Monday, November 20, 2006

Coded Language

Aside from not finding much time to study, my Korean language education has hit another, more unexpected snag. When I was learning Japanese I made great progress writing out (eventually 1,400) cue-cards with Japanese words in hiragana and katana as appropriate. While this didn't help me much with learning to read - most Japanese words are written in Chinese characters - it did wonders for my spoken Japanese and listening comprehension. But the modern Korean transliteration standard, while providing a basis for the pronunciation of words, doesn't always accurately represent the actual pronunciation, where syllables (arranged in blocks of characters) can change in sound depending on the immediately proceeding or succeeding syllable. This can mean 'ㅆ' forming a long 's' sound or a 't', or 'ㄹ' being a 'l' or an 'n'.

This presents a real problem in working through cue-cards, because it would be easy to start memorising incorrect pronunciations in a way that was very hard with Japanese. Since I didn't want to have to ask my girlfriend sit with me through every hour of study, reading each card as I drill through words and phrases, I looked for a solution.

Spurred on by the discovery yesterday evening of a 'Korean Audio Word of the Day' Google widget from Declan Software (which incidentally insists 순 translates as 'lip' which my girlfriend said was just plain wrong), I looked into whether Microsoft's text-to-speech would support Korean. Although I thought it was a vain hope to begin with, there did in fact turn out to be a Korean voice, but I couldn't get it to work with either XP, Office or Agents, which led me into third party and web-based tools, where I found this useful NeoSpeech demo page.

NeoSpeech led in turn to the discovery of TextAloud, where NeoSpeech and other compatible voices are sold. While a TextAloud demo succeeded in getting the Microsoft Korean voice to work, the quality was predictably robotic - though my girlfriend thought at first it was reading with a North Korean accent - make of this what you will... Having satisfied myself that a combination of TextAloud and the NeoSpeech Korean 'Yumi' voice was the best, I bought them. Purchasing was fairly painless but the voice file was a 550Mb download which took a while.

Later I went back to look at the Declan Software site again, and purchased their Korean Flashcards product. Initial impressions are that this is going to be really useful, as it provides audio alongside the flashcards and this should really accelerate my learning and pronunciation. However, there is a slight caveat. My girlfriend just shook her head on hearing some of the words and phrases saying there were either just wrong or used odd language that no-one would actually use. So I've started working through the 3,600 words and phrases deleting the ones she disagrees with and editing the English descriptions of others where she feels Declan's doesn't match her translation. It's great that the software allows this kind of functionality (I believe you can even add your own words and audio clips into the system), but it's a shame that I currently find myself deleting about 10% of what was in there. Anyway, as a former Windows developer it's not often I come across software that seems well-designed and really knows exactly what you want to do with it so well-done Declan, even if we're going to have to agree to disagree about some of your content.

This afternoon a Casio EW-K2500 electronic dictionary I'd ordered arrived, opening up a third-front in my attack on the Korean language. Although it's a little bigger than I expected (I really should have taken more care in measuring the dimensions), I'm intending to carry it around with me so I can try and translate things as I go. At the very least, it should give me something to do in restaurants while everyone else talks!


Dave said...

I'm loving your blog. I don't even remember how I stumbled onto it, but it's fantastic. I (mi-guk salam ida) lived in Korea 15 years ago and your blog is bringing back so many fond/crazy memories. In many ways, it sounds like nothing has changed (except maybe the cell phones).

Anyhow, good luck with the language. You've probably found plenty of resources and having a Korean girlfriend is helpful - I'm sure.

My friends and I found this book, and it's sequel to be quite handy in studying.

"Speaking Koreaan" by Francis Y.T. Park. It's an older book (relatively speaking), but I still think it's great and I pull it out occasionally to "refresh" my language skills.

Good luck. I look forward to more readings!

Mike said...

Thanks - I'm sure you're right that most things don't change - it's just the technology that gets upgraded.

The language progress is slow - too busy doing other things. Thanks for the book recommendation!

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike, thanks for writing your blog. I know what you mean about the learning process being slow. I've been learning Korean on and off for 4 years now and have recently got back "on" learning. It's bloody hard. Just because it seems that the more I learn, the more I know I don't know. It would be great to know more vocabulary. At the moment, I am trying to get into various types of "society" vocabulary, like the kinds that appears in newspapers and on TV-reports. It's hard though, especially for Westerners. For instance, I was in a class with a Japanese student, and she was very much able to identify Korean words by guessing their Chinese-character meaning. I however was not. She could also make her own words which could be understood by Koreans by manipulating Chinese characters into novel formations. Made me think about Korean learners of English and the difficulty of not knowing shared vocabulary based on French, Latin or Greek.

Anyway, thought you might like to have a look at the following link for learning Korean:

You can change the language settings by clicking on the relevant countries flag. It's for migrants to Korea. It's pretty good as it delivers university style lectures without the need to fork out for university fees.

Mike said...

Hi Hugh - I think this whole learning on and off business is one of my worst enemies sometimes. Because I'm doing an only hour or two a day, I feel I never really reach an immersion point where my learning reaches a 'critical mass' where I see an increasing return on my investment. What's more, the increasing length of time I feel I've been hacking away at the language has started to demotivate me - and probably convince me that I'm never going to become fluent. I'm finding it difficult to quit my job and study full time though. It will probably come in the end through sheer hard work, and sometimes that's the only way I guess. I think you're right - speakers of Asian languages generally take to Korean better than native-English speakers.

Thanks for the KDU link. I can't believe I hadn't heard of this - it looks interesting. Unfortunately it seems to be one of those sites that doesn't work in Chrome or Firefox so I'm a bit stumped as to how to proceed. I don't use IE8 for security reasons and more to the point it doesn't even work properly on my Windows desktop for some reason. I use Ubuntu a lot anyway these days, so that's even more of a problem.

Once again it seems people in Korea have had an idea about open learning and they've developed it on a closed system that excludes anyone not using Windows with IE. I'm not surprised :-) But thanks, I'll have to figure out a way of accessing it now.

Mike said...

Thanks again - I'll have a look at Vokabel. I've been using the open-source Anki application of late because the problem with Declan's Flashcards is it lacks a random option - so it wants me to either learn words and then mark them as learned never to be returned to (unrealistic), or otherwise I end up using it for full vocabulary tests every day (potentially long). Anki's advantage is in using an algorithm to select words on a rotating basis based on difficulty. It's not specifically built for Korean though, and it's not as intuitive as other solutions. I use TextAloud, the NeoSpeech "Yumi" voice (FTA) and mpTrim on Windows to create the audio - which is a surprisingly workable solution. Actually, I use this technique to fill in the gaps when Declan doesn't have downloadable audio.

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