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Posts tagged ‘mistakes’


How to keep New Year’s resolutions

We’re well settled into the new year and we’re all full of hopes and dreams for the next 12 months – learning a new language, getting fit, changing our job, travelling more. Most likely in the first week of the year you were super pumped, ready to drop anything to stick to your main goal(s).

By the time the second week came however, you kind of settled in, relaxed the rules a bit and got back to some of your old habits. When January’s over, your goal will be completely forgotten like it was never there and you’re going to be thinking ‘how silly of me to think that I could learn Spanish’.

That can be one of the ways the future looks. Let’s take a different turn. Lets push through the phase when we want to give up and see what happens. The other road is familiar but wouldn’t it be nice to see what else can happen? What if you did learn Spanish this year? You could read books in Spanish, and you could talk to other Spanish speakers, and on your next holiday in Spain you could strike up a conversation with a stranger and end up making new friends.

Studies have shown that the human brain tends to value immediate rewards more than future rewards. When you set a goal or a resolution you are in fact making plans for your future self and it ‘s easy to imagine how your life can look. But, when the time comes that you actively pursue that goal most people choose immediate gratification and opt to do what they feel like in the moment.

Now that we understand how our mind works, it’s time to find ways to stop this from happening.

  • Start slowly and build a ritual. Set yourself to practice for half an hour a day – that’s not too much to ask right? Offer yourself a reward after – if you’re learning a language with uTalk, the reward comes in the form of earning points and we all like to build up to a nice score, right?
  • Put aside some of your other tasks. Obviously not work or eating but if you usually browse the Internet while commuting why not replace that with your main goal?
  • Keep your eyes on the prize – never lose sight of your motivation. Look at pictures of beautiful Spanish landscapes and imagine yourself having a chat with the locals, or listen to Spanish songs and try to understand the lyrics.

Serious afro-american woman with painted muscular arms on chalkboard

I hope this helps you push through the temptation of giving up and will ultimately get you to your goal. And don’t worry about making mistakes; the only person who loses is the one that gives up, so no matter how slow you are going, it’s still better than if you weren’t doing anything.

And if your goal is to learn a language (or twelve…), there’s still time to join the uTalk Challenge!




Misadventures in self-studying a language

Today we welcome back English teacher Kelly Wang, to share a few of the mishaps she’s experienced while self-studying Finnish. Have any of these things happened to you? Or do you have a funny story from your language learning? Tell us about it in the comments!

PS Bonus points for anyone who can name all the cultural references in Kelly’s post, without clicking the links 😉

Navigating what’s available when you decide to study a language by yourself can be a bit of a minefield. Think less uncharted territory and more the pod grids in The Capitol.

So, approaching language learning like a novice Skyrim player, I set off on my journey with no idea what I needed in my arsenal and a vague understanding of my purpose, not the path I needed to reach it.

A quick glossing over of my language studying in school taught me that what I needed was:

Language learning resources1) a dictionary

2) a grammar guide

3) real-life examples

4) eventually, someone to practise with.

Now, all of these things can be found very easily on the internet. If you’re the kind of person who likes a book in their hand to remind them they are supposed to be studying, then away with you to Amazon. Be careful what you order, though. Who’d have thought a book entitled Finnish Grammar would actually be a novel and not a grammar guide?

Be careful with Google Translate

The first thing to get acquainted with was Google Translate. And I mean, acquainted with, not jumping into a long committed relationship with (excuse me while I shudder). Google Translate is like that semi-flakey friend who is amazing 75% of the time but when they let you down, how spectacularly do they do so. Treat it carefully, do not quote ad verbatim, and please, be careful who you practise your translation on. I have a Google Translate horror story about a eunuch and a sausage that will make your eyes water.

Learning Finnish with the Moomins

Next, I typed in ‘learn Finnish’, and an entire world opened up to me, like I was going through the wardrobe in search of Mr Tumnus.

I started with basic things like ‘essential vocabulary’ and in doing so rediscovered my childhood love of The Moomins. Stumbling across Verbix, an amazing verb conjugator, was both joyous and daunting. I only have one word to say and you will share my pain. Tenses. I can feel you tremble…

Once I had a few words I felt comfortable with (thank you, YouTube) and confident enough to string together a simple ‘Hi, I’m Kelly, I’m from England’, I decided that practising with real people could be fun, but from the safety of my home, with a cursor poised over the X in the corner, in case it all got too much.

Time to get real…

There are so many sites to choose from, and I admit, too many choices leaves me bewildered and rocking in a corner. I eventually chose one that covered many bases: easy online lessons, forums, instant chat, video optional. All started promisingly. I gained a few exchange partners, learnt some colloquialisms, and all was well.

… but not that real

Pitfalls of language learningUntil, completely out of the blue, one of my partners decided that our instant message practice was not enough. We needed to speak on Skype. Naked. And sent me a picture to… entice me. Wide-eyed and relatively naive to people and their … ways … I quietly pressed delete and backed away, slowly. In some kind of bizarre legacy, his use of the word ‘sausage’ in Finnish at that moment comes back to me every time I pass a delicatessen.

I decided to try some faceless mobile language apps instead. So, I opened a free demo version and to my cheek-blushing horror, the response was pretty much the same, only with no, um, language foreplay.

Moving along…

A little tainted by the world, I continued studying on my own with various websites including online Finnish newspapers, hockey sites, and so on. I also started trying to translate songs I liked and became firm friends with a website called Lyric Translate. And I decided to look for a penpal, or rather an e-penpal. With emails there would be time to compose a message and hopefully, less chance of an impromptu proposition.

Swearwords and polygamy

Learning swearwords in another languageNow this was actually a huge turning point in my studying. This method built my confidence, taught me the difference between ‘real’ and ‘textbook’ responses, and naturally, I learnt swearwords. Very exciting times.

My e-penpal was incredibly patient with me and even though I said many a wrong thing – like the time Google Translate managed to convince him I was in a polygamous marriage, rather than sharing a house with friends – I got pretty good.

I joined an ‘international’ website that essentially felt like a mix between Facebook for language learners and live action e-penpals. Undeterred by numerous marriage proposals, assurance that I was a long lost princess and should return to my land to reclaim my throne for the negligible sum of €250,000, and the offer of a goat (I don’t have an explanation for that), I used my block button with finesse to avoid too much strangeness, and made some good friends along the way. Who are actual, real people that I have met in person and argued about ice hockey with.

And so…

Now, I’d love to tell you that I am now fluent in Finnish. I can’t. Because, for the very simple reason, I did not keep up the practice. Back when I was speaking in Finnish in one form or another on a daily basis, I was decent. Now that I don’t use Finnish regularly, hockey commentary has gone back to sounding like Dothraki and there’s not even a Khal Drogo to comfort me. (I prefer the books, in case you wondered). I can, however, still virtually ‘pick up’ the Helsingin Sanomat and understand a reasonable amount. Not enough, though, not nearly enough.

One day I’ll get back to it, I will…

Do you have any funny or embarrassing stories from your language learning adventures? We’d love to hear about it!




Quote of the week: 11 Apr 2015

“Mistakes – call them unexpected learning experiences.” Richard Bach

"Mistakes - call them unexpected learning experiences." Richard BachFor more like this, find us on Pinterest or We Heart It.


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Just how bad was Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin anyway?

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg shocked the world by taking part in a 30-minute Q&A session in Mandarin Chinese. And we were all super impressed.

It was obvious, even to a non-Mandarin speaker, that he wasn’t completely fluent, but he managed to keep going for almost the full half hour, and his audience at Tsinghua University in Beijing seemed to enjoy his jokes, and his efforts at speaking their language. And it all sounded pretty good to me.

Which just goes to show how much I know. Not too long after the video appeared online, Isaac Stone Fish, Asia Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine, gave his assessment of the Facebook CEO’s efforts: ‘in a word, terrible’. The headline of the piece was, ‘Mark Zuckerberg speaks Mandarin like a seven-year-old’. Ouch.

Since the article was published, people have been jumping into the debate left, right and centre with their own opinions on how he did. James Fallows, writing for The Atlantic, said that Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin ‘as if he had never heard of the all-important Chinese concept of tones’, whereas Mark Rowswell, a Canadian comic who’s fluent in Mandarin and famous throughout China, took to Twitter with a more balanced view.

Meanwhile, Kevin Slaten, program coordinator at China Labor Watch, was more concerned about the message being given out by Stone Fish’s article. Mark Zuckerberg, after all, is used to bad press and is hardly likely to be put off by a few negative comments. But Slaten looks at the bigger picture: ‘What is Stone Fish, a “China expert”, telling these students of Chinese when he is tearing down a notable person for speaking non-standard Mandarin? He’s telling them, “you’ll be laughed at”’.

Personally, I don’t know how good Zuckerberg’s Mandarin was. It sounded good to me, and as someone who really struggles with nerves when speaking another language, especially to native speakers, I’m pretty much in awe that he had the confidence to give it a go, particularly since it was a Q&A session, not a prepared presentation. (Not that I think Mark Zuckerberg is particularly short on confidence, but you know what I mean.) Had the audience sat there shaking their heads, looking confused or angry, things might be different, but they clearly appreciated the effort he’d put in, so who am I to judge?

Making mistakes is part of learning a language. Everyone has a funny or embarrassing story about a time they used the wrong word, or – in the case of languages like Mandarin or Thai – got the tone slightly incorrect and ended up saying something completely different than what they intended. There’s no shame in it, and in my experience, people appreciate the effort made. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have to do that interview in Mandarin. He could have done what was expected of him and spoken English. And maybe he messed it up, but I bet everyone in that audience went home with a smile on their face (even if it was more from amusement than anything else).

Isaac Stone Fish has since responded to the criticism of his criticism, stating that his issue was with the media outlets who described Zuckerberg’s Mandarin as fluent, when it wasn’t. Which is fair enough, and maybe some of his comments were taken out of context, but I think the main point stands.

There’s a quote by Abraham Lincoln: ‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.’ I don’t agree, at least not in the context of language learning. I say speak out, remove all doubt, have a laugh about it, and then learn from the experience. Otherwise, how will you ever get any better?

So let’s give Mark Zuckerberg – and every other language learner on the planet – a break.

What did you make of the Facebook boss’s Mandarin? Have you ever surprised people by speaking their language?




Translation mistakes – not just for laughs

Today we have a guest post from language company, thebigword, on famous translation mistakes, some of which had serious consequences. Mistakes are common, and to be expected, when you’re learning a language – but when it really matters, it’s important to get it right!

Over the years there have been many translation ‘slip ups’ and faux pas, and whilst the mistakes may seem funny some can have a far more serious impact. Reputable language solution agencies such as thebigword, specialise in international translation and you can bet your bottom dollar that they wouldn’t be caught making slip ups like the following.

There have been many incidences over the years where mis-translation can go from highly amusing to potentially life damaging. For example, Mead Johnson Nutritionals in 2003 had a case raised against them when 4.6 million cans of baby food had to be recalled. The translation error, which was caused by effectively being lazy, meant that the prescribed recipe translated into Spanish could have caused massive health issues, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Exchange ratesBusinesses and the world financial markets have also paid the price at the hands of poor translation, most notably when the price of the U.S. dollar was sent spiralling after an incorrect translation of an article by Guan Xiangdong for the China News Service. Guan’s original piece was meant to be a speculative overview of a series of financial reports, but instead it was translated in a more aggressive tone, which ultimately made readers in the U.S. think it was an authoritative warning and they should move their money and sell shares.

The Chicago Tribune published a highly shareable article not that long ago when it collated a series of images captured by tourists on their worldly travels. Examples from China included, ‘man toilet’ and ‘The government decides to cracking down fakes intensively for another three years’. However, our favourite has to be, ‘Because there is the situation when a step is bad, please be careful’. We’re pretty positive that was meant to say ‘mind your step’.

Of course, no faux pas goes unnoticed in the world of marketing, where language on billboards or even newspaper advertising isn’t missed by the most ardent observer.

The popular Dairy Association campaign, ‘Got Milk?’, raised an eyebrow or two when in Mexico it was translated to ‘Are you lactating?’ And in France, Colgate produced a new range of toothpaste called Cue; little did anyone realise that it had the same name as a well-known adult magazine. Now that is what we call a faux pas!

Do you have any favourite translation errors? Please share them in the comments below.