Reflections on a vocabulary notebook

I’ve been keeping a vocabulary notebook to write down characters I do not know. In the beginning, I thought I would keep it organized, keep track of the characters I wrote down, and not repeat any characters. I quickly realized it’s pretty much impossible to keep track of characters since it takes time to find characters in my notebook. I’ve actually found that having to recheck and rewrite a character is helping me remember characters better.

For each character that I find myself not recognizing, I write down the character, the pronunciation, and the definition. Everything is in the same language because I’m not focusing on translation. If a definition has a character I don’t understand, I then look up that character. Sometimes I end up looking up multiple characters to understand the definition of one character. Even though looking up many characters can be tedious, online dictionaries make it easier and faster. It’s the act of writing that helps me remember.

Lately I became concerned that I was not improving the number of characters I recognized. However, after a few weeks of diligently looking up unknown characters, I have noticed that I have learned a few new characters. I don’t just write down the characters. I do use some free time here and there to flip through my notebook and review the characters. I have noticed that there are some characters that I have written down multiple times. Even though it can be a little annoying to see repeated characters and definitions, I think it helps me remember the characters to have to repeat some of them. At some point I’ll remember them!

Book Review: “Babel No More” by Michael Erard

“Babel No More” by Michael Erard focuses on a particular group of people who know and learn multiple languages, known as hyperpolyglots. Although I do not aspire to be a hyperpolyglot, I do like to read about languages and language learning.

I enjoyed the many stories about polyglots of past and present. Language is as much about the people who learn them as it is about the nuances of grammar and pronunciation. The book consists of multiple stories, some layered upon others. The overall story is that of Mezzofanti, a 19th century cardinal who was known to have spoke 72 languages. Erard takes on a journey to find out more about Mezzofanti and his secret to learning all those languages. I really don’t want to spoil it, you’ll have to read the book! Erard also introduces us to modern hyperpolyglots and their language habits. The personalities and characters of these hyperpolyglots are rather fun.

Some thoughts on native-like fluency, after the jump.

Bilingualism and the brain

Another article about bilingualism and the brain has appeared. I’ve posted about such studies before, but this time I want to respond to the comments that came with the article. It seems that some people are bothered by the concept that since children will learn English in school, parents are choosing to speak to their children in the non-English language. I believe this is one proper way of ensuring that your child is bilingual in America.

The only way for a child to be truly bilingual is to recreate learning the non-English language in the native environment. The children in the story were exposed to Hungarian as the only language until they started school. This would not be any different from a child being born in a non-English speaking country and arriving in an English speaking country during the toddler or early years. Young children learn languages fast, so it is not an issue at that age. Young children do not need to be actively taught a language, they absorb and process it in their own way. Part of learning a language not taught in school is that the parents need to reinforce the other language. Parents need to be proactive about teaching their children their non-English language.

In the U.S., where the primary language is English, it is necessary to reinforce the non-English language. Children will be exposed to English through TV, music, and school. But for the non-English language, the parents need to make an effort to keep the language in use through language schools and speaking at home. This would be the same in a foreign country if one were to provide children with ways to practice a secondary language, such as English. People may not agree with the tactics, but it is a method of ensuring that your child learns another language.

“Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power” – NPR

Which computer system is best for multiple languages?

I think I’ve had fairly reasonable exposure to different computer operating systems in my daily life. My home computer has the Windows OS. I’ve used Mac OS in the past and now use a version of it in the form of the iOS on my iPod Touch. I’ve used various flavors of Unix and Linux in school and work. I wonder which of the operating systems provide better support for reading and entering multiple languages? Are some easier to use for reading websites in different languages? Does one have a particularly good input method for Asian languages? I’d really like some suggestions for a multilingual computer.

The Windows OS has gotten better throughout the years in terms of language accessibility. At this point, I am able to change the language settings using the “Language bar.” It seems a little clunky at times, especially when I have to use my mouse to write Chinese characters. Sometimes I have to write it twice because the computer doesn’t recognize my writing – it’s hard using a computer mouse!

There is an alternate keyboard for Chinese input that shows up. It can be rather small and difficult to read. There are other keyboards for other Asian languages. However, the keys may not correspond to actual keyboard keys, so the mouse is needed to click on the so-called keyboard. The only other keyboard that seems to correspond to an actual keyboard is the one for Korean. However, it can be hard to type because one needs to make sure the corresponding keys are used for typing. This then results in a lot of looking up and down from the screen to the keyboard.

注音符號 keyboard in Windows OS

Hangul keyboard in Windows OS

My use of Unix and Linux has never given me administrator privileges, and I’m not able to change settings. I really don’t know what goes on “behind the scenes,” but based on what I’ve read, I’m pretty sure Linux is able to handle different languages and fonts.

If the full version of Mac OS is anywhere close to my experience with the iOS on the iPod Touch, then it might be the best for a multilingual computer. I am able to read websites on Safari without having to change the encoding. The iPod Touch is not necessarily ideal for all websites because the screen is small. I am quite impressed with the input method. I can directly use my fingers to press the screen and not an external keyboard. Entering Chinese characters by writing with my fingers seems to work well. I wonder how these properties translate to a full Mac OS system, using a full size keyboard and mouse. I’d like your thoughts!

Mental breakthrough about kanji

I haven’t made much progress in my Japanese studies. Even though I have learned hiragana and katakana, I still need to review all the characters. Regularly. I’ve probably already forgotten some, so I need to practice. The next step after learning hiragana and katakana is to start learning kanji. When I decided to start learning Japanese, someone told me that I would have an easier time with kanji because I know Chinese. However, it is a little tricky getting started. The characters may be identical or similar, but Chinese and Japanese are different languages. 漢字 (kanji) means Han characters in both Chinese and Japanese. The words are pronounced differently depending on if it is Japanese or Chinese. Furthermore, the meanings may also be different depending on the language. So, when I am looking at 漢字 for Japanese, I need to train my mind to turn off the Chinese reading.

My natural response to reading 日本語 is the Chinese reading (ri ben yu). However in the presence of other Japanese words, 日本語 becomes にほんご (nihongo). It is not an easy thing to do. I think I’ve gotten stuck for awhile because I could not get past that. I need to remind myself that Japanese is a separate language with separate rules for 漢字. I realized after a while that this should not be difficult for me because I am able to distinguish between English and French. After all, “one minute” and “une minute” both use the word “minute” with identical spellings. I pronounce the word differently depending on the context. So if I’m able to make that jump, I should be able to make a similar jump from Chinese to Japanese. The main point is that Japanese words came before the characters. The 漢字 were later used to represent these words. So instead of memorizing individual characters (as I do for Chinese), I need to learn Japanese 漢字 in context of other characters.

Word of the week #25: camellia

The word for this week was inspired by the article “A Camellia Preserve on an Island Known for Tabasco Peppers” from the NY Times. The article introduces the camellia that bloom on an island off of Louisiana. I tend to confuse camellia and peonies.

Chinese – 茶花 (cha hua)
Japanese – 椿 (つばき) (tsu ba ki)
Korean – 동백꽃 (dong baek kkot)

這是茶花, 不是牡丹。
This is camellia, not peony.

Credit: Free photos from

Credit: Free images from

Camellia are also used to make beauty products. One such product is camellia oil, which can be used for the skin or hair. I get my camellia hair oil from an Asian grocery store. I think it can also be purchased online.