busy, but still in the game

2009-04-28

I’ve been quite busy lately, trying to keep up with various other features of my life. German got slightly sidetracked; part of this was because i got caught up in the english version of the novel i’m reading. Having finished that completely, i’m moving back to the german version.

I guess my previous plan of doing one chapter in english and then one in german didn’t work out so well. This tendency fits in with my previous patterns, so i guess i should have seen it coming.

I’ve also been enjoying the wonderful spring weather after a long winter, so all of my time off work has been spent outdoors riding my bike and camping. I haven’t yet figured out how to keep up my language learning while i’m off doing those activities. In the evenings i’ve still been watching some german-dubbed star trek on and off, and that’s been pleasant. I really have to ramp up my input schedule before the end of june, though, if i want to have more of an effect before i head to germany.

I guess i’ll see how this week goes and then alter my strategy from there.


1Mw: 70000 german words read

2009-04-12

I’ve passed 70000 words in german now. I’ve been reading every day, and lately i’ve been listening to audiobooks at the same time. The gains are not as immediately visible as they were at the start when i was just reacquainting myself with the language, but the gains are still solid and consistent. There’s probably a lot that i’m learning without realizing it, but i’m still getting some “Aha!” moments all the time.

Currently i’m reading Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens (chamber of secrets), and also listening to the audiobook. I’m really liking this Listening-Reading method, as it more clearly cements the sounds of german in my head. For the last few nights i’ve been dreaming in german, and at random times through the day i notice that there’s a lot of “german chatter” happening in my head. Bits of phrases just turn over and morph into other phrases, like my brain is randomly walking the space of german.

The other benefit of Listening-Reading is that i can follow the story much more easily. The guy reading it does a lot of funny voices for the different characters and puts a lot of enthusiasm into the presentation, so it really allows me to understand a lot more of the situation, and pick up more meaning from that. It adds more context through tone of voice than i would otherwise get because of my lack of vocab.

This story definitely feels a lot easier to understand than the other book i was reading that had no audio. This could also be because harry potter is pretty easy reading anyway…this is book 2 and it’s really simplified and aimed at kids. I remember trying to read the english version once and i just couldn’t continue because all the plot points were reiterated so many times. But this becomes a great feature for someone learning a language.

Now, when i was back at 20000 words, it felt like 1M words was terribly far away, but now that i’m 7% of the way there, it doesn’t seem so far. I’m quite curious to see what my german reading skills are like once i’ve hit 1M.

I just looked back into the previous book and flipped back to page one. I remember not being able to get much at the time, just a word here and there, barely enough to get the idea of the story. Now it’s actually quite understandable, so my progress has actually gone further than i thought. Strangely, i don’t know the exact meaning of all the words, but they seem more familiar and i can guess a broad meaning for a lot of them that gives a partial understanding of the text.

This is definitely motivational. It’s good to go back and check on previous things and have journal entries to tell you what you thought about it several weeks ago so that you can compare. Keep reading, and improvement will magically happen!


the benefits of massive failure

2009-04-02

I just finished reading Khatsumoto‘s latest blog post, entitled Aim to Fail and i wholeheartedly agree. In order to succeed, you have to first fail many times. If you’re afraid of failure, if you avoid failure, then you’re doomed to mediocrity.

A great example of this for me lately is reading german. I was previously afraid of failure to recognize every word, and this fear made me incapable of reading. When i decided to massively fail at recognizing hundreds of words, reading slowly became easier and easier.

It took me a long time to realize that so much failure was required, or that it could be beneficial. I’ve been taught by school that i have to highly analyze everything and get it all right the first time (i did math, physics, and computing in university). It used to make sense to me that i should study grammar in-depth and look up absolutely every vocab word, but no longer. The brain is a marvelous thing, and learns from massive experience, whether you succeed or not.

Another example was watching Star Trek: Enterprise in german. I watched 3 episodes in the past day and a half, and i barely understood most of the content. But the goal is not to fully understand all of the episode. I know the general idea of what’s happening and who’s doing what. That’s all i need for now. What’s actually happening is that in between all of the hundreds of failures to understand are some small successes, and they’re building on each other. Every sentence gives me a little bit more information, and i understand a little bit more the next time.

I’m probably going to have to watch at least another 100 episodes before i can really understand most of what they’re saying, but that’s ok. I picked star trek to watch because it’s something that i can sit down and watch 100 episodes of. I REALLY wish there was a mandarin-dubbed version of star trek…then i’d do the same for that. German will have to do for now.

The question for language learning now seems to be (for me) ‘what can i sit down and shove into my head over and over again 100 or 1000 or 1000000 times without getting bored?’ For reading and TV, this seems to be sci-fi and fantasy for me. The stories are interesting even if I understand little of the dialog, and there’s enough in common that I can figure out the context pretty easily. Plus i just really enjoy a lot of that genre in english.

So, forget anything that demands perfection. Find something fun that you can fail at over and over again. Eventually your successes will be multitudinous.


1Mw: 31000 german words read

2009-04-01

I’m making good progress towards my goal of reading a million words of German. I’m starting to get really caught up in the novel I’m reading, which is a fantasy novel that I read in English about 10 years ago. This is an update of how it’s going so far, but first a quick word on exactly what I’m doing.

My methodology has adapted slightly over the course of this experiment. What I’m currently doing is spending time just reading, with no dictionary…but I’ve made the slight adjustment that I can write down a couple of words every page. Sometimes I do this while reading, other times I go back through a couple pages I’ve read and pick out a couple of words. Later on, when I’m on the computer, I’ll take this list of words or phrases and make some of them into flashcards in Anki.

The purpose of all the reading is to get vast amounts of input. I do this with no dictionary beside me because each dictionary lookup takes away valuable reading time, and ruins the sense of immersion. Previously when I tried to read this book (about 8 years ago) I really got stuck on it because I tried to use the dictionary to look up almost every word i didn’t know. I lost all the enjoyment that comes from reading, and I didn’t get much exposure to the language….just lots of boring dictionary time.

On the other hand, I really think there’s some value in looking up a small number of things. Looking back at my logs, I seem to have written down an average of 3 words per page…sometimes zero, sometimes up to 10 if I got greedy. I try not to write down any word until I’ve seen it at least a couple of times. There are still plenty of frequent words that I don’t know, so there are many possibilities. If there’s a word that I haven’t seen at all before then chances are that I’m not going to see it again for a while, so the more frequent words are a higher priority right now.

This does two things for me. It builds my vocabulary in order of frequency, which gets me a lot of results very fast. This is encouraging, and encouragement is vitally important. Most of language learning is just keeping your motivation up. The other thing it does is increase my understanding of the story quicker than trying to absorb every word just via context. Yes, I’m getting plenty of words based on context too, but some of them continually occur in really general contexts and are hard to guess. These also tend to be really useful words.

Now let me be clear here, that on each page of approximately 320 words (avg) there are probably at least 100 words that I don’t know. If I looked up all the words I didn’t know, then after 2 pages I would have done more dictionary lookups than I’ve done for about 100 pages of reading already. What a supreme waste of time it’d be if I only read 2 pages and tried to learn every word in them. Instead, I’m getting much more benefit from reading vast numbers of pages.

Besides more cards in anki, the soft benefit I’m getting is i have more sense of comfort with German. At the beginning, reading was very tough, and I didn’t get much of the story. All that kept me going was that I’d already read the book in English 10 years ago, so I knew the vague outline of the story and who the characters were.

Right now at the 31000-word mark, I feel very comfortable with any spoken dialog between the characters. I still don’t know all the words, but I always get what they’re saying generally. The narrator’s description of the scenes and events happening is much tougher. In those spots, there tends to be much more varied and elaborate vocabulary. Whenever a character says something like “wait here, I’ll go get my sword”, then it’s followed by a few lines of stuff like “and he carefully lifted the masterfully crafted broadsword as it scintillated in the chilly eve’s moonlight”. Ugh. Sometimes I wish he’d just say “and then he went and got the sword” 😉

The other thing I’ve noticed lately is the huge connection between audio content and what I’ve read. Reading is really improving my understanding of spoken German, and listening to an hour of spoken German really makes reading much easier if I do it immediately after listening. Watching TV is great too, since there’s tons of dialog, which is much easier than dense description.

The result of this is that I’m really motivated to gather some TV shows, probably starting with Star Trek: Deep Space 9. If i order the full series from Europe, it comes dubbed in English, German, Spanish, French, and Italian. This could be great for my future plans for Spanish and Italian 😉

Anyway, I’m off to do some more reading. I’m only 3% of the way to my goal, but I’m already excited by my progress. This book has about 270000 words in it, by my estimate, so it’ll take me about 1/3 of the way to the goal. Next I have some new books coming along with the German audio version, so I’ll be able to listen and read at the same time, hopefully resulting in a whole new level of progress. Stay tuned for more details as the experiment evolves.