June 13, 2006

Learn foreign languages with open source software

Author: Dmitri Popov

When you are learning a foreign language, you need all the help you can get. Besides applications like jVLT, jMemorize, and StarDict, there are other tools that are not designed specifically for language learning, but they can make the learning process more efficient and fun. All you have to do is to think creatively.

Take, for example, Audacity. It's mostly used for tasks like recording and editing podcasts, but you can use it to create an "audio vocabulary" for your MP3 player. First of all, you need a recording containing words and expressions that you want to add to your "vocabulary"; this could be a language podcast or a recorded radio program. Open the recording in Audacity, locate the place in the recording containing the desired word, and copy it using Edit -> Copy. Create a new project by choosing File -> New and paste the selection (Edit -> Paste). Now, choose Project -> Edit ID3 Tags and type the word's translation into the Title field. Finally, save the file in MP3 format by choosing File -> Export as MP3. Note that to export projects in MP3 format, Audacity requires the LAME MP3 encoder, which must be downloaded and installed separately.

Using this technique, you can create an MP3 vocabulary, which you can then transfer to your MP3 player. Now listen to the words and try to provide their correct translations. If you don't remember the translation of a particular word, you can see it on the player's display, as long as it has the ability to display ID3 tags.

One of the most effective exercises is to listen to a word or an expression and then repeat it yourself. Using Audacity, you can easily turn any recording into such a training exercise. Select the word or the expression you want to copy, create a new Audacity project, and paste the selection into it. Place the cursor right after the inserted segment and insert a silent pause by choosing Generate -> Silence. Determine the duration of the silent pause based on how much time you need to repeat the inserted word or expression. Using this technique you can add as many words and expressions as you like.

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Presenting your ideas as mind maps is nothing new, but you can also use a mind mapping application to create "glossary maps" that can come in handy when learning new words and phrases. To create a "glossary map," you need FreeMind, an open source mind mapping application that has all the features you need. How you organize glossary maps is up to you; you can, for example, map words and phrases thematically: Restaurant, Taxi, Weather, etc. Let's say you want to create a glossary map containing food-related words. Create a new mind map in FreeMind, and type "FOOD" into the root node. Now add nodes for each desired category such as Meat, Vegetables, Fruit, Fish, and so on. For each category, add nodes with words, where each word has a sub-node with its translation (use the Insert key to quickly add nodes and sub-nodes). If you want to test your knowledge, select the category you want and fold all nodes in it (Navigate -> Fold All). Now select a word and give its translation. To see whether your answer is correct, unfold the word's sub-node by pressing the Space key.

TiddlyWiki and OOo

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TiddlyWiki is a personal wiki that has two unique features: it allows you to store text fragments called tiddlers in a non-linear manner, and it allows you to tag each tiddler. Using these features, you can turn TiddlyWiki into an unusual yet useful language wiki. Download a TiddlyWiki file and open it in a browser. Follow the instructions in the GettingStarted tiddler to configure the wiki's basic settings. Once the wiki is set up, you can create tiddlers for each lesson that contain notes, glossary, and grammar points from your language classes or textbook. You can then use tags to categorize the lessons. For example, you could tag all the lessons you've worked on during the current week using the ThisWeek tag. Let's say you have a few lessons containing particularly difficult grammar points. You can tag these lessons with the ToReview tag to quickly locate and review them. You can also use separate tiddlers for grammar points, new words, or cultural notes with relevant tags. To locate tiddlers marked with a particular tag, click on the Tags tab, which contains a list of all available tags. Click on the tag you want and choose the desired tiddler from the drop-down list.

Timeline is another TiddlyWiki feature that can come in handy. Basically, the Timeline lists all tiddlers in the order they have been added to the wiki, which is useful to help you keep track of your progress. Since TiddlyWiki is just a single self-contained HTML file, you can put it on a USB key and carry your language notes with you.

One of the best ways to pick up some real-life language is through magazines and newspapers. However, scribbling translations and notes directly in a newspaper article can be a bit of a bother, as can archiving and filing the loose sheets and clippings. But if you have a scanner, you can turn OpenOffice.org Draw into a handy annotation and archiving tool.

First off, create a new Draw document, then use the Insert -> Picture -> Scan -> Select source to select the scanner and configure its options. Press the Create Preview button to check whether the scanner works properly, and press OK. To scan a document into the Draw file, choose Insert -> Picture -> Scan -> Request. Once the document is scanned, you can use Draw's tools to add notes and comments to it. For example, use the Shapes tool to highlight words and text fragments in the text, then use the Callout tool to add translations and notes. Since you can add as many pages as you like to the same Draw file, you can keep all translated and annotated newspaper articles in a single file.

You can use OpenOffice.org for other tasks as well. For example, Impress presentations can come in handy when you want to review language class or textbook notes. In fact, the Chalkboard template is particularly suited for this task. Simply create a new presentation from the template and use the Outline tab to enter the information you want. You can also add notes to each slide by clicking on the Notes tab. Save the presentation and run it whenever you want. You can even export it in the HTML format and publish it on your Web site.

These are just a few of my ideas on how to use open source applications to make the process of learning a foreign language more efficient and even fun. What are yours?

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, and Danish computer magazines.


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