A Poetic Moment: Time

Le temps, qui fortifie les amitiés, affaiblie l’amour.

———————————————————————————Jean de la Bruyère


James Au

LET time smear the salts onto your wound,

your love, your long-lost youth, your words –

the woe without a sign, without a sound.


See how the love which once was found

has turned into the fangs of beast –

the venom invades so deep your head,

where tears along the past shall never cease.


And see how time has drowned you to the sea –

the lonely, somber sea of nightmares –

you tore off the sticker of hope and met,

upon the freezing peak, her nowhere.


Let time tread upon your naive dream –

your dear, dainty deity, the beauty –

the star that no longer stays agleam.

[Written on Wednesday 17th August 2017]

[Featured image: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/lost-in-time-joan-gossett.html%5D


The Art of Learning: To Be a Master of Two Languages

By Ma

Avarice is the root of all evils. We sometimes bite more than we can chew, but to be reckless does not guarantee success. You may end up yielding only half the result with twice the effort without meticulous planning. I want to thus give some advice on those who aspire to be fluent bilingual speakers, although these suggestions may also apply in other fields.

  1. Evaluating your language learning ability

The more you know about yourself, the better you can formulate your learning plan. Learning two languages simultaneously is undoubtedly a daunting task, and you will probably end up confounding one with another, if you do not learn them systematically. SVO pattern, generally regarded to be the threshold grammatical concept of all languages before going on to the next step, should be mastered well, or it will be excruciating for you to move on.

  1. Learning two languages from a different origin

I suggest, if you insist on learning two languages concurrently, that the two target languages have a different origin. The learning progress, as well as the level of difficulties, as I have mentioned in the previous entry, varies with the native language of the learners themselves. It is confusing, for example, to learn Italian and Spanish simultaneously because words, syntaxes and grammatical structures are surprisingly similar. A much better choice will thus be either the combination of French and Japanese, that of Italian and Korean, or Arabic and Chinese.

  1. Optimizing your schedule

Having decided to accept the challenge, you should devote more time and efforts to learning the two languages. My advice is to try preparing two separate sets of vocabulary cards, two groups of audio files and looking for a couple of language exchange partners. In my case, I spend every day learning French in the morning, and Japanese in the evening. Also, you are reminded that you will end up being less focused on each language.

  1. One language at a time

I don’t discourage you from being a polyglot, but the language mountain is easier to ascend if you try to learn one language at a come. For instance, you can try to attain an intermediate level in one language before starting another. Abiding by these little rules, I think, may lower your chance of getting mixed with both.

In conclusion, you should plan more meticulously before a decision on learning few languages concurrently, or you may end up getting nothing – a disastrous result nobody love to see.

Which Exams to Take: DELF, DALF, TCF or TEF?

By Ma

A French learner may want to demonstrate his linguistic competence at some tests and quizzes. Asians learning français are even more obsessed with assessing their performance to identify what skill level they are at, given the heavily examination-oriented culture. Here comes the question: Which French exams should I take?

It seems that I am not the only one who asks the same question. A friend of mine had also sought the right exam to prove his linguistic capability, as a certificate can help him apply the private culinary school Le Cordon Bleu, renowned for teaching “pâtisserie” (pastry making). Anyway, to demystify the issue, I try to dig into four different types of exams: DELF(DALF), TCF, TEF and Furansugo Kentei (French Proficiency Test).


The Diplôme d’études en langue française (English: Diploma in French Language Studies), or DELF in short, is the certification offered by French Ministry of Education to access the French linguistic abilities of non-native speakers. Fundamentally structured according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, test-takers can take A1, A2, B1 or B2 level of exams based upon the total number of hours they have spent learning the language. Above B2 level, the test is renamed as “The Diplôme approfondi de langue française” (English: Diploma in Advanced French), or DALF in short. A candidate can take either an easier C1 level, or the more challenging C2 getting a past of which means one attains a near-native French proficiency. All the certificates are valid for life.

Official Website: http://www.ciep.fr/en/delf-dalf

2. TCF

TCF (Test de Connaissance du Français), a certification offered by Centre international d’études pédagogiques (CIEP), is another placement test targeted at non-native French speakers. The score of the test is ranked on six level, corresponding to all six levels (A1 – C2), just as DELF/DALF tests. Unfortunately, the results of the test are only valid for two years, so unless you either take it for fun, or you are seriously considering entering a Francophone university (especially those at Quebec) in the imminent future, I won’t recommend you to take it.

Official website: http://www.ciep.fr/en/tcf

3. TEF

TEF, Test d’évaluation du français, is another French exam. Although it is not as widely recognized as DELF/DALF or TCF, it is nevertheless an important certification if you want to emigrate to Canada, particularly Quebec. Please note that some Alliance Française, including Hong Kong, does not offer the test, so you need to check carefully before taking.

Official Website: http://www.lefrancaisdesaffaires.fr

4. Furansugo Kentei (English: French Proficiency Exam)

Furansugo Kentei is specially designed by French learners in Japan, and a candidate can sit any of the seven levels in increasing order of difficulty: Level 5, Level 4, Level 3, Pre-level 2, Level 2, Level 1 and Pre-level 1. Those who pass the level 1 exam is qualified to be a guide interpreter between French and Japanese, without taking further any translation exams.

Official Website (in Japanese only): http://apefdapf.org/

Although I haven’t taken any of the above certifications before, I plan to apply for the DELF exams soon. It’s time for study now, buddies!

[Source of image: https://belgiumstjohn.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/france_flag10.gif%5D



On the Pace of Language Learning

By Ma

There is no doubt that when zealous enough in learning a language, we will probably be fluent in an incredibly short period of time. Suppose you could master any languages within two months, then cumulatively you would be a master of six languages a year later. But we all know language learning is not pure empirical science – it is never proportional to just the time you have spent. The pace of learning, in my opinion, is governed by a number of factors that include (1) relations between one’s mother tongue and his target language; (2) level of fluency you aim to achieve; (3) efforts devoted to your learning process, and (4) level of intimacy with the language.

(1) Relations between one’s mother tongue and his target language

If you are a native Englishman, you will be astonished by how easy it is for you to learn Romanic languages including Spanish and Italian. A Chinese native, in contrast, will be driven crazy by the abstruse grammar and the alien alphabets of English and other European languages. But surprisingly, countless Chinese youtubers whom I see online manage to master an Asian language, particularly Korean, in three months.

It seems to me that those whose native languages are Sino-Tibetan find it more difficult to learn any Indo-European languages. But I am not trying to discourage you from learning them, you should instead pick up the one that most interests you.

(2) Level of Fluency You Aim to Achieve

To achieve an intermediate or even an advance level (depending on how one defines them) of a new language is almost an ideal, given the numerous words and expressions you need to recognize, and the grammar you need to know. Then you will be aware of how unrealistic it is for anyone telling you that you can ‘master a language within two to three months’.

Yet again, I don’t mean that you should flinch from learning it. To muster your courage to take up a language is important, but even more important is to overcome your fear of making mistakes. Even a linguistic talent may either commit some simple errors, or encounter the bottleneck problem. Therefore, just go ahead and make the most of your mistakes along the way.

(3) Efforts Devoted to Your Learning Process

No Pain, no gain. I suppose you won’t think that you would succeed in being a fluent speaker after two months, if you spent only half an hour every week in the language. For any successful learners or polyglots, they devote effectively their time to acquire the fluency. So far, I have heard from other language experts, spending a minimum of one hour every day is a must. An average of two and three hours on the target language is normal. You will then unconsciously become a master, as your persistent efforts finally pay off. The more interest you have in the language, the more efforts you will automatically put in it.

(4) Level of Intimacy with the Language

In the video I shared in the previous entry (See https://learnlangblog.wordpress.com/2017/05/03/a-hyperpolyglot-a-review-on-an-interview-of-a-translator/), you have probably realized that acquiring the second language is more difficult than its sixth counterpart. Had you been learning languages continuously for years, you would have been more familiar with how to put your hands to a new one. So, the only issue that matters to you is either how to proceed from beginner to intermediate level, or how to maintain the fluency level already established.

However, the most paramount factor that contributes to the language learning pace is the attitude you are going to adopt to your plan. Although it is essential for you to maintain the enthusiasm right the way though, you should never, however, push yourself too hard. Instead of saying that you are, for example, to reach an advanced level of proficiency in French in three months, always adjust your plan until you feel completely comfortable, or confident enough to move on from one chapter to the next one. It would be lovely if you could achieve what you aimed, but you have nothing to lose if you cannot.

After all, if you try your best, I am sure you will make incredibly quick progress. This is at least the attitude I am currently adopting to French learning.

P.S. Do follow our instagram at https://www.instagram.com/learnlangblog/ where we regularly upload some useful language learning flash cards!

The Historical Novel: A Review

By James Au

Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel, Routledge, 2010.

What is a historical novel? The answer to it is not as straightforward as one thought, as Leopold von Ranke, an influential figure in the discipline of history, and his followers has chanted the study of primary sources as the only effective historiography. All historical novelists, from the eyes of these pseudo-scientists, are more like an ‘amateur pursuit’ (34) of the ‘real’ past.

But de Groot’s book here tells us that a historical novel is neither created simply for the sake of art, nor to just entertain its readers. Indeed, The Historical Novel is a comprehensive attempt to deal with various theoretical paradigms, including Georg Lukás’s emphasis on a historical novelist’s ability to ‘create a sense of human connection’ (26) with the past so that a reader can gain consciousness of it, and Alessandro Mazoni’s argument that readers can comprehend the story of the fictional characters through their historical context. (32) Through demonstrating the two frameworks concisely, de Groot is inclined to suggest that historical novel, a hybrid product of literature and history, should be studied as an independent discipline.

In the sections and chapters that follow, de Groot first traces Walter Scott’s works as the original archetypes of most historical novels, exemplifies with works such as those of Austen, Balzac and Hugo the form and style of historical novels, and sees the novels separately from feministic, cosmopolitan and postmodernist perspectives. Novel in a period, and/or with a special ideology, he argues, contains the historical elements in the way that history becomes intertwined, and inseparable from fiction. In the end, de Groot advises that historical fictions do not only provide the dissonance of the past, but also ‘challenge the mainstream’ (140) – to unveil the history of the marginalized group – to suggest an ‘alternative history’ in which it posits that the established history is a false belief imposed by the society on us, and the facts that we believed are fiction.

The demerit of The Historical Novel is the Eurocentric vision of the analyses, as de Groot himself also admits, without paying attention to the Asian tradition of historical fictions. It also ignores the historical writings in the old times, including those of Plutarch and Thucydides. However, the book is a good fit for those who wants an introductory book which reviews precisely all sorts of historical novels and the theories concerned.

20170719_the historical novel

Learn Not Only Hard, But Also Smart

By James Au

So here is what I constantly hear: Time is too short to learn German; unless you have a linguistic talent, it takes ages for you to master a foreign language. Mon oeil! If these people spend more time learning the target language instead of indulging themselves ceaselessly in remorse, I am quite sure they will at least make some progress.

But there is one thing to be admitted. A systematic learning method can yield twice the result with half the effort. Never an inborn genius, I have been tormented by my forgetfulness. Despite endless consultation with my dictionary about the meaning of the same word, I could not simply decipher it when it popped up in front of me again. Thus, I told myself, “Maybe you do not learn them systematically enough.” I began to believe that, to make a breakthrough, it is necessary to come up with a more effective way.

First, however strong you are motivated to learn a specific subject, to sustain your attention on the same task is never easy. Some psychologists suggest that human attention span generally lasts for about twenty minutes, which means after that your learning efficiency will gradually decline.

For instance, a die-hard Nietzsche fan, I practice German-English translation of Thus Spake Zarathustra every day. I am doing it out of fun, and to improve my German, for sure. But when I finish translating one page within one-third hour, I either read a German poem, or watch some short videos to prevent myself from distraction and lowering my efficiency in learning.

I don’t believe that the world is fair. However, as everyone is given equally twenty-four hours per day, it is your task to maximize the outcome within as little time as possible. Translating essays from one language into another may raise your reading ability in the source language (SL), but may do little help when you want to improve your writing as well. Therefore, I am thinking to do it the other way around – to translate English documents into the language you want to master. In this case, you will figure out whether you can put the phrases and words you have learnt to good use. In my opinion, it is especially useful when you strive to improve your language skills but find no native speakers to practice with.

Rather than spending an arm and a leg buying a grammar book, an intermediate learner can think about how to organize the new words/expressions he has just learned. In my case, I always struggle to come up with ways of memorizing words.

For example, the unfamiliar German word “der Krampf” (English: convulsion) reminds me of “der Kampf” (English: struggle), both the spellings of which are similar with one another. I thus try to learn the two words together by heart (See Figure 1).

learning card 01

Figure 1

One of the greatest difficulties which make most flinch from learning German is the use of prepositions, as well as the corresponding cases (Normative, Accusative, Dative and Genitive). Therefore, to pronounce German sentences accurately, there are only two ways: either to take time doing rote-learning, or to put them in a neatly and orderly manner.

There is always an exception in every grammatical rule. But to organize the phrases/words frequently employed, I believe, does benefit the learner himself. Take the preposition “nach” as an example, it seems to me that German words (verbs and nouns) associated with “pursuit” (sich sehnen) or “desire” (die Begier) usually precede “nach”, and thus I group the few words together and try to remember them together (See Figure 2).

learning card 02

Figure 2

Let me know if you have any good language learning method by making a comment!

P.S. We have recently started an Instagram account where we upload some learning flash cards on a weekly basis. Follow us at https://www.instagram.com/learnlangblog/


Pet Sounds: James Au

Pet Sounds: A series in which teaching staff and students from the English Department reflect on a piece of music or song. [Read all entries.] [Revisit the “Headspace” series.] [Revisit the “Ongoing” series.] [Revisit the “Interrogative” series.]

YesterdayOnceMoreAlbumIt was yesterday, if my memory did not fail me, yes, it was yesterday that I first heard the Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More”. I distinctly remember that by chance, I picked up a dust-covered CD, and unexpectedly, or almost subconsciously, I put it in the CD player.

Every word of the lyrics is as simple as the letters A, B and C, but they form a strange language almost incomprehensible to an eight-year-old boy.

When the refrain was played the second time, my mom came back from the wet market. Surprised by the song, she asked, ‘Why are you listening to this?’

‘I just grabbed…

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