JES journal, Dec 28


On Tuesday morning, I got up before everyone else in my room, despite the drinking the night before. Lots of water before bed is the trick. The reason for my early rising was that I wanted to go outside and search for interesting birds, since we’re somewhat out in the country, in an area surrounded by forest.

I took a 1 hour walk through town, finding 15 species of wintering birds. Several houses that I walked past had bird feeders in the back yard, which attracted a variety of small finches, and the surrounding trees had plenty of Eurasian Jays, which are quite nice to look at, although they make quite an obnoxious noise. I also found some beautiful Great Spotted Woodpeckers, which have deep red ventral feathers that are brightly visible as they fly.

During the day, we went over to the school that we’re using as a “convention center” for our little conference. We browsed through 100 or so Esperanto books at the Libroservo, and looked at the day’s program of events. There were several workshops happening on a variety of topics, although that afternoon seemed to be crammed with all of the events that I had little interest in. Most of what interests me is happening later in the week.

Instead, I went back to the hostel and hung out with some friends, and we worked together to produce a new spreadsheet to help track our language studies for the coming year. We discovered some new tricks, such as having certain cells of the spreadsheet change color at various intervals as the number of practice-hours goes up, indicating when I’ve passed various goals. We also developed a little formula to calculate a 7 day average of progress, so that we can also try to keep our average speed above a certain level.

In the evening we stumbled upon a juggling workshop in one of the rooms downstairs, and joined in for a while. Over the next few days there are plenty of little workshops that I’d like to attend, including some language workshops… particularly the introduction to Dutch taught by a young octoglot from the Netherlands.

JES journal, Dec 27


Monday afternoon we caught a train from Berlin to Cottbus. The train was quite comfy (unlike the crowded train I took from Bratislava to Prague in the summer). We chatted the whole way in Esperanto, since there were 10 of us on board in total. I was kinda hoping that someone would ask us what language we were speaking, but nobody even looked at us.

When we got to Cottbus, we had to run across the station to catch our bus, but we made it with about 1 minute to spare. At that point, we realized that about 20 other Esperantists were waiting for the bus too, and it became a happy reunion for many.

The bus slowly made its way through Cottbus in the direction of Burg, our destination. Burg is a small town in the Spreewald (the forest along the river Spree, which eventually flows through Berlin). It’s sort of a resort town, known for its spa complex and forest surroundings. On the bus, I sat beside a Danish fellow named Kimo, who apparently was a musician of some sort.

We arrived in Burg and trudged through the snow to the youth hostel, and signed in. Soon afterwards it was dinner time, and the official opening event, attended by around 50 people, since not everyone would be arriving for another day or two. During the opening, we heard a couple greetings issued by local politicians who had come to say hi. Their slowly-delivered German speeches were filled with the expected ceremonial pleasantries, which were faithfully translated to Esperanto for the crowd.

Next came the musical act, which was Kimo from the bus. He busted out an accordion and started to crank out some catchy songs in Esperanto. Apparently he’s somewhat of a celebrity amongst the Esperanto community, because everyone seemed to know all his songs and sing along. He’s quite a lively character too, demonstrating his very youthful spirit, despite his gray hair and trimmed beard. As he introduced himself, he mentioned that he grew up speaking Esperanto with his parents, making him one of the small group of native speakers. Coincidentally, the stage lighting was being controlled by a computer programmer from England that I know, who also happens to be a native Esperanto speaker.

A while later, we went over to the Trinkejo (“drinking-place”) for a beer, and tried out some slovakian hard liquor that someone had brought along. Quite tasty, and also very smooth, despite having an alcohol percentage that made it suitable for use as boat-gas.

I the played a rather poor game of Go with a friend, and retired for the night, eager to see what would happen the following day.

Fun with Esperanto Wikipedia


As you read this on Monday, I’ll be on the train to a week-long Esperanto new years party called JES. Stay tuned for more from me when I get back in January and start working on Dutch!

Lately I’ve been puzzling over new ways to practice active language skills. Over the past few years I’ve become much more skilled at acquiring passive language skills (reading / listening / understanding), but I haven’t really gotten the hang of the active part as much as I hoped.

When I arrived in Germany, it was extremely easy for me to understand what everyone was saying and what was on all the signs and menus, because I had already read a dozen full books in German, watched hundreds of hours of TV, and listened to a lot of audiobooks, all while I was working full time back in Canada to save up for the trip. As I started trying to speak to people, my active skills developed at a reasonable pace, proportional to how much speaking I did, and it was greatly helped by my ability to understand everything my other conversation partners were saying in return.

Esperanto, on the other hand, has been somewhat of a different story. I learned the basics through some step-by-step lessons in about 35 hours, and then I was able to read a lot of sites I found on the internet somewhat successfully (like an article from some Japanese antiwar activists who were writing, in Esperanto, about their country’s unconstitutional contributions to the Iraq War). I didn’t do that much reading in it at all, although I did a bit of listening to the Radio Verda podcasts, which are, incidentally, produced by two people in my home town of Vancouver (although I haven’t yet met them).

With Esperanto, I didn’t have as much of the intuitive sense of the language that I had with German, and I felt rather frustrated in my attempts to speak it. I had heard a lot of other people saying that Esperanto was the language that they felt most at home with, other than their native language, but I didn’t feel this at all.

I realized that the unique feature of Esperanto that comes into play here, is that the grammar is completely regular, which allows you to follow your intuitions and know that you’ll always be right, despite not being a native speaker. There’s no need to spend years receiving the input required to learn all the annoying exceptions that occur in the other languages.

With that in mind, I set out to pursue an output-oriented activity in Esperanto: I started editing articles in the Esperanto Wikipedia. My plan was to pick some Esperanto articles that need a bit of work, and then look for a larger article in the English Wikipedia and translate a section to add back to the Esperanto side.

It turns out that Esperanto Wikipedia is quite a fun project on its own. It already has around 138000 articles currently, which puts it among the top ranks in terms of size, compared to all the other languages. Compared to the estimated 1M – 2M speakers of Esperanto (very few of whom are natives), this is an exceptionally high ratio of articles to speakers. To make things more interesting, there’s also a system to show the List of 1000 articles every Wikipedia should have, which ranks the different Wikipedias according to the size of their verions of these 1000 articles. Stubs (less than 10kB) are worth 1, medium articles (10kB – 30kB) are worth 4, and large articles are worth 9 (more than 30kB). The overall score is then normalized to a score out of a possible 100, by dividing the total by 90.

If you look at the resuls of this “quality” metric, it’s interesting to note that Catalan is in the top position, above English. English has far more articles than Catalan, but of those important 1000 articles, Catalan has more detail. It appears that there’s some group of Catalan speakers who are quite dedicated to ensuring that their wikipedia is of high quality (which I think is a rather good idea, considering that the language was suppressed in various areas of public life under the Franco dictatorship, until his death in 1975) . In this ranking, Esperanto is in 33rd place, lacking none of the 1000 articles, but with only 57 of those in the “large” category.

For me, this means great fun! There’s a high score list, and anyone can help increase the greater glory of Esperanto ;). So I started picking some articles that sounded interesting, and read their Esperanto versions. Then I picked a section of the English version that looked easy to translate, and started working on it, trying to get my chosen article up past the 10kB mark into the realm of “medium” articles, which increases its worth from 1 to 4 points out of a possible 9.

At first, I was going quite slowly. I had to look up a lot of words, and I had to ask for a lot of help in formulating the sentences to convey the exact meaning I was looking for. If I were just chatting on the street, I probably would have been close enough for the other person to figure out what I meant, but it was harder to get the precision that I wanted for Wikipedia.

I spent most of this past week hacking away on various articles. The hard work paid off, though. My production speed has greatly increased, and now I can much more easily spot errors in other people’s writing. I can compose things from scratch, and I can translate with ease. I’ve also solidified the basic vocabulary much more, and learned a lot of rather obscure words too. Most importantly, the task was fun to do, which allowed me to continue for several hours each day without feeling like it was “work”.

So, I’m now feeling quite ready to spend the next week speaking nothing but Esperanto with friends and new acquaintances at JES, which will be held in a small town called Burg in the Spree forest just south of Berlin. Among the more than 300 attendees will be Chuck Smith, the founder of the Esperanto Wikipedia, who currently writes at the Transparent Language Esperanto blog, and is good friend of mine here in Berlin. Also a very good friend, the very experienced polyglot known to some of you on HTLAL as Sprachprofi will be coming, as well as globe-trotting polyglot Benny Lewis.

See you in January 🙂

New challenge: Dutch in 6 weeks


As I prepare for next week’s JES event (esperanto homepage here), where I’ll be partying with Esperanto speakers for the week surrounding New Years, I’m also getting my materials together for my next big challenge, which I’m starting as soon as I get back home to Berlin in early January. My aim will be to learn Dutch in 6 weeks of intense study. Some other people will be taking part in the challenge, organized in this thread on HTLAL, and anyone else is welcome to join us.

It’s sort of crazy to attempt something like this, but there are several factors that make me think this is possible (to some extent). One is that I have lots of background in related languages now, particularly German. Dutch has many close similarities to German; much of the vocabulary has a close German equivalent. I should be able, through the use of large amounts of listening and reading, to comprehend quite a lot of dutch in a relatively short time span.

Remember, though, that the most important time measurements in language learning are minutes and hours, not days or months. I hope to be able to keep my average daily study time above 5 hours, and work hard to do more than that, hopefully up closer to 8 on some days. An average of 5 hours over 42 days would be 210 hours of study total. In comparison, a typical university course with 3 hours of instruction per week over a 13 week semester would be 36 hours, maybe up to 50 hours if you add in some homework. Therefore, I will be attempting to do the time-equivalent of 4 university courses over 6 weeks.

I hope to be much more successful than most university courses, however. This is because I’ll be focusing first on just listening and reading for at least the first 100 hours. I’ll probably put in only 1 or 2 hours of grammar-specific activities in those first 100 hours, and I’ll do absolutely no speaking in that time. My task will be just to get the sound and feel of the language into my head. After I’ve progressed a bit, I’ll move on to practicing my output by writing and speaking. This will only be after I’ve done lots and lots of listening and reading, so it’ll be in the latter half of the project.

By the end of the challenge, I hope to accomplish two things:

  1. I want to pass the Arguelles “Airplane Test”, which he describes as “taking a novel that I had not read in translation before with me as my sole companion on an intercontinental flight, and reading it with interest, enjoyment, and understanding the whole time.” (my version of this will be to pick up a new Dutch novel, and spend a whole day reading it without a dictionary, enjoying the content, and getting a significant portion of it read)
  2. I want to be able to have an easy conversation in Dutch, in person, with a native Dutch speaker.
  3. To that end, some time in February I’ll record some sort of video of me speaking some (hopefully) reasonable Dutch. I’m not really sure how this’ll turn out, since so far my output skills have been my least developed, but a big portion of this project for me is to learn how to develop those sorts of skills quickly and efficiently. I plan to get even more practice in this by doing a similar 6 week project after Dutch, which I’ll announce close to that time.

    My current status in Dutch is very meager. I’ve never studied it at all, and I currently can’t read it or understand it spoken. If I go very slowly, I can sometimes figure out some of the words by thinking of their German equivalents, but it’s not enough to understand the whole meaning of a sentence. When I listen very carefully to spoken Dutch, I can hear some of the related words when they happen to sound like their German counterparts, but that’s not always the case even when they’re spelled similarly. I currently can’t produce anything at all in Dutch, either spoken or written.

    I’ll be posting a couple of progress reports each week, starting in early January. Until then, I’ll be practicing “All Esperanto, All The Time” until the end of 2010. Wish me luck!

(eo) legu unu milionon da vortoj


This post is an experiment in practicing my writing in various languages. I’ve taken an old post from almost 2 years ago, and I’m translating it into Esperanto. I plan to do more posts like this, with other languages.

I heard about an interesting idea last week. It’s sort of a mental game, suggested by someone from Japan who was learning English. The idea is that if you read a million words, then you’ll be quite good at reading that language. simple enough.

En la antaŭa semajno, mi aŭdis interesan ideon. Estas tipo de mensa ludo, kiun japano, kiu lernantis la anglan, proponis. La ideo estas ke se vi legus unu milionon da vortojn en la lingvo, kiun vi studis, do vi legos bone en tiu lingvo. Sufiĉe facila, ĉu ne?

The rules are as follows:

  1. No dictionaries
  2. When you don’t know a word, just keep going
  3. Read a total of a million words.

La reguloj de la ludo estas la jenaj:
1) ne uzu vortaron.
2) se vi vorton ne komprenas, simple kontinuu.
3) legu entute unu milionon da vortoj.

With something as simple as this, it’s hard to go wrong. There are several ideas that I take away from this game. One is that you should read for enjoyment and read for understanding the story, not just for “sentence mining”. Previously I had trouble getting anywhere in my reading because I was always trying to precisely understand every word in every sentence, and always on the first time that I saw it. This kills the natural ability of my brain to figure things out via multiple exposures.

Kun simplaĵoj kiel ĉi tiuj, estas malfacile erari. Mi akceptas diversajn ideojn de tiu ludo. La unua estas ke oni devas legi por ĝui la rakonton kaj por kompreni la rakonton, ne por vortokolektado. Antaŭe mi havis problemojn legi ĉar mi provadis precize unuafoje kompreni ĉiujn vortojn. Tio ĉi malhelpas la naturan kapablecon de via cerbo kompreni per multaj eksponoj.

I used to try and add tons of sentences to anki just because I didn’t know a word in them, and I was always using the dictionary compulsively, but it just slowed me down. What I actually need is better reading speed and more content (ie more input). I don’t need to memorize every word in the order that I see them. If it’s a common word, I’ll see it again soon anyway. No need to worry right now.

Mi antaŭe aldonis multajn frazojn al Anki nur ĉar mi ne komprenis unu vortoj de tiu, kaj mi devige uzadis la vortaro, sed fari tion malrapidigis min. Tio, kion mi vere bezonas, estas plibonigi la legrapideco kaj pli legindaĵoj (pli enigo por mia cerbo). Mi ne bezonas parkeri ĉiujn vortojn laŭ la ordo en kiu mi vidis tion. Se ĝi estas ordinara vorto, mi ĝin baldaŭ vidos denove. ne zorgu pri tio nun.

This way, I can focus on which words are particularly awesome…something I really want to learn. Hopefully I’ve seen it a couple times already so it has partially sunk into my brain via text, and then I can use anki to fully insert it.

Tiel mi povas koncentriĝi je bonegaj vortoj…tiuj, kiujn mi vere volas lerni. Espereble mi jam vidis ĝin kelkfoje dume, do ĝi pro legado ensinkis en mian cerbon, kaj post tio mi povas uzi Anki enigi ĝin.

This method is also supposed to be somewhat of a long-term method. Don’t pretend that you’re going to learn a language super-fast overnight, because you’re not. But I think you can actually read a million words in a reasonable amount of time…like several months. This is the proper length of time for your language learning goals. If you expect to see awesome results on the order of days or weeks, then you’re doing it wrong. You will see the BIG results on the order of months, so I think this game is good for that.

Ĉi tio metodo devas esti longe uzota. pensado ke ĝi rapidege lernigus lingvon estas eraro, sed mi pensas ke vi fakte povas legi unu milionon da vortoj dum modera tempo…eble malmultaj monatoj. Tiom da tempo estas deca tempo por via lingvolerna celoj. Se vi atendus bonegajn rezultatojn post nur tagoj aŭ semajnoj, do vi eraras. Vi vidos rezultategojn post monatoj, do mi pensas ĉi tiu ludo decas por tiu celo.

In the short term, just read and enjoy reading. Reading is fun! In the long term, it’ll make you awesome. If you can just avoid interrupting your reading to make notes or look up things in the dictionary, you’ll actually get more practice reading and become faster and better at it.

Mallongtempe, nur legu kaj ĝuu vian legadon. Legi amuzas! Longtempe, legi bonegiĝos vin. Se vi nur povas eviti interrompi vian legadon por fari komentojn aŭ uzi la vortaron, vi vere ekzercitiĝos pri legado kaj rapidiĝos kaj boniĝos.

Curiosity, complexity, and appreciation


A big part of what makes me me, is curiosity. Following my sense of curiosity has led me down many new paths, and each of those paths has changed who I am. When you’re curious, you learn to see that each thing has its own uniqueness, and its own complexities. You learn to appreciate more things, because you know that beneath the surface, there’s something complex waiting to be discovered. Curiosity, for me, is about wanting to dive into that complexity and see all of it.

If you want to complete some big project, perhaps because of some end goal like a job, money, etc, then it can be hard to find the continuing motivation to complete the whole thing just by thinking about that end result. When you do this, it’s really just the end thing that you want, not the long process of getting there. Accomplishing great things is much easier when you cultivate a sense of wonder. Learn to see your chosen subject as an intricate and complex thing that is worthy of study just by itself.

By choosing to see all the internal and external connections and structures, you start to see the beauty of your topic. Something that may have previously seemed like a chaotic mess starts to become beautiful as you discover the patterns in it. Even as you see more and more patterns, there will still be areas that seem too complicated or too difficult, but this just means that there’s more left to discover.

In the case of languages, each language is its own landscape. There are historical relationships with other languages (as hinted in my previous post showing the similarities between English, German, and Dutch). There are many levels of structure in languages, and each of them can be interesting…from pronunciation to spelling to word morphology, sentence structure, sentence meaning, discourse, etc. Some people write their whole PhD thesis on tiny subsets of these things, so there’s a lot in there to investigate. There are also the many past accomplishments and creations by users of the language. There are many levels of meaning behind the great poets and novelists in each language. There’s no reason to ever get bored while learning a language, because there’s just so much to see.

When you view it this way, the end goal becomes somewhat secondary. You don’t see it every day because it’s in the far future. What you encounter every day is the neat little patterns that form the bits of the language. As you read a book, you might notice words that are related to some other word in another language…like Swedish “nog” that roughly corresponds to German “genug” and English “enough”. Finding little things like that is what interests me about a language, and it keeps me going.

Another example of interesting complexity is the world of birds. When I tell people that I like to go bird-watching, sometimes they ask something like “oh, so you like to count how many crows and pigeons you see?” What’s happening is that they’re failing to see the complexity of life, which allows it to be interesting. If all there was to birds was just crows and pigeons, then it’d obviously be boring. With only two things to see, you’d exhaust the space of possibilities pretty fast.

In fact, at most times of the year in my home town of Vancouver, there are over 150 types of birds that you can find in the surrounding area. In both Winter and Summer, I can take you to some of the parks within the city and show you 30 different types of birds within a half hour. Each one has its own preferred habitat and food, and its own unique behaviours. I can tell them apart sometimes just by seeing their silhouette or the way they fly and the shape of their wings, or just a short sound that they make. Each bird has its own story to tell, and the more you learn about them, the more interesting the whole topic becomes. You can continue studying them your entire life and always learn new things. Who needs to go to a zoo, when you can see more variety out in the world just by keeping your eyes and ears open!

When I meet a new person, I ask them what they’re passionate about. This usually leads me to a complex topic that they have learned to appreciate the details of. Instead of dismissing it based on what I’ve heard previously, I ask them to elaborate and tell me about their favourite parts of that topic. I want to discover what makes them love it so much, and the reasons why they can spend so much time doing it. Almost always, their motivation stems from an appreciation for the complex patterns they find in it…they ways that the complexity is made simple by seeing the patterns. As they continue learning about it, chaos turns to order, strangeness becomes familiarity, and complexity has its base in simple patterns.

Finding this inner beauty and simplicity is something that spans all disciplines. Our mind seeks out these patterns automatically, and as we grow accustomed to them, our mind adapts itself to recognize the patterns at a glance. This process is what takes us from confused to fluent, whether the topic is birds, languages, or physics. If you want to get good at something, then don’t focus on the end goal, but just keep looking for the patterns that make it interesting, and find ways to grow accustomed to it through massive exposure. Exposure is easy to get when you’re an explorer looking into each nook and cranny, trying to figure out what makes everything tick.

As you explore, learn to enjoy the pleasure of discovering some new pattern or detail. This feeling of satisfaction will be repeated over and over as you learn, and it will become your internal motivation to keep going. Internal motivation (that feeling of incremental satisfaction as you proceed) is always far more important than any external motivators that may be present (such as money, parental pressure, grades, goals and deadlines). Your internal satisfaction will lead you to become an expert by squeezing out that last little bit of efficiency, by repeating a difficult phrase or practicing your basketball jump-shot to perfection.

Feeding your sense of appreciation of beauty and complexity will mean that you no longer need the external motivators. You’ll be able to continue your project in the long term, and one day you’ll have become an expert without noticing.

methods vs. activities


I find that people are quick to describe things as “methods” these days, as if the only way to learn a language is to follow a fully detailed algorithmic description of what to do. I just wanted to mention that my previous post about parallel texts does not describe such a “method”.

I prefer to have many different language activities that I can do. What you really need, when pursuing a language, is lots of different ways to gain exposure. You need them to be fun and interesting, so that you’ll pay attention while doing them and so that you’ll keep coming back for more. You probably also need multiple resources so that if you eventually get tired of one, then you can just switch to another one without hesitating.

If you like textbooks, then find more than one textbook…preferably at least 3. If you like watching TV in another language, then find more than one show. Same with novels. The idea here is that it’s usually unreasonable to expect that you’ll do the exact same thing over and over again until you’re fluent. You need something else beside you that you can pick up when you put the first one down, in order to continue your exposure.

This applies across activities too. You might have 1 TV show, 1 audio book, and 1 more difficult novel, or some other arrangement. You might also have more than one activity that you can do with the same resource, such as Intensive and Extensive reading. Having more activities is beneficial because each can seem like a break from the others. For instance, right now I have two easy Swedish audiobooks, several harder books with audiobooks, and some TV shows to watch. I try to use the harder books to figure out some vocabulary, but when I get tired then I just watch some TV to relax.

Be cautious of setting up anything too rigid, because then it might start to seem like “work”, and you may be demotivated because you feel like you have to do some boring activity over and over and over. Remember that different things can be “interesting” to different people at different times. Sometimes I really like to do some “dictionary surfing” where I look up successive words in the dictionary and write down a whole bunch of example phrases, but I wouldn’t want to make that my complete “method” for learning. It’s just one activity that I occasionally enjoy.

My hope here on this blog is to illustrate many different possible activities to people who might not have heard of them or thought them possible. Try them out, if you like, but they’re not the only way to do things.