noticing your progress


This is a response to a question about a “dummy-proof” method for language learning. What do you do when your progress at learning a language looks like nothing is happening? If you’re working on a difficult language, how do you keep going when you can’t tell if you’re getting better or not?

I’ve frequently found that making goals based on the number of hours of listening, or number of words read, or number of episodes of TV watched was very helpful. It let me refocus my efforts towards exposure, rather than judging my progress based on what I could or could not say. In this way, the numbers always go up if you keep doing it. The only way to fail is to stop.

This points out that the main problem of language learning is motivation. You have to keep choosing to do it day after day. Along this line, I really like the idea of the “Victory Calendar”. You pick some relatively far off date like 1 year from now, and the idea is to do something every day until the end. Also, you have some other numerical goals about how much you want to do on an “ideal” day. Then you have some way to mark down whether you did anything at all that day, and then another way to mark down whether you exceeded the day’s goal. A day is a success if you did anything at all, but it’s an even bigger success if you exceeded the daily goal. For me, this is a color scheme for each day: yellow for nothing, blue for something, green for exceeding the goal. I’ve also used pencil marks when I have a physical piece of paper with boxes on it: A big X for nothing, a shaded triangle for something (like half of the box is full), and then a full shaded box for exceeding the goal.

None of this has anything to do with being able to say certain things by a certain day. Progress is only measured by exposure to content. Success is (rightly) tied to doing it over and over and over again. I’ve found that the most common reason that I give up on a language is because I can’t see obvious progress in my abilities in the language. I start to wonder if I’m getting better or just staying the same. This is a very big problem in a language that’s far from the ones you know. At some point you just have to trust that repeated exposure to the language over your chosen long-term timespan will result in you being much better at the language, even though you won’t be able to see those improvements from day to day or maybe even week to week.

In this sense, it becomes similar to weight training. You can’t just go to the gym one day and lift 20kg, and then the next day be sad because 30kg is still impossible. A potential bodybuilder can’t give up when they don’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger after a few weeks. What you have to do is be confident that lifting weights over and over again for an extended time period will make you stronger.

One common strategy for weight lifters is to keep a record of what they’ve lifted each workout, so that they can look back on it 2 months later in order to realize how much progress they’ve actually made over that time, even though it looked like nothing was happening from day to day or week to week. Perhaps for the language learner, this would be a record of what’s hard to understand, what’s easy to understand, and also what was just discovered. When I look back on my “new discoveries” a month later, they all seem so obvious. How could I not know that? This is a big sign of improvement, when the difficult becomes obvious, but that is something that can’t be noticed over a short time span.

These sorts of strategies aren’t just useful for very difficult languages. I thought that Swedish would be so easy and quick that I wouldn’t need to use any of these strategies to keep me going, but I quickly learned that this was a mistake. No language learning is fast (although some languages are clearly quicker than others). It needs to happen again and again, over a long period of time, and this means (for me, anyway), that I need to have some sort of record to look back at in order to see how far I’ve come.


contact precedes comprehension


After seeing a recent tweet by Khatsumoto where he says “One can never come to understand native-level material by avoiding it: contact precedes comprehension”, I decided I should weigh in on this. When I’ve suggested reading novels to people, a lot of them are really afraid of the idea. They tell me that they don’t understand enough of the language yet. WELL YA! you haven’t done any reading, of course you don’t understand much yet. I think they have it backwards.

Some people believe that you should have more than 90% understanding of everything before you try to read it, but I think this is nonsense. Even when I barely understand 50% of the words on the page, I’m getting something out of the process of reading and listening to a real novel in whatever language I’m learning. This type of learning cannot be easily counted and quantified; you are learning things not in a clear-cut black-and-white fashion such as “I now know these exact words!”. You are slowly gathering familiarity with many different words.

In the process, you are also seeing many of the most frequent words over and over and over. These really frequent words (usually quite important to the language) are quite easy to get a sense for, even if you understand very few of the other words in the sentences. A lot of the time, if you can just tell whether certain words are probably a noun or probably a verb or probably an adjective, then that can be enough context to learn more about the usage of some other words around them.

After a week of my ongoing experiment in reading lots of Swedish, I’ve found that I know a surprising amount of words already. I had thought that it would benefit me to go through the 2000 word wordlist that I have kicking around, but lately I’m finding that I just already know a lot of it. A few weeks ago, I’d go through one page of it and add almost every example sentence into Anki, but now I really have to search to find new words that I haven’t seen. I’m also able to guess a lot of them more easily now. I’m just becoming much more familiar with Swedish.

This gives me great confidence that I’ll be able to learn a ton just by reading for the next month. Although I saw drastic improvement in German due to reading, somehow I still have this doubt in my mind that I can just learn huge amounts of a language purely by sitting down every day to enjoy a book. I think this is an argument for spending as much time as possible doing it every day, because then the speed of the improvements is much more noticeable, and that helps your motivation.

Anyway, back to the topic. There’s no point in waiting until you already understand most of a language in order to start reading. You need to get used to the idea early that it is greatly beneficial to read native books no matter what level you are at. Maybe you won’t get that much at the start, but keep going and you’ll see that it moves fast. For simple language like small posts on blogs, I can already read Swedish quite well. I was linked to a bike forum called and I found that I could quite easily read along with the articles and comments. Sure, I’m still learning a lot of new vocabulary from them, but actually reading and understanding their meaning is no longer difficult. This is an effect purely from reading difficult books like real Swedish-language novels, because I couldn’t do this a few weeks ago.

Don’t wait! Immerse yourself now! Why are you reading my silly English blog? You could be out getting exposed to some awesome content in your target language!

wordlists and core vocab


from this thread on HTLAL

In French something like 25 verbs make up over 50% of the verb forms in ordinary spoken speech. My statistics may be off, but the point is clear. Instead of trying to learn 500 French verbs, master the 25 first and then progressively work your work through the others as they come up. For these very reasons I believe that with a vocabulary of 1000 words well learned one could get by very well in French and probably fool a lot of people.

The problem with these percentages is that even if you know those 25 words, and they come up in every sentence, you still won’t understand those sentences as they are spoken to you. Also, once you add in some more specific (but less frequent) words that help you in a couple of everyday situations, then the number starts to shoot upwards. Having a low limit like 1000 is a difficult task.

In principle, though, I mostly agree. There is really a core of the language that you need to master and have it always ready. If you can fluidly produce the basic things from that core, then it becomes an easy task to learn another 20 – 100 new words in a short time period in order to deal with a new potential situation.

I think it’s possible to go the other way around, though. Taking what Iverson said earlier about learning many many more words right at the start, I’m starting to imagine that one should actually do this backwards. Instead of learning the core really well and then expanding your vocab later, you could learn tons of vocab as fast as you can and then use your extensive vocabulary superpowers to read and listen to tons of native material that would help you cement the core parts.

I think this relates well to the idea of having a good balance of “intensive” and “extensive” reading, but I’ll have to think more about just concentrating on massive vocab, which is a slightly different path than intensive reading (which is more well-rounded, not focusing entirely on vocab).

This relates to my current Swedish project quite well, because I have a wonderful frequency-based wordlist of 2000 common words that each have an example sentence. I keep thinking that I’m not using this list to its full potential, since I’ve only made flashcards for the “A” up to the “E” words so far. It’s just much easier to stay interested if I’m reading a real book instead of playing with a wordlist. It does look like my ability to read would be greatly increased if I spent more time on the list first, though. Maybe I just need more hours in the day 😉

Overall, the importance should rest on finding something fun, but if you can manage short bursts of interest in something like a wordlist, then perhaps it would be worth it if it then enhanced your enjoyment of the really fun stuff. Don’t overdo it though, or else it’ll start to seem too much like a chore instead of your super-fun hobby!

how do you spend so much time on languages?


This is a response to someone’s question from HTLAL about how much time is enough, or too much, and how do we get all that time in?

For me there’s some sort of turning point once I actually sit down to do something. If I somehow spend an hour working on something one day, then the next day I’m much more likely to spend lots of time on it. If I spend zero time one day, then I’ll probably also spend zero time the next day. It’s sort of a “momentum” thing. The hardest part is starting.

I always have many materials present when I sit down to work. I also like to have a specific time of day where I always start to work. Before I went to china, I had a habit of sitting down every day at 7:30pm, and I’d spread out several books in front of me. Some were textbooks, some were readers with vocab lists, some were half english / half chinese, and some were native materials (like some WeiQi strategy books I had). Nowadays I spread out DVDs, audiobooks, novels, and other materials too.

So I’d sit down, spread out the books, and then pick whichever book looked interesting at that moment. My promise to myself was that I’d spend at least 20 minutes doing anything. What usually happened was that I’d flip through one book for a few minutes, but then I’d switch to another one that caught my eye. Once I started working on it, I’d usually get right into it and end up spending an hour because it was interesting. If I ever got bored of whatever activity I was working on, I’d just switch to something different and try to do 10 more minutes of that. If I was reading, I’d switch to writing characters or something. And normally if 10 minutes went by, then I’d stick with it for longer just because I got into it.

Another thing I like to do is make numerical games out of it. I count up the minutes of reading, or the number of pages or number of words. I make it into something where I can get a “high score”. If there’s a number that I want to reach for the week, then I make a game of trying to get to the week’s goal before the week was over, or trying to get double the week’s goal in only one week.

Combined with this, I like having a calendar where I cross off days where I was successful. I try to get as many successful days in a row as I can. It’s just another type of game. I find it also helps to modify that so that there are two types of “success” for each day. I mark the day with blue if I did ANYTHING that day. If I do nothing, then I get the “bad” color like red or yellow or something. But the second type of success is where I did more than the day’s goal. Then it gets colored green.

The blue color helps me stay consistent, because it’s super easy to just sit down and read something for 5 minutes, and then I’m allowed to color the day blue. But as I said previously, if I already started for 5 minutes, then it usually goes much longer. Reward yourself big for doing that first 5 minutes, because it’s the most important.

The biggest problem was always the start. That’s why I tried to do it at the same time every day. I removed my other excuses and distractions, and made the time and the materials available. I made up new motivations like coloring the day blue, or reaching a numerical value. The rest took care of itself.

goals and choice


I just started replying to Chani’s comment on the last post, asking about the choices we make, and whether we are choosing our mistakes. My comment started to drag on, so I figured I’d better expand it into a full post.

I think there are varying levels of choice involved in everything we do. We humans do a lot of things automatically, which makes life easier since we don’t have to consciously calculate everything out. Most of us can walk without consciously having to think “put one foot in front of the other” for every step. But in some sense you are still choosing where to walk and choosing each step, and for any of those steps you could choose to move it somewhere else.

This is what makes it so hard to instill a new habit…for the first while you have to really stop and think, and pay detailed attention to each step you’re taking. You have to ask yourself why each step is necessary, and if it actually takes you towards your goal. It’s nice to have ideas about yourself, and goals about what you want to achieve, but in the end it comes down to what actions you actually take. For instance, I could say “I want to learn Swedish” every day for a year, but if I don’t actually take any actions towards that, then I’m not learning Swedish. And really, how much did I really want to learn Swedish if I never did anything about it? In the words of a friend, maybe it means I just “wanted to want to learn Swedish”. Can you even want to want to do something? I’m not even sure any more.

At this point I’d like to quote the ever-inspirational Steve Pavlina in his latest article about Creating Your Vision:

If you don’t create a vision for each part of your life, someone else will do it for you. The intentions of others will fill in the blanks. You see… you’re always working to fulfill some vision. Either you’re creating and fulfilling your own vision, or you’re working on someone else’s vision for you. There is no neutral. If you aren’t creating your own vision, then you’re obediently fulfilling a blended vision created by others, such as the vision that you should be a good citizen and taxpayer, that you should relate to people a certain way and live a certain kind of lifestyle, and that you should manage your affairs a certain way until you die. If you’re in love with the vision that society is expecting you to live out, then there’s no point in creating your own vision. But if you’d like to hold the reins of your own destiny and direct your life path more consciously, then you must absolutely create a vision for yourself.

Basically, you’re going somewhere whether you’re thinking about it or not. If you want to end up at a certain interesting destination, rather than the default destination that is created haphazardly by a combination of the many influences on your life, then you are going to need to make some very small choices about every step you take, until those steps start to beat down the new path that will lead you to that goal.

I have recognized that it is a mistake for me to browse slashdot (which is a computer-related “news for nerds” site, for those who aren’t aware). It’s what I automatically do when I’m in front of a computer and I’m avoiding doing something else. Now, I’m not always thinking consciously “holy shit ya! I need to go read slashdot all day, and get absolutely no real work done! That’s so awesome it hurts!”. Usually what happens is that I just type it automatically, and then suddenly an hour of my time was spent on reading a bunch of geeks discuss the minute details of something totally irrelevant to my life.

To change this, I have to install a sort of a “trigger” inside myself. I have to consciously decide that reading slashdot is a mistake, and that every time I start going towards it, I need to choose something different. In this case, the most effective “something different” is to turn my computer off and pick up a book. I’m explicitly recognizing the behaviour of “reading slashdot” as a choice, and then I’m deciding not to choose it by choosing something different instead.

This conscious changing of habits is not an instant thing. Your mind will still be habituated to the old “bad” ways of doing things, and you need to train it over time by doing the “good” things instead. Each behaviour is a pathway through your mind, and some of them are more well-worn. In order to do a new thing automatically, you need to really consciously wear in that path. Really stomp that dirt down and make it permanent. It’ll take a while before you stop getting distracted by the nice pretty cobblestones of the regular path, but it’ll work if you keep choosing your new path. Actually, since I’m still thinking about Steve Pavlina, I’ll point to his 30 Days to Success post, which was another good one about making new habits.

Going back to the original comment that inspired this post, there was a question about what “lazy” means. Does recognizing that our habits are choices make us lazy horrible people? I’m not sure that it’s necessary to attach this sort of value judgment to it in order to discuss it properly and deal with the affect of our habits upon our lives. I think lazy usually refers to not wanting to do uncomfortable things, or things that someone else thinks “need” to be done. When someone calls us lazy, I think they are saying that they disagree with our direction, and want us to take other actions that would move us in their preferred direction. I think it could be the case that someone makes a series of choices about what’s important in their life, and then they take the steps necessary to accomplish them….and in the process they become habituated to doing those things. In some sense, someone might call them lazy if they keep doing those same steps toward their goal all the time, without going off the beaten path to do whatever that other person thinks they should be doing. In that case, “lazy” is being used to try to manipulate someone else into pursuing goals that are not theirs.

Where I think it becomes harmful to you is if you find yourself taking steps every day that lead you away from your own goals. I think it would in fact be “lazy” to avoid inspecting your own behaviours and to avoid deciding which of them are actually leading you to what you want out of life. I believe it was Socrates that said something like “the unquestioned life is not worth living”. If you want to be satisfied with your accomplishments a few years down the road, there are always some tiny choices you can make right now that will lead you there. If it feels really difficult to do that, it’s only the resistance of turning off the beaten path. Your habits are controlling you, instead of you controlling them.

I think changing these things may initially look difficult, but after you try then you find out that they’re secretly easy. Far too many things are Secretly Easy, in fact. You just need to do something simple over and over and over, and suddenly you’ll discover that it wasn’t really that hard. Starting is the hard part. Get off the beaten track!

language mission: 45 days of Swedish


Lately my sincere desire to learn Swedish has been overshadowed by my inability to work on it more than just “here and there”. Late last year I was spending plenty of time working on German, and my initial switch to Swedish was full of enthusiasm, but it somehow died off.

I think that a big part of this has been my ho-hum attitude, arrogantly thinking that I know how this language thing is done, and I can just waltz my way through it in no time. I dropped my practice of recording my work in a spreadsheet, so I never really knew how much work I was or was not doing. I also had nothing concrete to aim for, and no timelines to follow. I thought that this lessening of restrictions would enable me to be more creative, but I think it just enabled me to waste more time on the interwebs.

So, following in the footsteps of Benny the Irish Polyglot, I’m going to design myself a “language mission”. Although unlike Benny, I can’t yet pack my bags and leave my job and my home here to travel the world (yet), I’ll be doing whatever I can over the next 45 days to increase my knowledge of Swedish. To accomplish this, I’ll be going back to my tried and true method of picking some precise numerical goals for my activities, then chopping those down to average daily amounts to aim for, and tracking my progress in a spreadsheet.

I predict I’ll be more successful if I have concrete goals, with concrete daily amounts that I should be reaching. I’ll also need to visualize my end goal, and remind myself that according to my calculations I should be doing a certain amount of work each day in order to reach that fabulous end goal. If all goes according to plan, I will have read several hundred thousand words of Swedish by the end of this mission, which will put me well on the way to my goal of actually speaking it well.

Reading about 1000 pages of Swedish in this time will be an ambitious goal, but I’ll be drawing upon the inspiration that I get from the other learners I read about online. I’ve seen some people on the HTLAL forums that are able to accomplish an incredible 6 hours of language work every day, so if I want to make myself a really serious contender (which I do) then I should aim at at least 3 hours per day. The only mistakes I can make are the choices not to work on Swedish. This is an input-only challenge, and as Steve Kaufmann said recently, you can’t make mistakes while just reading and listening. I will only lose if I choose not to participate.

Now, not everyone needs to create such a hectic schedule, but for whatever challenge you make for yourself, remember that at each moment in time you are either choosing to do it, or choosing to do something else. When analyzing yourself, you’ll never discover your mistakes by saying things like “my mistake was not working on X”…that’s not really a mistake, it’s a result. If you rephrase it as “my result was not working on X”, then you see it for the tautology that it truly is.

Instead, the invisible monster called “not doing X” is actually made up of many little tiny choices to do other things. They are all individual choices that add up over time. These are your actual mistakes to avoid. I choose to surf slashdot, I choose to surf facebook, I choose to download an episode of Naruto to watch, etc. You can conquer each of these choices one by one if you make yourself aware of them, but there is no single event that looks like “not doing X”. You will never be able to see yourself “not doing X”, but you will be able to see yourself doing all those other little things. I know when I’m surfing facebook, I know when I’m watching random anime, etc. Once I identify the distractions, I can stop them and choose to do my Swedish project instead.

When I do actually choose my project, I try to choose something that can absorb me. I get distracted very easily, but if I can throw myself into a book or a movie, then I’ll tend to keep going. Entertaining content is king. Boring lists lead to easy distraction (at least for me). Get lost in it, lose track of time, forget to eat lunch because you’re so involved in it. If you can do that, you’re on the way to winning.

These are the things I’ve been trying to remind myself of. Hopefully this will be helpful for others too. I’ll try to update within a week with what I’ve accomplished so far.

learning a language with song lyrics


Lately I’ve been doing a little experiment in using songs to learn more Swedish. Previously, I was skeptical about the value of music as a source of language input, but I’ve changed my mind somewhat.

The main issue for me was that there was very little content compared to a book. There are only so many songs available, and they are each rather short, being much less content than a page of text. They also don’t guide you in proper pronunciation as much, because they are sung and not spoken (which is even more problematic in Chinese where the tones of the words get mostly ignored when sung).

There are two reasons that I changed my mind and started using songs and recommending the practice to others. One is motivation. This is the primary barrier to any language-learning quest. If you can keep yourself interested in it for long enough, then you win. Frequently the only reason for losing is lacking that drive to continue. Songs help with this because they’re catchy and therefore listening to them seems less like work and more like fun. This is especially true for people who have trouble getting motivated to listen to an audiobook, but will happily groove to some tunes all day at work.

The second reason is about memory. Songs have extra tonal / musical data in them that will help you remember words and phrases. Any sort of out-of-band information like this will increase your recall of the words and phrases. The tune of the song will act as a mnemonic. The other part of this is repetition. Because of the short length of songs, and their catchy / addictive nature, it’s inevitable that you’ll listen to each song many times over. This will really help drive home whatever lessons you might learn from that particular song. I think almost everyone has experienced getting a song “stuck in your head” such that you can’t stop it from repeating in your mind over and over. This means that your brain is doing its own repetitions, even when you’re not actually listening to the song. Free work!

So how can you actually learn something from the songs instead of just hearing some sounds hit your ears? This depends a bit on your level in the language. If you’re already pretty good, you might just need to listen to the song multiple times and you’ll understand a bit more of it each time. This can be augmented by reading a transcript of the lyrics. For many of us, though, even a transcript of the lyrics is not enough because we don’t know the meanings of a lot of the new words. In this case, just go look up the translation of the whole set of song lyrics using google translate.

What I generally do is search for the song lyrics, and then paste the whole thing into google translate and look through the result. I compare the translated lines to the original lines and try to figure out each of the words in the original, and make sure that I understand each line. Then I cover up the translation and try to read through the whole song again while understanding each line. My goal is to understand as much of the song in the original language as possible, and then go and listen to it a bunch more. This way, each time you listen, it’s reminding you of those sentences from the lyrics that you already put in the effort of understanding.

You don’t actually have to understand the whole song in one sitting, but just understand what you can. You can iterate this process as much as you want, adding to your understanding later. The only necessary part is that you should try and spend some active mental energy on understanding the lyrics rather than just listening to a bunch of sounds over and over again. When the lyrics are sung, you want to understand what was said rather than just enjoying the song.

Have fun!