How I learn new vocabulary with parallel texts


In response to my last post, someone asked how I’m currently learning more vocabulary, and my response started to grow past normal comment size, so I figured I’d make it a full post.

What I do is I try to have as many moments of recognition as I can. These are moments where some new word in the foreign language somehow becomes understandable or comprehensible. For instance, I see a Dutch word in my parallel text that I don’t know, so I look across at the matching English sentence and figure out what the mystery word means. This gives me a moment where I recognize that new word. By continually adding new learning moments such as this, my vocabulary increases.

This is part of the natural absorption process as you acquire a language. Each small moment of comprehension adds to your neural networks that are being unconsciously constructed. This is training material for your brain. Instead of trying to explicitly memorize a table or a list that needs to be consciously recalled (which is a slow access method), you’re instead building a net that gives you very fast subconscious recognition. Small moments of comprehensible input are the building blocks for these nets.

If I do this enough each day through my reading time, then I’ll get some repetitions for each of the words, which means I don’t have to use SRS. I usually try and purposely go over the same section of a book later in the day, to specifically repeat any words I saw before. If I were learning the language less intensely, I’d be adding sentences to Anki instead, so that I could get the right repetitions at the right time in order to solidify it, otherwise I might not see it again in time naturally. However, with 5 – 10 hours of exposure per day, I don’t think this is necessary.

Anki is actually quite a good supplement. Vocabulary is one of the few language features where it dramatically helps to “artificially” cram your head full of new items. More grammar rules don’t really help you speak at a normal pace (because a “rule” is something that must be explicitly recalled, and is therefore slow), but more vocabulary recognition actually does help you, because repeated exposure to new words in the context of a sentence that you’ve already seen somewhere, means that it is an exposure that is building subconscious recognition instead of just explicit slow-recall.

To the commenter, Dustin, I suggest that you continue with Anki, but delete any cards that cause you too many problems. Don’t get trapped in the attitude that every single word must be added. There’s a lot of time that can be wasted on cards that are just “hard” and never seem to get easier. Also, they can build frustration, leading to you not spending as much time on your reviews as you might have. The solution is to enthusiastically delete cards that cause you problems. It’s ok, you’ll see those words eventually in some other context, and it’ll be easier then.

There are lots of ways to quickly acquire more vocabulary, and I recommend that people focus heavily on vocabulary specifically when starting a new language, because those first 500 or so words can lead to tremendous amounts of understanding, even without grammar. The method that I prefer for this, though, is just reading a parallel text. Sure, I might not understand any of the new language on one side of the page, but with the assistance of the English section, I can quickly find correspondences for the most common words. In some cases, it’s possible to reach 70% word recognition in a text within the first day!

In summary, I suggest finding ways to make new words at least slightly more comprehensible, and then just do it often. You can even learn a lot just by seeing those common words a lot…just moving your eyes over a lot of unknown words will give you a sense for which words are most common, and which other words they tend to be beside. These are important steps on your way to learning the full meaning of those words. Therefore, simple reading can be one of the best ways to learn new vocabulary, even if you’re very new at a language.

Dealing with doubts about Dutch


I’ve been having trouble keeping up my motivation in the past few days. My mind has been clouded by negative thoughts such as “I’ll never understand spoken Dutch better than I do now, so there’s no point in trying”.

It’s funny what the mind will come up with in the face of a challenge. I know from my own prior evidence that all I have to do is keep going and I’ll get there, but somehow these thoughts start coming up when I can’t see immediate progress from the activities I’m doing. I find that at these moments, it’s vital for me to have some other pre-defined numerical goals. For instance, I won’t stop reading until I’ve read 1 million words, and I’ll do at least 200 hours of study by the time the 6 week period ends.

These sorts of goals are independent of my current skill in the language, so they’re immune to any negative thoughts that may arise. As Khatsumoto says, the only way to fail is to stop, so I try to keep this in mind and focus purely on my numbers.

I think one of the major factors in this unfortunate mindset is uncertainty. I’m not sure how much spoken ability I’ll have at the end, which makes me want to drop some of my input time and focus on output, but then that makes me then worry that I won’t be able to understand spoken Dutch enough. I solve this by throwing out any new plans that interfere with my satisfaction, and to me the primary satisfaction will come from being able to first understand anything said in Dutch, which means I need to stop worrying about my output and just trust that it’ll come later after my understanding is increased.

Anyway, I’m over half-way to my stated time goal of 200 hours now. I’ve clocked 108 hours of Dutch study time so far this month, which is 54% of my goal, accomplished in 59% of the time…so I’ve still got some work left ahead of me.

Ok, time to get back on the clock. I’ve still got 3 hours left in my day, so it’s time to make them count 🙂

Dutch update: vocab self-test (91 hrs)


I just did another vocabulary self-test. This time I used a 704-word selection from somewhere in the middle of the 2nd Stieg Larsson book. I chose this book because I know there’s some pretty advanced vocab in it, much more than in Harry Potter.

Out of 704 words, I had good knowledge of 678 words, giving me a score of 96.4%. I also had good comprehension of the text…in fact it felt nice to read, so I might be able to make an attempt at the airplane test” soon, which was one of my stated goals. This somewhat surprised me, since in the past few days it’s felt like I’ve been making zero progress, despite getting dozens of study hours in. The problem is just that the overal percentage recognition is only going up a tiny percent, so it’s hard to notice without computing some statistics like this. Therefore, for further projects I think I’ll administer these self-tests more often, to keep up my motivation.

Another bit of motivation was to write down all the unrecognized words and look them up afterwards. I noticed that there were several “unknown” words that I should have guessed from German, such as “onderzocht” (untersucht), “buik” (Bauch), bestaan (bestand), etc. This means that there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit left to pluck, if I keep working at it.

Since I’m currently at about 400000 words read, I’m now pretty confident that once I hit 1 million words read, I’ll be at a very satisfactory reading level. This mirrors my experience with German, where I was already at quite a decent level of comprehension by the 400000 word mark, and quite happy with my results after 1 million words.

Dutch update: 85hrs


So, at the end of 3 weeks of studying Dutch full-time, I’m at 85.5 hours total (split 9.5 / 33 / 43 by week), and I’ve read somewhere around 400000 words. Currently I’m in that nebulous “intermediate” area, where it’s hard to judge progress, so I just have to keep pushing. My sense is that my vocabulary is still increasing, but I’m not yet at that nice pleasant “easy reading” phase, which probably occurs when you know over 98% of the words on the page. Those last few percent take a lot longer to get, but they’re pretty important if you want to feel really comfortable when reading.

I’ve ramped up my study hours greatly over the past few days. Yesterday I put in 8 hours, and had 10 hours the day before, and I plan to do the same again today still. It’s definitely a new skill to learn, getting in that many hours in the day. I try to split them up throughout the day, aiming at 2hrs out of every block of 4 (since my day is divided into 4hr segments by my nap schedule). So far, though, I’ve had several small chunks and one or two much larger chunks of consecutive study time.

Currently, I still get somewhat lost when listening to something without reading along. Harry Potter is easier than other things, because I’m used to it and I know the story, but in other things I only get a rough impression of what’s going on if it’s something totally new.

Despite my complaints above, about not being totally perfect at reading yet, I’m actually pretty decent at reading Dutch now. The impatience is probably due to my extensive German reading skills that create a large contrast. When I honestly evaluate my Dutch skills though, I have to feel pretty good. For example, I can read Wikipedia pretty well in Dutch now. I just read the article on Paleontology without too many problems. Definitely enough to get informed about a topic, although like I said, still not with the ease that I can read German. There are still many words per page that I don’t know.

My goal for the coming week is to get 10 hours of study time every day, devoted to Listening-Reading. Currently I’m going over each chapter at least twice, trying to recognize as many new words as I can, and I’m trying hard to focus on the sounds of the words as I hear them, so that I don’t get too stuck on just reading off the page. I’m hoping to build more intuitive familiarity with the language, and get those last few stubborn percent of vocabulary words.

Once my recognition is higher, I’m going to move on to the activating stage of L-R, where I listen and try to repeat any recognized phrases. In this stage, you don’t want to read those phrases out of the book; the goal is to repeat the ones that you heard, and fully understood.

Before I attempt this, I’ll spend some time working on specific aspects of pronunciation. To do this, I’ll cut out single sentences from some recordings, and then listen to them about 50 times until they’re stuck in my head like a Michael Jackson song. Then I’ll start repeating along with the recording, repeating up to 50 times each in order to really cement the sounds in my mind.

Anyway, that’s still another week away at least, so I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. The next week is still strongly devoted to listening and reading recognition skills, hopefully getting my reading skills up near C1 if I can.

Next update at 120 hours 🙂

Dutch update: 60 hours


I’m now past 60 hours of study time in my 6-week-challenge, and things are progressing steadily. I find it quite fun right now to read books, since the majority of the words seem familiar, but I’m still sticking to parallel texts because there are many words that I need to learn.

As each day goes by, I get a greater sense of understanding of the language. Sometimes it feels like nothing is happening, but I definitely notice the changes when I consider them on a multi-day scale. I can usually sense a change in my abilities after every 20 hours of study time, so I just try to avoid thinking about it on shorter time-scales.

Currently I’m almost finished Harry Potter #3, but today I’m finding it more fun to read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea (Aardzee in Dutch), even though I don’t have a corresponding audiobook for that. It’s nice to get some variety, even if the lack of an audiobook means slower progress.

I’m still having some problems with time-wasting activities, such as web-surfing. I’ve stopped following reddit on twitter, so that I get fewer time-wasters popping up in my twitter program. I should probably also turn off the twitter program, but at least I’ve managed to check it less often, and to ignore the toast updates.

My sleep schedule is slowly progressing, so that I have less and less tired time during the day. Yesterday I felt great for the whole day, but today i was quite tired between 10am and 11am, resulting in lower productivity. I also spent some time on paid work, so I lost some study time that way too.

I’ve had several days in a row above 5 hours of study time, but I haven’t been able to reach 10 hours, which is somewhat of a goal for me. With 20 hours available in my day, it just seems like I should be able to hit 10 hours of study time at least once, so I’m still trying. It’d be amazing if I could manage it consistently for a week or so, but we’ll see if that ever happens.

Next update at the end of the week, and hopefully I’ll be past 80 hours by then. 🙂

Dutch update: 2 weeks


I’ve finished the first 2 weeks of my 6-week-challenge for Dutch.

I’m at 46 hours of Dutch study time total, and I’ve finished reading the first two Harry Potter books while listening to the audiobooks (using Dutch-English parallel text format, constructed from ebooks using hunalign). In the past 7 days I’ve averaged about 5 hours of study time per day.

At the start, I had a lot of trouble with the listening, and found it difficult to figure out which word currently matched up with the audio. Whenever I glanced over at the English translation, I’d lose my place easily in the Dutch. I didn’t understand anything if I just listened to the Dutch, except maybe the occasional word that was really close to either English or German.

Currently, I find it quite easy to follow along with the audio, and it’s quite easy to scan through the Dutch to find my place again after I look away. If I only look at the Dutch and no English, then I understand enough to follow the story, although I miss a lot of details still. I’ve got a moderate sense for Dutch spelling now, but there’s room to improve. I still accidentally spell words in more of a German way sometimes.

To test myself, I just opened up an adult novel (by Dean Koontz) and did a quick word comprehension test on a random page. There were 11 words that I didn’t know out of a section of 296 words, giving 96% word comprehension when reading (I’m sure listening would be much lower). This is just the individual words that I know, not necessarily their full meaning in that context. To confirm, I tried another book, this time by Tad Williams, and flipped to a random page in the middle. I missed 13 words out of 212, which is 94%.

I’m rather amazed at these numbers, but I guess it makes sense after starting with excellent vocab in both English and German. I think I recognized most of those words as Dutch words though, not through guessing from a German word. It appears that I’ve actually learned a lot from reading a total of 170000 words of Dutch in the two Harry Potter books so far.

From here on, I guess it means I should focus more on an Extensive style rather than the slower Intensive style of reading. I need Extensive reading to continue to develop my intuitive sense for the language by seeing large quantities of content, rather than focusing on every minute detail. I also need to pay much closer attention to the audio to train my listening abilities, which are still lagging far behind my raw scores for visual word comprehension.

To test listening comprehension, I listened to 3.5 minutes of Harry Potter that I hadn’t looked at or heard yet, and counted unknown words with my clicker. I counted 79 unknown words, and the total word count for that section was 592, so 86% word comprehension approximately. I’m rather surprised that it was this high already, so this is rather encouraging.

My plan is to continue with input only, until I’m past 100 hours of study time. After that, depending on how I feel, I may start to blend in some output exercises.

I’ll have another update at the end of week 3, stay tuned!

Polyphasic sleep: middle of week 2


Just a quick update today. Things are steadily progressing. We’re still not adapted yet, but the worst is behind us. Currently I’m able to fall asleep quite quickly for my naps, and I have pretty solid REM the whole time. In the last day or so, I’ve been waking naturally about 2 minutes before my alarm, which is sorta nice.

During the course of each day, though, there’s still a period of between 1 – 5 hours where I feel anywhere from lightly tired to moderately sleepy. No “zombie” periods like in the first week, but still pretty tired sometimes. The majority of the day I feel quite good though. I expect these tired periods to disappear completely over the next week and a half.

On the language front, my spreadsheet tells me that I’ve done 60.5 hours of language learning activities so far this year, most of which was reading Dutch while listening to Dutch audiobooks, and also some German TV time. My productivity has increased this week, and I expect to catch up on my backlog within the next few days. I’m still on track to complete my 200 hours of Dutch by mid-February, but I’m still hoping to squeeze in more.

More updates to come after the weekend 🙂

Polyphasic Day 7, and time management


Day 7 started off slowly. I woke up promptly at 4am after 3 hours of core sleep, but then for some reason I decided to stay in bed for “just one more minute”, and then woke up later at 6am. I find those early morning hours the hardest.

After that, though, I managed to get productive right away. Since my day is segmented by the 4 naps I’m planning to take (8am, noon, 4pm, 8pm), I’ve decided to use this segmentation to help with my productivity. During each section of the day, I aim to get a certain minimum amount of work done, and then the task seems a lot smaller. If I say that I want to get 10 hours of work done today, it sounds scary, but if I just get 2hrs done in every segment of the day then I’ll have 10 total.

To this end, I’ve written a list of available tasks on my whiteboard. Today, I’m only allowed to choose items on that list. Reddit is not on that list ;). So, at the top I have my main tasks, which are related to studying Dutch. I have 8 possible Dutch-studying activities I can do, which is important, because if I get bored of one, I want to switch to another Dutch activity instead of switching away from Dutch entirely.

Next on the list are my “reward” tasks. For every 4 half-hour units of Dutch that I complete (4 pomodoros, for those of you who have heard of the time management system), I’m giving myself 1 unit of reward activity. Most of these are also related to language stuff, but in another language that I want to do some work on (like Polish or Esperanto). Having something to look forward to after the other tasks seems helpful so far.

After that, I have a list of tasks I can do while I’m on break. Stuff like “cleaning the kitchen”, “pushups”, “stretching”, “cooking”, “go problems”. These are things that I can do for 5 minutes at a time in between my work units, just to do something a bit different, and occasionally as an aid to staying alert, if I feel drowsy.

Finally, I have a list of “once per day” items, which includes checking email, browsing twitter, and playing solitaire on the computer. I don’t really need to do these activities today, but it’d probably be ok if I allowed myself to do them each once (and hopefully this helps prevent me from filling my day with them).

So far, my average amount of language study per day has been 3.5 hours (spread over various languages). My 7-day running average has gone up to 4.25 hours, and I expect to see that rise further as I better adapt to the sleep schedule. My hours have been boosted by having easily available tasks, such as watching “Star Trek: Voyager” dubbed in German, which is something that I can also do together with Chani since she’s working on German.

Ok, time to get back to work! 🙂

Day 6: Everyman


So I decided to switch to the Everyman schedule. The essence of the schedule is that you have a longer “core nap” at some point, and this gives you the ability to be a little more flexible with the timing of your other naps throughout the day. The two main versions of Everyman are with a 1.5hr core (with 4-5 other naps), and a 3hr core (with 3-4 other naps).

One important part of a polyphasic schedule is that you don’t want to regularly spend longer than 6 hours without a nap. I had to come up with a plan for my naps, and I wanted to keep them somewhat regular so I could get used to napping at that particular time. For now, I’m going to try having a core sleep from 1am – 4am, then 20-minute naps at 8am / noon / 4pm / 8pm.

Everyman is supposed to take a little bit longer to get used to overall, compared with Uberman, I presume because your body might not want to get the valuable parts of your sleep during those naps if it thinks there’s potentially a longer sleep every night. In my case, because I’ve been attempting a purely nap-based schedule up until now, I’ve hopefully convinced that part of my brain to get its quality sleep from the smaller naps too.

Getting up at 4am last night wasn’t as hard as I thought, but making it to each of the other naps can be a bit of a challenge sometimes. As I’ve said before, once one is adapted to the schedule (which normally takes a week or two for the really hard part, and then another few weeks after that to fully adapt), then there’s no sense of tiredness or lack of sleep. A fully adapted person will operate with full function, and no sleepy / yawning side effects.

At the beginning of the week, I felt like crap almost all day, but currently there are only small intervals of time in which I feel tired. I can work through them by doing something physical and easy…washing the dishes, cleaning the apartment, going for a walk, etc. After a short amount of time, either the feeling goes away, or a nap time comes up and I’m refreshed by 20mins of REM.

As for my studies, my language time has gone back up substantially now that I’m no longer a zombie. I’m daily doing 5 hours of language activities (mosly German and Dutch right now), which is nearly the most I’ve ever done consistently. My day is 20 hours long though, so you can see that I’m still not using my hours as efficiently as I could. I still spend too much time surfing Reddit, Twitter, and language forums.

Something I’m considering trying is adding another language to the mix, just for some variety. If I subtract a bit of my Reddit/Twitter time, then I could easily add some more time for studying something like Polish occasionally, and still have plenty of time left over for the Dutch project. We’ll see what happens as I try to get more disciplined, and as I lose more of the drowsy time as I further adapt to the new sleep schedule.

Polyphasic day 5: oversleep :(


Well, it happened. I had a nap at 1am, and still felt tired afterwards. When the next nap came around at about 3, I felt exhausted and somehow gave up on staying awake. It felt too good to just give in to the wonderful blissful sleep that tempted me. I ended up sleeping for a good 8 hours.

It’s very strange trying to get accustomed to the idea that all sleep could only be in 20 minute batches. In that part of the difficult adjustment period when you feel like a zombie, it’s very hard to resist, especially since the easiest thing to do is to do nothing. If you just lay there and sleep, your problems will be solved. Unfortunately it also means your goals will not be achieved.

I’m not ready to give up yet, however. I’m not sure if I should attempt to continue with SPAMAYL, or maybe try the Everyman 3 schedule instead (3hrs “core”, plus 3 20 minute naps throughout the day). It sounds like E3 takes longer to fully adjust to, but has a higher success rate, so maybe I’ll switch over to that. I’ll consider it for today, and pick something soon.

Edit: We’re going to try E3 with core nap from 1am – 4am, then naps at 9am, 2:30pm, 8pm. Trying an irregular all-nap approach initially might have helped us with the ability to nap and dream, but I think now we need some regularity.