Great Solo Asian Trip Part 2: Languages of East Asia

This is the second blog post in my two-part series on my 4-month trip to Asia. Here is part one. In this second blog post, I will focus on the languages I encountered in Asia and my attempts at learning them.

I’ve always enjoyed learning languages (here is a video of me speaking a bunch of them) — and Asia is a very linguistically diverse place compared to North America, with almost every country speaking a different language. So in every country I visited, I tried to learn the language as best as I could. Realistically, it’s not possible to go from zero to fluency in the span of a vacation, but you can actually learn a decent amount in a week or two. Travelling in a foreign country is a great motivator for learning languages, and I found myself learning new words much faster than I did studying it at home.

I went to five countries on this trip, in chronological order: China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

China

In the first month of my trip, I went to a bunch of cities in China with my mom and sister. For the most part, there wasn’t much language learning, as I already spoke Mandarin fluently.

One of the regions we went to was Xishuangbanna, in southern Yunnan province. Xishuangbanna is a special autonomous prefecture, designated by the Chinese government for the Dai ethnic minority. The outer fringes of China are filled with various groups of non-Chinese minority groups, each with their own unique culture and language. Home to 25 officially recognized ethnic groups and countless more unrecognized ones, Yunnan is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world.

1Above: Bilingual signs in Chinese and Dai in Jinghong

In practice, recent migration of the Chinese into the region meant that even in Xishuangbanna, the Han Chinese outnumber the local Dai people, and Mandarin is spoken everywhere. In the streets of Jinghong, you can see bilingual signs written in Mandarin and the Dai language (a language related to Thai). Their language is written in the Tai Lue script, which looks pretty cool, but I never got a chance to learn it.


Next stop on my trip was Hong Kong. The local language here is Cantonese, which shares a lot of similar vocabulary and grammatical structure with my native Mandarin, since they were both descended from Middle Chinese about 1500 years ago. However, a millennium of sound changes means that today, Mandarin and Cantonese are quite different languages and are not at all mutually intelligible.

I was eager to practice my Cantonese in my two days in Hong Kong, but found that whenever I said something incorrect, they would give me a weird look and immediately switch to Mandarin or English. Indeed, learning a language is very difficult when everybody in that country is fluent in English. Oh well.

Japan

A lot of travellers complain that the locals speak no English; you don’t often hear of complaints that their English is too good! Well, Japan did not leave me disappointed. Although everyone studies English in school, most people have little practice actually using it, so Japan is ranked near the bottom in English proficiency among developed nations. Perfect!

Before coming to Japan, I already knew a decent amount of Japanese, mostly from watching lots of anime. However, there are very few Japanese people in Canada, so I didn’t have much practice actually speaking it.

I was in Japan for one and a half months, the most of any single country of this trip. In order to accelerate my Japanese learning process, I enrolled in classes at a Japanese language school and stayed with a Japanese homestay family. This way, I learned formal grammatical structures in school and got conversation practice at home. I wrote a more detailed blog post here about this part of the trip.


Phonologically, Japanese is an easy language to pronounce because it has a relatively small number of consonants and only five vowels. There are no tones, and every syllable has form CV (consonant followed by a vowel). Therefore, an English speaker will have a much easier time pronouncing Japanese correctly than the other way around.

Grammatically, Japanese has a few oddities that take some time to get used to. First, the subject of a sentence is usually omitted, so the same phrase can mean “I have an apple” or “he has an apple”. Second, every time you use a verb, you have to decide between the casual form (used between friends and family) or the polite form (used when talking to strangers). Think of verb conjugations, but instead of verb endings differing by subject, they’re conjugated based on politeness level.

The word order of Japanese is also quite different from English. Japanese is an agglutinative language, so you can form really long words by attaching various suffixes to verbs. For example:

  • iku: (I/you/he) goes
  • ikanai: (I/you/he) doesn’t go
  • ikitai: (I/you/he) wants to go
  • ikitakunai: (I/you/he) doesn’t want to go
  • ikanakatta: (I/you/he) didn’t go
  • ikitakunakatta: (I/you/he) didn’t want to go
  • etc…

None of this makes Japanese fundamentally hard, just different from a lot of other languages. This also explains why Google Translate sucks so much at Japanese. When translating Japanese to English, the subjects of sentences are implicit in Japanese but must be explicit in English; when translating English to Japanese, the politeness level is implicit in English but must be explicit in Japanese.

One more thing to beware of is the Japanese pitch accent. Although it’s nowhere close to a full tonal system like Chinese, stressed syllables have a slightly higher pitch. For example, the word “kirei” (pretty) has a pitch accent on the first syllable: “KI-rei”. Once I messed this up and put the accent on the second syllable instead: “ki-REI”, but unbeknownst to me, to native Japanese this sounds like “kirai” (to hate), which has the accent on the second syllable. So I meant to say “nihon wa kirei desu” (Japan is pretty) but it sounded more like “nihon wa kirai desu” (I hate Japan)!

2.png

That was quite an awkward moment.

When I headed west from Tokyo into the Kansai region of Kyoto and Osaka, I noticed a bit of dialectal variation. The “u” in “desu” is a lot more drawn out, and the copula “da” was replaced with “ya”, so on the streets of Kyoto I’d hear a lot of “yakedo” instead of “dakedo” in Tokyo. I got to practice my Japanese with my Kyoto Airbnb host every night, and picked up a few words of the Kansai dialect. For example:

  • ookini: thank you (Tokyo dialect: arigatou)
  • akan: no good (Tokyo dialect: dame)
  • okan: mother (Tokyo dialect: okaasan)

The writing system of Japanese is quite unique and deserves a mention. It actually has three writing systems: the Hiragana syllabary for grammatical particles, the Katakana syllabary for foreign loanwords, and Kanji, logographic characters borrowed from Chinese. A Kanji character can be read in several different ways. Typically, when you have two or more Kanji together, it’s a loanword from Chinese read using a Chinese-like pronunciation (eg: novel, 小説 is read shousetsu) but when you have a single Kanji character followed by a bunch of Hiragana, it’s a Japanese word that means the same thing but sounds nothing like the Chinese word (eg: small, 小さい is read chiisai).

The logographic nature of Kanji is immensely helpful for Chinese people learning Japanese. You get the etymology of every Chinese loanword, and you get to “read” texts well above your level as you know the meaning of most words (although it gives you no information on how the word is pronounced).

My Japanese improved a lot during my 6 weeks in the country. By the time I got to Fukuoka, at the western end of Japan, I had no problems holding a conversation for 30 minutes with locals in a restaurant (provided they speak slowly, of course). It’s been one of my most rewarding language learning experiences to date.

South Korea

From Fukuoka, I traveled across the sea for a mere three hours, on a boat going at a speed slower than a car on a freeway, and landed in a new country. Suddenly, the script on the signs were different, and the language on the street once again strange and unfamiliar. You can’t get the same satisfaction arriving in an airplane.

IMG_2240 (Medium)Above: Busan, my first stop in Korea

Of course, I was in the city of Busan, in South Korea. I was a bit nervous coming here, since it was the first time in my life that I’d been in a country where I wasn’t at least conversationally proficient in the language. Indeed, procuring a SIM card on my first day entailed a combination of me trying to speak broken Korean, them trying to speak broken English, hand gesturing, and (shamefully) Google Translate.

Before coming to Korea, I knew how to read Hangul (the Korean writing system) and a couple dozen words and phrases I picked up from Kpop and my university’s Korean language club. I also tried taking Korean lessons on italki (a language learning website) and various textbooks, but the language never really “clicked” for me, and now I still can’t hold a conversation in Korean for very long.

I suspect the reason has to do with passive knowledge: I’ve had a lot of exposure to Japanese from hundreds of hours of watching anime, but nowhere near as much exposure to Korean. Passive knowledge is important because humans learn language from data, and given enough data, we pick up on a lot of grammatical patterns without explicitly learning them.

Also, studying Kpop song lyrics is not a very effective way to learn Korean. The word distribution in song lyrics is sufficiently different from the word distribution in conversation that studying song lyrics would likely make you better at understanding other songs but not that much better at speaking Korean.


Grammatically, Japanese and Korean are very similar: they have nearly identical word order, and grammatical particles almost have a one-to-one correspondence. They both conjugate verbs differently based on politeness, and form complex words by gluing together suffixes to the end of verbs. The grammar of the two languages are so similar that you can almost translate Japanese to Korean just by translating each morpheme and without changing the order — and both are very different from Chinese, the other major language spoken in the region.

Phonologically, Korean is a lot more complex than Japanese, which is bad news for language learners. Korean has about twice as many different vowels as Japanese, and a few more consonants as well. Even more, Korean maintains a three-way distinction for many consonants: for example, the ‘b’ sound has a plain version (불: bul), an aspirated version (풀: pul), and a tense version (뿔: ppul). I had a lot of difficulty telling these sounds apart, and often had to guess many combinations to find a word in the dictionary.

Unlike Chinese and Japanese, Korean does not use a logographic writing system. In Hangul, each word spells out how the word sounds phonetically, and the system is quite regular. On one hand, this means that Hangul can be learned in a day, but on the other hand, it’s not terribly useful to be able to sound out Korean text without knowing what anything means. I actually prefer the Japanese logographic system, since it makes the Chinese cognates a lot clearer. In fact, about 60% of Korean’s vocabulary are Chinese loanwords, but with a phonetic writing system, it’s not always easy to identify what they are.

Vietnam

The next country on my trip was Vietnam. I learned a few phrases from a Pimsleur audio course, but apart from that, I knew very little about the Vietnamese language coming in. The places I stayed were sufficiently touristy that most people spoke enough English to get by, but not so fluently as to make learning the language pointless.

Vietnamese is a tonal language, like Mandarin and Cantonese. It has 6 tones, but they’re quite different from the tones in Mandarin (which has 4-5). At a casual glance, Vietnamese may sound similar to Chinese, but the languages are unrelated and there is little shared vocabulary.

3Above: Comparison between Mandarin tones (above) and Vietnamese tones (below)

Vietnamese syllables have a wide variety of distinct vowel diphthongs; multiplied with the number of tones, this means that there are a huge number of distinct syllables. By the laws of information theory, this also means that one Vietnamese syllable contains a lot of information — I was often surprised at words that were one syllable in Vietnamese but two syllables in Mandarin.

My Vietnamese pronunciation must have sounded very strange to the locals: often, when I said something, they would understand what I said, but then they’d burst out laughing. Inevitably, they’d follow by asking if I was overseas Vietnamese.

Vietnamese grammar is a bit like Chinese, with a subject-verb-object word order and lack of verb conjugations. So in Vietnamese, if you string together a bunch of words in a reasonable order, there’s a good chance it would be correct (and close to zero chance in Japanese or Korean). One notable difference is in Vietnamese, the adjective comes after the noun, whereas it comes before the noun in Chinese.

One language peculiarity is that Vietnamese doesn’t have pronouns for “I” or “you”. Instead, you must determine your social relationship to the other party to determine what words to use. If I’m talking to an older man, then I refer to him as anh (literally: older brother) and I refer to myself as em (literally: younger sibling). These words would change if I were talking to a young woman, or much older woman, etc. You can imagine that this system is quite confusing for foreigners, so it’s acceptable to use Tôi which unambiguously means “I”, although native speakers don’t often use this word.

Written Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet (kind of like Chinese Pinyin), and closely reflects the spoken language. Most letters are pronounced more or less the way you’d expect, but there are some exceptions, for example, ‘gi’, ‘di’, and ‘ri’ are all pronounced like ‘zi’.

In two weeks in Vietnam, I didn’t learn enough of the language to have much of a conversation, but I knew enough for most of the common situations you encounter as a tourist, and could haggle prices with fruit vendors and motorcycle taxi drivers. I also learned how to tell between the northern Hanoi dialect and the southern Saigon dialect (they’re mutually intelligible but have a few differences).

Malaysia

The final country on my trip was Malaysia. Malaysia is culturally a very diverse country, with ethnic Malays, Chinese, and Indians living in the same country. The Malay language is frequently used for interethnic communication. I learned a few phrases of the language, but didn’t need to use it much, because everybody I met spoke either English or Mandarin fluently.

Malaysia is a very multilingual country. The Malaysian-Chinese people speak a southern Chinese dialect (one of Hokkien, Hakka, or Cantonese), Mandarin, Malay, and English. In Canada, it’s common to speak one or two languages, but we can only dream of speaking 4-5 languages fluently, as many Malaysians do.

Rate of Language Learning

I kept a journal of new words I learned in all my languages. Whenever somebody said a word I didn’t recognize, I would make a note of it, look it up later, and record it in my journal. When I wanted to say something but didn’t know the word for it, I would also add it to my journal. This way, I learned new words in a natural way, without having to memorize lists of words.

4Above: Tally of words learned in various languages

On average, I picked up 3-5 new words for every day I spent in a foreign country. At this rate, I should be able to read Harry Potter (~5000 unique words) after about 3 years.


That’s all for now. In September, I will be starting my master’s in Computational Linguistics; hopefully, studying all these random languages will come to some use.

With so much linguistic diversity, and with most people speaking little English, Asia is a great vacation spot for language nerds and aspiring polyglots!

Great Solo Asian Trip Part 1: General Thoughts

This is the first part of my two-part series on my 4-month trip to Asia. In this post, I will talk about my thoughts related to the trip and travel in general; in the second post I will go into detail about my experience learning the languages of all the countries I went to.

During my 4 months of travel, I visited 5 countries: China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Now I will admit that I’m not a very skilled photographer, nor am I able to write succulent descriptions of exotic foods. Rather than bore the reader with a play-by-play itinerary of the whole 4 months, I’ve grouped my thoughts by theme rather than chronological order.

Trip Planning

For the first month of my trip, I travelled around China with my mom and sister. Most of my relatives live there, and it’s obligatory to pay them a visit every 5 years or so. After China, Japan and South Korea were natural countries to visit next, since I’d wanted to go there for a long time but never got the chance to.

20_8_2017_7_9_28_322Above: Me at Yangshuo, Guangxi province, China

That left me another month of travel time, and initially I wasn’t sure where to go. There were a number of places I wanted to go in Southeast Asia, like Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, but it was July and much of Southeast Asia was in the middle of monsoon season. I figured it would suck to go somewhere and have it rain nonstop for days, so I looked at climatology maps and picked two places that were relatively dry this time of year: Central Vietnam and Malaysia.

Travel and Productivity

During my trip, I spent roughly half my time doing touristy activities and the other half of my time sitting in cafes, working on various projects. One might wonder why you’d want to travel to Vietnam just to code in a cafe — but I found that after visiting tourist attractions every day for a week, I’d start to feel overwhelmed. Travelling is physically tiring, so it was important to pace myself for such a long trip.

I found cafes to be reasonably productive environments. Not only do they have better wifi than my hotel room, they also have nice ambiance and I get to try all sorts of snacks and drinks. Some of the stuff I worked on include:

  • Wrote a few blog posts about math and language learning
  • Some data analysis related to my school’s student enrolment statistics. I got a lot of practice using R in the process.
  • Built some NLP modules for Snaptravel, a friend’s startup
  • Watched some deep learning lectures and set up an AWS GPU instance to play with some deep learning models
  • Spent about 30 minutes a day learning the country’s language

Making Friends

I found that when travelling alone, I’m a lot more likely to talk to random strangers than when I’m travelling with other people — you’re much less approachable if you’re already engaged in an excited conversation with your travelmate. When travelling solo, it’s easy to start talking to the person next to you at a restaurant or on a train.

In all the countries I visited, I found that older people were universally more eager to talk to me than younger people. I imagine that young people are busy with their own problems and generally have better things to do than sit around and chat. One caveat is that older people usually don’t speak English. In Japan, this was a great way to practice my Japanese, but it was a problem in Korea and Vietnam, where I don’t speak the language very well. They still tried to talk to me, but I just didn’t know enough of their language to have a conversation for very long. When I got to Malaysia, where Mandarin is widely spoken, it was nice to be able to talk to the locals again.

Some of my friends like to use apps like Meetup to find events to meet people. I never tried it — it seemed like too much effort to actively make friends when I’m only in a city for a few days. Throughout the trip, I kept in contact with a bunch of relatives in China and friends in North America, so I never really felt lonely.

Cultural Diversity and Food

Asia is a very culturally diverse place, with more or less every country having its own ethnic group and its own language.

At the same time, each individual country is not a very diverse place. With the exception of Malaysia, all the countries I visited each had a very homogeneous society. In Vietnam, everybody not a tourist was Vietnamese. Currently, less than 1 in 1000 residents of Vietnam are foreign-born, compared to about 1 in 5 for Canada. Essentially, if you’re in Da Nang, you can get amazing Pho or Cao Lau, but if you’re craving an authentic Mexican burrito? Tough luck.

Above: Delicious food from around Asia. Don’t ask me what they are, because I don’t remember either.

In Canada, we’re used to attending a lecture taught by an Indian professor, having lunch at a Chinese restaurant, then going to the doctor and see a black physician. Multiculturalism is something we take for granted, but is simply not a thing in most parts of the world.

Vietnam and Malaysia are good countries to eat food. There aren’t that many must-see tourist attractions, so you can relax and enjoy the scenery and the food. It’s nice to be able to order a full meal, complete with appetizers, drinks, and dessert, and still have the bill be less than $10.

Travel and History

Above: North Korea from across the Demilitarized Zone and Hiroshima Atom Bomb Dome

Travel made me develop a greater appreciation for recent history and geopolitics, to understand how these countries became the way they are today. Two of the countries I visited were battlefields of the Cold War, the effects of which are still apparent to this day.

When I went to Hong Kong, I was amazed by the wealth of this tiny island. Despite having a population of just 7 million, it’s rank 6 in the world in number of billionaires. How did this city on the outskirts of China, with no natural resources, become so wealthy? To find out, I started reading about the British Opium Wars, and soon found myself learning about all sorts of interconnected topics like the rise of Chinese Communism and the Cultural Revolution.

Previously, I often found history to be a rather dry topic as presented in textbooks. It’s very different to visit the relevant countries and experience history firsthand.

Wifi: The Good and Bad

For me, wifi is probably the most important feature when booking hotels, as I’m heavily dependent on it for all my work, information, and communication. Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way to determine if a hotel has good wifi before actually going there (there do exist websites that collect speed test results, but their data only covers a small fraction of hotels in a city).

As an experiment, I classified each hotel I stayed in as “decent wifi” or “terrible wifi”. A wifi connection passes the bar for “decent” if I can browse the usual websites without it being noticeably slow, and watch Youtube at 480p without buffering (this requires a connection speed of about 1.0Mbps), otherwise I classify it as “terrible”. Here are my results:

5

So about half of the hotels passed this bar. China had the worst wifi and Japan had the best, but even in countries purported to have amazing internet like South Korea, you can end up with terrible hotel wifi. I suppose I should be glad that all of the places had at least some sort of wifi; this wasn’t the case when I visited China in 2013.

Airbnb has gotten rather deceptive lately. Previously it was a good way to live in a person’s house and get to know the city from the perspective of a local. Now, a large number of listings are hotels, and even properties described as “homestays” are very much commercial ventures; most of the time, I never met my “host”. I found the best way to get an actual host is to look for hosts with only a single listing, but there is no way to filter for that automatically in the app.

Final Thoughts

20_8_2017_7_8_17_662Above: Me at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to take 4 months off to travel around Asia. The timing was worked naturally (graduated in April, leaving a 4-month gap before graduate school starts in September), and I had accumulated enough internship savings to afford it.

Now, having had experience with long-term travel, I don’t want to make this my permanent lifestyle. The most obvious issue is money, which I’ll run out of eventually, so I’d need to find some part-time remote work on the side. More crucially, there are certain advantages of staying in one place: it’s easier to build a social network, advance in your career, and find a significant other, all of which are difficult if you’re moving every week.

Although I don’t want to travel permanently, I really enjoyed my 4-month travel adventure. Maybe I’ll do it again someday, in a different part of the world — Europe maybe? We’ll see.

Using Waveform Plots to Improve your Accent, and a Dive into English Phonology

I was born in China and immigrated to Canada when I was 4 years old. After living in Canada for 18 years, I consider myself a native speaker for most purposes, but I still retain a noticeable non-native accent when speaking.

This post has a video that contains me speaking, if you want to hear what my accent sounds like.

It’s often considered very difficult or impossible to change your accent once you reach adulthood. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy — the more you think it’s impossible, the less you try, so of course your accent will not get any better. Impossible or not, it’s worth it to give it a try.

The first step is identifying what errors you’re making. This can be quite difficult if you’re not a trained linguist — native English speakers will detect that you have an accent, but they can’t really pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with your speech — it just sounds wrong to them.

One accent reduction strategy is the following: listen to a native speaker saying a sentence (for example, in a movie or on the radio), and repeat the same sentence, mimicking the intonation as closely as possible. Record both sentences, and play them side by side. This way, with all the other confounding factors gone, it’s much easier to identify the differences between your pronunciation and the native one.

When I tried doing this using Audacity, I noticed something interesting. Oftentimes, it was easier to spot differences in the waveform plot (that Audacity shows automatically) than to hear the differences between the audio samples. When you’re used to speaking a certain way all your life, your ears “tune out” the differences.

Here’s an example. The phrase is “figure out how to sell it for less” (Soundcloud):

2_.png

The difference is clear in the waveform plot. In my audio sample, there are two spikes corresponding to the “t” sound that don’t appear in the native speaker’s sample.

For vowels, the spectrogram works better than the waveform plot. Here’s the words “said” and “sad”, which differ in only the vowel:

1.png

Again, if you find it difficult to hear the difference, it helps to have a visual representation to look at.


I was surprised to find out that I’d been pronouncing the “t” consonant incorrectly all my life. In English, the letter “t” represents an aspirated alveolar stop (IPA /tʰ/), which is what I’m doing, right? Well, no. The letter “t” does produce the sound /tʰ/ at the beginning of a word, but in American English, the “t” at the final position of a word can get de-aspirated so that there’s no audible release. It can also turn into a glottal stop (IPA /ʔ/) in some dialects, but native speakers rarely pronounce /tʰ/, except in careful speech.

This is a phonological rule, and there are many instances of this. Here’s a simple experiment: put your hand in front of your mouth and say the word “pin”. You should feel a puff of air in your palm. Now say the word “spin” — and there is no puff of air. This is because in English, the /p/ sound always changes into /b/ following the /s/ sound.

Now this got me curious and I wondered: exactly what are the rules governing sound changes in English consonants? Can I learn them so I don’t make this mistake again? Native English speakers don’t know these rules (consciously at least), and even ESL materials don’t go into much detail about subtle aspects of pronunciation. The best resources for this would be linguistics textbooks on English phonology.

I consulted a textbook called “Gimson’s Pronunciation of English” [1]. For just the rules regarding sound changes of the /t/ sound at the word-final position, the book lists 6 rules. Here’s a summary of the first 3:

  • No audible release in syllable-final positions, especially before a pause. Examples: mat, map, robe, road. To distinguish /t/ from /d/, the preceding vowel is lengthened for /d/ and shortened for /t/.
  • In stop clusters like “white post” (t + p) or “good boy” (d + b), there is no audible release for the first consonant.
  • When a plosive consonant is followed by a nasal consonant that is homorganic (articulated in the same place), then the air is released out of the nose instead of the mouth (eg: topmost, submerge). However, this doesn’t happen if the nasal consonant is articulated in a different place (eg: big man, cheap nuts).

As you can see, the rules are quite complicated. The book is somewhat challenging for non-linguists — these are just the rules for /t/ at the word-final position; the book goes on to spend hundreds of pages to cover all kinds of vowel changes that occur in stressed and unstressed syllables, when combined with other words, and so on. For a summary, take a look at the Wikipedia article on English Phonology.

What’s really amazing is how native speakers learn all these patterns, perfectly, as babies. Native speakers may make orthographic mistakes like mixing up “their, they’re, there”, but they never make phonological mistakes like forgetting to de-aspirate the /p/ in “spin” — they simply get it right every time, without even realizing it!


Some of my friends immigrated to Canada at a similar or later age than me, and learned English with no noticeable accent. Therefore, people sometimes found it strange that I still have an accent. Even more interesting is the fact that although my pronunciation is non-native, I don’t make non-native grammatical mistakes. In other words, I can intuitively judge which sentences are grammatical or ungrammatical just as well as a native speaker. Does that make me a linguistic anomaly? Intrigued, I dug deeper into academic research.

In 1999, Flege et al. conducted a study of Korean-American immigrants who moved to the USA at an early age [2]. Each participant was given two tasks. In the first task, the participant was asked to speak a series of English sentences, and native speakers judged how much of a foreign accent was present on a scale from 1 to 9. In the second task, the participant was a list of English sentences, some grammatical and some not, and picked which ones were grammatical.

Linguists hypothesize that during first language acquisition, babies learn the phonology of their language long before they start to speak; grammatical structure is acquired much later. The Korean-American study seems to support this hypothesis. For the phonological task, immigrants who arrived as young as age 3 sometimes retained a non-native accent into adulthood.

3.png
Above: Scores for phonological task decrease as age of arrival increases, but even very early arrivals retain a non-native accent.

Basically, arriving before age 6 or so increases the chance of the child developing a native-like accent, but by no means does it guarantee it.

On the other hand, the window for learning grammar is much longer:

4.png
Above: Scores for grammatical task only start to decrease after about age 7.

Age of arrival is a large factor, but does not explain everything. Some people are just naturally better at acquiring languages than others. The study also looked at the effect of other factors like musical ability and perceived importance of English on the phonological score, but the connection is a lot weaker.

Language is so easy that every baby picks it up, yet so complex that linguists write hundreds of pages to describe it. Even today, language acquisition is poorly understood, and there are many unresolved questions about how it works.


References

  1. Cruttenden, Alan. “Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, 8th Edition”. Routeledge, 2014.
  2. Flege, James Emil et al. “Age Constraints on Second Language Acquisition”. Journal of Memory and Language, Issue 41, 1999.

The Power Law Distribution and the Harsh Reality of Language Learning

I’m an avid language learner, and sometimes people ask me: “how many languages do you speak?” If we’re counting all the languages in which I can have at least a basic conversation, then I can speak five languages — but can I really claim fluency in a language if I can barely read children’s books? Despite being a seemingly innocuous question, it’s not so simple to answer. In this article, I’ll try to explain why.

Let’s say you’re just starting to study Japanese. You might picture yourself being able to do the following things, after a few months or years of study:

  1. Have a conversation with a Japanese person who doesn’t speak any English
  2. Watch the latest episode of some anime in Japanese before the English subtitles come out
  3. Overhear a conversation between two Japanese people in an elevator

After learning several languages, I discovered that the first task is a lot easier than the other two, by an order of magnitude. Whether in French or in Japanese, I would quickly learn enough of the language to talk to people, but the ability to understand movies and radio remains elusive even after years of study.

There is a fundamental difference in how language is used in one-on-one conversation versus the other two tasks. When conversing with a native speaker, it is possible for him to avoid colloquialisms, speak slower, and repeat things you didn’t understand using simpler words. On the other hand, when listening to native-level speech without the speaker adjusting for your language level, you need to be near native-level yourself to understand what’s going on.

We can justify this concept using statistics. By looking at how frequencies of English words are distributed, we show that after an initial period of rapid progress, it soon becomes exponentially harder to get better at a language. Conversely, even a small decrease in language complexity can drastically increase comprehension by non-native listeners.

Reaching conversational level is easy

For the rest of this article, I’ll avoid using the word “fluent”, which is rather vague and misleading. Instead, I will call a “conversational” speaker someone who can conduct some level of conversation in a language, and a “near-native” speaker someone who can readily understand speech and media intended for native speakers.

It’s surprising how little of a language you actually need to know to have a decent conversation with someone. Basically, you need to know:

  1. A set of about 1000-2000 very basic words (eg: person, happy, cat, slow, etc).
  2. Enough grammar to form sentences (eg: present / future / past tenses; connecting words like “then”, “because”; conditionals, comparisons, etc). Grammar doesn’t need to be perfect, just close enough for the listener to understand what you’re trying to say.
  3. When you want to say something but don’t know the word for it, be flexible enough to work around the issue and express it with words you do know.

For an example of English using only basic words, look at the Simple English Wikipedia. It shows that you can explain complex things using a vocabulary of only about 1000 words.

For another example, imagine that Bob, a native English speaker, is talking to Jing, an international student from China. Their conversation might go like this:

Bob: I read in the news that a baby got abducted by wolves yesterday…

Jing: Abducted? What do you mean?

Bob: He got taken away by wolves while the family was out camping.

Jing: Wow, that’s terrible! Is he okay now?

In this conversation, Jing indicates that she doesn’t understand a complex word, “abducted”, and Bob rephrases the idea using simpler words, and the conversation goes on. This pattern happens a lot when I’m conversing with native Japanese speakers.

After some time, Bob gets an intuitive feeling for what level of words Jing can understand, and naturally simplifies his speech to accommodate. This way, the two can converse without Jing explicitly interrupting and asking Bob to repeat what he said.

Consequently, reaching conversational level in a language is not very hard. Some people claim you can achieve “fluency” in 3 months for a language. I think this is a reasonable amount of time for reaching conversational level.

What if you don’t have the luxury of the speaker simplifying his level of speech for you? We shall see that the task becomes much harder.

The curse of the Power Law

Initially, I was inspired to write this article after an experience with a group of French speakers. I could talk to any of them individually in French, which is hardly remarkable given that I studied the language since grade 4 and minored in it in university. However, when they talked between themselves, I was completely lost, and could only get a vague sense of what they were talking about.

Feeling slightly embarrassed, I sought an explanation for this phenomenon. Why was it that I could produce 20-page essays for university French classes, but struggled to understand dialogue in French movies and everyday conversations between French people?

The answer lies in the distribution of word frequencies in language. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at English or French or Japanese — every natural language follows a power law distribution, which means that the frequency of every word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. In other words, the 1000th most common word appears twice as often as the 2000th most common word, and four times as often as the 4000th most common word, and so on.

(Aside: this phenomenon is sometimes called Zipf’s Law, but refers to the same thing. It’s unclear why this occurs, but the law holds in every natural language)

1.pngAbove: Power law distribution in natural languages

The power law distribution exhibits the long tail property, meaning that as you advance further to the right of the distribution (by learning more vocabulary), the words become less and less common, but never drops off completely. Furthermore, rare words like “constitution” or “fallacy” convey disproportionately more meaning than common words like “the” or “you”.

This is bad news for language learners. Even if you understand 90% of the words of a text, the remaining 10% are the most important words in the passage, so you actually understand much less than 90% of the meaning. Moreover, it takes exponentially more vocabulary and effort to understand 95% or 98% or 99% of the words in the text.

I set out to experimentally test this phenomenon in English. I took the Brown Corpus, containing a million words of various English text, and computed the size of vocabulary you would need to understand 50%, 80%, 90%, 95%, 98%, 99%, and 99.5% of the words in the corpus.

2.png

By knowing 75 words, you already understand half of the words in a text! Of course, just knowing words like “the” and “it” doesn’t get you very far. Learning 2000 words is enough to have a decent conversation and understand 80% of the words in a text. However, it gets exponentially harder after that: to get from 80% to 98% comprehension, you need to learn more than 10 times as many words!

(Aside: in this analysis I’m considering conjugations like “swim” and “swimming” to be different words; if you count only the stems, you end up with lower word counts but they still follow a similar distribution)

How many words can you miss and still be able to figure out the meaning by inference? In a typical English novel, I encounter about one word per page that I’m unsure of, and a page contains about 200-250 words, so I estimate 99.5% comprehension is native level. When there are more than 5 words per page that I don’t know, then reading becomes very slow and difficult — this is about 98% comprehension.

Therefore I will consider 98% comprehension “near-native”: above this level, you can generally infer the remaining words from context. Below this level, say between 90% to 98% comprehension, you may understand generally what’s going on, but miss a lot of crucial details.

3.pngAbove: Perceived learning curve for a foreign language

This explains the difficulty of language learning. In the beginning, progress is fast, and in a short period of time you learn enough words to have conversations. After that, you reach a long intermediate-stage plateau where you’re learning more words, but don’t know enough to understand native-level speech, and anybody speaking to you must use a reduced vocabulary in order for you to understand. Eventually, you will know enough words to infer the rest from context, but you need a lot of work to reach this stage.

Implications for language learners

The good news is that if you want to converse with people in a language, it’s perfectly doable in 3 to 6 months. On the other hand, to watch TV shows in the language without subtitles or understand people speaking naturally is going to take a lot more work — probably living for a few years in a country where the language is spoken.

Is there any shortcut instead of slowly learning thousands of words? I can’t say for sure, but somehow I doubt it. By nature, words are arbitrary clusters of sounds, so no amount of cleverness can help you deduce the meaning of words you’ve never seen before. And when the proportion of unknown words is above a certain threshold, it quickly becomes infeasible to try to infer meaning from context. We’ve reached the barrier imposed by the power law distribution.


Now I will briefly engage in some sociological speculation.

My university has a lot of international students. I’ve always noticed that these students tend to form social groups speaking their native non-English languages, and rarely assimilate into English-speaking social groups. At first I thought maybe this was because their English was bad — but I talked to a lot of international students in English and their English seemed okay: noticeably non-native but I didn’t feel there was a language barrier. After all, all our lectures are in English, and they get by.

However, I noticed that when I talked to international students, I subconsciously matched their rate of speaking, speaking just a little bit slower and clearer than normal. I would also avoid the usage of colloquialisms and cultural references that they might not understand.

If the same international student went out to a bar with a group of native English speakers, everyone else would be speaking at normal native speed. Even though she understands more than 90% of the words being spoken, it’s not quite enough to follow the discussion, and she doesn’t want to interrupt the conversation to clarify a word. As everything builds on what was previously said in the conversation, missing a word here and there means she is totally lost.

It’s not that immigrants don’t want to assimilate into our culture, but rather, we don’t realize how hard it is to master a language. On the surface, going from 90% to 98% comprehension looks like a small increase, but in reality, it takes an immense amount of work.

Read further discussion of this article on /r/languagelearning!

How a simple trick decreased my elevator waiting time by 33%

Last month, when I traveled to Hong Kong, I stayed at a guesthouse in a place called the Chungking Mansions. Located in Tsim Sha Tsui, it’s one of the most crowded, sketchiest, and cheapest places to stay in Hong Kong.

5262623923_99b6c39b21.jpgChungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui

Of the 17 floors, the first few are teeming with Indian and African restaurants and various questionable businesses. The rest of the floors are guesthouses and private residences. One thing that’s unusual about the building is the structure of its elevators.

The building is partitioned into five disjoint blocks, and each block has two elevators. One of the elevators only goes to the odd numbered floors, and the other elevator only goes to the even numbered floors. Neither elevator goes to the second floor because there are stairs.

1.pngElevator Schematic of Chungking Mansions

I lived on the 14th floor, and man, those elevators were slow! Because of the crazy population density of the building, the elevator would stop on several floors on the way up and down. Even more, people often carried furniture on the elevators, which took a long time to load and unload.

To pass the time, I timed exactly how long it took between arriving at the elevator on the ground floor, waiting for the elevator to come, riding the elevator up, and getting off at the 14th floor. After several trials, the average time came out to be about 4 minutes. Clearly, 4 minutes is too long, especially when waiting in 35 degrees weather without air condition, so I started to look for optimizations.

The bulk of the time is spent waiting for the elevator to come. The best case is when the elevator is on your floor and you get in, then the waiting time is zero. The worst case is when the elevator has just left and you have to wait a full cycle before you can get in. After you get in, it takes a fairly constant amount of time to reach your floor. Therefore, your travel time is determined by your luck with the elevator cycle. Assuming that the elevator takes 4 minutes to make a complete cycle (and you live on the top floor), the best case total elevator time is 2 minutes, the worst case is 6 minutes, and the average case is 4 minutes.

It occurred to me that just because I lived on the 14th floor, I don’t necessarily have to take the even numbered elevator! Instead, if the odd numbered elevator arrives first, it’s actually faster to take the elevator to the 13th floor and climb the stairs to the 14th floor. Compared to the time to wait for the elevator, the time to climb one floor is negligible. I started doing this trick and timed how long it took. Empirically, this optimization seemed to speed my time by about 1 minute on average.

Being a mathematician at heart, I was unsatisfied with empirical results. Theoretically, exactly how big is this improvement?


Let us model the two elevators as random variables X_1 and X_2, both independently drawn from the uniform distribution [0,1]. The random variables represent model the waiting time, with 0 being the best case and 1 being the worst case.

With the naive strategy of taking the even numbered elevator, our waiting time is X_1 with expected value E[X_1] = \frac{1}{2}. Using the improved strategy, our waiting time is \min(X_1, X_2). What is the expected value of this random variable?

For two elevators, the solution is straightforward: consider every possible value of X_1 and X_2 and find the average of \min(X_1, X_2). In other words, the expected value of \min(X_1, X_2) is

{\displaystyle \int_0^1 \int_0^1 \min(x_1, x_2) \mathrm{d} x_1 \mathrm{d} x_2}

Geometrically, this is equivalent to calculating the volume of the square pyramid with vertices at (0, 0, 0), (1, 0, 0), (0, 1, 0), (1, 1, 0), and (1, 1, 1). Recall from geometry that the volume of a square pyramid with known base and height is \frac{1}{3} bh = \frac{1}{3}.

2.png

Therefore, the expected value of \min(X_1, X_2) is \frac{1}{3}, which is a 33% improvement over the naive strategy with expected value \frac{1}{2}.


Forget about elevators for now; let’s generalize!

We know that the expected value of two uniform [0,1] random variables is \frac{1}{3}, but what if we have n random variables? What is the expected value of the minimum of all of them?

I coded a quick simulation and it seemed that the expected value of the minimum of n random variables is \frac{1}{n+1}, but I couldn’t find a simple proof of this. Searching online, I found proofs here and here. The proof isn’t too hard, so I’ll summarize it here.

Lemma: Let M_n(x) be the c.d.f for \min(X_1, \cdots, X_n), where each X_i is i.i.d with uniform distribution [0,1]. Then the formula for M_n(x) is

M_n(x) = 1 - (1-x)^n

Proof:

\begin{array}{rl} M_n(x) & = P(\min(X_1, \cdots, X_n) < x) \\ & = 1 - P(X_1 \geq x, \cdots, X_n \geq x) \\ & = 1 - (1-x)^n \; \; \; \square \end{array}

Now to prove the main claim:

Claim: The expected value of \min(X_1, \cdots, X_n) is \frac{1}{n+1}

Proof:

Let m_n(x) be the p.d.f of \min(X_1, \cdots, X_n), so m_n(x) = M'_n(x) = n(1-x)^{n-1}. From this, the expected value is

\begin{array}{rl} {\displaystyle \int_0^1 x m_n(x) \mathrm{d}x} & = {\displaystyle \int_0^1 x n (1-x)^{n-1} \mathrm{d} x} \\ & = {\displaystyle \frac{1}{n+1}} \end{array}

This concludes the proof. I skipped a bunch of steps in the evaluation of the integral because Wolfram Alpha did it for me.


For some people, this sort of travel frustration would lead to complaining and an angry Yelp review, but for me, it led me down this mathematical rabbit hole. Life is interesting, isn’t it?

I’m not sure if the locals employ this trick or not: it was pretty obvious to me, but on the other hand I didn’t witness anybody else doing it during my stay. Anyhow, useful trick to know if you’re staying in the Chungking Mansions!

Read further discussion of this post on Reddit!

Four Weeks in Tokyo: My Japanese Homestay Experience

During the month of June, I enrolled in a Japanese language class in Tokyo, and stayed with a Japanese family in a homestay program. This is my first time to Japan, and I hoped to improve my Japanese language skills and learn about their culture.

A month is an unusually long time to spend in one place for most tourists. Normally you’d stay for a few days, see all the pretty sights, and move on, but by doing a monthlong homestay, I got a better idea of what life is really like in Japan. Instead of rushing from one tourist attraction to another, I had time to explore at a more relaxed pace, and also code some side projects in the evenings.

IMG_1596 (Medium)My homestay family got me a cake on the first day. “Welcome, Bai-kun”

The language school I enrolled at was called Coto Language Academy. They provide various levels of small group Japanese language classes for foreigners, and they also helped me arrange my homestay. I’m not sure how effective the actual classes were: their style is focused on drilling rigid grammatical rules, which is not the best way to learn a foreign language. Nevertheless, attending classes for a few hours a day adds some structure to my life, and it’s a good way to meet other foreigners who are also learning Japanese.

For the rest of this article, I’ll list some observations about Japan. Some things were more or less what I expected, but a lot of things were quite different.

Things in Japan that went as expected

1. People are very polite. Everybody speaks quietly, there is no angry yelling on the streets. Waiting for the subway, walking up the escalator, crossing the street: everything is very orderly; you never see people cut the line or cut you off on the road. It’s as though everyone is hyper-aware of their surroundings and try not to do anything that might inconvenience others.

2. Trains are always on time, down to the minute. If the train is supposed to depart at 5:27, it will depart at 5:27, not a minute sooner, not a minute later. Any delay more than five minutes is considered late, and apologies are issued over the speakers.

The Japanese punctuality extends to daily life. When my homestay family said we’d go out for dinner at 7pm, they really meant 7pm. In Canada, 7pm usually meant you’d actually leave the house at 7:10pm or 7:15pm. Not in Japan: by 7:02pm, they were already waiting in the car.

tokyo3 (Medium)Typical rush hour in Japan

Trains can get very, very crowded during rush hour. Although I haven’t seen any pushers like that picture, I had the pleasant experience of touching the bodies of 5 strangers at the same time in a subway car.

3. Vending machines are everywhere, on every other street corner. They all sell the same variety of tea and coffee drinks though, I haven’t seen anything weird.

IMG_1607 (Medium)Vending machines in a Chiba suburb

4. Cat cafes and anime shops. Cat cafes are a Japanese invention where you pet cats for stress relief.

Me at a cat cafe. 100% as cute as you’d expect.

Akihabara is the place to go for any kind of anime-related paraphernalia.

IMG_1745 (Medium)A Pikachu slot machine

Anime culture is much less prevalent in Japan than I expected. Outside of Japan, anime is considered a big part of Japanese culture, but in Japan, it’s fairly niche. The anime stores are all clustered in the Akihabara district, and otherwise you don’t encounter it that much.

Things that surprised me about Japan

1. People work a lot. It’s expected to work many hours of overtime, far beyond the usual 40 hours a week in Canada. The evening rush hour starts at about 5pm and lasts well into the night: even at 11pm, the trains are always packed from salarymen who just got off from work. My homestay family’s dad often did not come home until after midnight, and we usually ate dinner without him.

I don’t know how anyone can still be productive after working so much. Right now, I can’t really comment because I haven’t been inside of a Japanese corporation. It’s enough of a problem in Japan’s society that they have a word “karoshi”, meaning death from working too much.

Aside from the long working hours, I was also surprised that Japanese salarymen typically work for one company for decades, sometimes their entire life. This is very rare in Canada, where software engineers seldom stay more than 5 years at a company. When technology shifts, companies in Japan train their existing employees to do the new tasks they need, rather than lay off workers and hire new ones. The culture is quite different.

2. Streets are much quieter and less crowded than expected. Before coming to Japan, I had spent a month in China and had grown accustomed to bustling streets with horns blaring and everybody jaywalking haphazardly. I expected Tokyo, with a population of 30 million, to be more of the same. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this is not the case.

IMG_1849 (Medium)Shinjuku at night: one of the busiest districts of Tokyo

A few places were very crowded for sure, like Shinjuku and Shibuya. Everywhere else is not a lot different from the suburbs, except the buildings are a bit taller.

3. Tokyo is huge. With a metro-area population equal to that of Canada, its sheer size is massive. It’s hard to get a sense of scale from looking at Google Maps: it takes me about an hour to commute from my homestay in Urayasu to my language school in Chiyoda. Even with a system of super efficient trains going 100km/h, it still takes over two hours to get to attractions on the other side of the city. Two hours of commute time each way is common for the Japanese, if you work downtown and live in one of the outlying suburbs.

4. Japanese food is a lot more than sushi. In Canada, Japanese restaurants mostly focus on sushi, but sushi is not that common in Japan. Only maybe one in ten restaurants here serve sushi. The others serve all kinds of Japanese food I never knew existed.

The sushi restaurants do not disappoint though. Even in cheaper restaurants, with rotating plates costing no more than 100-200 yen each, the sushi is better than anything I’ve had in Canada.

IMG_1608 (Medium)Rotating sushi restaurant

One particular Japanese delicacy is natto: a slimy mixture of fermented beans that they like to mix with rice. Most foreigners don’t like it. I tried it once. Now, when somebody asks me what I’d like to eat, I reply, “fine with anything but natto”.

5. Temples and shrines are everywhere. You will run into a shrine every few blocks in the city, and Nikko is full of them.

IMG_2033 (Medium)UNESCO world heritage site of Nikko, with over 100 temples and shrines

Architecturally they’re quite similar, but temples (tera) are for Buddhism and shrines (jinja) are for the Shinto religion.


Besides feeding me and suffering through my broken Japanese for a month, my homestay family also taught me how to play Shogi.

IMG_1746 (Medium)Learning how to play Shogi

Shogi is the Japanese version of chess. A lot of tactics are similar to chess, but the games are a bit longer, and it never reaches an endgame because captured pieces get dropped back on the board.

IMG_2082 (Medium)Me with homestay family. I will miss you guys!

That’s it for my month in Tokyo. Next stop: Kyoto!