Improving your learning skills: busting through plateaus


I’ve been thinking lately about my German skills, and comparing my feelings about German to other languages. In German, there are certain grammatical aspects that I find annoying, but I’ve found ways to function without having to learn them totally precisely. I can understand everything I read in books, for example, but I’m not good enough to write these grammatical details completely correctly (although I can get them mostly right by gut intuition).

When I compare with Dutch, I find that I’m more willing to try writing Dutch, because Dutch has simpler grammar and I feel more confident because the adjective endings aren’t so tricky. When I compare to Chinese, it feels more like an adventure to try and learn thousands of characters, but in German it just feels like a chore to try and memorize thousands of noun genders, and the appropriate adjective endings according to gender and case.

Logically, German should be easier to work on than Chinese characters, but I think another thing that’s holding me back is that I’m somewhat complacent. I can read without problems (unlike in Chinese, where it’s a strain still). In some sense, I’m “good enough”, and this has led me to an educational dead-end, a plateau beyond which I won’t advance.

I think the situation is similar to learning to type, as mentioned in this fantastic article about training your memory skills. The author explains that as we start typing, we have to hunt around and think about things a lot, and it goes slowly. In the beginning, you’re just looking for patterns, and the more examples you get, the more that pattern becomes familiar to you. Then it gradually gets easier until one day we’re just typing along on “auto-pilot” without thinking about it. Conscious thought is no longer required…it just “happens”.

This can be a great feeling…juggling some balls without needing to calculate where they all go…riding a bike without thinking about staying upright…speaking without halting and searching for words. Although this is a great place to be, it’s also a plateau, an educational dead-end. People don’t improve their speed after this, even if they type for hours each day (as many of us do). If you want to improve further, you have to challenge yourself somehow, rather than continuing to type the same way you do every day. You have to push yourself until you make mistakes, and then figure out how to correct those mistakes.

I think I’m currently at a plateau with German. I read books without thinking…I just enjoy them. But I know that there are words in there that I don’t know, and grammar points that I recognize, but can’t reproduce 100% correctly. I’m not as good as I want to be, but most of the time I’m just content where I am. To break out of this, I have to challenge myself to notice new things. I have to force myself into the places where I’m uncertain, instead of letting them pass me by so that I can stay comfortable.

So, although I sometimes still want to read for pleasure, it’s no longer that much of a learning experience. To remake it into a learning experience, I need to actively search out those places where I make mistakes, and I need to have immediate correction so that I can evaluate my responses.

The first task I’ve given myself is to be able to produce noun genders correctly, as well as the adjective endings that go along with them in the various cases. Right now, I mostly ignore these as I’m reading, since I recognize just enough to get me the correct meaning, but I can’t reproduce them on my own 100% reliably. In order to really learn them, I have to make myself intently aware of them as I read, and try to state explicitly what they imply and how they’d look in a similar situation. I just try to really be aware of all aspects of these patterns in any way I can.

Then, in order to complete the learning process, I need immediate feedback. While I’m reading, I keep open a grammar table that lists the possibilities, and I double check on there to make sure my guesses were correct, or to figure things out when I get stuck. So, 3 things: intentional awareness, an attempt to produce something on my own (to build the active skill), and then double-check / confirmation. All of this ensures that I won’t read right past the potential learning experiences, and that I’m putting myself into unknown territory that will push me out of the plateau.

Another important aspect of this process is to remember that you don’t need to be perfect at the start. Don’t try super hard to do everything 100%, you just need to make those learning experiences more “available” to your mind, and they will get absorbed. I know that if I keep reading and try to recite the noun genders as I go, I may not be perfect at the start, but it will come. I don’t have to be super diligent about drilling each individual word 100 times each…I just have to make each one into a conscious learning experience, and all of those experiences will add up.

This is in contrast to the situation before, where I would just read past them. I was reading for comprehension and vocabulary, rather than grammatical perfection. Now my vocabulary is excellent…I know 99.5% of the words in an adult novel in German, but it’s time to really work on those pesky remaining grammar features.

I think this entire process applies well to other tasks, and other language features. Take, for example, the people who speak a language for a long time but still have a strong accent. I believe that they’ve become “good enough” to function, and they’ve stopped pushing themselves to watch for those subtle differences in pronunciation. They use the sounds from their native language, and haven’t quite figured out what makes the new sounds different. When you don’t consciously try to notice the new sounds, you can’t train yourself to hear them properly, and you never improve. Complacency and auto-pilot keep you at a plateau, and your accent will never improve until you really push hard to notice what’s going on in detail.

How to create parallel texts for language learning, part 2


I wrote previously about how to manually create a parallel text for language learning, which basically involved lining up paragraphs using a common spreadsheet program. Now I’m going to dive into my preferred method of parallelizing, which is by using special software to create a sentence-aligned text. This article is intended for a more computer-savvy audience, so if you’re confused by the tech terminology, then I recommend going back to the previous article.

The main feature of a parallel text is that it has aligned sections of text in at least two languages, enabling you to quickly understand the meaning in a new language using a language that you already understand. Having each section aligned means that you can totally eliminate annoying dictionary lookups, and you also get the benefit of having sentence-level translations that better represent the meaning of each word in context. This is an extremely valuable tool for language learning because it enables you to learn much faster, and to learn more in-depth features of the language quickly.
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Report from the Talenfestival in Leuven


Yesterday we spent the day in Leuven at the “Talenfestival” (Language festival), organized by a group called “Esperanto 3000”. The idea of a language festival is to have an event where people can be introduced to many different world languages in a short period of time.

From what I can tell, the original Language Festival was a 4-day event in a city in Russia, about 12 hours’ train ride from Moscow. There’s a room for each language and you can just wander around attending talks about whatever language you’re interested in. The language festival we attended here in Belgium was a bit different; there were 4 1-hour sessions spread over a single afternoon, so you had to choose wisely.

There were about 6 to 8 different rooms active during the afternoon, each with a different language lecture. Only a couple of the languages were repeated, so you really had to choose well. There was a non-european languages track, so you could spend the afternoon learning about Tshiluba, Lingala and Swahili, and Sinhalese. Since it was anticipated that some people would be interested in several of these, they were timed so that they wouldn’t conflict with each other.

For my first choice, I went to a Polish course. It was all in Dutch, but I found it quite easy to understand, which was comforting. The intimidating part was when the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves first, and say why we were interested in Polish. I was 6th in line for that, so a had a few moments to prepare, but then got through it pretty easily. I also got many questions about my Dutch-learning methods later in the break, since people were quite interested in how I managed to learn so much in less than 2 months. I told them that Harry Potter is magic in more ways than one 😉

In the intermission, I went to grab a beer in the common room. As a Canadian, I’m still a bit amused at the situation, since I bought my beer from a teenager who was the drink selling volunteer for the event, and then it was assumed that I would naturally want to take my tasty Belgian beer with me to further lectures (which I did). In Canada, both of these things would be illegal…there’d have to be a tightly controlled area for beer drinking and selling where no one under 19 would be allowed, and you would never be allowed to walk to another room with your beer. It’s rather ridiculous. I love being treated like a rational adult here.

Next for me was a talk on Kurdish. I was rather disappointed with this one, since it started with a lame video with not much actual information on Kurdish. They had some video clips of kids being taught Kurdish in school, which is perhaps really important for the Kurds since their language is banned in Turkey if I remember correctly, but I wanted to actually learn something about the language instead of just watching a bunch of smiling kids in a class with a music track overlayed.

Things turned around when I went to the next talk though, which was about Lingala. It’s a Bantu language from Congo and the surrounding area, which is apparently expanding in usage because of the spread of Congolese music in the area. The talk was given in French, so I only understood the “technical” words that are common in many languages, but luckily there was a translation into Dutch so that gave me most of the nuances of the talk. Between the bits of French that I was able to grasp, and the concepts of Lingala that looked similar to those I had heard about Swahili already, and then the Dutch translation of it all, I managed to actually learn bits of both French and Lingala from the talk.

Lingala seems to share many Bantu features with Swahili, such as having many classes of nouns that are indicated by prefixes that must match with other words in the sentence. You can think of it like the European idea of word “genders”, but instead of two or three genders, you have more than 10, and each gender has a different way to indicate plurals. It’s mostly a spoken language, and there are many more people who speak it as a second language, using it for communication in the region.

Finally, I attended a talk on Czech. The instructor was an Esperanto speaker that I’d met before, who had actually studied for a while in Leuven, so he spoke pretty decent Dutch. He explained a lot of the basic structures of Czech, and I noticed that there were many close similarities with Polish from earlier in the day. This makes sense, since they’re both part of the Western Slavic language family.

It appears to me that Czech is probably easier than Polish, but as a language learner I’m drawn more to Polish because of the wide variety of resources available on the internet. Polish has a more difficult distinction between the “hard” and “soft” versions of several sounds, many of which I’m currently incapable of distinguishing, but I think I could remedy that with a lot of listening. I’ve met a lot of Esperantists from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, so I was interested in how much Polish would be understood by speakers of the other Western Slavic languages. Our instructor confirmed this by saying that through slow and careful speech, Czech speakers can make themselves understood by Polish speakers, and they have quite an easy time learning each others’ languages. This bodes well for my plan of entering the realm of Slavic languages through Polish.

After 4 sessions, the festival came to an end. We had a final beer and found more Esperanto speakers to chat with before heading out to find food. We went to a nice Indian restaurant (which actually gave me decently spicy food) and proceeded to have an amusing multilingual conversation. Most of it was in Dutch and Esperanto, but there were some brief interludes in English too. The most interesting of which was a joke that required all three languages to understand. To understand, you need to know first that the Dutch word for “to breed animals” is “fokken”, which always amuses me when I see it. This means a breeder of animals is then a “fokker”. The other word you need is “paarden” which is “horses” in Dutch.

So, the joke starts out with an Esperanto speaker asking “Kion vi faras?” (What do you do?). A Dutch speaker wants to try out his English skills, so he mistakenly responds “I fok horses”. An English speaker is appropriately shocked by this statement, and exclaims “Pardon???”, to which the Dutch speaker confirms “Ja, paarden!”. I found it extra amusing trying to explain all this in German to the guy next to me who didn’t catch all of it the first time. Needless to say, it was a wonderfully multilingual evening.

It’s now Sunday, and we’re having a relaxing day back in Brussels. I think we’ll take one more opportunity to drink some beer before we by some extra chocolate to take home, and then we fly back to Berlin this evening, carrying our heavy load of new Dutch books home with us. All in all, a successful trip, and I hope to come back here again at some point. Until then, I have tons of reading to do 😉

Belgium day 2: a visit to Antwerp and some Esperanto practice


Today we set off to Antwerp to get a taste of a true Flemish city to get some language practice. We took the train from Brussels and got there quite quickly.

Antwerp was just as beautiful as Brussels, with lots of great architecture, and beautiful little streets. The train station was particularly beautiful inside. We got some lunch first, before starting to explore. As we fumbled our way through ordering things, I realized that this is a huge weak-point in my Dutch, since I’ve just never encountered that sort of situation in any of my learning materials. I don’t know any of the common everyday expressions that happen in regular business transactions.

After lunch, we went straight to a bookstore that we had researched. It was better than we expected; much better selection and prices than the Dutch bookstore in Brussels. I first picked up 3 novels for €10 on the sale shelf (nice and cheap compared with the €20 novels in Brussels). Then I found a big fat fantasy book that’ll take me a while to work through, but looks fun. As I wandered through the other sections of the store, I also found a book on Anarchism in Spain (by a Dutch author), so I’ll get my fill of political and philosophical sorts of words, to broaden my vocabulary. After hauling my bag of treasures out of the store, I felt great knowing that I have a new pile of books that I really want to read, rather than my previous materials that were just whatever I could find at the time that happened to be in Dutch.

Next we hung out in a cafe for a while, reading books and sipping coffees, then beers. We had arranged to go to an Esperanto club meeting in the evening, so we had some time to kill.

The Esperanto meeting was quite fun too. It was at a building in downtown owned by the Flemish Esperanto League (FEL), and they put on a big dinner. There were probably 30 people there for dinner, anywhere from beginners to advanced. I actually got to practice my Dutch a lot with some friends of attendees, who didn’t really know that much Esperanto. They were a bit reluctant to speak Dutch in front of the foreign guests at an Esperanto event, but we assured them that we understood Dutch too.

It was an interesting experience, since my Esperanto now seems to flow reasonably well. I chatted away to some people in Esperanto for a bit about various topics, but then decided to push Dutch a bit more with the others. They were quite happy to help me out, and nobody tried to switch to English at all. I was able to get my ideas across in Dutch without too much trouble, which was very gratifying.

So, now we’re back at our hosts’ apartment in Brussels, speaking Esperanto yet again. Tomorrow is the big day of the Language Festival in the neighbouring city of Leuven, which we’re all looking forward too. I’m now quite confident that I’ll be able to enjoy the talks in Dutch, and that I’ll be able to converse with people there. It should be a blast.

I’ve also been reading through my new books, and I find that I can actually read them pretty easily. I’m finally reaching the level of reading skill that feels very satisfying. I can read novels and non-fiction without too much trouble in Dutch now, so I just need to work on my vocab and reading speed a bit more. I’m nowhere near “done”, whatever that may mean, but I’m very happy with my level so far.

I still need more practice speaking, and that’s my goal for the next while. I don’t think I could really pass my “fun bar conversation” test yet, so I’ll have to search out some Dutch speakers in Berlin once I get back so I can practice more. I suspect I’ll be able to speak fairly well before I leave Europe, though.

Time for sleep now. I’ll report more after the Language Festival tomorrow 🙂

Learning Dutch while traveling: first impressions of Belgium


I’ve just spent my first day in Belgium, in the capitol city of Brussels. I’m here with two friends from Berlin in order to attend a “language festival” on Saturday in Leuven. For the next few days, we’ll be staying with some Esperanto-speaking friends here in Brussels while we explore the surrounding area.

Today we wandered around downtown Brussels. We joked to each other that pretty much every store here has either a) waffles, b) chocolate, c) fries, or d) beer. It’s not totally true, but nearly. Unfortunately (for us), the majority of the people in Brussels speak French, even though it’s in the northern part of Belgium that is majority Dutch-speaking. Apparently it’s a large exception in the area.

Brussels is a very beautiful city. Lots of small streets, beautiful old architecture mixed with a lot of modern buildings too. It would be fun to have more time to explore around and try out all the local beers, and see more of the city. One thing that surprised me, though, was that the “Grand Place / Grote Markt” (a big square in the middle of town) seemed to be quite littered with trash and empty beer bottles, and was full of beer-swilling rowdies.

My friends and I began searching out bookstores (naturally ;), and found a decent-sized Dutch bookstore. It seems that book prices are quite high here, mostly around €20 for a novel. I managed to find “De Da Vinci Code” in Dutch for €5 though, so I have something new to read. Speaking of prices, I find food quite expensive here too, compared to Berlin anyway…although Berlin is widely known as a very cheap city.

We’ve been staying with some Esperanto speakers, one from Croatia and one from Slovenia, who met each other at an Esperanto event. It’s been quite fun practicing Esperanto with them. Tomorrow we’re heading to Antwerp where we’ll meet up with more Esperanto speakers, although we’ll be focusing on practicing our Dutch with them.

Saturday is the Language Festival in Leuven, where we’ll be attending several 1-hr seminars about various languages. I think I signed up for Polish, Lingala (from central Africa), and two others. All of the seminars will be given in Dutch, so it should be interesting to see how much I understand.

More soon, when I get some spare time 🙂

Language education in British Columbia, Canada


There’s been some controversy in British Columbia lately, about the new proposed curriculum changes for teaching languages in public schools (available here in PDF: Additional Languages draft). The vast majority of the fuss revolves around the political ideology of nationalism, proponents of which believe that the country of Canada can only remain whole if everyone in the country has some education in both of the official languages, English and French. This ignores the reality of most peoples’ lives in BC, in which French is nonexistent, but languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Punjabi are everywhere, spoken by their neighbours and many other people in their cities.
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How to create parallel texts for language learning – Part 1


I’d like to say a bit about ways to make parallel texts. I think parallel texts to be a very valuable learning resource, as I’ve mentioned in the past. They enable you to learn a language much faster than from textbooks, because they make an enormous amount of content instantly comprehensible.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find parallel texts. The most common commercially available ones seem to be books of poetry and “classic” works of literature. Call me uncultured, but I usually get easily bored by books from the 1800s. I want something with an *interesting* plot, and I’ve been known to read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, for which there are basically zero parallel texts commercially available. Also, the commercial ones are not usually sentence-aligned or even paragraph-aligned…at best they’re page-aligned, if that. For easy learning, you want all the little translated bits right beside each other for easy comparison.

So, for that reason, it’s more realistic to assume that you’re going to have to either make your parallel texts yourself, or get someone else to make them for you. To this end, I’ll give you a bit of info about how I do it, so that you can perhaps give it a try.
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