Monday, June 6, 2016

Mandarin Learning Material: FluentU

So I’ve been practicing Mandarin listening comprehension and building my vocabulary with FluentU. The site comes in Mandarin, Spanish, French, Japanese, and German-learning flavors as well as sections for EFL learners. I would assume that, apart from specific issues related to Chinese characters (more on those below), it offers basically the same experience for all languages.

The Content

FluentU takes the vast already-existing corpus of YouTube videos and puts them in an easily-digestible format for language learners. For Chinese, users get subtitles in English, pinyin Chinese, and traditional or simplified Chinese characters, any of which can be turned on or off at will. The user interface makes it easy to skip around in a video, or to listen to the last few seconds again and again repeatedly.

The above is likely to be seen as the most useful part of the site for most learners, and it has been a very valuable resource of listening materials for me. The listening material -- which FluentU carefully explains they’re using 100% legally through Creative Commons licences -- is harvested from YouTube’s corpus of Mandarin-language content (and as such, tends to skew towards Taiwan-based material). I’ve used FluentU to watch music videos, advertisements and publicity campaigns, a campaign ad put out by Ko Wen-je during his run for Taipei mayor, and snippets from TV shows.

There’s also Mandarin-language learning material already on YouTube that is accessible via FluentU, which somehow seems dodgy to me -- I wonder how the hard-working creators of material made accessible to the masses on YouTube feel about it being used by FluentU to make handy little exercises for its paying subscribers?

Finally, FluentU does put out some of its own material. For Mandarin learners, there are a few video stories aimed at lower levels, mostly revolving around social interaction, going out with friends, and so on. No moments of great drama, but frankly I find them far more tolerable than the famously awkward videos that NTNU puts out.

The language is of course graded for learners. The video of two college students making small talk improves tremendously if you imagine it actually shows two extraterrestrial spies who are practicing authentic hu-man communication before they go out to live amongst the hu-mans.

But those are mostly too easy for me. Unfortunately as of June 2016 there’s only a single solitary in-house video story for upper intermediate learners, the tale of a guy who goes in to interview for a job. I would like to see more videos at that level. Yes. More, please.

FluentU also has a lot of audio-only dialogue out there, much of it at upper-intermediate level, not dissimilar from what ChinesePod puts out but without the English commentary. It’s all hosted on YouTube so it’s tricky to put on an mp3 player, but accessing it through FluentU means you get all the nice FluentU support: subtitles, easy playback, and vocabulary practice.

Ah yes, the vocabulary practice.


For users willing to pay, FluentU offers its practice software. First and foremost, this includes vocabulary practice. When you choose to ‘learn’ the material from a video or audio dialogue, the vocabulary gets fed bit by bit to you in flashcard form. Ideally, you can hear the same word being used in different contexts across different videos in FluentU’s library. In practice, FluentU often gives you its own sample sentences instead, which you can hear read by a flat computer-generated voice. Better than nothing I guess, but with all my reading in second-language acquisition, I have yet to hear an SLA expert advocate listening to awkward computer-generated speech in the L2.

It is your job as the learner to supply the word, either by typing in pinyin (including tones) or in characters. The latter is much easier, as here it doesn't ask you for tones; you just have to type the pinyin and choose the right character from a menu. (Oddly, even though my FluentU is set to traditional characters, whenever I have to type I get simplified ones. Not a huge problem, as it’s not bad for me to develop a modicum of familiarity with them, but it’s weird anyway.)

At the moment I have 86 words in my vocab pile, of which the algorithm feeds me about a dozen to review each day; when I feel a word is sufficiently imprinted on my brain, it goes into the ‘Already Known’ repository, which is currently at 609 words, including those words I deemed too easy when FluentU first presented them to me.

There’s also sentence construction, where you hear a sentence spoken along and then reconstruct it by putting jumbled words in order. (You’re also given an English translation, but especially when it comes to song lyrics, the translation is often so clunky as to be useless.)

Context is key

A big part of what keeps me coming back to FluentU is that it gives me memorable context for the words I learn, even if the context is silly. Here's an example.

There's a video on YouTube called 中文Siri是這樣子的 (translated by FluentU as 'Siri, What Should I Do?') about a girl who regrets partying at KTV all night and asks Siri how to keep her boyfriend from noticing the bags under her eyes. Silly stuff, but I'd like to focus on one bit of contextualized language. When Siri suggests plastic surgery, our protagonist responds 'How could I have time for plastic surgery?!', or, in the original Mandarin, '整容怎麼來得及?!' The verb she uses -- laideji -- is one I've known about abstractly for years but have never used in speech, even with my Chinese tutors, because I have no subconscious sense of how it's meant to be used. But the sound of this lady complaining 'Zhengrong zenme laideji?!?!' into her iPhone is now etched into my brain, thanks to a silly comedy sketch on YouTube and FluentU's learning software. I could even produce a similar sentence more or less on command (and probably swapping a different noun for zhengrong), probably using my brain's interpretation of that girl's intonation, for better or for worse.

How much? And what’s the verdict?

$15 USD a month if you just want to watch videos through FluentU’s interface and enjoy the subtitles and playback options -- that is, if you want to use it for listening practice alone.

$30 USD a month if you want all of FluentU’s vocabulary practice options.

I’m paying the higher price, as I feel that for all its weirdnesses, FluentU’s learning software has been very helpful to me. We’ll see how far into the future I continue to feel that way.

Next up: Skritter.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Officially Unofficial

Officially Unofficial
by J. Michael Cole

J. Michael Cole is one of the best-known Western journalists based in Taiwan. His 2014 book Officially Unofficial details his first several years in the country and his time working for the Taipei Times, which of course spiraled into unpleasantness, culminating in his angry breakup with the Times in 2013.

Huge swathes of this book felt as if Cole was recounting various controversies he has been involved in primarily to make sure his side of the story was getting out there so it could be read and understood by everyone. Of course he has every right to do that, but I won’t necessarily trust him as an objective source of information on what went on at the Times during his tenure. (That said, I do agree that the paper has declined precipitously in the time I've lived in Taiwan, or perhaps my standards have just evolved. My subjective impression is shown by the fact that in the time I’ve lived in Taiwan, I have gone from buying a paper edition of the Times to read every day, to skimming the headlines online when I bother doing so. For me, the nadir of stupidity came in May 2014 when they ran 'Game of Thrones may be based on Taiwan' on the front page. Seriously, on page 1!)

But Cole is still a compelling writer (though I never fully warmed to his writing the book in occasionally awkward 3rd-person prose) and there is no doubt that he is well-informed about Taiwan affairs. His clear writing gave me a modest education about two things that I felt I could trust him to teach me about objectively.

First, I learned a lot of background information about political events in Taiwan during Cole’s tenure at the Times. I’m somewhat ashamed of this, as most of this recent history happened when I was in Taiwan and so I feel I should have been more knowledgeable already. I think I’ll have to be more observant of what’s happening in this country in the future.

Second, I learned a lot about the daily life and struggle of reporting; of cultivating and maintaining contacts, of schmoozing with your contact over drinks to get useful tidbits of info out of them. I don’t have the right personality traits to be a good reporter, but Cole’s description of the life of one was genuinely interesting to me.

Officially Unofficial contains Cole’s occasional rant about how he feels the hidebound, traditionalist nature of Taiwanese society is dangerously holding the country back. (He admits that many societies in the world suffer from similar problems, but he points out most of them do not sit next to extraordinarily large neighboring countries that want to annex them.) His ‘Afterword’, written midway through 2014, paints a far more optimistic picture. By this time the younger generation of Taiwanese was beginning to make its political power felt and respected, and Cole’s hopes for the country are buoyed by young activists such as Lin Ting-an and the future Sunflowers Chen Wei-ting and Lin Fei-fan, all of whom he mentions in the book’s final section. We get the first appearance of the word ‘Sunflower’ in what is literally the book’s final paragraph.

One almost expects a dramatic To Be Continued… at the end.

Friday, June 3, 2016

First entry since 2013? Awesome.

I’ve decided to start updating this blog again. I really have very little excuse not to, as I’m not snowed under with work. It’s really a matter of getting around to writing something semi-regularly.

Well, I still read books on a regular basis, so I’ll start writing about them again. Recently Bookish Asia published my review of Patrick Wayland’s The Jade Lady, which encouraged me to start putting book-reactions (they seem too short to be called reviews) on Balancing Frogs again.

So here are four novels I’ve read since the beginning of 2016.

Josh Fruhlinger’s The Enthusiast is a comic novel about two very different things: the Washington DC Metro, and a fictitious soap opera-style comic strip that (in this novel's universe) had its heyday back in the 1960s. What ties them together is our protagonist Kate Berkowitz and her work for an unusual public relations firm that specializes in covertly stoking enthusiasm for its clients’ products. Kate and her colleagues haunt Facebook and message boards and infiltrate in-person meetups to give people’s enthusiasm just a little nudge to help it organically grow, whether it’s for new subway cars or a film adaptation of a cult comic strip.

I suppose I’m making it out to seem like a biting social satire, but in fact Fruhlinger’s book is actually a highly sympathetic exploration of some of the quirkier areas of 21st-century pop culture. I read the book because I like Fruhlinger’s site The Comics Curmudgeon, where he’s cultivated a modest online community of geeky enthusiasts. Fruhlinger’s affection for cheesy daily comic strips is obviously genuine, and he must have enjoyed crafting the ficticious ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ and its heavily ironic online fan community.

Mark Rosenfelder’s Against Peace and Freedom is a far-future science fiction work about politics. In a universe where human civilization has spread across dozens of star systems, a secret agent named Morgan arrives on the planet Okura, tasked with working to bring down its tyrannical government. (The narration is 2nd-person. This facilitates the fact that Morgan’s gender stays ambiguous throughout the story. Our hero eventually gets an explicit sex scene, a narrative challenge that I bet Rosenfelder had fun writing.) The writing is lighthearted, supplying a wry commentary on the often brutal violence (formenting revolution is not a nice, innocent pastime) and the reader also gets several doses of political philosophizing in the deal. As someone who read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, found the long ‘beauty of Mars’ passages to be boring, but was fascinated by the politics, this was to my taste.

This was another book I read on the strength of the author’s reputation online; I’ve been aware of Mark ‘zompist’ Rosenfelder as an online personality for years, having read several of his web-based essays on politics and culture way back in the very early ‘00s. The universe of Against Peace and Freedom is a place he has clearly thought out thoroughly. I particularly appreciated the fact that although the culture of Okura is clearly derived from East Asia, rather than the West, I never detected a hint of cliched outsider-writing-about-the-East silliness.

Only quibble is, I was rather befuddled by the appearance midway through of a boorish 21st-century American who gets thawed out from his cryogenic suspension, makes an ass of himself over several pages, and then disappears without having added anything worthwhile to the story. I know Rosenfelder has written other works set in this same universe; maybe Mr. Stupid American is connected to one of those?

Speaking of politics, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is old-fashioned court intrigue. When the Elvish emperor and most of his sons are killed in an airship crash, the crown passes to the half-goblin Maia, the emperor’s least-favored son and the offspring of his least-favored wife. The earnest but naive eighteen-year-old Maia was raised out in the boonies far away from the imperial court. He faces a steep learning curve. As said above, politics matter far more than traditional fantasy heroics: we get a deep look at the inner workings of a national government in a world where cable news doesn’t exist.

Two things to say about the world of The Goblin Emperor. First, it’s remarkable how few traditional fantasy tropes make it into the main narrative. Aside from very occasional references to magic, and technology such as airships and pneumatic tubes, this could easily be a fictional royal court in a pre-modern Earth. Elves and goblins aren’t magical beings here; they’re just people. Second, the amount of world-building that the author did is impressive. Although the action mostly stays within the confines of the imperial Elvish court, it’s clear that Addison lovingly worked out the geography, politics, and languages of this world.

One quibble: I read this on a Kindle, which means it is a bit inconvenient to flip back to confirm that the character that just showed up is the same guy who was mentioned twenty pages earlier. This gets annoying given the profusion of characters, as well as the universe-specific titles they are known by. Score one for paper books!

Moving back to the 1980s, I also read Iain Banks’ Walking on Glass this year. Banks is an odd critter -- while he was alive, I kept hearing about how brilliant his science fiction novels were, but I never got around to reading them. Only after his premature death in 2013 did I try him out, and I found that I actually preferred the thrillers of Iain Banks to the SF works of Iain M. Banks (although I have his Player of Games sitting on my bookshelf unread, waiting for me to give middle-initialed Banks another try).

Despite the lack of a middle initial in the author’s name, Walking on Glass does not keep the SF genre out completely -- not by a long shot. The very weird narrative follows three plots simultaneously, one of which seems to be set in an entirely different universe from the other two. In ascending order of strangeness: in one, a young Londoner is doggedly trying to pursue a relationship with a lady he is smitten with; in the second, we follow the troubled life of a man struggling with mental illness -- or perhaps he really is being persecuted by extraterrestrial oppressors. The possibility seems more than a little plausible, because the third plotline deals with two exiles from an interstellar war imprisoned in a castle in a deserted snowscape, whose only hope of release lies in their ability to work together to figure out a series of fiendishly-designed board games.

Banks’s taste for unpleasant imagery may not be for everyone, but I’ve read three of his thrillers now and I have never failed to be engrossed by them.