dictionary surfing


I decided that I should write more about my daily language learning, which I hope will help people more than just ranting about various theory topics. Today I’ve been doing what I call “dictionary surfing”.

This is an activity that I started doing while I was in China in 2007. I had a nice big dictionary that was only one direction: Chinese to English. What I would do is start with some text that I was reading (a textbook, a book, any source of your desired language), and I’d pick any word that I didn’t know. Then I’d look it up, and (here’s the important part) read the example sentences or phrases listed for it.

This part is why I mentioned that the dictionary was one direction; I’ve found that generally in a one-direction dictionary, they’re not so worried about cramming in every possible word, so they usually add better entries. A dual direction dictionary has half the space, so they typically have fewer details (although there are exceptions, of course). As a side note, my favourite online dictionary for Chinese is nciku because it has plenty of example sentences.

So, I find a word, I look at the example sentences. Somewhere in those example sentences there’ll be other words that I don’t know. Whichever words are somehow interesting or useful, or otherwise catch my eye, are then looked up themselves. I just repeat this process as a way to “surf” through the dictionary by following whatever interests me.

When I was in China, I hadn’t yet discovered the wonders of SRS software like Anki, so I would just write down neat phrases in my notebook and try to review them later. Now that I have the advantage of an SRS, I enter any interesting phrases into Anki and then it’ll tell me when to review them so I don’t have to worry about remembering them.

This is what I’m doing right now for Swedish. I really want to be able to read these Stieg Larsson books that I bought in Sweden, but there’s lots of unknown vocabulary. In order to build my vocabulary a bit more, I’m trying to do some dictionary surfing every day to find new and interesting words. I flip open the book to a random page, and start looking for words that I don’t know. I’m just using the book as a starting place to find words, but I don’t have to stick to only the words I find in the book. Typically I’ll find 4 or 5 more words through surfing before I hit a dead end and go back to the book. I’m looking them up using the Norstedts online dictionary, which has plenty of example phrases.

I find that with this method, I can quite comfortably learn 10 new words every day. Sometimes I can do a lot more, but 10 is an easy number. As long as I have them entered with an example sentence in Anki, then I don’t have to remember to go back and review them later. They’ll just come up naturally in my daily review session, which I usually do every morning as soon as I wake up.

As long as I keep doing a little bit every day, then I know that I’m making steady progress. Some days I do more, some days less. I can adjust according to my mood that day. I don’t need to feel guilty about the days where I do less, because I know my number of cards in my Anki deck is still steadily increasing.

the good old grammar debate


Hi all, sorry for the recent absence, but I’ve been apartment-hunting in Berlin. Today I just wanted to chime in about the recent Yearlyglot article about grammar. Firstly, I think the post is quite interesting and highlights some rather amusing mistakes that are possible with incorrect grammar. In general I quite enjoy Randy’s writing. However, I think this article, overall, is attacking a Straw Man.

In the past, I’ve advocated that if people are stressed out by grammar rules, then they don’t really have to bother too much about studying them specifically. What I’ve suggested instead, is that through lots of exposure to your target language, by reading books and watching TV, you can acquire a lot of grammar naturally, without really having to think about it much.

This is not to say that grammar (in the sense of speaking correctly) isn’t important, but rather that studying formal Grammar Rules as one might find in textbooks is in many cases unnecessary, especially for beginners. Currently I’m getting compliments left and right about my spoken German skills, and I think it’s because I mostly speak correctly and I have an accent that makes it hard for people to guess where I’m from. But if anyone asked me to describe various “Formal Grammar” features of the language, I’d be hard-pressed to do it. I get some of my accusative adjective forms wrong, and I also mis-guess the genders on a lot of nouns. I start stumbling when the style of speech is something outside of what I’ve had exposure too, but it usually works out to something understandable even if not quite correct. But almost all of my German skills came from reading multiple novels while listening to the audiobook version, looking up words in a dictionary, and watching TV. No grammar books involved.

So, I still stand by my recommendation that people shouldn’t worry too much about grammar. I think formal grammar rules are best used as a tool to refine your speaking once you’re in the intermediate or advanced stages. If you want to learn more about how the language works in the beginning and intermediate stages, I strongly think that it is best done through reading some targeted example sentences. Pick up a “grammar” book and just read through for the example sentences, and you’ll probably get the concepts quite well.

When studying a language, be curious. Explore around, read lots of descriptions, read lots of examples, but overall just read lots (or listen to lots). It’s not necessary to actually read grammar books or study the grammar specifically in order to speak well, but speaking well is definitely important. You should strive to speak correctly, and you should pay lots of attention to the ways that people say the things that you want to say. Emulate the way real native speakers are saying things, and you’re on the way to learning to speak correctly.

finding swedish dictionaries


Just a tip for those of you searching for online dictionaries for your favourite language…sometimes searching in English really doesn’t work. For example, I’ve been really dissatisfied with the dictionary sites I’ve found for Swedish but I couldn’t find anything better for a while. My favourite German dictionary site, dict.cc, is also in the process of creating a Swedish section of the site, but it only has about 10000 entries right now. Maybe later once more user-submitted entries are filled in, then it’ll be better.

So I searched (once again) for Swedish dictionary sites and came up with just crap. They seemed to be sites that were just hastily slapped together with bad dictionary content, and some of them wouldn’t even let me search for words with “å” in them, which is vital. Most of these sites just added Swedish so that they could have another language link at the side, to make them look extensive, and then they hope that the majority of their users won’t bother to look at the unpopular crappy Swedish section of their site.

The solution to this was to search in Swedish. Instead of searching for “swedish dictionary”, I searched for “svenska ordbok”. I immediately came upon tyda.se, which has a pretty ajax interface and seems to have a decent dictionary. My guess is that there are just not that many English speakers searching for Swedish dictionary sites, whereas a relatively high percentage of Swedes want one.

Another search tip is that you can have Google return multiple language results at the same time. Go to “Settings” in the top right, and then “search settings”, and then you can choose all the language results you want it to return, and hit save.

That’s all for now, I’m going back to working on my Swedish vocabulary 🙂

dealing with variety


Home, sweet home. Berlin feels so comfortable and easy now. I’m back, after a brief trip over to Copenhagen. Although I had a good time there and in Malmö, I still want to work full-time on German. I have some great opportunities to study German intensively here with some expert instruction. What makes me hesitate is that I usually just focus on one topic, but right now I’m trying an experiment by juggling several.

I just unpacked a big stack of books that I brought back with me from Sweden and Denmark. I love books, and I sometimes seem to gather them faster than I can read them. Now that I have a solid place to stay for a while in Berlin, the books are already starting to pile up. Right now I have 2 novels, a comic book, and a book about beermaking in Esperanto; 5 novels in Swedish (plus various audiobooks and ebooks); 1 German novel, but soon to be more; also 3 novels in Danish (yes, I’ll be expanding to another language soon).

So how do I plan to deal with all of these while I’m “supposed” to be studying German here in Berlin? After some advice from one of my language-learning pals here in Berlin (thanks, Judith!), I’ve decided to try to moderate my excesses a bit, and try to do a little bit of many things. My normal pattern is to work intensively on only one thing until I burn out and get wanderlust, or sometimes I just flit from subject to subject with no focus at all. Now I’m going to try finding a nice middle ground.

German is still my primary task right now, but I’m allowing myself to also do some work on Swedish and Esperanto every week, in order to keep progressing in them. This gives me one thing where I’m quite good, and two where I’m sort of mediocre. They each feel different when I’m studying them because of my different skill levels.

To help me moderate the time I spend, I’ve created a new sort of spreadsheet to track my effort. Some of you may recall my previous spreadsheet style, which was to track my time and effort day by day, which was summarized in weekly and monthly totals. I’m changing that now, so that I only track weekly amounts.

The reason for this was that I used to want to fill in every box for every day, which indicated that I’d done something for every daily task and gave me a sense of progress….but now I don’t really have “daily” tasks anymore. I have a whole pile of tasks, and I may not feel like working on all of them in every day. The focus is now weeks, and on using any small bit of time effectively.

Each week will have a sort of laundry list of things I could do. I have certain goals for each week, but nothing is nailed down to a specific day. Instead, it provides me with a list of things that I am allowed to work on whenever I have time (which is often). For each language, I have three tasks: Reading, Listening, and New Anki Cards.

Reading is from my stack of books, which I’m eager to work through, and is tracked by the estimated number of words read (by multiplying the pages read times the estimated words per page for that particular book, to account for the differences between books). Generally I want to read as much as possible, but I also have some weekly goals that I hope not to go under. Some of this reading will also be done as “Listening-Reading” if I have the appropriate audiobook to simultaneously listen to.

Listening includes many activities. It could be watching a movie in that language, or listening actively to the radio, or doing some simultaneous Listening-Reading with an audiobook and a novel. Listening by itself is handy, since I can also do it while I wash dishes or buy groceries, etc.

Lastly, making new Anki cards refers to my favourite “Spaced Repetition System”, which shows me flashcards at calculated times in order to efficiently stimulate my long-term memory production. Whenever I take the time to look up a new word or phrase from one of my novels, I usually add it to my flashcard system as a full example sentence. The system will then show it to me at increasing intervals over time, in order to keep that new knowledge fresh in my mind until it sticks for the long-term. This way, I know I’m making certain progress in the language, and I don’t have to worry about reviewing what I’ve learned because the computer will automatically show me the right things at the right time.

Besides these three categories for each of my three languages, I also have some columns in my new spreadsheet for other non-linguistic activities. I want to improve my abilities in the strategy game called Go, or Wei qi depending on whether you use the Japanese or Chinese name for it. To that end, I want to do a certain number of practice problems each week. I’m also tracking a couple of fitness exercises such as pushups and crunches. These things don’t take that much time to do, and I’d like to do them on a consistent basis over time, so they’re getting tracked in the spreadsheet too.

Having all of these things in my list gives me the variety that I like. Any time I have the opportunity to work on something, I can choose from dozens of different activities, and if I get bored of one activity then I can easily switch to another. If I’m only choosing from this list, however, then I’m still targeting all of my current goals, and not getting sidetracked on other things. By looking at the weekly totals, I can help direct myself toward my weaker areas too, so that I don’t overconcentrate on one task.

Speaking of getting sidetracked, what about those Danish books I mentioned? I should have known that spending time in Copenhagen would leave me with an interest in Danish. There are several Esperanto events in Denmark scheduled for next year, so I wouldn’t mind starting on Danish in January maybe, so that I’m prepared.

This is also serving as extra motivation for Swedish though. I’m not allowing myself to start on Danish until I reach a sufficient level in Swedish. This is both an encouragement to keep improving my Swedish, and also a way of indirectly working on Danish. The two languages are very similar in the written form (and I could already read the Danish menus in Copenhagen restaurants, for example), so the better I am at Swedish, the faster I’ll be able to learn Danish once I eventually start. Therefore, the Danish books will sit quietly on my bookshelf until at least January, and they’ll serve as a steady reminder that there are many reasons for me to continue working on my Swedish goals.

So, that’s pretty much the current state of things for me. My spreadsheet has a row for each week of the remainder of the year, and the columns are the different tasks. When I do any part of a task in that week, then I put a number in the box and color the box blue. If I surpass the weekly goal for that task, then the box changes to green. The plan for the rest of the year is to color in the entire grid, hopefully in green, but blue would be enough.

I’ll be sure to post some updates about this in a few weeks.