My Dictionary / Translation Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

Happy Winter Solstice Everyone!

Inspired by my previous article in which I detailed the various strengths and weaknesses of my language learning apps, here I am in another direction—looking at my dictionary and translation apps.

And again, you can probably guess which one leads the list. Not in terms of quality, per se, but in terms of recognition…

Google Translate

Good: Excellent for phrases, alternate translations readily provided, text-to-speech very good when it is provided, enables users to meaningfully contribute and correct any issues, some offline support available

Bad: Support worse for the rarer languages by a significant margin, transliteration sometimes lacking or confusing, not to be used in translating large swathes of text from languages that don’t have a lot of political power, the general problems with machine translation are present (e.g. not specifying gender-specific language or formality registers), usually not a place to turn to help if you are an absolute beginner.

I’ll go into each of these:

Excellent for phrases – This is the biggest drawcard of Google Translate. Simple things you may need in conversation (e.g. “I don’t feel well”, “you are beautiful”, “have fun!”) will be accurately provided and noted with a check-mark, indicating that the translation community of native speakers have found the phrase overwhelmingly accurate. (This can still have some issues e.g. with the Burmese gender-specific versions of “I” both being marked with a check, but if I refer to myself with a female pronoun then I would turn heads).

Alternate translations readily provided – Define a single word and you’ll get synonyms and related words. If you write a conjugated verb (e.g. “eaten”) you’ll get the infinitive form underneath (“to eat”). Helpful if you’re trying to wrap your head around complicated verb systems (such as in the Romance Languages or Finno-Ugric Languages).

Text-to-speech very good when it is provided – I also see no issues with the tones either (in Thai or Vietnamese, for example).

Enables users to meaningfully contribute and correct any issues – I’ve gone ape on some of the Yiddish “translations” available and provided correct versions. You can do the same with your fluent languages as well.

Some offline support available – SUPER helpful if you’re doing “immersion” out of your home country and you don’t have coverage. The sad reality is that it doesn’t exist for every language available in Google Translate.

Support worse for the rarer languages by a significant margin – Burmese song lyrics look like word salad when machine translated into English. Languages like Samoan, Irish and Yiddish tend to not fare much better.

Transliteration sometimes lacking or confusing – So in Lao some of the vowels go before the letter and others go on top or after it. Google Translate has difficulty rendering this into transliteration so what it does it render ແຂວງ (the Lao word for “Province”, pronounced “khwε̌εŋ”) as “aekhuang” in transliteration. Urdu and Persian don’t even have transliteration as of the time of writing.

Not to be used in translating large swathes of text from languages that don’t have a lot of political power

machine translation says no

The general problems with machine translation are present (e.g. not specifying gender-specific language or formality registers) – No further explanation needed.

Usually not a place to turn to help if you are an absolute beginner – And I probably didn’t even need to tell you that.

 

Glosbe

Good: Aims to be THE LARGEST collection of language combinations anywhere, HUGE translation memory, translation memory hugely reliable, indispensable for learning languages from the developing world.

Bad: Long list of languages that requires you to ctrl-f frequently, no telling which languages have good representation in the translation memory or not except by trial and error, sometimes the quotation mark function can be wonky and give you all forms of the words in quotes rather than the specific phrase you’re asking for.

A godsend for my studies of languages of Oceania, Glosbe is something I highly recommend to anyone whether you’re learning Spanish or whether you’re learning Marquesan. The translation memory, which includes collections of subtitles, phrase databases and missionary materials is VERY well put together with over 1 BILLION entries in it across hundreds of languages.

If you’re learning a language from the developed world, like Italian, Finnish or Bulgarian, you’ll find the collections from OpenSubtitles very useful as they are built into the translation memories. However, if you’re learning a rarer language with a developing country, don’t lose hope! A lot of materials from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon Church have also been rendered into many of those languages as well. And even in English Creole languages like Tok Pisin, they’ll try to stay away from English loan words as much as humanly possible in their translations.

I haven’t noticed any significant issues with the translations themselves (although one time a Samoan sentence showed up in the Marshallese database!). You can also find very specific phrases as well and genuinely learn sentence structure. Even if you’re stuck with only using missionary material, you WILL find sentences that will be genuinely useful for conversations.

This is probably one of the most powerful language tools in existence right now and you NEED to be using this.

Freelang

Good: HUGE collection of languages, user-friendly, not a lot of typing required, a built-in quiz game, some of the dictionaries are VERY thorough (e.g. the Finnish-English one has scientific vocabulary), all dictionaries are reversible, dictionaries from English, Spanish and French all in huge quantities (some of them are unique to one particular language, e.g. Galician-Spanish), all dictionaries can be downloaded for offline usage, you can also print dictionaries from the computer (or use the print preview function to get them in another format).

Bad: Quiz game can be confusing, not a lot of grammar, some of the dictionaries are small but good nonetheless, some special characters get jarbled, transliterations can sometimes be an issue

Freelang dictionaries are VERY useful for advanced beginners to…well, advanced speakers, even. But it does depend on the language. Because your language can have anywhere from 400 entries to 40,000…but the entries are usually helpful regardless of how small the dictionary is!

Also the collection of languages is STAGGERING. And no problem with offline usage at all (provided you install the dictionaries you want while you’re online).

There is also an in-built quiz machine you can use. You can choose words from the dictionary to go on your study list. In older versions in the early 2010’s I could figure this feature out but not so much anymore. Maybe someone from Freelang is reading this. J

Overall a very good tool that has been, again, indispensable for my studies.

Anki

Not really a good bad anything: You can use it as a dictionary if you put enough flashcards in it. You can also convert Memrise courses to Anki as well and use THEM as dictionaries.

I can’t find of a decent way to end this article. Let me know what dictionary apps YOU find useful.

First Day of Tumbuka (Using uTalk Only) … How Did it Go?

I’ll make this easy reading.

For those who didn’t read my post yesterday, I decided to set myself a more dare-devilish goal (in line with a greater self-improvement related goal that I am likely to unveil tomorrow).

For one year (from this year’s one-week-before-Rosh-Hashanah until that of the next year), I would use ONLY one app to learn Tumbuka (a regional language of Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania). The only other resource I am allowed to use is CHANCE conversations with speakers (because this opportunity, if it presents itself, will be essential for the project).

I completed the first skill and unlocked another one – said first skill was filled with basic phrases like “how much does this cost?” “yes”, “no”, “I don’t understand” etc. (Omniglot.com fare, mostly, but less extensive).

I’ll see if I can go through a whole skill every day, if not that then a half-skill. I may also need to go to some other courses to “get more coins” to unlock stuff – something that would not be difficult as long as I want to endure fit-for-children voices in languages I’ve been studying for years now.

Some thoughts:

  • I quite like it! I’m already quite equipped to…pretty much say everything that I learned, with maybe one or two exceptions.
  • The temptation to use a notebook, Wikipedia or Memrise is a great one. But I have to resist it for the sake of science.
  • The pronunciation is straightforward and the app presents MANDATORY recording of your voice in order to complete some activities (in the 1990’s this would be an issue but not so in the smartphone era).
  • So far, absolutely no grammar coverage at all in the curriculum. But I guess this will make this “mission” very interesting, it being the first language in adulthood in which I am not learning grammar for in a “scholarly” manner.
  • In misremembering words in the recording phases, I defaulted to patterns I recognized from…languages of Oceania or Greenlandic. Given that I was also using THOSE languages in uTalk, perhaps not altogether surprising.
  • I like the hippo. I still quite like the hippo. Perhaps I will meet the hippo one day. Or not.

 

Some rules I’m laying out for this challenge:

  • The PRIMARY GOAL is to complete the course (every single skill marked with a check and every activity done) a year from yesterday.
  • My goal should be to COMPLETE a skill every day.
  • If necessary, I can review a skill to fulfill this requirement.
  • I MAY NOT USE ANYTHING ELSE TO LEARN TUMBUKA DURING THE YEAR. No Memrise, no books, no writing exercises, no Glosbe – nothing but uTalk and CHANCE conversations with fluent speakers. Granted given that I didn’t even know what it was two weeks ago, I don’t think this should be much of an issue. (I have met people from Zambia before in real life, however…speaking of which, I should update that list on my blog…)
  • During vacations or periods of holiday or illness, I am exempt from using the app on a daily basis.
  • When the challenge is complete after one year, I may choose to either write a blogpost about the experience or film myself speaking Tumbuka.

 

(I’ll also write another “diary entry” one week out and another one a month out or so, and possibly one every month after that.)

 

Well this is going to be an interesting year. If only I can keep myself consistently motivated. Let’s see if I can do it!

tumbuka

Is Fiji Hindi the Hardest Language I’ve Learned to Date? (And Resources to Learn Fiji Hindi)

While I’ve been doing some light studying of Fiji Hindi on and off since October 2017 on my YouTube channel, I only began studying Fiji Hindi in earnest about a week and a half ago, having made it my primary project for April 2018 given that I’ve become ever more comfortable with Fijian.

Yes, I’ve been getting significant pressure to focus more on Standard Hindi (mostly from people who know very little if not in fact nothing about Fiji), but Fiji Hindi it is, because it is the “language of the heart” concerning pretty much all Indo-Fijians. Standard Hindi may be useful but my first priority is ensuring that I can manage Fiji Hindi well enough (because pretty much nowhere else online have I encountered anyone doing what I’m doing with Fiji Hindi right now).

I’ve made four recordings in Fiji Hindi thus far for the 30-Day Speaking Challenge and already I’ve noticed a drastic improvement in me being able to put sentences together. That said, I still speak in a very simple manner and come NOWHERE CLOSE to being able to ask for directions / order things in restaurants using only Fiji Hindi.

The process of making those recordings, on the other hand, has been difficult for a number of reasons:

While Fiji Hindi is, from the perspective of linguistic concepts, not too difficult (Palauan and Greenlandic required a lot of mind-bending), from the perspective of resources it has been the most difficult language I’ve encountered.

At least with Fijian I had phrasebooks. With Palauan I had a good website (tekinged.com). With Kiribati / Gilbertese I had a good textbook as well as several thorough online dictionaries.

For Fiji Hindi, I’ve haven’t had as many materials that have significantly eased the process for me. There is the Glosbe Sentence dictionary, as well as the Live Lingua Project (look under Fijian for the Fiji Hindi Course!), not also to mention a series of good grammar books (available on Google) and an excellent Memrise Course.

Oh! And there’s Wikipedia available in Fiji Hindi as well (https://hif.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pahila_Panna).

For dictionaries, I use Glosbe’s sentence translations, the CTRL-F function on various books, and this dictionary which tends to be very clearly hit-or-miss (http://www.oocities.org/fijihindi/FijiHindiEnglishDict.htm). For verb conjugations there’s Wikiversity (from which I compiled this video walking you through the conjugations):

That said, a lot of these materials have been inconsistent in multiple ways (e.g. writing systems, the grammar book even uses the Devanagari script which even the Wikipedia [intended for native speakers] doesn’t use, the Peace Corps book uses upside-down e’s and the Memrise course doesn’t [and neither does the Wikipedia or the small bit of the Lonely Planet South Pacific Phrasebook devoted to Fiji Hindi]).

In a sense, this language has been very hard because even sculpting a SIMPLE SENTENCE can take multiple cross-references of all of these materials as well as using Google Search’s function to find out how legitimate (or not) a simple phrase is (to do this, use quotation marks to ensure that the EXACT combination of words you’re looking for exists somewhere. This can [and usually does] work even for languages with small internet presences!)

There’s also Fiji Indian TV (at http://www.fijiindiantv.com/ , with a lot of their videos hosted on YouTube) and the amount of English loan words used is staggering (and a friend of mine, Kevin Fei Sun of Bahasantara [https://medium.com/bahasantara] gave me fair warnings about how commonly they’re used even in Standard Hindi). I’ve been using this to ensure that my accent is…well…better…in some respect…because both in person and on YouTube I’ve had people telling me that I “sound like a white person” when I speak Fiji Hindi.

Maybe all I need is more effort and speaking practice invested in Fiji Hindi and the problem will “go away”. But if you’ve ever had this issue with Indo-Aryan Languages (regardless of what race you are), then do let me know! I’m always ready to hear inspiring stories!

After a week or two of recordings, I’ll set in place goals to ensure that I don’t have “gaps” in my Fiji Hindi vocabulary, much like I did with Fijian in February and March.

By the way, the March 2018 30-Days-of-Fijian recording WILL be up by next week!

This is the beginning of what promises to be a very exciting journey!

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I Want to Learn Tok Pisin. What Do I Do?

The most commonly spoken language of the country in the world with the most languages, Tok Pisin is a language that unites Papua New Guinea and its manifold ethnicities. My first English Creole Language, Tok Pisin was described by a friend of mine as “Jamaican Patois that seems completely unintelligible to the native English speaker”.

Let’s head over to Glosbe, a fantastic resource that combines the dictionary and sentence database in many languages of the world, and look at a sample sentence to see how much of it you can understand:

“Em i nambawan gutpela pasin bilong laikim ol narapela, olsem God Jehova yet i kamapim.”

Rendered by the English translation as:

It is the highest form of love, as exemplified in Jehovah God himself.

But try looking at it this way:

“Him is number one good fellow fashion belong like him all ‘nother fellow all same God Jehova yet is come up him”

And let’s try the sentence after that (I looked up “love”  in Glosbe and that’s where I’m getting these sentences from)

6 Ol gutpela wasman i wok strong long tingim olgeta wan wan sipsip long kongrigesen.

(6 Loving Christian shepherds endeavor to show personal interest in each sheep in the congregation.)

Rendered literally:

“Six all good fellow watch man is work strong long think him altogether one one sheep sheep long congregation”

If you’re learning a language from the developing world, as thing stand, you’ll encounter a LOT of materials for Christian missionaries. Tok Pisin is no exception to this.

Tok Pisin is a fascinating language and the first one that I acquired a C2 level in (which is denotes being able to understand pretty much everything and use very, very well). My interest was sparked in it as a result of my father’s travels in Papua New Guinea (in Port Moresby and Madang in particular).

Various opportunities that Tok Pisin provide include:

  • A growing community of L2 learners from throughout the world, and not just in Oceania.
  • Fascinating music that is very homemade but also unforgettable and honest.
  • News reports and radio in Tok Pisin that portray the manifold struggles of what it is to be a developing country right now.
  • If you do live in Australia or nearby, many employment opportunities (especially if you work in medicine or similar fields).
  • Even if you don’t live in Australia, translators for Tok Pisin and other languages for Oceania seem to be fairly sought after!
  • Travel opportunities in the PNG heartlands.

So let’s introduce you on how to start the journey, shall we?

For one, a book I would highly recommend for beginners is the increasingly available Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook, which includes Tok Pisin and its grammar explained in detail, not also to mention cultural notes, as well as other sections in that book on Bislama (Vanuatu) and Pijin (Solomon Islands)

These two languages, while more closely related to each other, are also more closely related to English and use slightly more complicated prepositions. In Bislama the verb system has an element of vowel harmony as well that Tok Pisin doesn’t have. Bislama also has more French influence than either Pijin or Tok Pisin. Tok Pisin also has notable German influence as well, and so to say “even though” or “it doesn’t matter” you say “maski” which is a form of “macht nichts” (“never mind”, or “don’t do anything”)

German missionaries were in the process of standardizing Tok Pisin and spreading its usage but then World War I happened which through a wrench in the whole process. (Yes, Germany had a colonial empire in that area of the world, Nauru also was one of their holdings as well).

Anyhow, the Lonely Planet Book doesn’t have a dictionary but will provide very useful phrases as well as the most essential and clear grammar guide that you can ask for.

The Live Lingua Project also has its own Tok Pisin textbook that is written in more detail.

After that you can put “Redio Tok Pisin” into YouTube and rehearse your skills, not also to mention various materials for governments, industries and yes, missionaries:

An essential resource as well as is a Tok Pisin Memrise course that has 2400 words which are essential for having fluid conversations. This course was ESSENTIAL for me becoming fluent in the language. You can find it here: https://www.memrise.com/course/135215/tok-pisin-2400/

(You can access this course from the desktop and then if you connect the Memrise app to your account, you can access it [and all other user-made courses] in the app as well).

I also have the Anki Version of this course as well (ask me if you want me to send it to you).

What’s more, Tok Pisin also has a “website” (https://www.tok-pisin.com/).

Other resources would include Wantok Niuspepa, the one Tok Pisin Language newspaper still remaining in Papua New Guinea and EMTV Online (which broadcasts smaller things more readily accessible for beginners).

You’ll notice that in some materials, especially distributed in cities or towns, that there is a bit of a “hopping” between English and Tok Pisin, and the usage of English is, obviously, spreading. That said, Tok Pisin is still a very important element of PNG culture and still the most commonly spoken language in Papua New Guinea.

Lastly, Wikipedia has a Tok Pisin edition at: https://tpi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran_pes

Keep in mind that while native speakers of Tok Pisin exist, most speakers of the language will speak it fluently as a second language (as some people of Papua New Guinea may also know English). This means that already you have a chance to be on equal footing with most people who speak it.

Mi hop olsem bai yu laikim Tok Pisin tumas! (I hope you will like Tok Pisin a lot!)

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