker in 90 days if all you do is listen and read 😉

I sent out a bunch of messages to a bunch of German speakers, but so far I’ve only gotten a few responses. I haven’t yet spoken to any of them yet, but I know I’m going to do it very soon. It’s Day 38 and I still haven’t found myself a partner to practice with!

Time is really flying by these days, and soon enough, it’ll be October and time to go to Greece to attend the Polyglot Conference! I do need to get back into the routine and work at my German more so I’ll be ready to speak to the locals once I go to Germany.

As we get closer to that 90 day mark, I hope to put up some more updates on my progress. First, I need to find an actual partner to practice speaking with. Viel spaß! 😀

10 Takeaways from Vladmir Skultety on learning Mandarin

The Slovak PolyglotFor those of you who don’t know yet, Vladimir Skultety is an accomplished polyglot who speaks more than 19 languages!!

Check out his video below.

That was absolutely mind-blowing.

To learn more about him and his language learning journey, I came across David Mansaray’s interview with him for the Polyglot Project.

The interview focuses largely on how he learned his Mandarin Chinese (it seems he is a Slovak – Chinese interpreter as well), and given that I’ve been focusing on Mandarin as of late, I wanted to share 10 key takeaways from this interview.

So here they are! My comments are in green.

1) Language learning is mimicry.
–> Language learning as mimicry…hmm. I don’t think I’ve consciously tried to mimic or imitate speakers of the target language, but Vlad recommends imitating native speakers as one strategy to sound more native-like. One thing I liked was that he recommended finding someone who is similar to you as a person. In other words, find somebody who is as close to yourself as possible, but who is a native speaker of the target language. That way, you would just need to emulate the way that person speaks, that person’s mannerisms, down to what the person says and how that person says it, and voilà! You have your alter ego in the target language.

2) What remains at last is what lasts
–> Don’t write things down. Instead, at the end of the day, write down what you remember from memory. This was Vlad’s advice. I’m willing to try this one because I feel that the words and expressions that get repeated enough, are the ones that will remain in our heads. Case in point: in spite of writing out as much of the words and expressions I hear while practicing conversation and entering them into Anki, they just wouldn’t stick. Rather than focusing on writing things out, which, for a language like Mandarin, is often needlessly time-consuming and exacting, perhaps it’s better to let the language enter your brain FIRST (more on this from Vlad below).

3) There’s no better place to learn Mandarin than China or Taiwan
–> This is a no-brainer. While it may be true that some are able to achieve very high levels of proficiency while living outside the country in which it is mainly spoken, for the most of us, it’s a pretty lofty goal while we’re sitting in our home countries. If you count the number of times you’ll simply be exposed to the language from all directions, there’s no better way to learn the target language than living in a Mandarin-immersive environment.

4) Using the right word in right contexts
–> Vlad recounted a time when he said something with the right pronunciation and with the right grammatical structure, and yet people gave him a blank stare. He later learned that people normally wouldn’t use the particular word that he used in the same context that he used it in. In other words, despite what the thesaurus and dictionaries might tell you, some words may appear to mean similar things, but not in the same context! As a personal example, I used the word 满意 in my Chinese conversation practice to mean “satisfied”. But my instructor pointed out that that word is used more in written contexts. 

5) Less is more
Mandarin words (or rather, syllables) are very short, which enables Mandarin speakers to say a lot more within a given duration than English. That’s why –  so the argument goes – you need to hone in on those sounds and listen hard because a mouthful in English isn’t quite the same as a mouthful in Mandarin. Mandarin is a syllable-timed language, as opposed to English, which is stress-timed. All this means that while English syllables can have varying durations, for Mandarin, syllable duration is the same. For more info, check this and this

6) Speak first, read and write later
–> I wish somebody would’ve given me this tip earlier on in my Mandarin learning process. Not that I dislike characters. Far from it. I love unraveling the hidden, underlying meanings in the characters. It feels like you’re venturing into an old mystic world of meaning, and it’s a decidedly different interpretation of the world; that is, different from the Western view of things. I also like to cross-reference Chinese characters with Korean, looking up simplified characters, then looking them up in the traditional version to see what they look like. At any rate, Vlad recommends that learners learn to speak first, then read and write later because learning to read and write Chinese characters is a painstaking process and, in his words, an “unnecessary burden” in the initial stages. I agree with this approach. If your goal is to learn to speak as fast as you can, leave the characters til later on. In fact, I even think this learning approach could be applied to other languages that do not have a Latin-based alphabet. I think I might try consciously not learning to read and write in the initial stages the next time I learn a language with a non-Latin alphabet.

7) Doing dictation drills for listening practice
–> Vlad suggested a useful (albeit probably boring IMO) listening exercise whereby you would listen to a piece of audio (e.g. news segment) and write down words you don’t know on a Word file. Look up the words, then listen again. Keep repeating this process until you know most or all of the words. I think this exercise is beneficial because it helps you to systematically learn the finite number of words that you need to know to understand contextually. Steve Kaufmann’s LingQ helps to make this process less torturous. 

8) Getting away with bad pronunciation
–> The argument goes that one can “get away with bad pronunciation” in European languages. But, this is not so in Mandarin. Vlad gave the two sentences below as an example.

我要睡觉 (wo3 yao4 shui4 jiao4) – I want to sleep.
我要水饺 (wo3 yao4 shui3 jiao3) – I want water dumplings.

The only difference in the above two sentences is in the two tones at the end of the sentence!

While European languages probably have their fair share of embarrassing pronunciation mistakes words similar enough to cause confusion, nowhere nearly as close as Mandarin, I’m afraid.

9) Importance of reading
–> David Mansaray raised a question. For European languages, you can rely on the text to deduce the way the words are pronounced. Is it not the case for Mandarin? Well, Vlad says yes, the characters do have sound “elements”, which don’t serve as a perfect representation, but a hint. The simplest pictographics in Chinese are almost clear enough to make out their original, intended meaning, but life is far more complex than those elements that can be drawn or figuratively represented in the form of pictorials. For those more complex elements, ideographs brought together simpler constituents to represent novel, more complex concepts. More info can be found here.

Interestingly enough, Vlad mentions that over time, you become so comfortable with the target language that you end up not reading every single word. Think about it. When you read a text in English (or your native language), do you really read every single word? No, the context provides cues and clues so that you can fly across some words without having to read every single one to understand. In the same way, eventually you become so familiar with Chinese that you can effectively predict what word should follow after a certain character. As for me personally, I definitely am not at this level yet, but I look forward to the day when this becomes a reality.

10) Hang out at a local Chinatown
–> This was a new idea I don’t know why I haven’t been putting into practice. There are plenty of Chinese people all over the world, and Chinatowns can be found virtually anywhere. This is one plan I can act upon right away. If you can’t up and move to somewhere like China or Taiwan to live in a Chinese-immersion environment, the second best choice is to hang out at your local Chinatown and befriend Chinese people. Point taken.

That’s it folks. Those are the 10 takeaways. Hope they’re helpful for those of you who are learning Mandarin 🙂

Dazzling lanterns of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

Istanbul-Grand-Bazaar-crowd-Krist-636-431On the train to work this morning, I was flipping through a Lonely Planet Traveller issue, and taking in the sights and sounds as best as one can when experiencing distant, far-off places indirectly via stunning, glossy photographs, overall making for a dreamy Monday morning.

Among others, there was gorgeous, scenic photography from Norway, Kenya, Turkey, Dubai, Indonesia…the list goes on. One particular photo of colorful lanterns inside a store in Istanbul pulled me in, and the the photographer described the lights as being to him, representing the colors and unique energy of Istanbul. Apparently, these mosaic lanterns are commonly seen in Istanbul, and are made of brass and hand-cut colored glass.

ISTANBUL - MAY 27, 2013: Colorful Turkish lanterns offered for sale at the Grand Bazaar on may 27, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. It is a popular souvenir for tourists.
Another photo showed two men bargaining at a Turkish bazaar – the Grand Bazaar – and it just got me imagining myself standing there with all of its sights, sounds, and smells. The vivid colors and people bustling about speaking in an unknown tongue.

Seeing all this reminded me that the word bazaar is in fact Persian in origin. Living in Indonesia, I knew that the word for a traditional marketplace was pasar. But it was only when I chanced upon the origins of the word bazaar that I learned of its Persian roots, and its subsequent influence on many languages, including of course, Malay and Indonesian.

To do a little fact checking, I pulled up the Wikipedia article for bazaar, and sure enough, it was of Persian origin, dating back all the way up to Old Persian and Proto-Indo-Iranian. Reading up on the article, I suddenly wondered whether the Korean word ‘바자회’ was in fact a combination of ‘바자’ (presumably a transliteration of the word bazaar into Korean) and 회 (會, meaning ‘gathering’). A quick search on Naver dictionary provided the answers, and yes, I was right.

‘바자’ did not have Chinese character roots; in fact, it was a loanword. The added  회 (會) at the end was to denote ‘gathering’.

Seeing that the second paragraph of the Wikipedia article mentioned only North America, UK, and some other European countries as using the term bazaar to mean a sort of ‘rummage sale’, I added a short sentence at the end of the second paragraph to mention the use of the word in modern Korean as well.

I knew that anyone could edit Wikipedia articles, but had never tried it before. I just wanted to share my first Wikipedia entry.

第五次 课 复习 (2016/03/09)

Here’s today’s wordlist. Today we spoke about each other’s personalities and how to express personality traits.

商量(shang4liang5) – 상의하다, 논의하다
上司 (shang4si5) – 상사
下属 (xia4shu3) – 부하직원

保养 (bao3yang3) = 관리하다
e.g. 皮肤 (pi2fu1) = 피부
e.g. 身体 (shen1ti3) = 몸
e.g. 头发 (tou2fa5) = 머리

面条 (mian4tiao2) – 국수
– 중국인들은 면 먹는것을 건강하다고 생각한다.

同级 (toong2ji2) – 등급/지위가 같다. 학년이 같다

你朋友是什么性格?- 너의 친구는 성격이 어때?

业绩 (ye4ji4) 突出 (tu1chu1) = 업적이 뛰어나다
开朗 (kai1lang3) – 명랑하다, 활달하다
爱笑 (ai4xiao4) – 웃는걸 좋아한다

他是一个吃货。(chi1huo4) – 그는 먹는걸 좋아하는 사람이다.

你看了哪一部电影? – 어떤 영화를 봤어?
– e.g. 영화의 양사는 部 (bu4)

戏剧 (xi4ju4) – 연극
喜剧 (xi3ju4) – 코믹 영화

对工作有热情 – 일에 대한 열정이 있다.
外向 (wai4xiang4) – 외향적
喜欢交朋友 – 친구 사귀는것을 좋아한다.

跟第一次见面的人也能很快熟悉 – 처음 만난 사람들과도 빨리 친해질 수 있다.
熟悉 (shu2xi1) – 친숙하다

第一个印象很好 (yin4xiang4) – 첫인상이 좋다

孤独 (gu1du2) – 외롭다.

有负担 (fu4dan1) – 부담이 있다.
暑假 (shu3jia4) – 여름 방학/휴가

七年之痒 [Qīnián zhī Yǎng] – 결혼하고 7년 후에 질린다.

营销 (ying2xiao1) – (상품을) 판매하다, 마케팅하다
– when speaking about startups.

The all-knowing dot


Are we supposed to infer from the word what vowel the dot is supposed to form?

Are we supposed to infer from the word or context what vowel the dot is supposed to form?

꿈을 잇다. A possible translation could be Link/continue your dreams.

It’s an ad announcing the opening of a renovated cultural space by Kyobo Book Center (& Hottracks) that will serve to be the link or bridge that brings together different people, the past and the present, knowledge and culture, and the present me and the future me. I guess it’s a space for people to come together and share ideas, read books, buy more books from Kyobo, etc.

It just got me wondering how does one know what vowel the dot is supposed to represent?
Are readers supposed to just know (deduce) from context what the vowel is supposed to be?

That dot vowel is no longer used in modern Korean, but it made me curious nonetheless.

Below is an example of the dot being used in the logo of the Korean office suite software called Hangeul.


잘한다! 자란다! – Korean pronunciation tricks in a subway ad

KakaoTalk_20150129_092930682Came across this ad on the subway the other day. It’s an ad for some university, but it was the copy that caught my interest.

The words 잘한다 (to be good) and 자란다 (to be growing), while spelled differently, sound identical when said at a normal speech rate. To go along with the image of the trees, I presume the message is that going to this university will help you excel and grow.

But back to the pronunciation. Korean shows this kind of pronunciation. Of interest here is that when ㄹ is adjacent to ㅎ, the sound of the ㅎ virtually disappears. This can be seen in other words like 발휘 (to exhibit, show a skill, etc.), which again, when pronounced at normal speech rates, is pronounced as [barwee] as opposed to [barhwee].

Another example is 옳다, which means ‘to be correct’. Here it’s a little different because this time it’s a syllable-final consonant cluster ㅀ, but the same principle seems to apply whereby the sound of the ㅎ is overruled by the sound of the ㄹ.

This happens in combinations of ㄴ and ㅎ as well, such as in words like 인하 (to reduce) and 반하다 (to fall for something, someone). At normal speech rates, both are pronounced usually as [inah] and [banada] as opposed to [inha] and [banhada], as the spelling would suggest.

This copy just caught my interest because it made use of this little pronunciation trick. I’m all for smart copies like these.

Getting to know Japanese / 日本語

Japanese is one of those languages that has been on my list for some time now.

Despite its proximity to my native Korea (and one might argue, grammatical proximity), I never did get around to learning it.

On the one hand, I honestly did not see much practical use for learning it, and it wasn’t the case that I watched Japanese anime or was really into Japanese games, either. I guess I did play a lot of Japanese-made games, but there never really was a need for me to learn Japanese.

In university, I picked up an introductory book on Japanese because our bookstore was having a sale. I got it real cheap, so I decided to take advantage of it and try to learn some Japanese.

I read through the first bit, and focused on trying to learn the characters – Hiragana and Katakana, of course.

The key to learning new characters or a new alphabet is lots and lots of repeated exposure, but I never really got into the habit of reviewing the characters, so I never really learned them at all.

Fast-forward a few years. In October 2013, I decided to take introductory Japanese lessons at a hakwon (language school) with my girlfriend. My girlfriend wanted to learn it, and I figured since I like languages, learning, and at the same I could get to know my girlfriend better, I decided to join her.

The classes were basically three months of basic, introduction to Japanese for absolute beginners. Classes were 4-hour sessions every Saturday, but I could take classes during the weekdays as well. My girlfriend and I opted to take Saturday classes because we both had to work during the weekdays.

The first few classes, first month was a breeze. To get going, we had to really work at learning the Hiragana, but because we read Hiragana all the time (there was no Romaji), we got the hang of it pretty quick.

At this point in time, I don’t quite remember what we learned point-by-point, but initially, I felt like I could use Korean grammar as a reference point to understand Japanese grammar. Japanese, like Korean, is an agglutinative language, meaning that you add on little markers that indicate the role of that word in the sentence. This helped a lot to get a grasp of the language.

For obvious reasons, it really helps a lot to have a reference language you can sort of lean back on and compare. Currently, I don’t know any Slavic languages, but I’m sure knowing one Slavic language will help me in learning another Slavic language.

Back to Japanese. Into the second month, we started learning about verbs and how to conjugate them. We learned that there are three groups of verbs depending on the verb stem, and how to conjugate them into the basic -ます ending. The biggest and most important component of the second month was learning the verbs and how they work. We also learned expressions and connectives along with the verbs. By connectives I mean things like ~ので, ~でも. Then in the third month, we just did more verb endings, went into a little bit of honorifics and humble language. I was surprised to learn that Japanese has a very complex honorifics system. Much more complex than Korean, for sure.

After the 3 months of introductory Japanese, I was ready to take conversation class. I managed to pass an interview with a Japanese native speaker and get into a conversation class with a native speaker. It was my first time in a real Japanese conversation class, after 3 months of basic Japanese grammar. For better or for worse, our Japanese conversation teacher didn’t really speak any Korean nor English, for that matter. So I found myself in a completely Japanese-only environment. I was quite overwhelmed at first, trying to decipher everything that the teacher was telling me. There were two other people in the class with me, but they had had experience in a conversation class like this for some time, and had already studied the conversation book we were using.

Immediately, I realized I didn’t know enough words, and that I didn’t know enough Kanji. Because I didn’t know the words and didn’t know the Kanji, I really couldn’t read stuff in the book and the handouts she gave out. Most times, I tried to decipher the first Kanji character in a verb or something and figure out the meaning of the verb. But since I didn’t know how to pronounce the Kanji, I couldn’t read it. Overall, it was a great experience being able to converse with a native speaker of Japanese for the first time, albeit with my limited speaking abilities.

I unfortunately did not take another class after that, and I’ve just been listening to Japanese conversations on LingQ, picking up a few words here and there. I do want to focus more on Japanese once I get some clear goals in mind where I want to take Japanese, what I want to do with Japanese. As of late, I’ve been listening to Japanese on LingQ and brushing up on the grammar I learned in the first three months at the hakwon. When I first learned about the three verb groups, it was quite mentally overwhelming to take in everything all at once, but now as I listen to LingQ and gradually internalize the verbs and words, and see it contextualized in an authentic conversation, I’m getting it a lot more. So I’m combining listening to authentic Japanese content and doing a little bit of grammar review on the side. I feel like once I get more familiar with the verb conjugation system, after that, it’s all words and expressions. And I’m taking advantage of my (limited) knowledge of Chinese characters to guess at/identify meanings of nouns and verbs I find in my Japanese listening. Perhaps studying Chinese and Japanese at the same time could be beneficial?

I actually thought of registering for Phone Japanese. In Korea, a lot of people sign up for Phone English where they can have a 10 minute conversation with a native speaker every day. I was thinking about maybe trying that with Japanese, so I can actually utilize what I know and just hit the ground running to gain more vocabulary. Oh well, hopefully, I can try posting something in Japanese in the near future.

Learning French in Togo

In December 2011, I decided to volunteer in Togo in West Africa.

I had a choice between Ivory Coast and Togo, but I went with Togo because I wanted the chance to explore a country that I had never heard of before.

Why Togo of all places? Because Togo is a French-speaking country. Rather than going to an English-speaking country, I wanted to use this opportunity to live French!

When I first arrived in Canada, I wanted to learn French, knowing that Canada is a bilingual country. But I was already a sophomore, and given that I knew no French at all, could not join a class of students who had been learning for a few years.

So at the time, I went out and bought a Teach-Yourself French book that came with CDs for pronunciation. I tried to work through the book, listening to the CD. But I gave up because I thought it was too hard. So French always remained on my list of languages that I wanted to learn, but I guess I never got around to it.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself in Lomé, the capital of Togo. Togo is a narrow strip of land located in West Africa bordered on the west and east by Ghana and Bénin. I learned that it used to be under German control, and then came under the control of France following Germany’s defeat in the Second World War.

There are around 40 different languages spoken in the country, but it seemed to me that Ewe was the most common, apart from French of course. French was the lingua franca in the country, used in all areas of life, and being used as the intermediary language between different tribes who could not otherwise communicate.

Shortly after my arrival, the other volunteers and I took classes in elementary French. As with most classes, we started with the alphabet and practiced pronunciation. Fortunately, our teacher was an elderly Togolese gentleman who had taught French to the American Peace Corps, and was an eager and patient instructor.

In the first 2-3 months of learning the language, I was working on getting the pronunciation right and practicing the verbs we had learned. Given that I was surrounded by French speakers 24/7, I had so many people to practice with. And given that our lives centered around a daily routine, the things we needed to say were also limited to a set of phrases.

I must say that my knowledge of Spanish did serve me usefully. For instance, it occurred to me while learning the tenses, that some of them, while not identical, were comparable enough such that knowing the conjugations in Spanish helped me more easily acquire the French counterparts.

For example, the simple future tense in French and Spanish seemed similar to me:

être                                                          ser
Je serai                                                    Yo seré
Tu seras                                                   Tú serás
Il/elle sera                                                 Él/ella será
Nous serons                                             Nosotros seremos
Vous serez                                               Vosotros seréis
Ils/elles seront                                          Ellos/ellas serán

This and other similarities between Spanish and French certainly peaked my interest.

In the initial stages of learning the language, I found myself inadvertently mixing in Spanish words amidst the French; for instance, I would find myself saying something like “J’ai besoin de _____ para laver les habits.” The correct word here would be pour, not para.

Another thing was accent. Togolese French is accented in a way that is distinct from say, French of Côte d’Ivoire or Bénin. In particular, the “r” sound, that is uvular in Parisian French, was not produced in the same way by the Togolese. It was rolled by some, and somewhat aspirated by some.

I also heard expressions like “C’est comment?” alternated with “(Comment) ça va?”. Apparently, the former expression is used frequently in the French-speaking African countries. I was met with amused expressions when I uttered this expression in front of French people.

After 5-6 months of living in Togo, I was able to express myself in the range of what I needed to say; that is, in the daily routines of my volunteer duties. in other words, given the range of topics one could talk about, I couldn’t say all that much, but I could speak to the Togolese and joke around as well. During this time, I continued reading this French book I was working on. It was a elementary-level children’s book with pictures, and at the beginning, I literally had to look up more than half the words on the page. But as I started to understand the sentences, the story came alive to me in my brain, and reading the book stopped becoming a chore. I learned a lot of words from this book that I would probably not use ever again, words like anchor, sail, etc., but it was all good practice acquiring new words.

I also tried reading Petit Nicolas, and this book was a great deal easier than the other book, and the stories were cute and funny. I guess one might think reading children’s stories might not be “realistic” language, but given my level at the time, I was quite happy reading about these kids’ adventures as their level of vocabulary and range was suitable enough for me.

I also attempted reading some of Les Misérables in the original French, but now this was a whole different playing field. I got worn out just from looking up all the words, and even when I did look up the word, I would likely forget the meaning of the same word once I got to the text or when the same word appeared in the next few paragraphs.

I also listened to French conversations that I found on LingQ every now and then to keep my ears attuned to French. Now this type of French was more like Parisian French, and so I had difficulty even understanding the basic things they said. Togolese French is quite different. To my pleasant surprise, by the end of 10-11 months, and thereafter when I came back, I found that I could understand those conversations with ease.

Once I got back from Togo, I decided not to let my French go to waste and signed up to take the DELF exam, level B2. Seeing as how I had to do some writing, and given that I didn’t really “formally” learn French, I signed up for some DELF B2 prep classes through Alliance française, which were extremely helpful in preparing for the exam. I took the exam and fortunately, passed.

Nowadays, given that I have been focusing my efforts on Chinese, I haven’t been able to work on French all that much, but I do like to keep it up by going to LanguageCast and speaking to French speakers and listening to conversations on LingQ every now and then. I do want to make plans to get C1 or C2 level in French as well sometime in the future. Maybe I’ll try writing some posts in French as well for practice 🙂