sticking to one topic


As I’ve mentioned before, i have a strong tendency to hop from topic to topic, sampling a little bit of everything. “Jack of all trades, master of none”, as the saying goes. Lately, as I’ve been reading these language forums and hearing about people who’ve learned a dozen languages, i start to get eager to try something new because there’s so much out there that’s fascinating to read about.

Specifically, I’d really love to eventually go off down the road of germanic languages and learn dutch, afrikaans, and the scandinavian languages. As I learn more german, it becomes easier and easier to puzzle out people’s blogs written in these other germanic languages, and i become more curious about it.

I have a few strategies to bring myself back, though. I’ve got my long-term goals for german written down, and some general motivational phrases to help me stick to it. “Nobody is talented enough not to have to work hard” is one of my favourites right now, and i have it written at the top of my progress spreadsheet along with several others. Also on there is “discipline is remembering what you want”.

In order to really remember what i want, i have to define what i want. I’ve phrased this generally as “i want to be able to speak german clearly and confidently about any reasonable topic”. Since this is still a bit hard to quantify, I’ve narrowed it down to “i will read one million words of german and watch 500 hours of german language TV”. This may not be enough to get me the level that i want, but i can change it once i reach it. Having any number like this allows me to break it down into weekly and monthly goals that move me towards the big goal, which is much more practical than just saying “i want to be awesome”. Also, having those weekly goals allows me to focus on just being better each day, rather than obsessing about not being awesome yet.

Besides a numerical goal like this, i also have a time goal to keep me on track. My spreadsheet is divided into 1-month segments, one per page, so every time i look at it i can see down at the bottom where it has my next six months outlined. August, September, Oktober, November, Dezember, Januar (in german, of course). I’ve made a commitment to myself that i will keep german as my major project for each of those months. So far I’ve done two solid months, which is actually quite good for me. 6 weeks is usually where i bail out and start something new.

Sometimes when i think about doing german for 6 months (or more), then it starts to feel like a long time. To solve this, i remind myself of other things that i’ve done for multiple months. The most common is school courses. I took many semesters of university classes that all lasted about 4 months. Those semesters felt long at the start, but really really short by the end. I vividly remember several semesters where i suddenly realized it was “week 12”, where “week 13” was the final week of classes, with exams coming afterward. It was shocking to believe that i’d already completed 12 weeks of classes when it (at that point) felt like such a short amount of time.

To apply this to my current situation, i sit down in a quiet room surrounded by my german learning materials, and i try intensely to recall that previous situation. I remember the hallways of the university, the books that i was studying from, my backpack, my study partners, the food in the cafeteria. And then i recall the classrooms and the teachers. Finally i mentally flip open my calendar and look at “week 12” and remember thinking “oh shit, exams are soon”. That point in time is firmly in my mind, so then i can look at my current spreadsheet and see that i’m only on “week 7” right now. clearly it hasn’t been that long at all, and i need to keep going.

I do this visualization sometimes for re-feeling the motivation i once felt for something else, and applying that motivation to the current subject. Earlier this year i was really obsessed with learning navigation at sea, and i remember being REALLY interested in it. So i try to vividly recall that feeling, and redirect it at german to make myself REALLY interested in german again.

Sometimes I try to imagine what it will be like in the future, once i’ve reached my german goals. I think of myself walking german streets, going into german bars, talking to real germans over a pint of german beer, and understanding everything they say. This works fantastically for me, because i have actual past experiences of being in a bar with germans and TOTALLY FAILING to understand what they were saying. It would be really gratifying to me to be in the opposite situation where i understand them completely, so working towards that is motivational.

So, getting my south african roommate to speak to me in Afrikaans would be extremely interesting, but it will not move me towards my german goal. Reading danish websites is fun to try, but it will not move me towards my german goal. Using my written goals and timelines, i can decide for myself that if i want to do those things, i need to find a german friend to talk to, and some german blogs to read. I can switch to Danish or Afrikaans next year or the year after, and it’ll actually be much easier then because i’ll have more of a german base to build from. Being good at german will give me the confidence to tackle those other projects more effectively too.

Write down your goals, and work towards them. Try to vividly recall your past motivation to create present motivation. Make a visual representation of your time goals, so that you can see where you have to get to before you’re allowed to quit. I’m sure other people have their own ideas about how to stay on track, and I’d love to hear more. Please share any suggestions you may have 🙂

intensive and extensive reading


Yesterday I was reading some fantastic posts on the How To Learn Any Language forums by a fellow named Iverson, who is well known on those forums as he has apparently learned many languages to a high degree of skill (with 11 that he knows well, and several others that are in progress). Here are the links to his five posts, entitled “Guide to learning languages”: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

One concept that I had an intuition of on my own, but never really explicitly thought about, was the difference between “intensive” and “extensive” reading, as Iverson calls them.

Extensive is when you try to cover vast amounts of materials, but just skip over the parts you don’t know and try to get the general gist of things. It’s all about context and the big picture. Once you get awesome, you can just sit down and read a book and understand everything, and you’re doing an extensive exercise still.

Intensive is about studying minute details and trying to wring absolutely every drop of information out of a section of text. The easy way to compare these two types is reading the same paragraph 100 times (intensive) vs. reading 100 different paragraphs (extensive).

These two aspects of reading can play off each other. Extensive reading gives you a sense of familiarity, and can help you get curious about the language. You see things many times in different places, and start to wonder about how they work, and you get a mild sense of how they work. You slowly pick up the meanings of hundreds of words in parallel. When you then do some intensive work, you can connect each new word to a lot of dots already from your experience. There’s an existing web in which to place that new word.

Alternately, when you’ve done some intensive work and have a very precise meaning for certain words, but not much connection in the web, then extensive reading will provide a place for that intensive word to live, and will also help you understand the rest of the context when you see it out in the field.

One problem that can come up for a lot of people, is that they read extensively but have stopped making progress on a number of fronts. They make the same grammatical mistakes all the time, or get certain words wrong. This can be remedied by reading more intensively. Pay attention to each of the words, and how they fit together. Compare the patterns to others that you’ve seen. Play some mental word games. Just keep doing anything you can to deepen your exposure, in order to break yourself out of the false patterns that have developed.

Another problem that is common to those who do language classes at school is that all of their reading is intensive. This results in a sloooowww reading speed, and an obsession with always knowing the precise meaning of every single word. This leads a lot of people to spend too much time looking up things in dictionaries, and living too much in their native language rather than the new language. This is the land of perfectionism, and it will keep you from advancing. You need to practice letting go, and letting the language flow over you so you can develop more of an automatic feel for it. You need to practice picking up more words from the context (which may feel impossible at the start, but it’s not).

The way that I usually put these two forms into practice is by doing my extensive reading with a highlighter beside me. Whenever a sentence is somehow interesting or difficult, then I highlight it for later intensive work. When I flip back through and look at all the sentences I highlighted, then I add them to my Anki flashcard deck and I make sure I fully understand the full meaning of the sentence. Then I let Anki reinforce it for me over the coming days and weeks.

reading a million words: 300000


One of my ongoing projects is to read one million words in german. At the start i had severe problems understanding anything, despite having taken german classes in highschool for several years. I barely got any of the plot, and most of the words on the page were new to me.

I’ve passed 300000 words of reading in german so far, and i’m still going strong. Right now I’m reading Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, and i’ve finished the first two harry potter books. I read the first two while listening to the german audiobook at the same time, but with the current book i’m already on page 63 and i haven’t used the audiobook yet.

I’m able to read at a reasonable speed now, and the book is very enjoyable. I know the majority of the words on every page, and i almost never feel lost. There are still words that i don’t know, but missing them usually doesn’t affect my understanding of the plot. I’m able to guess a lot of words from the context because i already know so many of the words.

There are still some spots, however, where a bunch of confusing things happen all together, usually at some really vital plot point when something surprising happens. In those situations, i might mark a few words for later lookup in a dictionary, but i try to keep reading.

My habit lately has been to read with a highlighter felt pen beside me so that i can highlight sentences that i like, or sentences that i had trouble with. Later on, i can flip through and put all of those into Anki (my flashcard program) so that i can review them later. This means that i’m constantly stretching my vocabulary powers by getting the harder sentences reinforced many times. New words tend to stick better this way.

At this stage, reading is very enjoyable, and not a chore at all. I’m really much more focused on finding out what happens next in the plot than with meeting my weekly goals for words read, and as a result i’m exceeding all of my goals by quite a lot. I have the rest of the german Harry Potter books up to book 6, and if i complete all of those then i’ll be at around 1.5 million words read total. Whereas before it felt like i’d never reach 1 million, it seems like it’ll be quite easy now, and i should hit that before the end of the year hopefully.



I seem to have reached part of that nebulous area called “intermediate”, where it becomes hard to notice one’s progress on a day-by-day timescale. I frequently find myself wondering if i’m making progress, and whether or not I’m going to “get there”. I felt this a lot when i was working on chinese, which was one of the main reasons i kept quitting and restarting so many times.

I’m trying to overcome these feelings by reminding myself that other people have taken this same path all the way to success, and i’m no different. Persistence is key, but it’s nontrivial. I’m dutifully filling in my progress spreadsheet every day, doing both reading and TV every day.

I think it’s important to have certain checkpoints or milestones to look back on. When i read a certain book that was hard before, and find that it’s now quite understandable, then i gain motivation. When i starting seeing certain words everywhere i go, and remember the time when those particular words were totally mysterious, i gain motivation. I need to think up more ways to provoke this experience.

Another consequence of being in this “intermediate” place in my studies, is that i have a sense of familiarity with the language. I seem to feel quite comfortable listening to hours of german and not feeling at all like i don’t understand things. I’m able to get the storyline without needing a lot of the details, but i normally don’t miss those details. Later when i review the same TV episode or book chapter in-depth, i realize there was a ton of new and interesting vocabulary in there that i didn’t actually need to know in order to understand the plot. Once i study and reread those chapters, however, i become aware of a new level of meaning.

The beginner stage was filled with confusion and anger about not understanding anything, but the intermediate stage is sort of a blissful ignorance, although sometimes also a sense of impatience. By being exposed to understandable content and by studying the details, i hope to move on to a larger awareness and understanding within the next few months.

grit, and time required to learn a language


Lately i’ve been browsing the forums at How To Learn Any, which is basically a collection of language enthusiasts and polyglots. Anyone has the ability to start a public log of their language-learning activities, and other people frequently comment on those to give encouragement and help.

One thing i’ve noticed is that a lot of people seem to underestimate the time required to learn a language. Everyone’s looking for the “quick fix” that will magically teach them japanese or spanish or swahili. If only they can find the “right method”, they’ll be saved and they’ll learn the language quickly. I’ve had a habit of thinking this way in the past, so i think i understand the appeal, however it doesn’t work. What really works is long-term commitment and consistency in your exposure to the language. I like this phrase that i heard somewhere: “many people overestimate what they can do in a day, and vastly underestimate what they can do in a year”.

On those forums, i see plenty of people who faithfully log their work for about 3 weeks and then give up. A lot of them seem to be logging 20 minutes of work here, 30 minutes there. I’m just not confident that this amount of work can lead to much. It might be more useful to just watch an hour-long episode of TV in that language. Almost everyone can find time for an hour of tv per day, so why can some of these people only manage 20 minutes of language study?

The people who seem to achieve success are not all using the same method. They have many different methods between them, but the common thread seems to be that they put in a decent amount of work every day, and they do it consistently for many months. Imagine that you wanted to become more athletic, but you only did a 20 minute warmup everyday, and then you stop after 3 weeks. You’re not going to go anywhere. On the other hand, if you did a warmup and then did an hour of exercise, and then you did that consistently for many months, i bet you’d be fantastically fit at the end.

Currently i’ve racked up 196 hours of listening and watching german tv. I’m definitely not fluent, but i really do notice a lot of improvements when i look at what was hard a few weeks ago. When i think back to university, i was disappointed when i took a spanish class and spent 3hrs per week in class, and maybe another 1 or 2 on homework each week. 5hrs per week times 13 weeks is 65 hours of work, but for most of that i was getting instruction in english, not spanish. Why was i so disappointed that i couldn’t speak any spanish afterwards? I’d understand more spanish if i’d just sat down and watched 65 hours of spanish tv, which i probably could have done in a lot less time than 13 weeks. My 196hrs has been spread over about 2 months so far, so that’s about 3hrs per day, and this is while i’m working full time. If only i were a student again with unlimited free time 😉

Find things you enjoy, find ways to keep motivated and on track, don’t worry about words you don’t know…you’ll know them soon enough. Just keep reading, watching, listening, and plan to do it for several months at least. Make it a habit not to judge yourself on anything until you’ve done it for 3 months, since you need at least that sort of time to really habituate your brain to the patterns of the new language. There’s no quick fix, but what’s a few months of time when you’ll be able to enjoy the language for the rest of your life?

motivation from stats


For the past few days i’ve felt a fantastic boost to my motivation due to my new spreadsheet. Previously i’ve just been recording my progress in a text file, by listing the amount of work that i did each day. It took me a small amount of time to occasionally add up all the numbers and see how i was doing for the current week or month. This changed when i decided that i should make the computer do all the stupid adding, and hence the spreadsheet was born.

In one part, i still list the amount of work that i do each day, under “TV”, “listening”, “reading”, and “anki”. I also have a section where i list my goals for each of those for various time periods: weekly, monthly, tri-monthly. I then have it auto-add all of the totals and list them in a nice fashion, along with the percentage completion for each of those time periods.

What this gives me is an instant rush whenever i increase one of the numbers, because it updates all the percentages and my progress towards my goals. I can see myself edge closer to the goals with every entry that i make, so i’m motivated to make more entries. After only 2 days this week, i’m already more than half-way done my weekly goals.

Another thing that i’ve learned from this experience is that i still have a lot of wasted time in the day. Last week i thought i was making good progress and using my time pretty efficiently, but now i can see that i’m capable of way more. I’m starting to be more aware of those times when i drift away from my studies and go to read some useless crap on the internet instead. When i notice that behaviour, i can choose not to do it, and it’s easier to make that choice when it means i can increase another of my numbers on the spreadsheet.

Everything i do is a new high score. Every word i learn now is more german words than i’ve ever known. And yet i have a lot of work left to do. At the bottom of the spreadsheet i have some tabs there for the months, and i’ve listed 6 months. I figure that if Khatsumoto can learn excellent japanese in 18 months, then i should be able to learn excellent german in 6 months (based on numbers from the FSI indicating that german is about 3x faster than japanese for english speakers to learn). I’m counting september as my “month 2”, since i only started getting really serious at the end of July. The big goal is to get to the end of month 6, no matter what.

In my day-to-day thinking, however, i try not to worry about month 6 so much. I’m trying to follow this idea: “Don’t try to be ‘good’, just try to be better. ‘Good’ will happen by itself”. I know that any method with lots of intensity and exposure to the language will eventually get me to the level i want to be at, so i just need to keep adding to the daily and weekly numbers and trust that everything else will go according to plan.

So far that’s working out quite nicely. There are many words now that were really hard for me to get a month ago (or even a few weeks ago), but are now super easy. I surprise myself by thinking that certain sentences are “obvious” now, when i know they’re composed of the “hard” words from last month. I’m understanding more and more stuff without thinking at all…the understanding just comes.

All of these motivational things are valuable. The task is set out before me, i just have to proceed through it step by step, but every day there are little temptations to wander away towards some other activity. By keeping some notes to help me see my progress, and by making a game out of the increasing numbers in my spreadsheet, i’m finding more ways to keep myself motivated and on track. This track leads to fluency, so i just have to keep charging ahead. In that sense, it’s easy but it just takes time and commitment.