Lifehacker-style language learning tips

UPDATED 5th December 2010, 28th April 2011

I just discovered a nifty (but obvious!) helpful trick for learning languages, so I thought I’d share. Background:

  1. I am trying to learn Danish (to a conversational level) but don’t live there, so find it hard to immerse myself in the language.
  2. I am very time poor currently.
  3. I have a basic level of understanding, but am trying to get to conversational, and would like to be able to fluently read it.

I have tried the usual language learning tapes/cds/programs (Rosetta Stone is fantastic, but requires significant time input) but it is quite difficult and boring to start with.

So, what I would like, is some way to integrate my practice as a part of my daily routine – that way I am more likely to continue with it and get to fluent with minimal effort.

Google to the rescue!

The excellent google translate tool works really well to give you a close-to-native understanding of a webpage, however it doesn’t really help for learning as it totally replaces the original text.  However, there is an option (view original) in the top right corner, that then will leave the page unmolested, but translate on ‘hover’.

This way, you can start reading the news (daily routine!) in a foreign language – at the level you are comfortable with. If you get stuck, you can instantly ‘hover’ over the sentence, and google will provide you with enough of a translation to get the gist.

I’m going to try this out, and report back. Hopefully it is painless enough to become a part of my routine…

UPDATE: 5th December 2010

I’ve been using this for a while now, so I have some feedback.  It does work quite well, however there is the temptation (if your language skills aren’t good enough) to simply just hover over every sentence in the article, which is counterproductive.

The other criticism I have, is that the learning curve is far too steep for beginners – ie, the vocabulary implicitly required is very large.  I am now starting to find this useful, but only because I have gotten my Danish vocabulary to the point where I can almost read the news unaided.

SO, with that in mind, I have found two other plugins that enable similar learning-through-osmosis: polyglot and ming.

polyglot uses google translate to look up words on the site that you are currently surfing, and replaces them with the translation in the language you are trying to learn.  It picks the words at random, although there are some very nice features to translate entire phrases, add the translation in brackets etc.

get polyglot for chrome here –

ming is a similar idea (although much simpler in implementation); but rather than picking words/phrases at random, it allows you to pre load a dictionary of the words you’re trying to learn.

Out of the two, I like ming’s approach best; because you can focus on the words that you really want to learn that day/week/month.  This fits with my style of learning better – I want to learn a set of words, then move on to the next set.  polyglot suffers from the same drawback that google translate does (although to a lesser extent) – that you need to have a reasonably good vocabulary to begin with.  However, polyglot is a much nicer implementation.

ming is available for firefox here –

Update 28th April 2011

Ok, so some more hopefully useful thoughts and links.  I have found an interesting technique that a Latvian friend of mine pointed me at – Ilya Frank’s learning method.  Link here

It is very similar to the above – ie an immersive method for learning to read the target language.  What he does is produce translated (physical) books which have the translation inline with the text – initially every word is translated, but as the book progresses, the translation lessens; so by the end you should hopefully be reading (mostly) in the target language.

Some bright spark took this idea, and realised that you could do this automagically with google translate – so they wrote the ‘franker‘ plugin for chrome.  Link here

I have been using this to produce parallel translations of freely available Danish books (eg, HC Andersen’s fairytales, Brothers Grimm).  I’ve copied an extract below:

Der var engang en rig mand, hvis kone blev syg, og da hun følte, at døden nærmede sig, kaldte hun på sin eneste datter og sagde: “Bliv ved at være from og god, min lille pige, så vil den gode Gud nok hjælpe dig. (There was once a rich man whose wife was ill, and when she felt that death was approaching, she called her only daughter and said: “Be always pious and good, my little girl, then the good Lord enough help you.) Og når jeg kommer i himlen, vil jeg se ned på dig, og mine tanker vil følge dig, hvor du går.” (And when I get to heaven, I look down at you and my thoughts will follow you wherever you go. “) Derpå lukkede hun sine øjne og døde. (Then she closed her eyes and died.) Pigen gik hver dag ud til sin mors grav og græd og blev ved at være from og god. (The girl went every day to her mother’s grave and wept, and was always pious and good.) Da det blev vinter, bredte sneen et hvidt dække over graven, og da foråret kom og solen tog det bort, tog manden sig en anden kone. (When the winter came the snow, a white cover over the grave, and when spring came and the sun took it away, the man took another wife.)

That is from Askepot (Cinderella) – and was basically 5 minutes work with the franker plugin.  Then I load it on to my ebook reader and away I go!  It has worked really well for me – the only limitation is finding enough free danish books online.

With a bit of cleverness and scripting it could be extended to reading the news each morning too.

I think this is a really clever idea.  The only improvement I can see is to add some sort of text to speech (which I can almost do on my phone), and then I would have a virtually limitless learning environment.

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