Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Des bonnes façons d'apprendre le français (ou n'importe quelle langue)

I've been learning French for about three years now, and while my level still very much leaves something to be desired, it's very heartening to hear people comment on my progress. I am frequently asked how I started and how I continue to learn, so I thought I'd write up a little post about some of the tools and methods I've used - in English so as to be maximally useful (I hope).

Duolingo's French course

I started by using Duolingo, which I learned about from founder Luis von Ahn's TED Talk on Massive-Scale Online Collaboration. When I started, I could probably inventory my French vocabulary on both hands. Bonjour, monsieur, madame, garçon, lait, etc. Duolingo gave me motivation and an on-demand tool for learning, but the downside is that it was more or less multiple choice vocabulary in very unnatural sentences. At this point, I didn't even know of the concept of the subjunctive.

Duolingo's claim of "Learn French in just 5 minutes a day" is quite the stretch. Straight-up, you're not going to become fluent with that little effort. And frankly, Duolingo alone won't get you to a point where you can explain to Colette in Normandy that you can't get in touch with your Airbnb host, and does she know how to?

Pretty quickly, I added in everyone's favorite language learning book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (in French, Harry Potter à l'École des Sorciers) because I wanted a lot more vocabulary thrown at me. Even if some of it is nonsensical or quite rare, it's a book for adolescents, and I know the plot, so it'll be easy to read, right? Turns out, when I started, I could get a good four pages before I zonked out. Which, come to think of it, doesn't say much anyway.

Truth be told, three years in and I still haven't finished that book.

I also tried Memrise, Clozemaster, Lingvist, and a number of other apps on my phone or desktop. I liked Lingvist the best, perhaps, and used it for a few months. Memrise I found to be full of mediocre decks of vocabulary, but more importantly, I kept seeing the same cards over and over and over again, meaning I wasn't being challenged enough. Or at all.

Languages are meant for communication with other humans

Apps are fine, but the whole point is to be able to free-form your own ideas and understand others' - compared with trying to translate « Etant un enfant, il est petit. » many times over. So I sought out language exchange sites and found Coeffee.com. There, I found plenty of francophones that wanted to learn English, and that helped me progress a bit. With that site, though, I found many, many more Arabic speakers that wanted my help and offered no or little French knowledge in exchange.


I next found Speaky - a site I still use almost every day - to similarly find language exchange partners. In fact, when Andrea and I went to France last year, we stayed in Versailles with one of my language exchange partners and his family. During my trip next month, I'll also meet up with a few of the people with whom I've talked.

Most of these conversations are text (though sometimes we spill over into Skype), but further, they're often very short-lived (in part due to the décalage horaire - time difference - between Seattle and France), so I have a whole lot of experience telling people I'm a software engineer and I like to climb mountains. Not so much experience going into detail about the recipes I'm trying out or where my most recent or next hike is, etc.

Talking and listening are better than reading and writing

By far, the best tool I've used for advancing is my local Meetup - first in Kirkland, now moved to Redmond. It was also the most challenging and even at times stressful - except for when you're trying to buy shampoo from the woman at the pharmacie down the road and she responds to your inquiry with, "Would it be easier if we spoke English?" Sigh. Yes, it would be easier.

I walked into the now-defunct St. James Espresso one Sunday morning to try to up my French game, barely being able to utter je m'appelle Adam, though probably not without making a good number of the members cringe at my pronunciation. Almost every Sunday I can feel my French improving. While my vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, prosody, and so on, are all still pretty lousy, nothing beats cheerful, patient, in-person speakers willing to give you immediate and helpful feedback.

I've been a member of this Meetup for two years and have gone from blank stare at total lack of comprehension to being able to understand a rather fast-talking French man describing in detail the nature of his technical work. And I was quite happy when one of my francophone friends said, "Slow down, you're talking too fast for Adam!" because, in fact, I more or less got it.

At the same time, there are people that seem to rely solely on our hebdomadaire meetup and are clearly not improving and, in fact, switch to English half the time. Just as you can't learn a language in five minutes a day, an hour or two a week isn't going to cut it either. So if you can't immerse yourself, you need something more.

A Japanese word you need to know


Just this last week, I was explaining - as best I could - the awesome spaced repetition software, Anki (Japanese for "memorization") that I use to solidly learn vocab. Gabriel Wyner's book Fluent Forever also gives great ways to use the software. Anki is free (except the official iOS app) and uses the SM2 algorithm related to the forgetting curve to show you your flash cards at the (near-)ideal moment.

But you should still listen

RFI, Issy-les-Moulineaux, France
If I can't be on the computer or in an actual conversation in some way, I try to add in as much listening time as I can in order to tune my ear to accents. (It doesn't help my listening that I have tinnitus, so I have to work extra hard to discern phonemes.) I subscribe (or have subscribed) to a number of different podcasts to learn vocabulary, slang, grammar, or just listen to interesting content. Some of these are:
  • RFI has a lot of good content, though much of it is relatively fast or advanced language
  • RFI Savoirs is specifically made for French language learners
  • RFI's Journal en Français Facile is a daily 10 minute news broadcast in easy language
  • French Your Way is an English podcast by a French woman describing rules, homonyms, vocabulary, society, auxiliary verbs, agreement, and so on.
  • The same woman also hosts French Voices - interviews in French with francophones of different stripes around the world, including some intro and outro discussions (vocab, questions) in English
  • Français Authentique is a (perhaps daily?) podcast and YouTube channel by Johan not unlike French Your Way. I stopped following Johan mostly because I couldn't keep up with the barrage of content that wasn't super exciting.
  • I had also used Coffee Break French when I started
More recently, I've started using and evaluating:

Miscellaneous

Language exchange sites suffer from the problem of splitting your time between helping others and being helped. Some people have recommend to me iTalki or similar sites where you can pay someone to be your tutor. I find this to be pretty expensive for my tastes, so I've yet to use it.

Speechling, though, appears to improve on this by having non-real-time, bite-sized phrases to record on which you're evaluated. A real francophone gives feedback to help you with your pronunciation.

Tying back into Anki, I've found Forvo to be a good site to find (and create) recordings of arbitrary words and phrases, so you can improve your pronunciation (something one of my Meetup friends reminds me of constantly that I need to improve).

Linguee is a very good dictionary between French and English. It appears to use some pretty good machine learning and web crawling to find translations on even very hard-to-find terms. Similarly, a friend pointed me toward La Coccinelle, a site with song lyric translations. I figured Linguee was more than enough, but La Coccinelle has more familiar, idiomatic, slang-laden phrases.

I'm told Language Exchange is a good way to start off, though I haven't listened to more than a couple lessons so far.

Friday, January 26, 2018

La beauté des produits de LaTeX

Quand nous sommes allés en France, j'ai acheté quelques livres français pour mon apprentissage. Parmi eux, Une Brève Histoire du Temps, mon livre scientifique préféré. Malgré que, je toujours lis la première parti de la saga de Harry Potter.

Depuis plusieurs des années, j'ai voulu lire (en anglais) Don Quichotte. Récemment, j'ai rappellé que on peut le trouver sur Project Gutenberg (en français ou en anglais) gratis, et j'ai réalisé que on peut aussi le formater avec LaTeX et l'imprimer avec des entreprises comme CreateSpace. Donc, ainsi, j'ai crée le PDF L'ingénieux hidalgo Don Quichotte de la Manche (les deux partis, publiés en 1605 et 1615), disponible gratis pour téléchargement, et je les mettrai sur Amazon bientôt pour ce qu'on peut acheter bon marché.


Pour tous les horreurs d'internet, au moins on peut trouver les romains incroyables gratuits.

Aussi, je vous recommande l'episode du Radiolab s'appelle La Mancha Screwjob (y aller à 38:52) pour un peu de l'histoire de le livre de Don Quichotte.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Recipe: French bread

For some time, I've been baking bread at home to add to our meals, but after our trip to France in April and all the delicious baguettes we had, I became quite let-down by the quality of my bread. I recently found a recipe that I've started making that is significantly better than what I had done:

Ingredients

  • 1/4 tsp yeast
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 1.75 tsp salt
  • 18 oz (500 g) flour (about 4 cups)

Directions

  • Mix dough, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 12-14 hours or until doubled
  • Shape loaves by rolling onto lightly floured surface. Put on baking sheet and let rise, covered with floured plastic, for 1-1.5 hours or until almost doubled
  • Cut angled slices in the top of the dough, tucking sharp corners in
  • Preheat oven to 550°F with a pan of water on the bottom rack of oven to keep humid
  • Bake about 15 minutes or until well-browned, spraying with water before baking and at 5-minute intervals
  • Let cool before eating


A few useful notes:

The water need not be lukewarm. I use cool water straight from the faucet. Mix everything together at once. The initial prep takes five minutes, tops.

I started off with a 12-hour rise time and another hour after forming the loaves, though I've also had success with about three and one, and I will probably continue to experiment to see how quickly I can make this recipe happen.

The dough should be quite sticky at basically every stage. Lightly flour the counter when forming loaves, the pan when you move them over, and your hands whenever necessary, but don't use too much.

Because you spray, bake for five minutes, and repeat (especially if you're doing a double batch like I do), there's a lot of time sitting around babysitting the loaves:


But it's worth it. After baking, let the loaves cool completely and enjoy:



Saturday, May 6, 2017

Financial anatomy of a European vacation

This last week, Andrea and I returned from our first trip abroad after a very long time without any significant vacation. Aside from camping trips and weekend getaways with friends, our last vacation was before Jacob was born.

We decided on a trip to France, including Paris, Versailles, Marseille, and Normandy. Never before or during the vacation did we discuss any sort of holding back on our spending. Since this is the first vacation in a decade, we did what we wanted and we paid what we paid.

That said, I still kept decent documentation on our expenses because I'm a data geek, and I wanted to get an idea of what we can expect next time around. I started collecting receipts from coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores (we did a fair amount of eating by way local groceries, which surely saved us a ton of money), museums, and so on. After returning home, I crunched the numbers in a Google Doc, cross-referencing with our credit union and my credit card.

In summary, our expenses were as follows:


conversion fee€29.19
clothes€105.90
gifts€139.70
coffee€145.73
groceries€166.02
entertainment€228.00
meals€261.72
tours€304.40
untracked€517.97
transportation€704.90
home-sitting€717.43
airfare€1,474.03
lodging€1,635.13
Grand Total€6,430.12

Some notes:
  • For simplicity, I converted everything into euros since most expenses were in that currency to begin with.
  • Dollar values, when applicable, are converted at a rate of 1.09 dollars per euro. This rate was roughly the same across transactions that I linked up between point-of-sale and what posted to our bank account. (Bing indicates the exchange rate was a little lower at the beginning of our trip and climbed the whole time.)
  • All those conversions incurred some type of fee, which at a glance seemed to be about 1% of the dollar equivalent of the transaction for both ATM withdrawals and point-of-sale.
  • "Coffee" covers when we went out for coffee, beer, wine, smallish snacks, etc. - not quite a meal but also not something from a grocery store.

Untracked Expenses

Due to my poor record-keeping during the trip, I wasn't able to keep perfect sense of expenses. The majority of our transactions were in cash, and when I lost or failed to get a receipt, that money dropped into this abyss. Fortunately, I still knew exactly how much cash we got from the ATM throughout the trip (€1000), so it's all accounted for.

(Side note: European cash is awesome. My pocketful of coins was frequently around €10, more than enough for two drinks and two snacks. Also, no dealing with tipping or with taxes, which are baked into the final price.)

Home-Sitting

My parents were awesome and flew out to Seattle to watch our kids, house, and dog for the duration of our trip. We paid for their airfare and their expenses during their stay, which was a steal for us - even a reasonably short trip to Minnesota for us requires we board Shasta for $500-1000. In all, paying for gas, groceries, their airfare, and incidentals incurred a reasonably small bump in the overall cost.

To be fair, Mom and Dad waived some of the expenses under the excuse that they got to spoil their grandkids at their own expense. Win-win-win.

Transportation

A friend advised us to take Le Bus Direct from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. This cost us €34. Had we done our research, we would have discovered the awesome metro system that would have (likely) cost us about €3.50 and maybe even been faster. Lesson learned.

The majority (71%) of our expenses in the transportation category, though, come from renting a car, buying expensive gas (something like $6/gallon) and paying tolls on the autoroute.

Lesson: take the train.

Lodging

During our time in Versailles, some newfound friends advised us against going to Marseille on account of it being spring break in France. All the students and families were heading down to the coast, making the high-speed train tickets expensive (almost $250 for the two of us) and aggravating the already terrible Marseillais traffic. So we decided at the last minute to head to Lille instead. This gave us the opportunity to also make a quick side trip to Bruges, Belgium.

However, because of this last-minute change, we had to forfeit the Airbnb that we had reserved. This cost us a couple hundred dollars, but was probably worth it.

Quick Take-Aways

After it all, it appears that our two week vacation to France cost us a hair over $7000, which, given a few minor hiccups, was pretty reasonable. Next time:
  • Better planning on lodging will avoid The Marseille Problem of throwing money away.
  • Travel, insofar as it can be done without a car, should be.
  • Looking at currency exchange trends and executing at the right time can save a little bit, but probably not enough to make it worth it.
  • Grocery stores will still save a ton of money versus eating out.
  • Tours, while not an insignificant cost, should still be done to a great extent.
  • At-cost baby-, house-, and dog-sitting will beat all other methods of saving by a huge margin.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Deux mots français, and laser etching knives

Aujourd'hui, j'ai appris qu'en français, les mots seconde et deuxième ont une petite différence : deuxième s'implique qu'il y a troisième. On ne dit pas deuxième guerre mondiale parce que il n'y a pas un troisème guerre mondiale (pas encore, de toute façon...), mais seconde guerre mondiale.

De la même façon, mon plus cadet fils est aussi mon second fils parce que je n'en ai plus.

In unrelated news, the Universal laser at The Garage is back up, so I etched the boys' names into their knives from Christmas.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

On se tutoie ?

Un jour, il y a plusieurs de mois, j'ai parlé avec un français en ligne, et j'ai voulu connaitre comment les francophones changer de vouvoyer à tutoyer. Parce que, en l'anglais, nous n'avons pas cette problème. Il m'a expliqué au moyen de les films.

En les rom-coms, l'homme rencontre la femme. Ils se vouvoient. Mais, bien sûr, à la fin, sûrement, ils se tutoieront ? Donc, quelque part dans le film, ils changent à utiliser tutoyer. Alors, il y a toujours une scène où un personnage principal « accidentellement » tutoye l'autre personnage, et il (ou elle) s'excuse pour l'impolitesse. Puis, elle (ou il) réponde, « Non, c'est bien. Tu peux me tutoye. » Voilà, la scène où on sait les personages sont amis au moins et pas simples connaissances.

J'ai pensé c'est très interessante, mais j'ai vu seulement environ cinq films, et je n'ai pas le vu encore. Hier soir, j'ai vu enfin une scène comme ça, dans la série Dix Pour Cent, sur Netflix comme Call My Agent!, quand deux personnages commencent être proches:


Voici comment je peux continuer à être excité de mon formation français - les petites découvertes de l'utilisation de la langue.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Beer with old friends is awesome

After work today, I had the good fortune to meet-up with an old friend from college in a nice little brewery just a block or so from Google's offices in Kirkland. (I really liked their porter. The red was decent.)


It had been 12 years since I saw him (and even then, it was at Andrea's and my wedding day), so catching up on how life has treated us was really spectacular: to chat with an old friend and to hear that your lives haven't played out so differently, that you are so alike and have such similar interests and philosophies is really pretty awesome.

After some rolls, nigiri and another beer at Sushi Joa, I hit the road for a beautiful late night ride home, thinking about how incredibly fortunate we are. Among all that we discussed, I think the subject that sticks out the most is regret.

Five years ago, I was offered a position at Amazon. Andrea and I decided that moving across the country wasn't the right decision for us at the time, so I turned it down. Over the following weeks and months, and indeed for the next year, I came to deeply regret the missed opportunity. After joining Amazon a year later, I hated the better part of my experience there, but at least I had the experience, and for that, I am very grateful. My life - and, I believe, that of our family - is so much richer for having gone through that change.

There's an article I like to cite from NPR entitled Does age quash our spirit of adventure?, and the core message I take from this is that we should strive to take (calculated) risks, to seek out new experiences. Enjoy what you have (without being reckless) while you still can.

Apparently the guy on the right is a well-known singer
Today is the 21st anniversary of my brother's death. I guess the death of someone close to you affects everyone differently. As for me, I suppose I have developed a mindset that keeping up with the Joneses is a bullshit way to live your life and, by extension, conforming to the others' expectations is similarly fruitless.


Sometimes its hard but not to think about what you could have done or said differently; to wonder what you'd do if you had more time.

I have no heartwarming way to wrap up this blog post, so I'll simply state, for the very small number of people that read this, that I hope you make the most out of the time you have left, be it 45 years or 80 or one. Don't just think about what's a priority in your life. Reflect on it - really reflect on it - and act on it. Because some day, someone you love will be mourning your death and reflecting on your absence years after you're gone.