MacSpeech Dictate dictation software for Mac

MacSpeech is pretty incredible software.

We’ve been blogging about how children acquire languages but recently my Apple Macintosh has been also starting to understand words of itself, thanks to MacSpeech Dictate.

MacSpeech dictate is current-generation voice recognition software that listens to your voice and prints your words to the screen. This type of technology has been around for ten years or more but in the early days was more of a gimmick – it made so many errors that even a slow typist may as well have entered the text by hand.

MacSpeech dictate is different however and truly credible way to get words into a computer quickly. You need to spell out things like punctuation, which can slow you down, but when talking in general prose this method is as fast as the best touch-typists.

Before you start using the software you pass through a brief training exercise that simply involves reading text on the screen. This is so MacSpeech can calibrate itself to your voice and individual way of speaking. It continues to learn when you start using it and you can add additional vocabulary, which is useful for specific jargon, brand names and the like.

It also has a practical purpose as M likes to sit on my knee when I work on the computer. With one arm wrapped around baby and a knee jiggling for entertainment I clearly can’t type. MacSpeech solves that problem and, with the supplied headset, doesn’t often get thrown even by the occasional yelps and babbles from baby.

This entire blog speech was written using MacSpeech. If you’re a slow typists or don’t always have the luxury of having both hands free, it’s worth checking out.

Baby: Don’t know a language? Make one up!

Language can take many forms.

Our sixth month old baby, M, might not know any Spanish or English words yet but that’s not stopping her from developing a language of her own.

For the first few brief months it’s hard to know what baby wants. Food? A clean nappy? A hug? Entertainment? Papa’s bad guitar playing? From this age they start developing their own system of utterances, screams, grunts and sign language to at least get a few things across.

Some bits of ‘baby language’ are pretty obvious. Early on, M would be in Papa’s arms but would often wriggle in the direction of Mama to suggest she be handed over for a change of scenary or boob (and because Mama’s probably just better all-round). Now she just outstretches an arm in that direction, perhaps adding a few grunts for emphasis. Another signal is the one for ‘pick me up’. She’s used to being plucked off the floor by her armpits, so will adopt a ‘parachutist’ pose, with armpits raised when that’s what she wants.

So, babies will happily make up language any which way they can to make their point. We all do. When I reach the limit of my Spanish with a Spanish speaker, I may gesture or mime or imitate a sound and usually the message will be understood and communication can continue. Still, when a baby does it, it seems pretty clever. No one’s taught them how to do it. It’s innate.

With M increasingly mobile and able to commando crawl across the carpet like a pro, we’ve had to invest in her first playpen, which we’ve dubbed ‘baby gaol’. We’ve only given her short bursts of it as we don’t want her to turn against it (she still has a few problems with going to sleep in her cot, making a huge fuss, even if clearly exhausted). She quite quickly cottoned on to where the gate of the pen was located, pawing at the hinge and lower latch as if trying to figure out an escape before falling back on the ‘pick me up’ signal.

Her babbling is increasingly coherent in the sense it sounds more like proper talking than ever before. It’s easy to hear real words in there – I’m sure I got ‘Daddy’ the other day, although it was undoutedly a fluke. One day an obvious, bona fide real word will leap out, though. I wonder if it will be in Spanish or English?

Michael Gove to put languages centre stage with English Baccalaureate?

UK Education Minister Michael Gove has suggested plans to create what he calls an ‘English baccalaureate’. It will be a certificate awarded to pupils who pass five or more GCSEs at grade C or higher and must including English, maths, science, a humanties subject and, significantly, a foreign language.

His idea intention is to encourage student to take a broad range of subjects and to firm up traditional ‘solid’ subjects, which have allegedly been downplayed at GCSE and A Level as schools have sought to encourage students into easier options more likely to yield higher grades and make exam tables look good. Science and languages have been especially badly hit as students see that as harder graft and don’t wish to jeopardise their chances of landing enough grades to progress to the next level.

Languages could be given higher priority by the government.

Michael Gove is a fan of the popular International Baccalaureate, an alternative qualification to A Levels that is offered by more and more schools and sixth form colleges.

To my mind it’s a step in the right direction. Pupils at 16 should have a broad education and not be prematurely specialised. Compulsory languages should never have been dropped by the last government. However, it’s not really a true baccalaureate in the continental mould, more a why to shoehorn the existing exam into a fresh idea that it doesn’t really fit. It allows an el cheapo quick fix with a new buzzword but does nothing to tackle falling standards, rapid grade inflation, and the underachievement of boys nor will it tackle the low standards of literacy among students who have achieved high grades. It’ll be the same old GCSEs with students pushed a little harder to ensure a broad mix – something many schools do anyway, especially with brighter pupils.

Gove, then, does not appear to want to tackle the English exam system head on and introduce real reform. However, the English baccalaureate will place languages back on the agenda in mainstream education, and schools, now faced with putting all students through a language GCSE will want to channel more resources into the subjects. That can only be a good thing.

Confessions of a monolingual Brit

Flying the flag for monolingualism?

I’d never learned a foreign language until I started French at 11 years old. My Mother spoke both English and Welsh but had never taught me the celtic language, although she had helped me to read and write in English from a young age.

British monolingualism

Most people would love to learn another language to full fluency.

My introduction to French was not a happy one. The teacher, a French native, seemed to quickly latch on to the fact that a handful to children in the class had attended a local Catholic private school before attending my state comprehensive and already knew some French. It felt as if she was teaching to their higher level and I was quickly left behind and assumed I had no ability in the subject. I was of the first generation where very little English grammar is taught to students, and although I knew my way around a verb, a noun and an adjective, it all seemed more complex in French.

Even so, I liked the subject far more than German, which I began at the same time. The school did not have a culture of trying to push students forward. You just existed at the level to which you naturally settled – high flyer, middler or struggler. As a poor, humble 11 year old from the sticks that had barely met anyone from the North let alone another country, France seemed a remote and ultimately meaningless place and no one was really selling it to me.

When it came to GCSEs the school was very keen on every student taking a modern language so I naturally took French, despite being at a much lower level than I was in the humanities or sciences. My GCSE teacher, a Scot, was a revelation and, for a short time, I suddenly became enthusiastic for learning a language, although as I felt so far behind was not up for the hard graft needed to get back on track and only ended up with a poor grade (possibly made a grade worse by severe hayfever during the exam, to offer a feeble excuse).

In adulthood I toyed with learning other languages, usually spurred on by a foreign friend or enjoying the cinema of a given nation or culture but it was only meeting my future Spanish wife that I managed to finally pick up a language to an intermediate proficiency.

I attended a two week intensive Spanish course at one of the many private language schools in Madrid and was amazed just how fast you can absorb fresh knowledge. The ‘intermediate level’ course wasn’t expensive but the two young tutors were skilled, professional teachers that seemed to live and breathe the language and could communicate enthusiasm as well as complex conjugations.

The experience made me wonder why language learning seemed so hard in school? How can it be possible to attend lessons at school for five years and still have huge craters in your knowledge? Why is language learning such a turn off for so many kids at school, with fewer students taking modern language GCSEs and A Levels at a time when so many adults are keen to learn, with huge sales of language learning books and software, and good language tutors in constant demand?

Anyway, with a bilingual baby bouncing through her first year, I probably need a fresh kick up the backside to take my Spanish to the next level. Lidia’s family do not speak English at all, so it’s my Spanish or nothing. I wouldn’t want mother and daughter to have a top secret special language in which to discuss Papa.