don’t just learn a giant list


Here’s a comment I recently made in a forum on The thread was about whether or not it would be beneficial to try and memorize the 4000 most frequently used words in a language as a strategy for learning it.

I think what Parasitius was saying is that if you hope to learn a language through pure flashcards of important vocabulary, you will bore yourself to death, but if you combine it with reading enjoyable native materials, then it can be extremely helpful.

This has been my experience for sure. At different times I vary the percentages, but I like Parasitius’ estimates of 20% SRS and 80% reading. Also, Iverson has given some good advice on this too, saying that his wordlists are for giving him just a general sense of a word’s meaning, but it’s really reading that gives him all the multiple meanings and real usages of the words. Flashcards or wordlists will never teach you all the subtleties of usage.

Also, I recommend avoiding the idea that you can “scientifically” learn vocabulary “in order”, focusing on “completeness”. Although those things appeal to me, having a background in math and computers, I feel that this mindset is a bit of a dead end for language learning. Instead, I tell myself that I will need to experience each word multiple times in its “natural environment” before I’ll really understand it, and my flashcard work is merely “prep time” that will get me ready for the real thing.

In my mind there are several stages of “knowing” a word. At first, I might see a word a few times in books and I sort of recognize it in the sense of “hey, I’ve seen that before somewhere”. Next, I might look it up once, and get a general sense of the meaning, but I tend to forget it again soon unless I add it to Anki (my SRS of choice). As I keep reading my novels and seeing these new words several times, the word evolves from “huh?” to “oh ya, I recognize that”, to “I know the translation for that” to “I know the meaning without translating” and then to “I can use it with ease in speech”.

I’ve found that the key to moving along this path is just repeated exposure. If you’re really worried at the start that you need to collect 4000 common words and become an expert at all of them, I think you’re going in the wrong direction. Just consistently investigate words as you encounter them, and your vocabulary will grow over time. Curiousity and diligence, that’s all.

When reading, you don’t need to highlight EVERY word on the page that you don’t know. Just pick the two that are most interesting. You’ll see the other ones again eventually; you won’t “lose” them or anything, they’ll still be around later in another book or magazine or movie. As long as you’re somehow improving every day, then that’s enough.

the size of a language


i was just reading a post over at Global Maverick called the messy in-between, which i found quite enjoyable since it described one of my biggest problems with the process of learning a language.

When you start learning a language, you don’t know much about it, but you’ve probably heard native speakers chatting away easily, or maybe you’ve seen some books full of unknown words. In some sense, you can call that the “destination”, even though you don’t quite know where it is. I’m usually pretty sure that i’ll be able to identify when i’ve got there, because everything will magically be easy at that point (right?).

For me there’s also a tremendous thrill at the beginning because everything is so new, and because every time you sit down to study, you’re actually gaining a rather large percentage increase in your knowledge. After day 2, you know TWICE AS MUCH as after day 1.

Unfortunately, our perceptions of both of these time periods don’t actually help us much to comprehend the huge size of a language. the distance between “beginner” and “native” is huge and unknown, and it’s actually where you’re going to spend most of your time. As you progress, this is going to be a huge problem for your motivation unless you find ways to address it.

When you’re at the start and you can always see how much you’ve learned so far, then motivation usually isn’t much of a problem. With a little thought, you can comprehend exactly how much you’ve learned…you have a good sense for your “language-space”. It’s like being in a small room and easily being able to read the titles of the books on the shelf.

When you’re in the intermediate stage, as i am now with german, it can sometimes feel like a wide field at night, and you’ve only got a flashlight. you have no idea where you’re going or where you came from, and you can’t see the edges. How do you measure your progress when you can’t see the end? I think one of the best ways is to just keep counting up what you have in front of you. Count your footsteps, and pretty soon you’ll see them start to add up.

Personally, i use a spreadsheet to add up these “footsteps”, so i can easily look at it and go “holy shit, i’ve watched a lot of german TV already”. It helps when i make a game out of making those numbers go up, because then it takes my mind off the fact that i can’t just reach out and touch the other side. there’s no task i can do in a day that will make me fluent by the end of the day, so i can’t use fluency as my daily (or weekly or monthly) goal.

Another horrible side effect of this perceptual problem, is language wanderlust. I’ve personally studied probably 15 languages or so, and in most of them i’m still at a beginner stage. I think one of the reasons that i flip around so much is that when i’m starting to lose track of my progress in one language, and i’m unable to see the constant motion that’s happening, i start to itch for that thrill that comes with the seemingly rapid increase at the start of another language.

I glance over at another language, and i’m unable to comprehend the magnitude of the effort required to get good at that language, so i mistakenly perceive it as small. I’m doing this right now with Swedish, actually. It’s a classic scenario for me…i know someone who speaks swedish, so i start reading a little bit about the grammar of the language, listen to its sound, and i’m suddenly SUPER MOTIVATED to start learning it. I’m not thinking about the months and months that it will take to get good, i’m just overwhelmed by the thrill of it.

I’m doing a few things to try and avoid flipflopping. Firstly, i’m trying to channel that newfound swedish enthusiasm into my german studies. When i imagine myself sitting down and learning 100 swedish words in a day, i turn that around and remind myself that there are still at least 100 german words that i don’t know yet (haha). Then i remind myself that if i learn 100 german words per day for 10 days, I’d know 1000 more words and i would have made huge progress in german, but if i pissed away a bunch of time being a beginner at swedish then my german would stay the same. By switching to swedish, i’m throwing away that opportunity for progress in german.

Another new strategy that I’m trying, is imagining what it would be like to learn swedish in german: use only swedish-german dictionaries, use german textbooks about swedish, etc. I started thinking about this after i found out that the famous Assimil language learning series doesn’t have an edition about learning swedish based on english. You have to go through either french or german to get to swedish using Assimil.

This gives me renewed motivation for german, because i can then use it as a tool for something else; firstly, there are tons of common or related words in swedish and german, and secondly because of the available learning materials in german that don’t exist in english. What would happen if i looked up a swedish word, and i didn’t understand the german words used to explain it? well that just means i need to make sure i learn more german words right now. This also sorta fits with the stuff that i like to read, since i obviously like to read language-learning books. If I’m reading in german, then i want to read stuff that i like 🙂

Now, on the flipside of this, in some ways languages can be small. You just need to look at them in the right light. For instance, some people are remarkably effective at communicating when they have a vocabulary of only 1000-2000 words…they just really really know how to say all the everyday stuff, and have a highly active knowledge so that the words just flow out. Also, in some ways 10000 words also isn’t really that much in the grand scheme of things, but with 10000 words you can be highly fluent. For example, the number of unique words used in Harry Potter book 1 is about 10000, so with a vocab of that size you could probably understand almost every single word in an easy novel.

Having a number like 10000 somehow makes the language seem a little more feasible. I can then make an estimate based on how many words i learn per day, etc. It’s something that i can work towards, and judge how far away I am. It’s a little bit tricky to try to count how many words you know, but i just look at how many unique words i have in my Anki flashcard deck.

Having a number like that also lets you know approximately what your learning pace is, and what you can aim at. If you’re aiming for fluent reading in 6 months, then you need to have a schedule that involves about 1600 new words per month, or around 50 per day. This can be practical, with a lot of hard work, and if you’re in the right frame of mind then you can classify 6 months as a “short” period of time.

Ok, i think this post is rambling on a bit too long, so i’m going to go back to working on some actual german. Harry and Ron just found out about das Trimagische Turnier, and i want to see what happens next.

input based learning


I just wanted to quickly write about this great post on Steve Kaufmann’s blog: seven principles of input-based language learning. The principles in there are very valuable, especially for those who are new to language learning and may not have thought about it this way before.

On the topic of input, i’ve hit a few milestones lately. I’ve passed 300 hours of listening and TV content in german, and I’m over 550000 words of reading in german. Right now i’m working on Harry Potter und der Feuerkelch (book 4 of the series). I really enjoy listening to the audiobook while i read, which matches Kaufmann’s recommendation of both listening and reading at the same time. For some languages (like chinese) i find it difficult to get audio with transcripts, but there seems to be a wealth of german audiobooks available.

Anyway, i’m halfway on my way to reading 1 million words, and i certainly won’t stop at 1 million because i’m enjoying it so much. I’m going to try to increase my pace in reading this month, since reading has more language content in it than tv, and i haven’t yet picked a new tv series to get obsessed with. I should be finished season 7 of DS9 this week.

intensity and optimism


In the last two weeks I’ve toned back my intensity a bit, but I’ve really seen that it’s hindered my progress. Half as intense does not mean you accomplish half as much. It’s worse.

I went from 20+ hours of tv per week down to about 8, but i found that it was harder to watch. Each episode seemed harder to understand than before, and i could only focus on all the words i didn’t know. When i was watching more, and listening to audiobooks more, i could really “get into the groove” and everything seemed easier as i got lost in it.

Once my intensity fell, and then my ability to easily listen fell with it, then i became too focused on the unknown words. This had a detrimental effect on my self-esteem and my mental outlook. I began to think that i wasn’t making any progress at all, and that german would be hard forever. The solution to this is clearly to ramp back up. I’m making new goals based on items instead of raw numbers. I just finished watching season 6 of DS9, and i want to finish season 7 this week. I watched 4 hours yesterday and it started to feel better again.

The interesting part of this for me, is thinking about how this effect scales up as i intensify. If i watch twice as much again, can i learn 3x as much? I’ll see if i can find out.

Lessons for this week: Keep going, add more native content. Fill up your time with immersion materials. Part-time study just means you’re going to drag it out forever. Go big, or go home. Doing more makes it easier to do more. Doing less makes it easier to do less.

september is over


September seemed to go by super fast. At the start, i had just started using a spreadsheet to track my progress, and i remember thinking that it looked pretty empty. I wondered if i would be consistent in my filling of the spaces.

After a month of doing it, i must say that i love the process. Every day has 4 categories (tv, listening, reading, and anki). Whenever i do ANY work on one of those categories, i colour the box blue and put in the amount. If i exceed the day’s goal for that category, then i change the colour again up to green. If i don’t do anything, that box gets a zero and is coloured bright yellow. This gives me a sense of filling up the month, and i can look back and easily see how i’m doing in each category. I’ve been highly motivated to try to fill up each box with at least a little bit of work so that it doesn’t get coloured yellow.


I also included some of my motivational phrases so i can see them every day, and i included an expression of my overall goals. I have percentages for every week, and every month. I also have some 2-month amounts in there so that i can try to make up for any slack that i had in the previous month. The weekly percentages encourage me to work ahead and get more of the whole month’s goal done in that week.

I want to start October with a new push for intensity, getting a lot more done each day and removing some of the distractions (like surfing the web) that have distracted me. I want to exceed my anki goal for this month, as well as my reading goal. I’m really enjoying reading a lot lately, but i have to make more time for it instead of just doing it in little pieces. I need to fit more TV in, but I’ll probably get some of that in later this month when i start back on night shifts at work.

Looking ahead, I’m really curious what my skills will be like by the end of my 6-month self-study period, at the end of january. Lately i’m feeling a lot of urges to add another language in, such as Italian or Swedish, but i know that this is just the part of me that likes new shiny things. I need to find more new shiny *German* things instead, and i also need to remember that Swedish will be much easier to learn if i have a high level of German on which to base it.

I’ve thought of using Italian as a reward for myself, upon completion of 6 months of German. Or maybe a redo of Spanish, since i haven’t revisited Spanish for many years, and I’d like to make some progress there. If i did this, I’d have to figure out how much German study i could combine with the other language. Maybe keep my German reading goal throughout that period, but also add in some intensive Spanish study. That’s all just dreaming about the future though, and the primary goal right now is to get significantly good at German first. I’ve done enough bouncing around in the past that i don’t need to do any more of it now (and hopefully writing this will help me convince myself of that 😉

Oh, and before i forget, i want to link an interesting article i just read. It was an article about the collected experience of the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), and what they had learned over the past 50 years of teaching languages to diplomats. The article is called Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching. Enjoy!