how to start learning a new language


This was a post on my old blog from 2008, and i thought i’d repost it here because it’s more relevant here.

I had a question the other day from someone who wants to start learning mandarin chinese, and wants to continue studying french. It really got me thinking, because all of my learning strategies lately have been focused on moving myself from “advanced beginner” to “intermediate” stages, but it’s been a long time since i’ve thought about what to do from the absolute total beginner level. I learned a lot last year about classroom learning by doing the chinese immersion program both here in canada and in china, and this year i’ve learned a lot about self-directed learning, so in this post i’m gonna try to put those together and come up with something useful. This should help me too, since i hope to restart on spanish in january or so, alongside my chinese study.

I think the most general principle i can suggest is that you just need to keep yourself consistently moving forward bit by bit. 语言学习好比走路,是一步一步前进的 (“studying languages is like walking; you improve one step at a time”). The big challenge in language-learning is not the particulars of whatever concept you happen to be learning in any given moment, it’s the problem of keeping yourself on-track toward your future goals which may be many months away.

Language study is a motivation game. I think just about everybody will experience a moment when they think “fuck, this takes a long time, i’m never going to get fluent”, or “dammit, why can’t i just READ this book! i want to read a page in like 5 seconds like i do in english instead of 10 minutes in this language”. These moments are all opportunities to fail by giving up. You have to be prepared for them so you can bust through to the other side on your way to awesome. Remember that you CAN become fluent in other languages. If you’re dedicated and you keep having fun with it, you could be fluent in 10 languages some day. So if that’s what’s possible, then why let this one little language get you down? Don’t worry, you’ll get there.

If you write a todo list, just having “Learn Chinese” on the list is not helpful. That’s not really a task that you can just sit and do in an afternoon or something. What you need is a mental conception of what “becoming fluent” looks like on a day-to-day basis. You need to figure out what you’re going to do each and every day that is related to your language of interest. You may only spend 20 minutes on it if you’re really busy, and other days you may get all keen and spend several hours before you look up at the clock and see how late it is. But what you need to know is that “becoming fluent” looks like “i think i’m gonna sit down and read a bit of this book” or “i think i’ll flip through this dictionary and pick out some crazy new words that i don’t know” or “i’m gonna go have coffee with some people who speak chinese”. Those little short-term things are the stuff of magic. Added all together, they are what will make you fluent. That’s it. If every day you add something to your knowledge, you will get there.

To keep yourself on track, you need to find stuff that’s fun. As Khatsumoto says, There is no such thing as something being “boring but effective”. If it’s not fun, don’t do it because you’ll just kill your desire. Usually i try to find at least 4 or 5 different ways to work on the language. Then, when i have some time set aside to do something, i can lay out a bunch of books on the table, load up a few websites, and then just jump into whichever one strikes my fancy. Maybe i’ll switch after 20 minutes if i get bored, or maybe i’ll do it for hooouurrrs without noticing. It differs daily, but i can tell you with certainty that if you only have 1 book that you’re using, you’ll get bored of it at some point and then you won’t have anything to fall back on.

In a practical sense, there are a few things that i always want when studying a new language. number 1 is beginner audio lessons. Check out Pimsleur or Michel Thomas. Some people like them, some people think they have too much english instruction in them and not enough native speaking, but you should at least give them a try because they exist for many languages and they usually have some good content, especially for beginners or those who haven’t spent a lot of time learning any other languages before.

Another thing i like to have is a simple book. Maybe a kid’s book, maybe some sort of graded reader for beginners, anything you can find that’s on the easy side of things. If you’re an absolute beginner, even “easy” stuff will be hard to comprehend, but just about anything will do. What you want is a nice source of content in that language. It’ll also serve as a goal, since you know that at some point in your studies you’ll be able to read the whole thing easily, which will be quite satisfying.

Without expecting to understand everything, take a browse through it. Try to understand a few sentences, using dictionaries or websites or whatever. If you come upon something interesting, write it down. If you have one of those “aha” moments when you figure out something, write it down. I like just picking away at something and trying to pull out anything that i can. Pretend that you’re an archaeologist studying agent egyptian in a dusty pyramid somewhere and you’re decoding a language that no one else knows. It’s a puzzle, and it’s way more addictive than Sudoku. Piece by piece you’re going to pull tidbits out of it that you start to understand.

Next is getting an SRS – Spaced Repetition System (my favourite is Anki). This is a vital learning tool that has been mostly neglected by educators everywhere. I’ve already ranted about SRSes elsewhere, so i’ll spare you most of it this time. Simply put, an SRS is a piece of computer software that is made to program your brain to remember things. It makes you familiar with something over time by repeating it to you at the right time. In science fiction, people of the future program computers in their brains to remember stuff for them, but right now we already know the truth is the other way around: computers can program US to remember anything, and the way to do this is with an SRS.

It goes like this. I pick up a book, like the chinese translation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (which i got from the local library 2 weeks ago), and i struggle through a few sentences in it. I’m curious about how one of those sentences is phrased, so i write it down on my notepad. I pick some portion of that sentence and look it up online, maybe on or and find a bunch more example sentences that have similar words in them. If any of these are interesting, i write them down.

At the end of my little exploration session, i put down my book and flip open my laptop, loading up Anki. I create flashcards from the stuff that i wrote down. This is the crucial step, because if all i ever did was write shit down, i’d forget it all by the next day, or even 2 hours from then. This is what i mistakenly did when i was in China…i’d sit down for like 2 or 3 hours every afternoon and crawl through all sorts of interesting books and dictionaries, write a bunch of neat stuff down, and then forget like 90% of it by that evening. I was spinning my wheels because i wasn’t actually retaining much of what i was figuring out. If you’re not reviewing the old material, it’s like you’re that famous archaeologist in the dusty pyramid and every day you take your notes and chuck them in the trash. NO, you want to retain all that stuff (hopefully with the least amount of effort possible), so you need your SRS.

So, with an SRS like Anki i can spend a few minutes every morning and evening reviewing older stuff and keeping it fresh in my mind. By getting reminded after a few hours, then after a day, then after 3 days, after a week, etc, i can turn that short term stuff into long term familiarity. This is true advancement in a language. You can be confident that whatever interesting tidbits you write down on your notepad will not be thrown down the memory hole…you can just assume that you’ll be able to remember those, because Anki is going to program them into your long term memory for you. You’re going to be intimately familiar with them. In a few weeks, you’ll look at all the really complicated stuff you were writing down a month previous, and it’ll appear stupidly simple to you. It won’t even seem worth keeping because it’ll be so obvious. This is familiarity. When you’re fluent in a language, you’re just really really familiar with it.

Ok, i notice that this post is starting to ramble on forever, which i tend to do when i’m excited about something, so let me try to sum things up. Like any long-term project, learning a language involves doing something every day consistently for a long period of time. If you keep it up, you’ll be surprised at your progress. I believe that by working enthusiastically on it and having some good people to consult, you can make much more progress much faster than if you took a course and just passively did what the teacher said.

Don’t worry about leaving some other stuff behind if you have to move in a different direction to find the fun stuff. You can always come back to the other things you were working on. It’ll still be there later, just keep pursuing the fun things. Keep searching for ways to get comprehensible input. You want lots and lots of interesting input. Saturate your brain with input, and things will fall into place. This is what brains are good at.

priming with easy audio


Right now i’m trying to read a fairly difficult book in german, and i’ve been looking for ways to make it a bit easier to understand, and i just happen to have stumbled upon just such a trick. What i accidentally did was listen to 1 solid hour of Assimil German, which is pretty easy for me (at least in the beginner sections). Listening to a solid hour of german conversations that were 95% understandable has apparently flipped my brain into german mode.

After this hour of solid listening (with intense concentration to make sure i understood everything precisely), i then proceeded to read my fantasy novel, Der Abschiedsstein. Wow, what a difference. I’m trying to read in a flowing manner, with no dictionary and no breaks to lookup words at all. Just keep going constantly….and it’s working! I’m getting much more of the story, and guessing many more words than previously. I can just skip past the words i don’t know and keep going, and it feels fine. My inner german monologue comes much easier, with good imagined pronunciation.

Two things specifically have changed: 1) the flow is much better…i can glide through it smoothly. 2) i get more words from context, just guessing. It’s weird to see such a noticeable change in my comprehension just from doing an hour of intensive listening. I need to try this every time. I can’t wait for my audiobooks to arrive, since this effect may perhaps be magnified if i can do several hours of Listening-Reading where the audio matches the book. This seems like really preliminary evidence that the L-R folks are right about half on hour per day being not that helpful, and 3+ hours per day being the sweet spot. You need a definite period of warm-up action, and then your brain goes into overdrive and dives right in. I’ll be testing this theory more in the coming weeks.

Here are my latest stats for german:

  • Sentences in Anki: 36 (goal: 1000 by the end of June)
  • Words read so far: ~5000 (goal: 1000000 by the end of June)
  • Hours of listening: 1.5 (goal: 100 by the end of June)

reactivating german


Lately I’ve been preparing to reactivate my very rusty german skills. In the past, i’ve practiced german a lot, but in unsophisticated ways. I had some exposure to it as a child, when i lived near my german-speaking grandparents for a year and a half. Later, i took a few years of german classes in high school. I never really got to a conversational level, but i feel very confident doing the “which way is the train station?” sort of stuff that the high school courses were good at teaching.

Currently i’m planning a brief trip to Berlin in the summer, so i thought it’s about time to refresh my german. So far I’m just gathering resources and taking stock. I’m looking for any and all possible blogs about other people who are learning german, i’m looking for german books i’d like to read, and movies i’d like to watch. I’d like to also find some regular podcasts to listen to, hopefully on the easy side rather than complicated newscasts.

One thing i’ve found helpful as an easy refresher is There are a couple of lists of interesting (but easy) phrases in german, and they have some automated text-to-speech computer readouts of each of them which are actually pretty decent-sounding. They’re not all entirely accurate, but good enough to remind me of a few things quickly. If i can get the “IKnow” importer plugin working for Anki, then maybe i’ll import some of them, but i don’t expect to spend much time on these phrases.

My highest priority is to get some real content, though. All i have right now is a fantasy book i bought years ago, called Der Abschiedsstein (aka ““The Stone of Farewell” in the original english version) by Tad Williams. I’ve read the english version of the series, and i picked up the german translation of this when i was on my last trip to germany 9 years ago. It’s pretty tough for me to read right now, but i get some good words from it because i already know the story and the characters somewhat. If a particular word stands out to me, and i’ve seen it a couple times, then i write it down and look it up later.

To get some more input, particularly audio input, i ordered some new books with audio versions on CD. For now i’m sticking with the theme of things that are fun to read, so i got some fantasy / sci-fi books. First i ordered the german version of Harry Potter #1 and #2. I haven’t read the harry potter series yet, but i’ve seen a couple of the movies so i know the basic story. the books and CDs were easy to find on…a bit pricy though. I also ordered Der Schwarm (“The Swarm” in english), which sounds like an interesting novel about the ocean ecosystem fighting back against humanity’s destructive practices. It’s apparently due to be made into a movie by 2011 too. I ordered the german and english paperbacks, and the german audio version.

For both harry potter and Der Schwarm, i intend to read a chapter first in english, and then work through the german version by following the audio. I’ll also try reading out loud to follow the audio, a practice that i’ve heard has some great advantages for working on your accent, and also for reading comprehension. As i go along, i plan to grab various interesting phrases and put them into Anki for later review. By reading the english first (but separately), i hope to get a good understanding of the plot before i switch back to german. That way, when i read and listen to the german version, i should be able to follow along well and i’ll be able to pick up more words from the context. By switching every chapter or two, i won’t be tempted to directly look at the english version while i’m working on the german, and i’ll avoid doing dictionary lookups. I should also have enough space between the languages that i won’t be thinking about it in english as i listen to the german. I’ll probably want to listen to the german version several times before moving on to the next chapter.

Der Schwarm probably has about 250000 words in it, similarly with Der Abschiedsstein, and each of the Harry Potters probably less, more like 100000 each. With some inevitable re-reading of chapters, the sum total of all of these should put me past 1 million words of german. It’d be an interesting exercise to evaluate my german skills before and after, to see what effect the 1 million word plan has.

One possible test is counting the percentage of words i know on an average page of a real novel (before, and after). It’d probably be best to do the “after” test on a book that i haven’t read yet, just so that i don’t have particular familiarity with it, although it might still be interesting to see if that differs from the “after” value on one of the books i have read intensively. I’ll just take a larger sample size for the average i guess.

Another test could be the speed in which i can read 10 pages with a reasonable level of understanding, but my current reading comprehension is pretty low. I guess i can just do as best i can at the start, trying hard to understand the text instead of just mechanically reading the sounds just to get a fast time. Maybe a qualitative description of my comprehension after each test would be good to record.

I can’t think of any other quantitative tests at the moment, but certainly i should note that i can’t currently understand newscasts or most normal spoken conversation, unless it’s about simple topics. When i get to Berlin i can report on how my comprehension is when i sit down for beers with people and try to listen (assuming i’ve finished reading my million words by the time i leave).

For people looking for related topics, I’m also inspired in this project by the concept of the “Listening-Reading” method, also known as “L-R”. I read about it on the How to learn any language forum. The idea with L-R is mostly what i just described…expose yourself to massive input both audially and visually with text+audiobooks, and do it for many hours per day until your brain is saturated. People on the forum claim that if you only do half an hour per day, the benefit is not as pronounced as it could be, but if you can manage to do 3 or 4 hours per day then the gains are supposedly tremendous. IIRC, there was a report there by someone who did it with Polish for 4 hours per day, and after several weeks she was able to understand polish radio broadcasts. This seems startling to me, after such a short time, but that’s a LOT of hours of exposure i guess.

I don’t have much more than a couple of anecdotes supporting this method, but it seems to match up with my experience and what i’ve read about input being king (see also: AJATT). I don’t think i can manage 3 hours per day consistently, especially when i’m trying to also work on chinese a little every day, but i can probably get that much on the weekends. It might work best if i make it a morning ritual to get up a bit earlier, have some caffeine, and listen/read for an hour before going to work.

I could also augment this by having some sort of german podcast playing on my mp3 player all day. Perhaps some sort of BBC thing, but i’d like to find something easier that i have more hope of understanding. In the beginning, anything should be fine because i’ll mainly be using it to get those german sounds pounded into my head. I guess i could just use the audiobook recordings, albeit without paying as much attention to them since i’ll also be trying to get some work done.

Anyway, i’ll make more posts as i progress. I’m still in the beginning stages of this project, but things should take off in a couple weeks once my audiobooks arrive. Until then, please send me any tips on german-learning blogs. I can’t seem to find that many yet, so i’m not sure if there’s a big community like there is for japanese or something.

“input only” vs. “input plus”


I just happened to stumble upon a very interesting article in a scientific journal called Language Learning. The article is about the ability of students to acquire vocabulary through reading, and about what can be done to enhance their acquisition. The article is called Learning L2 German Vocabulary Through Reading: The Effect of Three Enhancement Techniques Compared. Although most of the article is a rather dull explanation of their research methods that is mostly only relevant to other researchers, i’ll quote 3 separate juicy tidbits for you here, mostly from the results and conclusions.

Our findings, together with those of the studies reviewed, provide robust evidence that the low incidence of vocabulary acquisition through reading (“input only”) can be substantially boosted by techniques that make students look up unknown words, process their form-meaning relationship elaborately, and process them again after reading (“input plus”). The preceding paragraphs have dealt extensively with the grounds for this conclusion. We deem our conclusion relevant for L2 instruction. Simply telling students that they will be tested later apparently does not bring about the three forms of behavior required for word learning (finding out what the word means, elaborate processing of the word’s form together with its meaning, and repetition). If we want L2 learners to enlarge their vocabulary size through reading, we need techniques that require students to perform concrete word-directed actions. Asking text comprehension questions that force students, as it were, to look up an unfamiliar word, as well as assigning a repetition task that forces students, as it were, to reprocess the form-meaning link that was processed a while ago during reading were each shown to be more effective than announcing that unfamiliar words will be tested after reading because the former two techniques lead to concrete, word-specific action, whereas the latter does not or does so only among some students for some words. Furthermore, previous studies and the present one have shown that word learning is not a matter of either elaborate processing or repetition, but both. A one-time elaborate processing of a new form-meaning link runs the risk of falling into oblivion. We therefore recommend the assignment of a reprocessing task immediately after completion of a reading comprehension task.

The literature on learning and memory and the literature on L2 vocabulary learning, in particular, suggest that successful L2 vocabulary acquisition through reading is contingent on three factors. First, L2 learners should discover the meaning of unfamiliar words. Second, they should process the lexical information elaborately. Third, the form-meaning connections of these words should be reinforced by means of repetition. When L2 learners want to learn new words through reading, they first need to discover their meaning. They can try to infer the meaning on the basis of contextual clues, if possible, or they can consult its meaning in a dictionary. Although discovering a word’s meaning is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient one to learn words. L2 learners need to process (the lexical information of) new words thoroughly before acquisition can take place. The “depth-of-processing” hypothesis (Craik, 2002; Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975) states that retention of information is directly and strongly determined by the way the information is processed. Basing himself on the work by Craik and his associates, Hulstijn (2001) argued that processing new lexical information elaborately, by paying attention to various features (e.g., the word’s meaning[s], semantic relations to other words, the word’s grammatical category, pronunciation, and orthography) will enhance word retention.

In conclusion, successful L2 vocabulary acquisition is contingent on three factors: finding the meaning of an unfamiliar word (which may produce only a fleeting form of processing), subsequent elaborate processing, and repetition (Hulstijn, 2001). Both vocabulary test announcement and word relevance prompted students to look up words. The word-directing comprehension questions (word relevance) induced elaborate processing. The vocabulary task enforced the repetition of the form-meaning connections of the (plus-relevant) target words, and this turned out to be a successful reinforcement of the previous elaborate processing.

What i’d like to add to this, is that this matches my understanding of how human memory works. You have 2 main factors in memory: 1) connections to other concepts, and 2) spaced repetition. Connections can be associations of any form, such as sights, smells, some experience that was coincident with the remembered thing, a mnemonic you’ve used, etc. Spaced repetition means some kind of reminder at increasing intervals, just to keep that thing fresh in your mind, and to make your brain prioritize that piece of information because it keeps occurring on a regular basis.

What this article says is that if you just read lots, you may not be either a) connecting those new words well enough, or b) repeating them properly. Some words may be more obscure, so you won’t get enough incidental reps. Also, you may understand the story without figuring out that word, so you don’t really stop to think about the word enough to cement with further connections. Once we realize that “input only” can be sub-optimal, we can use our knowledge of the workings of memory to enhance this and get “input plus”.

In my case, i try to do this by finding other example sentences that use my target word, which give me more senses of it. I also sometimes try to come up with a mnemonic or some other association. I think i’ll try to do this more in the future. In the past i’ve also purposely gone and done something unique or different at the time, just to be able to associate that particular experience with the new word or phrase. For repetition, i put a few of the example sentences into Anki, and i list some synonyms of the new word in there too.

Reading this study also made me have second thoughts about pursuing a purely input-only program such as movie-watching (sorry Keith 😉 or reading. To get “depth-of-processing”, as they say in the article, i’d want to combine movie watching with things such as saying words out loud, writing them down, studying their written form, relating them to other words, thinking of weird mnemonics.

Surely you don’t want to do all this in a way that interrupts your reading or viewing too significantly. There’s definitely something to be said for smoothly reading through a few pages without picking up your pencil or dictionary. What i did for the last story i read was i scanned back through the whole thing a second time afterwards, and wrote down anything that caught my eye. Then i later went through this scan-list to see if anything caught my eye again and then put these doubly-catchy words or phrases into Anki. This enabled me to get interesting things into Anki, and then i usually looked up more example phrases that helped me understand those new words, or i looked up example phrases for synonyms of the words. This let me explore that general area of meaning in my target language, rather than just learning a single word for a part of the concept.

What do other people do to explore a language? What sorts of “depth-of-processing” habits do you have?

the grammar debate…a red herring?


I was just reading Language Geek‘s discussion of the “no-grammar” method compared to the “grammar” method, and how sometimes it’s nice to have a blend of the two. Lately I’ve been thinking about this debate and wondering whether it’s sort of irrelevant.

What i feel with chinese (and i think this applies to other languages too) is that there are two levels to it…there are sentences that are technically “grammatically correct” according to someone’s made up grammar rules that seem to fit all situations, and then there are sentences that actual people say and that actual native speakers consider to be correct. What i mean by this is that we can all surely think of examples we have heard where someone says something in our native language but it doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s technically correct, but nobody really says it that way.

Quite commonly, there are many “grammatically correct” ways to express ideas, but only a few of them are the ones that native speakers actually use. This is really what it means to speak a language…you say what other people say, because you’re used to how it works. In other words, the set of grammar rules overspecifies the language.

This comes up for me quite often with chinese. I can think of several ways to say something, but then when a native speaker tells me what they would say, i quite often think “wow, i never would have guessed that that was the correct way to say it”. Now that i think about it, this really points towards the necessity of hearing lots and lots of correct input. Along the way, you’ll notice common patterns that we call “grammar”, but going the other way by learning the grammar rules first will mean that you may end up producing things that seem correct according to these rules, but are actually not correct in the language overall.

That said, I agree with what Language Geek wrote, that grammar rules are sometimes quite handy when decoding what someone else has said. I think this can still be overcome just by exposure though, so that you (eventually) intuitively know what is being said. I have no experience that would let me say how long it takes to get to that point though, since my language learning has always seemed to start off with a big grammar component (usually through classes).

Since my next short-term project is revival of my meager german skills, i’ll have to wait a while before i can try a purely no-grammar method, but for now i’m trying to change all of my materials and methods over to mono-lingual and input-based. I’m already seeing a change in perception now that i’ve removed the english answers from my chinese anki cards. I can’t believe i’ve left them in for so long already. We’ll see how german goes when i restart that later this week, in preparation for my trip to Berlin in June.

number of characters for reading?


I was just browsing the forum on and i saw this reference to another article.

Chinese learners are not used to studying Chinese characters. Now some linguists and language teachers have started to focus their studies on how to enable learners to learn Chinese characters faster. They have discovered that there are aspects that make Chinese characters easy to learn. Firstly, the number of commonly-used characters is limited. According to statistics, one can read non-technical publications without much difficulty, if s/he has a command of about 3,000 characters. Secondly, characters are made of components which, in their part, are composed of strokes. Out of the 400-600 components, only 100 are commonly used, and a considerable part of those are characters by themselves.

I think there’s a difference between “able to read” and “able to read without much difficulty”. In my experience, i learned about 1000 characters through a series of intensive classes, but it wasn’t enough to muddle through any books with any sort of satisfaction. Then last summer i discovered SRS and mnemonics, and i learned an extra thousand characters in july and august, and cemented my knowledge of the old ones that i thought i knew.

I found that around the 1500 character mark (i went through them mostly in frequency order, so this is mostly the most popular 1500 characters), i was able to read books finally. It was hard, since there were still many i didn’t know, but at least the story was finally understandable and i was making good progress on the other characters just by reading.

Now with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2000-2500 characters, i’m able to easily read stories by Lu Xun and other real content. I learn lots of new words and characters by doing so. I can really see how knowing 3000 characters would make things so much easier, but i’m just enjoying actually reading things right now so i don’t really have the motivation to study single characters too much.

Overall, i’d say the barrier to reading is much lower than people think. You may hear numbers like “3000” and “4000” and think it’ll take forever, but really i think the minimum you need to work hard to hit is 1500. Once you hit 1500, you’ll get a feeling of satisfaction from actually recognizing so many characters in real books. This will motivate you to do more, and your reading level will go up from there. As someone once said, you get good at reading by reading. Even if you know 3000 characters, you aren’t necessarily good at reading yet either. But don’t place the bar too high. It’s doable sooner than you think.

going monolingual?


For a while i’ve heard people talking about using monolingual dictionaries in their target language, but I haven’t yet adopted that practice for some reason. I guess that since i started my chinese studies in a classroom setting, i’m really used to using lots of english all the time.

Lately some things have started to really change my mind. One is reading chinese without looking things up in the dictionary, and the other is reading Keith’s last few blog entries about learning chinese by watching chinese tv dramas. Keith makes many excellent points, especially about the way that drilling yourself with english translations will teach your brain to associate english with everything.

There are some situations in which i can speak and listen to chinese without translating…these are mostly limited to the situations i was forced into while i was in china. Most discussion that would occur in a class or in a chinese restaurant is totally fine, but for a lot of other situations i get lost easily.

It’s interesting for me now to seriously consider the effect of doing all of my chinese study in relation to english. All my anki flashcards have english in the answer, and most of the books i read have 1 page of chinese paired with 1 page of english. Have i been training myself into a corner?

From here on, i think i’m going to change things slightly. I’m still working on the 1 million words of reading, but i’d also like to introduce some tv dramas if i can find any. I’m also changing my Anki cards so that the answers are just in chinese. I still need to find a monolingual chinese dictionary, and perhaps avoid using my digital dictionaries since they are all chinese/english. I guess it’s time for me to really start my own version of “all chinese all the time”. Listening to radio shows has always felt too difficult for me, so maybe i’ll just switch to movies where i get some context more easily….and chinese subtitles so i know what they just said.

read 1 million words: 10000


I finished reading Lu Xun’s 祝福 on friday, and i started going back through it to pull out a couple of choice sentences and words. I realized as i went back that i now know almost all of the characters and almost all of the vocab. The story seems fairly easy to read now, whereas before i started reading it in this way (skipping over hard words and keep on pushing, no dictionary), it used to seem very tough and i was always focusing on the english side (since it’s a dual text, 1 page chinese, 1 page english).

I estimate that i’ve read about 10000 words of chinese now, using this method. That’s 1% of the way to a million words. So far the results have been very promising. My reading speed has increased by several times (mostly due to fewer dictionary lookups, but also due to just feeling more comfortable with it). I’ve learned some new vocabulary, and i’m much more comfortable with several new usages of older vocab.

I’m really enthusiastic about this no-dictionary sort of reading. I’m anxious to try it with something else, so i’m going to try it with the german translation of some Harry Potter books, while listening to the german audio books of the same. This is also referred to as the “L-R” method…reading lots and lots of words, no dictionaries, and with exact audio following along. i just have to wait for these new books to arrive, since i had to order them specially to find the german versions.

how i learn chinese characters (hanzi / 汉字)


This is a post from my other blog that i wrote last September. I thought i’d reprint it here because it’s more relevant to the topic at hand

I thought it’d be helpful for some people if i wrote out more details of my methods, so here we go. Firstly, there are many different ways to learn 汉字­, and there isn’t just 1 single way to do it. I actually like to use a combination of methods, and i hop between them just to give some variety. What i’d like to do here is demonstrate some things for people to try, but keep an eye out for other people’s methods too.

Just a bit of history first; I previously took some immersion courses at university, where we did about 20 hours of class time per week. Overall this was really helpful in many ways, but i think i currently learn more per hour of my time using my new methods. In those courses, we generally just wrote the character out on paper 20 times. This all happened at once over the span of an hour of homework time after class, and then we thought that we’d remember it (but typically didn’t). I’ll explain later why this doesn’t work that well.

The biggest single change has been my use of an SRS (spaced repetition system). My favourite is Anki, but other people like mnemosyne, supermemo, or others. Basically, this software is like flashcards, but the flashcards are strategically shown to you at the proper time in order to build your memory. It’s based on some psychological principles about memory that are well known amongst psychologists, but almost completely unknown to educators (in my experience, anyway).

Flashcards are blank until you fill them (obviously), so what should you put on them? This gets discussed a lot on language web sites, but here’s what i’m currently doing. In anki, i make two “cards” for every “fact” that i enter. A “fact” consists of a single chinese character, possible meanings for the character, pronunciations for the character, and any extra trivia that i want to throw in, like example words or proverbs. The “cards” that are generated from this are “production” and “recognition” cards. In a production card, i get the pronunciation and meaning (in english) and i have to think up the character (and practice writing it down). “Recognition” cards have just the character showing, and i have to come up with the correct pronunciation and the meaning. If i get either pronunciation (including proper tone) or the meaning wrong, then i fail the card.

For each card, i rank how hard it was (and whether i passed or failed), and Anki will reschedule my next viewing of it. Easy cards get a bigger gap between viewings, which saves me a lot of time. The way this works is that each thing in your memory has an exponentially dropping curve of how well you remember it, your “forgetting curve” as it has been refered to. For new things, the curve is steep, which means that after only a short time you’ve almost certainly forgotten it…after perhaps an hour or two you’ve forgotten he majority of the new things you just saw. For things that you are really familiar with, you could go for months or years without seeing it and you’d still have a high chance of remembering it…the curve is shallow for these. The more times something is repeated to you, the more the curve levels off (meaning you can remember it for longer periods between reviews).

Using the information you give it about difficulty, Anki is trying to schedule the cards so they show up when you have about a 90% chance of remembering it. Once you’ve been reminded, that memory jumps back up to 100% and starts ticking down again, but a bit slower than last time. (see the graph in the Wired article if this sounds confusing). This is why the gap increases between viewings….it takes longer and longer to get down to the 90% level because you’re getting more familiar with the card. At the end, you’ll continue to have all of your thousands of cards recognized with about a 90% success rate.

But the trick here is that there’s more to memory than just raw repetition. The other big component to memory besides repetition, is what i’d call “storage”. Storage is how well you anchor that thing into your brain. You anchor it by connecting it to other ideas, feelings, stories, colors, smells, situations you experienced…any concept in your brain already, and the more the better. Reinforcement is just what i described Anki doing…showing you something over and over. These two concepts combine together; If you have better “storage” then the forgetting curve starts off less steep…and then each repetition has a much bigger effect, and you create long term memories much more easily. If you store the idea more elaborately, then you get more bang for your buck with repetitions.

If i just show you some random chinese character for a few seconds, and then ask you a day later to draw it, you’ll probably look at me like i’m nuts. But if i show you a character and tell you the meanings of all the little pieces that make it up, and then we make up a crazy story that includes all of those meanings, then it’s quite likely that you’ll remember it the next day just by going over that story in your mind.

Even things that are entirely unrelated will help. Sometimes when i have trouble with a character, i’ll leave the room and go do something different that i can associate with that character. the other day i wanted to remember 抖, which is pronounced “dou3”, which is similar to the chinese word for beans (“dou4” / 豆). So i went out into the garden and watered my bean plants and flicked off some aphids. “抖” means to shiver or tremble, so while i was pouring cold water on the bean plants i watched the leaves shake, and imagined them being cold.

All of these experiences and thoughts are going to help me anchor the meaning and pronunciation of this character. Every time i see it in Anki now, i try to recall all the things i did that day, and the thoughts i had. I want to tie the things together in my mind. It’s sorta like tying a rope to something so it doesn’t fall out of your head. 😉

There are other things that help me learn characters, such as context. I usually remember a character quite well when i come across it in a sentence from a book. After i make a new Anki card for that character, i’ll add that sentence to the “extras” portion so that it shows up on the answer side of the card every time i see it. Characters that i’ve seen in a book are always easier to remember than random characters i just pulled out of some list somewhere.

It also helps me to learn other characters with similar pieces. An example from today is 蹄 (ti2, meaning “hoof”). I already know the character 帝 (di4, meaning “emperor”). Notice that the right-hand side of 蹄 is 帝. The left-hand side is 足 (slightly altered, but meaning “foot”). Knowing that this character has a meaning similar to “foot” and sounds like “di” from emperor makes it really easy for me to remember “ti2” for “hoof”.

Sometimes the real meanings of all those sub-pieces don’t do it for me, though, but i have no hesitation about making up completely wacky meanings for some of them. One example is 降, which can mean both “falling” and “surrender” (examples: 降落伞 [jiang4 luo4 san3] = parachute, and 投降 [tou2 xiang2] = surrender). If you look at the piece in the top right of 降, you’ll see it’s the same as the right-hand side of 致, 效, 攻, and many others. That piece isn’t a separate character on its own, so i found it hard to remember for a while. But then i decided that it looked vaguely like a standing person with a ponytail. Since ridiculous things are easier to remember, i decided that the ponytail person would henceforth be called “Steven Seagal“, the well-known bad-ass from countless martial arts movies.

Next, i decided that the piece on the bottom right of 降 looked like a telephone pole. So this character for “falling” is now associated with a mental picture of steven seagal parachuting down above a telephone pole, and every time i picture it i hope that he doesn’t land on the telephone pole with his crotch, because that would probably hurt quite a bit. The utter ridiculousness of this mnemonic means that i’ll never forget this character as long as i live. It doesn’t matter that the character has no historical association with either action movie stars or telephone poles. All that matters is you find a way to make it stick in your head. The ridiculous story will fall away by itself later.

Ok, so to tie up loose ends, why doesn’t it work that well if you just sit down and write a character 30 times? The reason is the forgetting curve. If you just write that character 30 times and then you don’t read or write it for a week, you probably only have a 20% chance of remembering it now (you know, just to pick a random percentage out of my ass). To really make it stick you have to be reminded a few times, with gaps between the reminders.

Instead of writing it 30 times in one day, i suggest the following. 3 times the first day, once the second day, once the fourth day, once the 8th day, once the 16th day. After this, you’ve only written it 7 times instead of 30, but you’ll remember it much much longer because you’ve become more familiar with it over time. It’d be logistically hard to try to do this by hand for every character, but that’s what you have SRS software like Anki for. It’ll calculate those intervals for you and show you all the right cards at the right times, based on the individual difficulty for that particular card and how long it’s been since the last time you saw it.

This is how an SRS will allow you to do less work but also learn more. It works with the way your brain works, so you can write that character 7 times instead of 30. It also spreads things out so that you can have thousands of cards in your virtual deck, but you only do a comparatively small number of reviews each day. It’s not feasible to do 4000 reviews of characters each day, but you totally don’t need to do that anyway. I do about 50 – 100 reviews per day, but that’s because i’m always adding new cards. If i just kept practicing the ones i’ve got in there and didn’t add any new ones, it would quickly go down to about 10 reviews per day for my 4000 cards. That’d be enough to keep me at a 90% recall rate for all of them.

What really inspired me to start doing this method was that i’d heard that there were people who learned 2000 characters in only 3 months. During my immersion classes at the university, i learned maybe 800 characters to high accuracy, and 1200 total if you count the ones i only recognized but couldn’t remember how to write. And that was after a total of 1 year of hard study in immersion classes. Now, after using Anki for a couple months and starting over again to review all the easy characters too, i’m up to 1800 characters with 90% accuracy, and i’m getting faster at learning new characters all the time. I think my current rate is about 200 new characters per week, but that tends to go up and down depending on how busy i am with work. I feel much more familiar with all the characters overall. I really wish someone had told me right at the beginning that this was possible….would have made things so much easier.

Well, that’s it for now. I have to go get ready for cycling tomorrow with a friend. Stay tuned for a future article on learning to read chinese…learning the characters is only part of the story, just like learning the alphabet doesn’t let you read english.

read 1 million words


I heard about an interesting idea last week. It’s sort of a mental game, suggested by someone from japan who was learning english. The idea is that if you read a million words, then you’ll be quite good at reading that language. simple enough.

The rules are as follows:

  1. No dictionaries
  2. When you don’t know a word, just keep going
  3. Read a total of a million words.

With something as simple as this, it’s hard to go wrong. There are several ideas that i take away from this game. One is that you should read for enjoyment and read for understanding the story, not just for “sentence mining”. Previously i had trouble getting anywhere in my reading because i was always trying to precisely understand every word in every sentence, and always on the first time that i saw it. This kills the natural ability of my brain to figure things out via multiple exposures.

I used to try and add tons of sentences to anki just because i didn’t know a word in them, and i was always using the dictionary compulsively, but it just slowed me down. What i actually need is better reading speed and more content (ie more input). I don’t need to memorize every word in the order that i see them. If it’s a common word, i’ll see it again soon anyway. No need to worry right now.

This way, i can focus on which words are particularly awesome…something i really want to learn. Hopefully i’ve seen it a couple times already so it has partially sunk into my brain via text, and then i can use anki to fully insert it.

This method is also supposed to be somewhat of a long-term method. Don’t pretend that you’re going to learn a language super-fast overnight, because you’re not. But i think you can actually read a million words in a reasonable amount of time…like several months. This is the proper length of time for your language learning goals. If you expect to see awesome results on the order of days or weeks, then you’re doing it wrong. You will see the BIG results on the order of months, so i think this game is good for that.

In the short term, just read and enjoy reading. Reading is fun! In the long term, it’ll make you awesome. If you can just avoid interrupting your reading to make notes or look up things in the dictionary, you’ll actually get more practice reading and become faster and better at it. In a short time, i’ve already noticed an increase in my chinese reading speed, just by not caring about a couple of unknown words and plowing on through the rest of the text.

Currently i’m reading 祝福, a short story by 鲁迅 (Lu Xun). I estimate there are about 350 words per page and i’ve read 15 pages, so maybe about 5000 words so far. I’ll probably have plenty more reading time this week, so i hope i can get past 20000 words. The book is a collection of short stories by Lu Xun, and i think it has about 80000 words total, so it’s a good start if i can read the whole thing.

Happy reading!