Finding motivation in little things

2010-11-30

The end is near!

The end of the year, that is. We’ve just finished the 47th week of the year, leaving us 5 weeks left. The end of the year is pretty much a completely arbitrary date choice that happened some time long ago, but I want to emphasize that we can create meaning out of this meaninglessness.

Learning a language can be a long process. There’s a lot you need to experience as you get more and more used to hearing it and understanding it. Sometimes the weight of the whole task can be a bit intimidating. Motivation is an essential key to staying on track and achieving your goals, language-related or otherwise. When we see an opportunity to make a little mental game, we should take it.

This is what the end of the year can offer us. I made a plan earlier this year to study 3 languages this year: German, Swedish, and Esperanto. At various times I worked more or less on each one, according to my needs and desires at the time. Now I feel the urge to have something “done” by the end of the year.

I don’t pretend to believe that I’ll ever be “done” with any of these languages. Languages are beautiful that way: there will always be more to learn. I am motivated, however, to try to make a “final push” to work hard for the rest of the year so as to increase my accomplishments. This is a little game that I can play with myself, to try and squeeze in a bit more work each day.

So, what I’ve done may not work for everyone, but it seems to help me. Here’s what I did. I want a way to reward myself for doing at least a little bit of work each day in my chosen subjects. I have 4 subjects: the 3 languages I mentioned, plus studying the deeply interesting strategy game called “Go” or “Weiqi”. The idea with my system is that the hardest part of studying is starting. I find many different ways to procrastinate, but if I manage to just start, then I rediscover my enjoyment of it and end up continuing for a longer period than I originally thought.

Therefore, with the key goal of starting each topic once per day, I make a set of boxes in a spreadsheet. Each box represents the work I’ve done on that topic in a certain time period (could be a day or a week, as you see fit). If I do any work at all on that topic in that time period, then I get to colour it in with a nice shade of blue. If I really succeed at doing a lot of work there, then I’ll elevate it up to green. No work gets me a “bad” colour like yellow or red…something noticeable.

The goal of the spreadsheet is to colour everything at least blue. In some ways, this is similar to Jerry Seinfeld’s method of “don’t break the chain”, wherein he tries to do a little bit of writing every single day and then he marks that day with a red X on the calendar, and tries to string together the longest chain of Xs possible.

Technically, I could “succeed” by these standards by just doing 2 minutes of each of my 4 subjects every day…a total of 8 minutes. But in practice, this never happens. I really like studying each of them, and I tend to get absorbed in it once I actually start, so it ends up being quite a significant amount of time.

The other thing that keeps me going is to come up with some numerical goals. This time around, I’ve picked both hours of work and (estimated) number of words read in books. I pick some number as my weekly goal, and try to make all my amounts from all topics add up to that number. For reading, I’ve decided that I want to try to read 100,000 words each week, and I want to get 40 hours of work done each week. This is because I’ve drastically lowered my paid work hours lately, so that I can devote more time to learning. I’m basically considering learning to be my new full-time job, so I picked 40 hours per week.

Other people in different situations might choose a different number, but the number itself doesn’t matter. It’s just another game to play. This gives me a concrete number to try and reach in order to colour some boxes in green. It’s like bonus points. Success is just measured by whether I got each box to at least blue, but I get bonus points for green πŸ™‚

So, back on the end-of-year topic, this gives me some numbers for that game. I’m hoping to have 600,000 words read in this 6-week period (5 weeks of which are left), and 240 hours of time spent on these projects. This is actually a very substantial amount of work. In comparison with last year, when I was intensively working on German while working full time, I was lucky to get 250,000 words read in a month, so 400,000 in a month is a more accelerated pace.

Having a somewhat lofty (although still doable) goal like this is another way that I motivate myself. I’m really eager to have succeeded at doing all that, so that I’ll be better at my various skills. Although I’m eager for the results, I also have a short-term “next step” to follow at any particular time: Just do any amount of work, no matter how tiny, and then I’m allowed to colour a box blue. The amount of words I read and the hours that I spend are continuously added up in the spreadsheet, giving me a number that goes higher and higher (like experience points, for those who play D&D).

All of those incremental steps are what’s going to add up to my spectacular gains. One step at a time is all it takes.

Advertisements

How do I practice speaking on my own?

2010-11-26

(This was a response to a question about how introverts can practice speaking a language. Not all language practice needs to happen in front of other people, if that makes you nervous.)

I’m increasingly starting to see a relationship between active language skills and playing strategy board games (like Go or Chess).

When playing Go or Chess, knowing the basic rules is not enough to play well. While you can calculate out a couple of moves, no one ever gets good just by learning those basic rules. What distinguishes the better players is that they automatically only consider the “good” moves, and can find a good move much faster.

In conversation, one can memorize all the grammar rules one wants, and perhaps you could calculate out a sentence based on grammar rules, but it’d be painfully slow. In the same sense as Chess and Go, the experts have a natural feeling for good sentences, and they just “come out” without thinking too much.

It’s my hypothesis that these are related to development of your brain with this new skill. You need to do some type of repeated deliberate practice to burn in some new pathways. In Go, you get good by solving practice problems, and imagining the stones in your head. Some people say you should just get better by playing more games, but that’s much slower progress for almost anyone. Doing targeted practice problems is superior, because you can find a bunch that aim for the same concept, and practice until you’re good at that concept, whereas it might only rarely be found in your games.

So, since I can, as a Go player, get much better at Go without playing any games with other people, merely by doing individual deliberate practice, how can we apply this to languages?

Firstly, let’s assume that you already have decent pronunciation (at least according to knowledge and production of all the sounds). If not, then do that first. Given that, I think step one is just reading out loud. You have some predefined content, so the bottleneck is not in coming up with material, and you just read it out and try to get it smooth. This will get you used to producing the language at a real speed. In all the languages I’ve studied, I experience a time period where I can pronounce everything very well if I’m doing it one or two words at a time, but for several sentences at regular speed, I get a lot worse. So, simple practice reading out loud.

Next, now that you can utter multiple sentences correctly when they’re already supplied, you want to work on your ability to produce those sentences. I think this relates well to the task in Go (and I suppose Chess) of having to practice imagining the next 3, 4, 5 moves in advance in your head. It’s hard at first, but improves with practice.

So one thing to start off with is to imagine some situation you might encounter, and then work out a bunch of things that you can say in that situation…which will probably take some time at first. Then, you can act out the situation while visualizing it in your head. Pretend it’s actually happening, and then try to give the response naturally, and imagine what the other person is saying next, etc. Basically, self role-playing and working through a number of scenarios so that you’ll be prepared when those scenarios come up.

This has the added effect of confidence, which is something I find quite important. When you actually get into one of these situations in real life, then you can quickly respond because of your practice. Given the confidence that comes from this familiarity with the situation, you can allow yourself to feel relaxed as the conversation proceeds, and hopefully you’ll be better able to draw on your passive vocabulary as things get more difficult.

Along with situational practice, I think one should also do structural practice, where you work on some sort of sentence pattern and try to substitute other things in. What immediately comes to mind for me is logical connectives. The conversations I prefer are the ones where we’re discussing something of interest to me, and I want to make a point about my opinion, or perhaps argue against someone else’s opinion (like, say, on a language forum ;).

Practicing logical connectives and explanations will be very helpful, no matter what the conversation topic is. There’s certain vocabulary necessary, and certain sentence forms, and they apply to almost anything, so you need to have them well-practiced so they come out fast and naturally. Then you can pause, if necessary, to search your passive vocab for whatever the difficult words might be, but the rest of the sentence will flow well.

So, in summary, come up with ways to practice on your own in such a way that you are pretending that this realistic scenario is happening, and you’re trying to make the words flow. You should research the words that are likely to happen in these scenarios and practice saying them genuinely, so as to build up your active abilities with them. Also, once is not enough. You need to do this many, many times in order to really burn it into your brain. If the strategy games are indeed a proper analogy, then thousands of practice runs will be necessary.

Oh, and one last thing, while I’m on the topic of games. I also find it much easier to practice a language when there are not as many expectations placed on me, and I’ve found that this is the case when playing board games! Play a game of Settlers of Catan or Agricola or something, and try playing the game entirely in your language. Describe what you’re doing (“I’m drawing two cards, and discarding one of them”). The speech required is very formulaic, and nobody expects you to say something deep and meaningful, or even to follow up anything you’ve said. You have fun playing the game, and it’s a low-pressure practice situation too πŸ™‚

Some people seem to find it easier to try and gain this practice purely through going to bars or cafes and talking to real people, and a certain amount of that is necessary, but I firmly believe that a lot can be achieved by deliberate practice alone in the comfort of your own home. Once you’ve practiced and become a little bit better on your own, it won’t be such an issue to naturally talk to other people whenever you want.


How do I roll my Rs with the tip of my tongue?

2010-11-24

(Another question from HTLAL, where someone seemed to be depressed about never being able to get the “R rolling”, commonly heard in Russian, Italian, etc. It was mentioned in the thread that some Russians have trouble with this sound too.)

I spoke with some Bulgarian friends and they said the same things…that some kids learn to roll their Rs much later than others. I also have a friend who just insists that she can’t whistle and there must be something wrong with her.

The trick with whistling is not just blowing air randomly, like my friend seems to do…You need the right mouth shape to produce a tone. With R rolling, I find that it’s the opposite…you might have the tongue shape right, but not enough air. My theory as to whats happening is that the air-flow is lowering the pressure, and if your tongue is close enough and the tip loose enough, it’ll get pulled towards the roof of your mouth. At some point the space is too tight when your tongue touches the roof, and the pressure increases again, pushing your tongue away so that the air can flow out.

You don’t want your tongue to “rebound” too much, because then it won’t get pulled back in a second time to keep vibrating. You need to keep your tongue in the right place, in order for the back-and-forth effect to work. You also need to push enough air through. Not a ton of air like you’re blasting a trumpet, but more like the amount of air from an exasperated sigh…or maybe a bit more.

You can do this, although it might take more practice. If nothing happens at all, you just need to get more crazy with your mouth shape and tongue position. Experiment, and you’ll find something reasonably close, like one of the previous posters said. Once you get anything that causes your tongue-tip to do something funny, you can hone in on it by trying similar things.

When I was trying to learn some Bulgarian, this was a big problem for me. I practiced hard for days and days and days, and then finally got some tiny vibration, but I found it hard to initiate (especially in the middle of a word). Now I can easily just sit here and vibrate my tongue like that for as long as I have more air to breathe out.

Try these exercises:

  • do the “blowing out the candles” sort of action with a fairly strong breath and an O shaped mouth, and try slowly moving your tongue tip to the spot where a T sound is made. The tongue tip should go fairly close to the back of the teeth. I find it harder to get the vibration when the tongue tip is further back.
  • try to say “hut” where the T at the end totally stops the air (like what an american football quarterback might stereotypically say, to get the ball snapped back to him). This gets your tongue tip to approximately the right place. The next step after this is to practice not quite touching the tongue there, but just getting it close. You should be trying to hold it nearby as the air goes out, so that it can sort of hover there and flutter.
  • try getting the sound started by saying “dra” or “tra” and trying to vibrate the R. A lot of people seem to find it easier to start the motion when there’s a T/D sound (alveolar plosive) first.

It’s not necessary to use voicing…you can start with a completely unvoiced airflow if that makes it easier. I have the feeling that there’s something weird about my tongue positioning at the back that is really hard to describe, so try moving your whole tongue around…or try breathing out to make a “hawwww” sound, as if you’re fogging up some eyeglasses in preparation for cleaning them, but then put your tongue-tip into the “hover” position.

Doing this “haww” sound might prepare you for doing the tongue vibration combined with the “R” sound that is produced with the back of the tongue nearing the top/back of the mouth (like English R). My feeling is that you need this combination in order to make a nice “Rrr” rather than just the “machine gun” noise that others described.

I may be wrong in part of my description above, since I’ve never actually looked this up in a linguistic description, but I’m just trying to describe what I think is happening in my own mouth as I do this. I also don’t know if my physics is correct, but the trick really does seem to be the amount of airflow + getting the tip *just* close enough and keeping it in that neighbourhood so it can vibrate.

Anyway, don’t despair. I thought it was a hopeless task once too, but now it feels easy. If only I could make my German uvular R more consistent πŸ˜‰


Help, I understand but I can’t speak!

2010-11-22

(This post comes as a response to a question on HTLAL, where someone asked for the best websites to teach him how to actually speak Hindi, although he already had excellent passive understanding of Hindi. I had a very similar experience with German where I could understand, but not speak. In this case, searching for a website that will give you magical knowledge is not what you need. Here’s my response: )

You might be better with something like Lang-8, where you attempt to write something and get it corrected. Also, reading more books would help you develop a better sense of intuition about the language (but won’t help you directly with actual speaking).

In my experience, if someone can already understand the language, but not speak it, the problem is just lack of speaking / writing practice. It feels really hard at first, but you have to try to come up with things to say, and when you don’t know how it would work, just come up with an approximation and then ask someone who knows. When you find out, then you know for next time. The process of just trying to talk a few times per week can have impressive results in a short amount of time, if you already have an in-depth understanding of the language passively.

Activation of that knowledge happens when you put some pressure on yourself to come up with something. You could be talking to yourself when nobody’s around, or you could be in a cafe trying to chat with someone. Sometimes it also helps to read something out loud, and try to act it out like you mean it, or imagine yourself saying that in some situation.

Even with languages that have widespread instruction amongst English speakers, such as German and French, there are very few, if any, web sites that are going to be able to just explain something to you in a theoretical sense and then suddenly allow you to be able to speak better. My feeling is that when you understand but can’t speak, it’s just a matter of speaking practice.

Online, try writing a blog, writing a diary, whatever, and have people on Lang-8 correct you. Think about the things you want to be able to say, and when you can’t figure out how to say it then write it down in a notebook, and then you can ask someone later. Practice saying helpful phrases. This is the stuff that has helped me with activation.

Try to concentrate on simple everyday tasks. Describe in simple terms what you did that day. If you can’t, you may have to look up some of the common words. Then try again. Describe what you did as you walked through a store…which items did you pick up, were you hungry, etc. Talk about what you want to do tomorrow. Once you’ve worked hard on describing the basics like this, then try moving to logical connectives. Try to explain the reason you did something, or explain some concept that you like to talk about.

All of these things are handy to know in all sorts of situations, and you have to deliberately practice them in order to get good at them. Get awesome at the fundamentals through practice, and then the harder things will just fall down easily with a little more effort.


Mad Flow: become absorbed in your book

2010-11-19

When I learned to read foreign languages for enjoyment instead of worrying about the precise definition of every word, it was a big milestone in my language-learning progress. One of the things that makes this so effective is the ability to get lost in the story. You want to build up a sort of flow, a feeling of absorption into the story, where you lose track of the world around you and imagine a new world in your mind.

This sense of flow is important in many human endeavors. Think about a rap song where the performer is constantly missing the beats and stumbling through his words….it’s no good. Think about the musician that plays a wrong note and then has to stop and restart…it kills the whole song. There’s also the direct language analog of “fluency”, the ability to produce a seemingly effortless flow of language to communicate with someone. Flow is important in all of those, and it’s the same while reading.

If you are reading a book in detail, dissecting every word, it can be very hard to stay on task. While doing this, time seems to move slowly, and the outside distractions of the world seem to creep in. Other things start to seem like they’d be easier, so you wander away from your work.

This is the opposite of what people experience when they really enjoy a book. Have you ever read a book that was “a real page-turner”? Something that you couldn’t put down, and had you obsessively trying to read “just one more chapter”? When you get into this sort of mental state, the world around you disappears, time moves more quickly, and you can imagine the happenings in the story much more vividly. You are no longer reading individual words….you’re letting a story seep into your consciousness…and then suddenly it’s 3am and you have to be at work in 5 hours πŸ˜‰

This dreamy state of mind is powerful, and you can use it when you want to learn a new language. Don’t get stuck on each individual word, because that’ll drag you out of the book and back to the real world. Worrying about each word becomes a speed-bump on the road to your imagination. You need to ignore them, skip past them, and develop a smooth flow. No bumps allowed.

It’s ok to not know words. Give yourself permission to not know them. Besides, in your native language, there are still thousands of words that you don’t know. You should expect that in your new language there will be plenty more, but that’s just fine. It’s expected. Once you realize this, then you can try to dig into the actual story and get lost in there. Just get whatever you can, and enjoy it.

When I want to extract some more knowledge out of a book, I make sure that I can do it without ruining my flow. I keep a highlighter beside me so that if there’s a word that keeps coming up and is really bugging me, then I can just swipe the highlighter over it and come back to it later. This lets me remove the bothersome word from my mind, because I know it’ll be taken care of. I won’t lose it now…it’s in bright yellow. Then I can just keep on reading and enjoy the rest of the story. Highlighting more than 1 or 2 words can be detrimental though, because then you end up spending more time “collecting” words than enjoying the story.

Some of those highlighted words will later go into my Anki flashcard deck, with their surrounding sentence or phrase of context. These can be quite valuable to review, because when they come up I remember the surrounding situation in the story, which really helps me remember the meaning of the word. Reviewing the words in Anki also helps solidify words that may not occur again for another 50 pages or more. A couple extra reps in Anki will make them stick for next time, and then they’ll just seem familiar.

But I also just ignore a lot of the highlighted words. Sometimes I go back over them and decide that I actually already know what they mean. Or I just think they’re boring now, so there’s no need to put it into Anki. Another possibility is that I just highlighted too many words and I don’t want to spend the effort to enter them all into Anki, which is fine too. Every word will come up again somewhere else, so I’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn them in the future.

So, Extensive Reading is best done as a sort of meditation. Forget the rest of the world, forget your other thoughts and worries, forget the challenging words. Just keep moving your eyeballs over all the words and try to “fall into” the story. Get lost in it, and just keep reading. You will be rewarded with an uncanny “sense” of the language, and your intuition will become more developed.

Your brain is a neural net, and you are training it with input. Just keep putting more words in front of your eyes, and your brain will do the work of piecing it together in the background. Just hang on and enjoy the ride.


Extensive reading: what convinced me

2010-11-17

Some time in the spring of 2009 I was considering getting back into learning German after a long hiatus. I had taken German in high school, but learned very little. I couldn’t read books, I couldn’t understand TV, and I couldn’t have even a basic conversation.

Nine years before this, I had gone on a couple of business trips to Germany, and at some point I picked up a German copy of Tad William’s “The Stone of Farewell”, a high fantasy novel that I had read already in English. My idea was that when I got home from the business trip I’d sit down and try to read it in German, since I had an intuitive idea that reading should be a good way to improve my language skills.

I got back to Vancouver and sat down with this fantasy novel and a German-English dictionary, and started working on it. It seemed impossibly hard, and most of the words were unknown to me. I tried to look up every single unknown word in the dictionary in order to figure out what was going on. I wasn’t getting any sense of the story, and after a long time I was still stuck on the 2nd page. I eventually gave up, thinking that it was a horrible idea.

Fast-forward 9 years to 2009, and I was once again starting to work on German again. I had been reading AJATT and Steve Kaufmann, who were both saying “just read”. I then heard about Japanese students who were trying to read 1 million words of English without using a dictionary, which sounded sort of absurd.

So, I decided to give this crazy idea a shot. I would pick up this book that had caused me so many problems before, and I would just move my eyeballs over all the words. Whenever I encountered a word that I didn’t know, I’d just skip right over it and keep on moving. I would try my best to imagine whatever parts of the story I could figure out, piecing it together from my past knowledge of the English version of the book and the understandable words in German in front of me.

What happened was an epiphany for me. By ignoring the hard words and continuing to move my eyes, I started to get a sense for the story. It was only a vague sense, because there were lots of words I didn’t know, but it still seemed like what it really was: a story. I could pick out the main characters, and I knew when they were doing something with someone else, and a few basic words like Drachen (= dragon), and Wald (= forest), etc.

I kept going until I had read 50 pages without using a dictionary, and I had felt it getting better and better, so I decided to go back to the start and see if I had learned anything. Miraculously, I understood a lot more! The beginning of the story made a lot more sense now. Although it was hard to point to any particular things that I had learned beyond a couple words I knew I had figured out, I just knew that something had changed and I was understanding much more.

This catapulted me forward, and I began pursuing German wholeheartedly. It set me on the path to reading dozens of books in German, and eventually moving here to Berlin. Now I can go out for a beer with some Germans in a noisy bar and talk about feminism or geohashing or whatever I want, and it all started with learning to move my eyeballs over some foreign looking words.

Some further points I should mention one more time:

  • Bootstrapping yourself by learning some basic vocab is helpful, but don’t use vocab as an excuse not to read. Exposure comes before knowledge, not after.
  • The further the language is from your native language, the longer it will take to absorb the meanings…but don’t give up, it still works. (I’ve done it in Chinese too)
  • Audiobooks are phenomenally helpful. I highly recommend using them whenever possible while you read.
  • Another way to go about it is to keep the English version of the book beside you so that you can look at it as a reference when you get really stuck. Reading 2 paragraphs of English every few pages will resynchronize you…just don’t get too distracted with the English when your main task should be the new language. (for something like Chinese, it’s definitely handy to have a parallel text…I didn’t find it necessary for Swedish and German)

Anyone who hasn’t tried this should go pick up the nearest book in your target language and move your eyeballs over the first 50 pages, and then I dare you to tell me that you haven’t learned anything and that reading isn’t easier!


Getting started

2010-11-15

I’ve had a number of personal requests lately about how to get started in a language. In the past week, I’ve been asked about how to study German, Mandarin, and Dutch. Although what I’ve said to these people has been tailored a bit to their experience, there are some common threads, mainly Independence and Curiousity.

A lot of people have this idea that learning comes out of a textbook. The textbooks or classrooms have all the knowledge inside of them, and you are the empty vessel. You pour the knowledge out of the textbook until it fills up your brain and then you know it! Simple, right?

In reality, learning anything, particularly a new language, is more about the habits that you form and the things that you do. You need to continually make contact with the language and try to understand it, and to enjoy it. When your only contact is a boring textbook, it’s hard to keep going back. It usually starts to feel like “work”.

So, what I’ve been recommending to these people is to make a personal habit of trying to read a book in that language, and to listen to real audio content. This usually takes a bit of explaining, because people will start saying “but that’s the end result I want, not the first step!”. Actually, you get good at books by reading books. They have the best content, and they will keep you coming back for more, which is exactly what you need to do over and over again.

My favourite part about starting a new language is that it feels like a mystery. When I started learning Swedish, I couldn’t read it at all, but the first thing I did was to order a copy of The Hobbit in Swedish. While I waited for it to arrive, I prepped myself lightly by reading a bunch of example sentences from a grammar book, just to get a quick overall taste of the language and what it looked like.

When the book arrived, I was in heaven. Here was an interesting book that I liked reading, except now it was all upside down and sideways. I knew the story was in there somewhere, and I had to tease it out. I sat down and started going through it sentence by sentence, looking up words that I didn’t know. To me it was like an Indiana Jones movie, except instead of some ancient language, I could just go to an internet dictionary or google translate and get the answer whenever I wanted! How easy. So much easier than hieroglyphics or something. This sort of detailed investigation is Intensive Reading, wherein you try to understand the meaning of every sentence.

I also alternated this with another task: Extensive Reading. The idea here is to drop your dictionary and not touch it at all. You should just move your eyeballs over all the words, and if you don’t know the word then just skip to the next word. You actually don’t need to look up anything at all. Just keep reading.

When I started back on German last year after a 10 year hiatus, I started with Harry Potter. With the German translation of book 1 in my hands, I hit play on the German audiobook version and started reading. I barely understood anything, since at the time I only had very basic knowledge of German. I definitely wasn’t perfect, or even good. If you wait until you’re good before you start reading, you’ll probably never get there.

So I started reading Harry Potter, and it went something like “blah blah with blah blah in the blah, Harry blah to blah Ron”. Very quickly though, I started noticing patterns. I recognized words that were related to English, and I recognized German words that were related to other German words that I knew. I also started to get clues based on the dramatic reading by the audiobook actor (in this case, German actor Rufus Beck, who is fantastic at reading audiobooks).

For Extensive Reading, you might want to have a goal of the number of words. I had read about some Japanese students who were reading English books, and they had a goal of 1 million (1,000,000) words read (without using the dictionary while reading). They said that if you read 1 million words, there’s no way that you can suck at that language.

They were right! By the time I hit the 1M word mark in German, I could enjoy any novel I picked up. I rarely had to use a dictionary any more, and there were very few words per page that were unfamiliar….I actually had to actively search to find words that I didn’t know. It varies a bit from book to book, so I started to seek out harder novels, but they soon became easy.

Even when they were hard, they were still enjoyable at some level. I might not have gotten every single word, and at the start it was most of the words that I didn’t get, but I could still follow some of the story and try to have fun with it. That kept me coming back for more, and ultimately led me to success.

So, before dismissing it as “impossible” or “too hard”, go find an easy “young adult” novel and give it a shot. Do whatever you like…dictionary, or no dictionary, or a combination of both. Anything that gets you in contact with the language will make you better at that language. Just find ways to have fun with it, and you will win.

Update: related follow-up post here: Extensive reading: what convinced me