Spanish progress update – June 2011

2011-06-09

Hi all. It’s been a while since I’ve updated, so I thought I should check in.

I’ve been enjoying the nice weather here in Vancouver, and searching for an apartment. I’ve also been researching fitness and nutrition, which has taken some time away from my language learning, but it’s definitely worthwhile.

That said, I’m still working away at Spanish at the moment. Yes, for those who are asking, Polish is on hold while I work on Spanish. I wanted something nice and easy to work on while I relax over the summer, and then I’ll probably resume Polish later in the year.

Right now I’m still in need of a lot of vocab in Spanish, but I’ve started doing a lot more reading in order to remedy that. I recently bought a Kindle ebook reader from Amazon and it’s greatly increased my reading time. I got a built-in Spanish dictionary for it, so I can look up any word just by moving the cursor to it. It’s also much easier to read outside, and I have lots of selection.

I’m comfortably reading some sci-fi and fantasy books at the moment. The general story shines through, even if I miss a lot of words. I just keep going, and I continually try to push my reading speed. I pick only one or two words per page to look up at most, because the more frequent (and therefore more important) words will show up a lot in the future too, so I don’t have to worry if I miss them on one page. As long as I can keep my speed up, the story keeps going…if I slow down and try to look up too many words, then it gets boring fast, because I lose the movement of the plot.

I’ll be reading mostly in Spanish for the next two months while I enjoy the summer, focusing on having fun. I’m not going to worry too much about audio or video at the moment, since I have piles of books to read already, and it’s easy to work reading into my vacation schedule. I’ve got a list of both translated books and original Spanish works by some famous Latin American authors.

So far, I’ve been reading a bunch of Robert J. Sawyer, which I’ve found pretty easy to read in Spanish. A lot of the sciency words are pretty similar in Spanish, so I don’t need a lot of specialty vocab. Sci-fi is good for this. I’ve also been reading Spanish-translated Robert Jordan though, which is a different kettle of fish. There’s a lot of fantasy vocab, particularly anything relating to swords and armor and fighting, or anything in a rural setting. There’s a lot of elaborate description of scenery and characters, so there’s quite a lot of obscure vocab to learn, but I’m still enjoying it and it gets easier the more I read.

We’re just about finished our “6 week challenge” for Spanish, although I didn’t do much work on it for the middle 3 weeks. I’m catching up now, but I’ll just be continuing on Spanish after the end of the contest anyway, so I’m not too worried about being competitive. I like the 6 week challenge idea – it was a fun game to play, and I’d like to do it again some time when I’m not overwhelmed with moving to a different country and finding apartments.

That’s about it for now. I’ll do a self-test for vocab soon and report back so I have some numbers for my progress. Until then, keep reading!


Read More or Die!

2011-04-02

I just signed up for a month-long reading contest called “Read More or Die“, also known as Tadoku. The idea is just to encourage people to read lots and lots in their target language, and to record how many pages they read in a sort of competition with others.

I’ll be reading books in German and Dutch mostly, since that’s easy to fit in with the other stuff I’m doing this month. I’ve been a bit busy lately since I’m preparing to move back to Vancouver, Canada in a couple of weeks. Currently I’m trying to find new homes for my furniture before I have to move out of my apartment.

I’ll be back on the blog soon with some more tips as time permits.


Learning a language through reading feels like reading Jabberwocky

2011-02-07

To take a rest from reading Harry Potter, I went over to wordpress.com and changed the language to Nederlands. This is a great way to find all sorts of blogs in your target language, which means you can sit back and surf the web to your heart’s content while still learning the language.

After some random surfing, I came upon an article about a painter’s interpretation of scenes from Alice in Wonderland (in Dutch, of course). When describing the scene where Alice finds the poem about the Jabberwock, the poem is repeated in English, and then some links were given to the Dutch translation.

This gave me the opportunity to read Jabberwocky again, but to consider it from the viewpoint of language learning. As I read it in English, it gives me a very similar feeling to what I get from reading books in other languages at an intermediate level. I get a good sense of what is happening in the story, but there are all sorts of words that I don’t fully understand. I can tell whether they’re adjectives or nouns, and I feel like I get some sense of them by recognizing the other words around them.

For instance, when the Jabberwock “Came whiffling through the tulgey wood”, it doesn’t really matter exactly what whiffling and tulgey might mean. You basically understand what’s happening in the scene. You can also come up with some ideas of what “tulgey” might mean, because it’s used to describe a forest through which a monster is walking. The next time you see this word, you’ll have another piece of information about it, and it’ll make even more sense.

This is what it’s like to me when I read Dutch or Swedish or whatever other language I happen to be working on. With an intermediate level of knowledge, there are plenty of words you don’t know, but the story still moves along somehow.

So, go out and find something to read! You don’t need perfect understanding to enjoy it, and in fact you’ll never get perfect understanding without reading a lot of books with only intermediate understanding. Exposure comes before knowledge, not after.


January 2011 – 191 language hours

2011-02-01

Well, the first month of the year is over already, and I’m pretty happy with my language-learning results. But first I want to briefly cover my sleep experiment.

This week, I’ve decided to drop off the Everyman schedule and go back to monophasic sleep. I’ve found that polyphasic sleep requires a lot of discipline during the adaptation phase, and that you can expect several weeks of being tired. At this point, I’m tired of being tired, and I don’t really like constantly constraining my sleep. I prefer to just wake up when it feels good to wake up.

I might try polyphasic again some time in the near future, now that I know what to expect. For now I just want to be well-rested for a little while. At the end of my experiment, I was mostly adapted, but there was still a lingering tiredness for 1 or two hours per day on average. If I made any mistakes in the schedule, then this would increase. Some days were better, some days were worse, but it seemed to only be slowly progressing.

When I try it again, I’m going to be much more exact with my sleeping times, and I’ll be sure not to switch programs in the middle. I’ll also make sure to be more vigilant about setting multiple alarms and getting up right away, to prevent oversleeps.

So, now on to language tasks. I’m rather happy with the amount of language work I accomplished this month, although I think it could be improved more. In total, I spent 191 hours on language activities, with 132.5 of that spent on Dutch. The remainder was mostly German reading and TV time. My personal best was January 19th where I reached 10 hours of Dutch time, and in that week I hit 49.5 worth of Dutch time altogether.

I’ve learned a couple important things. One is that the content of your learning material is really important; the more interest you have in the material, the easier it is to do it. Since Harry Potter was the only material I’ve had so far where the audiobook matches exactly with the Dutch ebook, and for which an English ebook was also present, then I felt constrained in my choices for beginner material. Sometimes it was a strain to get back to work. With German, on the other hand, I have DVDs of Star Trek: Voyager with German audio, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to just sit down and watch a couple hours of that with Chani (who’s spending her time learning German these days).

I’ve also found that it can be very tempting to spend too much time on the English half of my parallel texts rather than focusing on the Dutch. There were many moments where I caught myself reading ahead in the English and ignoring the Dutch audio. For this and other reasons, my recognition of printed Dutch is much higher than my ability to listen to it. I’ve had some gains in the past week, but I still need to work on it more.

Another thing I noticed sharply was the Pareto principle, where 20% of my time got me 80% of my comprehension in reading. I was able to get to recognition of more than 80% of the words on each page after less than about 30 hours of work, and ever since then I’ve been trudging through the “long tail”, trying to acquire that very important last 20% of the words. This means that for the first little while, you feel a great sense of progress as you zoom through the most frequent vocabulary, but then it feels like your progress is slowing to a crawl as you struggle to add a few more percent here and there.

The struggle is worth it, though. You’ll get a magnificent feeling of accomplishment once you get up to the high 90s, where you’ll be able to just sit down with a novel in your new language and enjoy reading it for fun. This should happen by the time you’ve already read 1 million words in your target language, which is about 10 regular sized novels, but you might get there with only half of that, depending on what other language activities you’re doing, and how much the language differs from what you know already.

So, ahead of me is the month of February. This is where I’ll be starting the active phase of my Dutch project. I’ve got a lot more work to do in the first week and a half to prepare. Then I’ve invited a couple of Belgian Couchsurfers to come stay with me for a few days, so it’ll be “sink or swim” time. After that, I’ve booked a plane ticket to Belgium to go to Talenfestival Leuven, which is a “language festival” for one day which includes short seminars on many different languages (all conducted in Dutch). Interestingly, the talk on Irish will be given in Esperanto, with Dutch translation.

I’m still continuing my reading and listening, but I’ll be spending some time practicing output on my own before the couchsurfers get here to put me to the test. I’ve got a phrasebook that I can run through to practice a lot of common phrases, and then I’ll work on some writing exercises to help me with coming up with my own Dutch ideas from scratch.

Just one more month of concentrated Dutch studying, and then I’ll be switching my main project to something else. At that point I hope to have good understanding of spoken and written Dutch, so it should be easy to put it on the backburner and just read the occasional novel or watch the TV news in order to keep things fresh. I’m looking forward to it!


Dealing with doubts about Dutch

2011-01-25

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 馃檪


Dutch update: vocab self-test (91 hrs)

2011-01-22

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.


(eo) legu unu milionon da vortoj

2010-12-20

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 anta怒a semajno, mi a怒dis 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. Sufi膲e facila, 膲u 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 simpla牡oj kiel 膲i tiuj, estas malfacile erari. Mi akceptas diversajn ideojn de tiu ludo. La unua estas ke oni devas legi por 臐ui la rakonton kaj por kompreni la rakonton, ne por vortokolektado. Anta怒e mi havis problemojn legi 膲ar mi provadis precize unuafoje kompreni 膲iujn vortojn. Tio 膲i 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 anta怒e aldonis multajn frazojn al Anki nur 膲ar 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 leginda牡oj (pli enigo por mia cerbo). Mi ne bezonas parkeri 膲iujn vortojn la怒 la ordo en kiu mi vidis tion. Se 臐i estas ordinara vorto, mi 臐in balda怒 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 koncentri臐i je bonegaj vortoj…tiuj, kiujn mi vere volas lerni. Espereble mi jam vidis 臐in kelkfoje dume, do 臐i pro legado ensinkis en mian cerbon, kaj post tio mi povas uzi Anki enigi 臐in.

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.

膱i tio metodo devas esti longe uzota. pensado ke 臐i 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 a怒 semajnoj, do vi eraras. Vi vidos rezultategojn post monatoj, do mi pensas 膲i 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 臐uu vian legadon. Legi amuzas! Longtempe, legi bonegi臐os vin. Se vi nur povas eviti interrompi vian legadon por fari komentojn a怒 uzi la vortaron, vi vere ekzerciti臐os pri legado kaj rapidi臐os kaj boni臐os.


The magic of words

2010-12-08

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series of novels, magic power can be gained over something by discovering it’s true name in the ancient language of the dragons. Young wizards who are training in the magical arts have to spend significant time memorizing many of these ancient words, and it can be hard to keep going. To help them along, their teacher gives a little speech about the ancient language.

In his speech, he explains to them that because their language is related to the ancient language, they can find clues within their words. Some of their words are made of bits of the older words. By investigating the older language, they can learn new things about their own. Also, the more words they learn, the more things they can precisely describe and thus have power over. This motivates them to keep going in their long task.

So, as an illustration of how to learn from parallel texts, I’d like you to take a look at the parallels between the different language versions of some of this speech. I’ll lay out 3 sentences along with their corresponding sentences in the other languages. First is English, then German, then Dutch, and finally Polish to give some contrast. These are from the official translations, not google translate.

  • But magic, true magic, is worked only by those beings who speak the Hardic tongue of Earthsea, or the Old Speech from which it grew.
  • Aber Magie, wahre Magie, wird nur von denen ausge眉bt, die das Hardisch der Erdsee sprechen oder die Ursprache, aus der es stammt.
  • En magie, ware magie wordt alleen gewrocht door hen die de Hardische taal van Aardzee spreken, of de Oude Spraak waaruit deze is voortgekomen.
  • Ale magia, prawdziwa magia, jest dzie艂em tylko tych istot, kt贸re m贸wi膮 hardyckim narzeczem 艢wiatomorza albo te偶 Dawn膮 Mow膮, z kt贸rej to narzecze wyros艂o.

  • That is the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world, and the language of our lays and songs, spells, enchantments, and invocations.
  • Das sind die Sprache der Drachen und die Sprache Segoys, der die Inseln dieser Welt schuf, und es ist auch die Sprache unserer Lieder und Epen und unserer Zauber- und Bannspr眉che.
  • Dat is de taaldie de draken spreken, en de taal die Segoy sprak toen hij de eilanden van de wereld schiep, en de taal van onzwijzen en zangen, onze spreuken, oproepingen en bezweringen.
  • Dawna Mowa to j臋zyk, kt贸rym m贸wi膮 smoki, j臋zyk, kt贸rym m贸wi艂 Segoy, ten, co stworzy艂 wyspy 艣wiata, j臋zyk naszych ballad i pie艣ni, zakl臋膰, czar贸w i wezwa艅.

  • Its words lie hidden and changed among our Hardic words.
  • Die Worte dieser Sprache sind versteckt in unserem Hardisch.
  • Haar woorden liggen nauwelijks herkenbaar verscholen tussen de woorden van ons Hardisch.
  • Jego s艂owa spoczywaj膮, ukryte i zmienione, pomi臋dzy naszymi hardyckimi s艂owami.

For those of you who already speak some German or Dutch, you’ll notice right away that the translations are not exactly literal. There are some words that have been removed or added. Also, even for those who don’t know any of these languages, you might have noticed that there are some changes in word order.

If I were starting these languages completely from scratch (which I sort of am with Dutch and Polish, although I have a background in germanic languages to help me with Dutch), then the first thing I’d look for is some “anchor” words. Typically these are proper nouns for people and places, and they tend to stay roughly the same between translations. This will help you even with unrelated languages like Chinese, where the foreign names are usually spelled out somewhat, using rarer characters as phonetic approximations.

In this case, the words that are going to transfer across all translations are “Hardic” and “Segoy”. Due to their connections as indo-european languages, you’ll also see Magic / Magie / magie / magia corresponding. And then among the germanic ones you’ll see more words corresponding like dragon / Drachen / draken (which amusingly seems to be “smoki” in Polish, as far as I can tell). I also guess “ballad” as the Polish word for song. If words were chosen differently by the translators, the different versions could be made to correspond even more closely.

The next thing you can try, is finding a passage that repeats itself with only a slight change, and then see what changed. A good candidate for this is “the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke”. Looking at the polish, you’ll see “j臋zyk, kt贸rym m贸wi膮 smoki” and “j臋zyk, kt贸rym m贸wi艂 Segoy”. Without looking at any dictionaries, I would guess that m贸wi- is a stem for “to speak”, with -膮 added for present and -艂 added for past. I would also guess that j臋zyk is the word for language, which is somewhat confirmed by looking at the sentence after that too. I could be wrong, but I would be aided by reading along further in the story.

This is basically the first time I’ve ever looked at Polish in this detail, yet I can still find patterns and start working things out. This is only with 3 sentences. By finding slight hints at patterns, and then seeing those patterns represented in hundreds or thousands of different sentences, you can learn a lot of the language without ever looking at a dictionary. It would take ridiculously long to look up every single unknown word in the unknown sentences.

So, this is why I suggest that learning with books can be really productive, even from the very start. It’s made much easier by having a translated version of the text to make it comprehensible, and you should probably limit your dictionary lookups to those words that you’ve already seen many times (the “high frequency” words). By seeing many many somewhat-comprehensible examples, you can learn a lot very quickly.

Another thing that might help make things more comprehensible, is to do a quick browse through a bunch of grammar examples, just to see what’s possible. No need to try and memorize any tables or do any “exercises” from textbooks, because you’ll pick up their workings naturally as you read through your novel. Looking at a bunch of clear examples is helpful though, because it lets you see what’s possible in the language…to see what’s out there for you to discover. This helps you notice it when it comes up for real in your novel.

Just remember that Exposure comes before Knowledge, not the other way around. Don’t wait until you’re “ready” to expose yourself to the language, because then you never will be. Also, go out and buy some real books. As Khatsumoto has said, you have to own before you pwn. If you have no books on your shelf, you will have limited access to the language.

Have fun reading!


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 馃槈

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!