Category: General

So you want to learn a new language?

Learning a language is hard. One aspect I appreciate about living in Europe is the wide variety of cultures and languages from different places. I thought it would be useful to post some tips that would have helped me when I first started learning German and discovered over time.

German

  1. Have a good reason – Learning a language, at least for me, is hard. You are never really done, and there is always something to learn as languages evolve and are used in different places. It is helpful to have a very good reason to learn, something that won’t change over time to help motivate you. I met many people who wanted to move to Germany for job opportunities, for love interests, or just because they really like Germany. Remember this reason to help motivate you.
  2. Register for some structured learning – I signed up for a language class rather late in my learning cycle, and I think it would have helped doing it much earlier. Having a teacher that you like and respect is a key enabler, but the face-to-face time and the structured nature is particularly helpful in the early stages of language learning.
  3. Make use of software tools – There is so much software for learning languages. Classic language learning tools like Rosetta Stone, audio guides like Pimsleur’s are great starts. The internet offers many more options like Duolingo, Memrise and Anki are great tools for helping you build vocabulary. I used lang-8.com to practice my writing skills and recently came across Livemocha.
  4. Make time for unstructured learning – A problem with class-based teaching, or any software system is that you will be limited by the topics and themes previously chosen. It’s nice to have unstructured learning, like reading a magazine, or a website in a topic you are interested in to make it more engaging or to go to a place whether there are other people learning the language where you can practice.
  5. Interact with native speakers – You will learn everyday phrases and slang much faster when you talk with people who are native speakers, and is often not covered in typical language courses.
  6. Practice doing activities you enjoy doing – A lot about language learning is repetition, building vocabulary and practicing until you become fluent. You can make it a lot easier but doing it at the same time as another activity that you enjoy.
  7. Live in the country – Not always possible, but highly recommended. I know a number of people who have taken vacations in countries where they want to develop their language, where they could not live in the country.
  8. Find a tandem partner – A tandem partner is a person who is fluent in the language you are learning and would like to learn you can speak. Where you are not local to the country, you can try remote calls or video conferences with people on the Internet. You can use sites like Tandempartners.org to find matches. A typical arrangement is to spend time talking in one language, and then to swap to the other.
  9. Be okay with not being perfect – I realised that a goal like “speaking German fluently” was a pretty poor goal, because “fluently” isn’t very specific. Although I am comfortable speaking to natives in everyday conversation, I know there will be situations where I do not have the vocabulary or it would take me much longer to explain what I would like to. This happens in every language and it’s okay. So what if I can’t explain situations in medical terms in English. Relating this back to the first point of having a good reason to learn will help you.
  10. Benefit from your investment – Do something with your language skills. Use it when you travel. Use it to surprise a native speaker. Celebrate the fact that you are learning something and this will help you keep learning.

“Downgrading” to the Olympus E-PL5 camera

Since the end of last year, I upgraded away from my Canon EOS Rebel XTi in favour of Olympus’ E-PL5 camera. I posted this as a “downgrade” mainly due to its smaller size and this is a good thing indeed. I can assure you that everything else is an upgrade.

I had been following the micro four-thirds format for a long time. One of photography-obsessed friends told me in 2011 to buy the Olympus OMD EM-5 and as tempted as I was at all the rave reviews, the price range put it out of my budget.

Fortunately at the end of last year, Olympus announced the release of two new models that contained the very same inside sensors as the OMD EM-5. I read some early reviews, and decided that it worked for me. I read somewhere that when you have taken enough photos with your equipment to equate to about 5p per shot (mine turned out to about 1.7p per shot approximately) then you hit a good time to upgrade.

I got the kit lens (couldn’t buy it without it) as well as the 40-150mm R lens for a telescopic (zoom) lens. I shortly bought the Panasonic 1.7 20mm pancake lens as well given that these had some great reviews and it’s the lens that I use the most. The kit 14-42mm II R lens was decent but just not fast enough for use in dark places – particularly restaurants where I take a lot of photos for my food blog.

What I love

Using a touchscreen – People complain about missing an electronic viewfinder (or just a viewfinder) and I think it would make a great deal if I took a lot of outdoor pictures in the sun. Fortunately I can just keep taking a lot of photos and it seems to work out. Better yet, this touchscreen tilts so that you can take pictures at waist height (it’s less obvious and you can capture moments instead of people posing because you take a camera out). Flipping the touchscreen at 170 degrees (slightly more would be better) also allows for better positioning of self-portrait shots. Something I didn’t think I would use but I definitely use a lot more now that I have it.

(sneaky table height shot captures the moment above)

Taking photos is fast – I thought when I upgraded to my DSLR photos were fast. Focus is amazingly fast, and you can take a lot of photos in a short amount of time. Tracking in low-light is more dependent on the lens you’re using and it can sometimes take a while to not-focus if it is too low light (a problem for most cameras).

(taking a photo on the go during a demonstration)

It is small – I went for the micro four-thirds format instead of the competing Sony or Fuji cameras for two reasons. One is that the difference in sensor size makes negligible difference (at least to me) in the final photos. The sensor size translates directly to the lens size that both affects weight and physical dimensions. As a result, I carry my camera around almost all the time and use it to replace my normal compact digital camera I use for work photos. I also notice that my back is much better off it when carrying all lenses and the camera in a sling bag.

(compact enough to bring with me on the ski slopes in my ski jacket pocket)

Lens choice – I like the fact that I can choose between Olympus, Panasonic and now other manufacturers are making lenses for the m43 format. Longevity in technology is very much an arms race and I like the choice from a standard that means more differences in prices. Although I probably won’t buy another lens for a while, I’m comforted that there will be more choice (and probably cheaper prices) for these.

What I like

Art filters – Although I think most cameras offer this feature now, I have to admit I do like playing around with the different effects. My most favourite are probably the Pin Hole or the Soft Focus effects. There’s even an “Art Bucket” mode that applies all the filters and saves a copy of the file (although I wish I could selectively turn off which filters when into that as I never like the Key Line or Pop Art filters)

(picture above with soft focus filter)

(picture above with pin hole filter)

Customisability – Although it takes a while to traverse the manual, this camera allows you to change some (maybe) all the camera configuration. For example, I don’t really take any motion videos, so I’ve replaced the instant-record button (you have a dial mode for that anyway) to switch between auto focus and manual focus modes. One of the best customisations is to turn off the auto focus assist lamp, a bright red light that makes is super obvious you are taking photos in dark places. The trade off for me has proven to be worth it for now. There’s plenty more options you can configure and I would highly recommend reading the manual a few more times after you’ve played with it.

Battery life – Battery technology probably continues to get better. I took my camera with me for a ten day business trip to Ireland and although I wasn’t using it every day as if I was on holidays, it took probably about 1000 photos and the battery wasn’t yet complaining about getting low.

Small improvements

The dial and button combination – The dial and button combination is a little bit fiddly to play around with. I’m lucky I don’t have huge fingers but I can imagine that for some people it doesn’t work so well.

Image stabilisation – I think my previous two lens for the Canon SLR spoilt me for image stabilisation as they were rock-solid. I noticed it when I moved back to the Canon 50mm 1.8 lens. I think the IS works pretty well in the camera, but you have to be careful in darker locations where I think because it is a much smaller, I find it harder to keep the camera more steady. Fortunately the flip screen helps with this because you can lean the camera up against something and still frame your shot appropriately. I’d be keen to see how the OMD series do although not sure it’s significant enough to pay the difference.

Focus on moving things – Apparently one of the weaknesses with the micro four-thirds (or at least the way Olympus does) is that it’s less good for taking pictures of fast moving objects. Where my old camera could do pretty well even at a zoom level, I haven’t testing the camera to its limits. Once again, not a big issue for me, but could be for some of you using it.

Conclusion

I have had the camera for probably about six months. After about three months I decided it was good enough to replace the DSLR. I haven’t looked back since.

Happy Chinese New Year

Ok, this post is a little late but nevertheless, Happy New Year (Chinese style), to the year of the snake! I hadn’t really planned any trips to Chinatown or anything as we had just returned from our ski trip and I wanted time to catch up on some house-related stuff but I did end up agreeing to meet my sister at one of our regular cheap, but consistently cheerful and good restaurants New Fortune Cookie (I had no idea it rated so high on TripAdvisor – it’s true!)

New Fortune Cookie

I decided to meet early because I don’t like eating too late on a Sunday and this turned out to be a good idea with such a crowd also wanting Chinese food on Chinese New Year. New Fortune Cookie has a great location next to the Queensway tube, so it gets a lot of traffic and it’s good food and reasonable prices with good service (I never feel like they are turning tables like other Chinese restaurants) means you end up with a lot of happy customer coming back. On this evening though, we had about a half hour wait even though we were one of the first people in queue. By the time we sat down, people were starting to stand in between tables, just because there wasn’t enough room. So chaotic, and entertaining.

We had quite the feast for the Chinese New Year, starting off with won ton soup and ensuring that we ordered a noodle dish for long life. Ordering Chinese appropriately for a special event can be quite overwhelming as symbolic nature of foods is complex. We opted for one of

September Already

I have no idea where the last couple of months have gone, but it’s been a very busy one. Life has been good with a project quite close to home, I thought I would have more time to blog, but I guess other things are getting in the way. Keeping fit has been a big part to this year, after travelling a lot last year and difficult keeping a proper routine, it’s been good to have a bit more of a regular schedule. I also managed to self-publish my own book at the start of August although the rest of August was busy preparing for the big Agile conference in Dallas.

In terms of personal stuff, I managed to make it to an Olympics event (yay!) – 10m quarter final women’s diving where we got to enjoy the Olympic stadium after work and the amazingly fun atmosphere. Although I didn’t win any tickets in the ballot, a good friend offered me one for the event that I took with no hesitation with the price point, timing and event matching up pretty well.

For the August bank holiday weekend, I spent the time in Berlin which was very fun to get back. I was less a tourist this time and spent a bit more time catching up with friends, revisiting old haunts and trying to practice my terrible (but much better) German on the poor Germans who would respond in kind. September is already here and I’m about to embark on a trip to China for a couple of weeks where the family will be visiting from Australia.

Sorry for not keeping up to date, but there’s a short summary of things going on. I’m sure I’ve missed plenty but life seems to get busier and busier!

I’m British

After over six and a half years in the UK, I can now call myself British after sitting the ceremony this Wednesday past. I sent my application in last year and waited to hear back from the Home Office and only recently received the letter asking me to book a citizenship ceremony as soon as possible. It was a very nervous three month wait hoping to hear back the result. Fortunately it was all approved.

I took the ceremony at Camden Town Hall, the same place I had the Nationality Checking Service (NCS) appointment. Talking to a human instead of waiting on a queue, or talking to an automated machine is a much better experience, so they encouraged me to return.

The ceremony started at 10am sharp. Approximately 50 or more people turned up for the ceremony, including their guests. We were divided into two groups – those undertaking the final oath to become a citizenship, and guests who sat in the viewing areas around the council chambers. We all stood as the mayor, adorned in all of his finery and bling entered the room. They talked about what the proceedings were going to be before the mayor opened up with a speech of his own, welcoming us in as British citizens.

We were then asked to take one of two oaths to cement the role before being handed certificates, a token of appreciation from the borough, and a picture with the mayor and a picture of the Queen.

Fortunately for me, Australia dropped its single citizenship rule only as recently as 2002 where I’m allowed to basically be guaranteed to win (and lose) The Ashes. It’s a bit of a relief to finally stop worrying about counting days in and out of the country, and I look forward to returning from trips overseas and entering without queueing for extremely large amounts of time at British Immigration.

Succumbed to the Upgrade

I succumbed. And bought a new phone. Admittedly it’s been about four years that I’ve had my other phone and while it’s lasted me, you can tell that it’s needed a bit of upgrading both from the slowness of the apps and the some of the outside scratches.

It’s lasted remarkably well but I’m happy to have finally upgraded. Other than known battery issues (a software problem soon to be fixed) the phone itself has been very awesome. I can’t really say much about Siri since I’ve not used it so much as it seems more of a novelty than anything else.