dealing with variety


Home, sweet home. Berlin feels so comfortable and easy now. I’m back, after a brief trip over to Copenhagen. Although I had a good time there and in Malmö, I still want to work full-time on German. I have some great opportunities to study German intensively here with some expert instruction. What makes me hesitate is that I usually just focus on one topic, but right now I’m trying an experiment by juggling several.

I just unpacked a big stack of books that I brought back with me from Sweden and Denmark. I love books, and I sometimes seem to gather them faster than I can read them. Now that I have a solid place to stay for a while in Berlin, the books are already starting to pile up. Right now I have 2 novels, a comic book, and a book about beermaking in Esperanto; 5 novels in Swedish (plus various audiobooks and ebooks); 1 German novel, but soon to be more; also 3 novels in Danish (yes, I’ll be expanding to another language soon).

So how do I plan to deal with all of these while I’m “supposed” to be studying German here in Berlin? After some advice from one of my language-learning pals here in Berlin (thanks, Judith!), I’ve decided to try to moderate my excesses a bit, and try to do a little bit of many things. My normal pattern is to work intensively on only one thing until I burn out and get wanderlust, or sometimes I just flit from subject to subject with no focus at all. Now I’m going to try finding a nice middle ground.

German is still my primary task right now, but I’m allowing myself to also do some work on Swedish and Esperanto every week, in order to keep progressing in them. This gives me one thing where I’m quite good, and two where I’m sort of mediocre. They each feel different when I’m studying them because of my different skill levels.

To help me moderate the time I spend, I’ve created a new sort of spreadsheet to track my effort. Some of you may recall my previous spreadsheet style, which was to track my time and effort day by day, which was summarized in weekly and monthly totals. I’m changing that now, so that I only track weekly amounts.

The reason for this was that I used to want to fill in every box for every day, which indicated that I’d done something for every daily task and gave me a sense of progress….but now I don’t really have “daily” tasks anymore. I have a whole pile of tasks, and I may not feel like working on all of them in every day. The focus is now weeks, and on using any small bit of time effectively.

Each week will have a sort of laundry list of things I could do. I have certain goals for each week, but nothing is nailed down to a specific day. Instead, it provides me with a list of things that I am allowed to work on whenever I have time (which is often). For each language, I have three tasks: Reading, Listening, and New Anki Cards.

Reading is from my stack of books, which I’m eager to work through, and is tracked by the estimated number of words read (by multiplying the pages read times the estimated words per page for that particular book, to account for the differences between books). Generally I want to read as much as possible, but I also have some weekly goals that I hope not to go under. Some of this reading will also be done as “Listening-Reading” if I have the appropriate audiobook to simultaneously listen to.

Listening includes many activities. It could be watching a movie in that language, or listening actively to the radio, or doing some simultaneous Listening-Reading with an audiobook and a novel. Listening by itself is handy, since I can also do it while I wash dishes or buy groceries, etc.

Lastly, making new Anki cards refers to my favourite “Spaced Repetition System”, which shows me flashcards at calculated times in order to efficiently stimulate my long-term memory production. Whenever I take the time to look up a new word or phrase from one of my novels, I usually add it to my flashcard system as a full example sentence. The system will then show it to me at increasing intervals over time, in order to keep that new knowledge fresh in my mind until it sticks for the long-term. This way, I know I’m making certain progress in the language, and I don’t have to worry about reviewing what I’ve learned because the computer will automatically show me the right things at the right time.

Besides these three categories for each of my three languages, I also have some columns in my new spreadsheet for other non-linguistic activities. I want to improve my abilities in the strategy game called Go, or Wei qi depending on whether you use the Japanese or Chinese name for it. To that end, I want to do a certain number of practice problems each week. I’m also tracking a couple of fitness exercises such as pushups and crunches. These things don’t take that much time to do, and I’d like to do them on a consistent basis over time, so they’re getting tracked in the spreadsheet too.

Having all of these things in my list gives me the variety that I like. Any time I have the opportunity to work on something, I can choose from dozens of different activities, and if I get bored of one activity then I can easily switch to another. If I’m only choosing from this list, however, then I’m still targeting all of my current goals, and not getting sidetracked on other things. By looking at the weekly totals, I can help direct myself toward my weaker areas too, so that I don’t overconcentrate on one task.

Speaking of getting sidetracked, what about those Danish books I mentioned? I should have known that spending time in Copenhagen would leave me with an interest in Danish. There are several Esperanto events in Denmark scheduled for next year, so I wouldn’t mind starting on Danish in January maybe, so that I’m prepared.

This is also serving as extra motivation for Swedish though. I’m not allowing myself to start on Danish until I reach a sufficient level in Swedish. This is both an encouragement to keep improving my Swedish, and also a way of indirectly working on Danish. The two languages are very similar in the written form (and I could already read the Danish menus in Copenhagen restaurants, for example), so the better I am at Swedish, the faster I’ll be able to learn Danish once I eventually start. Therefore, the Danish books will sit quietly on my bookshelf until at least January, and they’ll serve as a steady reminder that there are many reasons for me to continue working on my Swedish goals.

So, that’s pretty much the current state of things for me. My spreadsheet has a row for each week of the remainder of the year, and the columns are the different tasks. When I do any part of a task in that week, then I put a number in the box and color the box blue. If I surpass the weekly goal for that task, then the box changes to green. The plan for the rest of the year is to color in the entire grid, hopefully in green, but blue would be enough.

I’ll be sure to post some updates about this in a few weeks.




There’s clearly some benefit gained by focusing on certain attributes of a language as you listen. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how best to apply this concept in practice in order to gain a well-rounded knowledge of the language. Some people can be exposed to a language for many years and still speak and listen badly, so exposure alone is clearly insufficient.

What then, should we pay attention to, and how? One thing is training the habit of having an enquiring and curious mind. If you’re uninterested and just doing something hoping for a reward at the end, then you’re not going to get as much out of it. You have to cultivate that feeling of investigating something magical and important, and teasing out all of the facts and meanings. I hear some people like to pretend they’re and archaeologist, unearthing some ancient language and they have to make sense of it, For Science!

Besides starting from scratch with just curiousity, though, it also helps to have some pointers so you know what to look for. If you know that certain things exist in a language, then you’ll be better able to notice them as they pass you by in the course of your listening. If you, for instance, read about what sorts of sounds exist in a language, then when you’re listening you’ll be less likely to mistake two similar sounds for the same thing. Instead you’ll hear it, and think “that’s one of those sounds that will be tricky for me…I should try and distinguish it from the other similar one”.

I’m starting to think that a good way to “study” particular aspects of a language is to do this sort of “noticing” exercise. Perhaps there’s some complicated grammar aspect to a language that you just can’t get right. The problem is either that you haven’t had enough exposure to it, or you did but you never really noticed it before. Your brain never made the appropriate connections for you, because you assumed it was just irrelevant background noise. While the brain is a fantastic learning apparatus, it also is very good at ignoring and forgetting the unimportant minutae.

So, pick your target, get a little bit familiar with it by reading some explanations, but don’t worry about “memorizing” the explanations. Explanations alone are really no good for learning a concept…it’ll be much more strongly internalized through exposure to real content. Instead, go find your lengthy and interesting content (movies, books, audiobooks, conversations, etc) and then tell yourself that you need to pick out and mentally highlight any situations where your target concept happens. You want to practice using your ability to notice that particular feature. This will help you get the extra exposure needed to make the required connections for that concept. You’ll be learning something extra that was previously disregarded as background noise.

Remember that it won’t come instantly. Anything worth learning will take many exposures to become imprinted in your brain. Through exposure, it will change step-by-step from “huh?” to “ok, I think I see it”, to “ya, this is easy now”. The only effort required is your attentiveness to the concept. If it feels hard, just remember that you’ve encountered plenty of “hard” things before, but now they are easy. This is just one of those. I like to call this concept “secretly easy”, which means that nothing is really harder than anything else, you just have to see it enough times to become used to it. Things that are “hard” now are just as easy as those “easy” things you already know.

Another thing you can do, of course, is gather some of those examples that you found in your favourite long content, and add them to an SRS program for further reinforcement. Examples gathered from your content are worth much more than random artificial sentences gathered from a big list somewhere. When these sentences come up again in your SRS, you’ll be reminded of the situation in your book or movie or conversation where they occured. Your mind uses the full context of the situation to help remember it, making many connections. Having it come up regularly due to your SRS’s scheduling mechanism just means that this particular connection will be made much stronger than all of the other sentences you may have heard that day.

That’s it! Now go find something interesting to do in your target language, and enjoy it as often as you can 🙂

what do you put in your SRS?


I just responded to the latest post over at Language Geek, where Josh asks “what do you put in your SRS?”. After my short comment turned into multiple paragraphs, i figured i’d just post it here too:

Firstly, i only put phrases or full sentences into anki, except if they’re nouns that really don’t require a sentence. a lot of nouns don’t really have much “usage” information, but it still makes me nervous to just put a single word in.

I generally get my sentences from books that i’m reading. Currently i’m reading harry potter #2 in german (”Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens”), and although i understand a lot of it, i constantly come across words that i don’t know. I don’t put every single unknown word into Anki, however. I usually wait until i’ve seen a word more than once, or if there’s a certain paragraph where there were MANY words that i didn’t understand, then i concentrate more on that particular paragraph.

I do this because i put a lot of emphasis on reading without stopping. If there’s a word that continually bothers me, then i’ll use a highlighter to mark it for later, and then go back to it later when i’m working on new anki cards. Sometimes when i go back to it later, it makes perfect sense so i don’t bother.

Combined with this, i sometimes get some cards in anki that just annoy me. Maybe they seem useless now, or maybe i always get them wrong and they just bug me. these get deleted mercilessly. I know i’ll have no problems finding more words to put in anki, so i don’t worry about losing a couple of the stupid ones.

Another thing i’ve been trying lately is using electronic copies of books in order to do some statistical sentence-mining. I use an emacs add-on that a friend wrote, which makes a list of all words that i have in any cards in anki, and then uses that “known” list to find words in my book that are “unknown” and are also of a high frequency. It then gives me example sentences for those words. This way, i can work through the important vocab in frequency order, which helps tremendously.

In general, i try not to focus too much on words i “need” to know. Ya, eventually i want to know EVERY word, but i don’t need to do them all right now. There are plenty of things to learn, and i think i’ll be more effective if i do them in a better order (and usually i think this means frequency order). This is why i try do wait until i’ve seen the word more than once in my paperbacks, or i actually do frequency analysis if i have the electronic form.

Also, remember that you don’t need to worry about how much you know in total so far, you just need to keep increasing. As long as your knowledge keeps going up, you’ll get there. Don’t worry about grabbing everything right now this instant.

august week 1 summary


It’s been one week since instating my goals, and i’m feeling pretty good.  Although there are still plenty of things that i don’t know, it’s been pretty helpful keeping stats so that i can judge my progress by numbers going up instead of just wishing i was awesome already.  It’s enough to know that things are going up, and eventually i’ll get to where i want to be as long as they keep going up.

Somehow i managed to get in 21 hours of german TV this week. My goal was 17, which would give me 70hrs total for the month. I watched a lot of star trek, along with a little bit of House, Simpsons, and MASH. MASH and the Simpsons are reasonably easy to follow, and star trek is great now, but House is pretty difficult. I think most of the jokes in House are based on sarcasm, and are sometimes subtle, so it’s a bit hard to get, but i’ll keep trying.

Reading is going well, but i didn’t make as much time for it as i wanted. I only did about 2/3 of my goal amount, but i think i can catch up this week. Harry Potter is starting to seem really familiar, and there are lots of words that i know. There are still some parts where i wonder wtf is going on, but i usually get it if i start the chapter over again once or twice.

Adding sentence cards to anki has been tremendously helpful. A lot of the words from those sentences come up all the time in my tv shows and books, which gives me yet more context and exposure. I’ve mostly been adding things to anki based on common verbs or adjectives. Sometimes it’s stuff that i found in a tv show or book already, and other times i just look at a frequency list of german words and pick out some “common” stuff that i don’t know yet, and go find sentences for them.

Here’s a good spot for finding german example sentences: where “X” is the word you want. I found this randomly in a google search, but i hadn’t seen it before. It seems to use the contents of all sorts of magazines and newspapers to pull up examples. Although there’s a “search” area at the top of the page, it seems to link elsewhere, so i just edit the URL to put in new words. Sorta a hastle, but the real example sentences are worth it. Some of them are quite complex, so i sorta browse through until i find one that’s mostly understandable, and then i add it to anki for review.

My extra listening exposure has been a bit of a problem. I thought i’d have plenty of situations where i couldn’t watch TV, but i could have my headphones in and be listening to stuff, but it actually hasn’t come up as much as i’d thought. I have a Harry Potter audiobook playing right now as i write this, but otherwise it seems like i’m busy doing something that doesn’t quite work with headphones. I’ve lowered my goal for that, but maybe i’ll get a lot more headphone time at work this week. I think i partially made up for it this week by exceeding the TV goal, anyway. At least all the numbers are still going up.

Overall, i really like this numbers-based approach. I like getting high scores, and it gives me something to work towards. It also sorta reminds me of mudding, ie playing online roleplaying games. somehow getting my numbers to increase is pretty satisfying, but maybe that’s just my weirdness.

making goals


I’m pretty new to this whole “making goals” and “planning” thing. I tend to just jump into something, do as much as i can, and figure things out as i go. After reading a lot of different language learning websites, though, it seems that the best language learners also seem to make goals and try to exceed them, so i’m going to give it a shot.

One idea that i’ve seen mentioned in several places is that when you make goals, you have to actually decide what you want first. My experience with chinese has taught me that you can’t really make goals out of specific language milestones, because you don’t know how long it’ll take to get to those.

So i’m going to take Khatsumoto’s advice about short term goals. I’m just going to pick some raw numbers for this month for all of the language tasks i want to do: a number for words read, a number for amount of TV watched, a number for listening done, and a number of Anki cards entered. I want to read 150000 words, watch 70 hours of TV, do 90 hours of other listening, and enter 600 new cards into Anki..

To accomplish these, i need to break them down to a weekly and daily level. Per week, that’s 37500 words read, 17 hours of TV, 22 hours of listening, and 150 new Anki cards. So far this month, i’m at 7 hours of TV and 6 hours of other listening, with 92 new Anki cards added, and 6000 words read. Already i can see that i need to get more reading done to catch up, so these weekly goals are already pointing me in the right direction.

Now that i have something to aim for each week, i can also try to get that done early. I have some sort of expectations to exceed. Hopefully this will help me stay away from the temptations of surfing the web.

One more thing to remind myself is that consistency is key. Doing at least some work each day is better than doing a whole bunch all at once. If you can do at least a little bit of language work each day then it’ll add up to quite a lot over time. With that said, i’m going to go make some new sentence cards for some verbs i just saw 🙂

more on SRS and sentence mining


Lately i ran across Glowing Face Man’s blog again, and reread some of his articles. He has some informative descriptions of Sentence mining and Spaced Repetition, as well as many other interesting articles.
I was particularly inspired by what he called his “French Revolution“, where he spent 1 month trying to see how much french he could cram into his brain.

If i had to advise someone on how to do a 1-month challenge like that, i’d certainly suggest an SRS as one of the tools, but not exclusively. Judging by his description, GFM felt by the end that he didn’t spend enough time on pronunciation. I don’t think pronunciation is best learned through SRS; rather, i think you should just watch tons and tons of TV, or listen to the radio, or any other regular audio source.

I don’t think you’ll get enough content by adding a few sound clips into your SRS, because you need massive exposure to the sounds. It doesn’t particularly matter which sounds, either…you just need lots and lots of them to hit your ears. To get that, you need to have something with extensive content, and therefore it has to be interesting and entertaining to keep you watching or listening.

What SRS *is* good for, however, is strategically filling your brain with important vocab. The words of any language are not all equal in usage. Some are used a lot more often than others. Those frequently-used words are of high value, especially at the start of your studies where all words might seem quite confusing. When you get some of those frequent words figured out, it’s like a blast of fresh air and everything seems so much easier. This will give you the encouragement you need to continue on with your studies.

After the really frequent words, i think an SRS is also good for some of the seldom-used words. You may not hear them that often in a TV show, but they can still be important in certain situations. This is where you can use your SRS to give you more exposure to those words than you might have had just from TV or radio alone.

For most of these words, you should be entering them in a full sentence context. Single-word cards are probably only good for things like household objects or other lists of nouns. For anything else, especially verbs, you definitely want to have phrases or full sentences.

Words tend to have many different uses in different situations, and you lose all the subtlety when you make a flashcard with only a single word on it. Therefore, I suggest that you always try to find example sentences for the words you want to learn. For many words, you might want to add several sentences that show the different possible meanings.

The way that I do this lately, is i watch several hours of TV every day, and i also spend a little bit of time gathering some sentences. I might go through the subtitles of one of the TV episodes to find words i don’t know, or sometimes i make some notes while i’m watching and come back to it later. I also go through whatever book i’m reading and find interesting words in there and grab a sentence for those.

Sometimes i’ll open my book to a random page and just look through all the words on that page to see if anything catches my eye. Then i type the sentence into Anki to save for later. This way, I’m gradually gathering vocabulary in context, and i’m using Anki to make sure i never forget it. This gives me focused exposure to these words that i previously didn’t know that well. As time goes on, the cards become more spaced out and i don’t spend as much time on them because they’re more well-known, which gives me time to work on any new unknown words.

I think that both massive exposure and SRS content are important to balance out somehow. SRS is a type of exposure, but not quite as good as hours of intensive audio and video content. But your SRS content is a focused tool that will help you quickly increase your vocabulary, which will let you get even more benefit from the hours of intensive audio and video. Therefore, i think these two strategies go well together, as advocated by Khatsumoto on his All Japanese All The Time site. For example, check out his article about how he learned to watch the news in japanese.

So, in summary, watch a LOT of TV, and continually gather sentences in your SRS to quickly learn vocab. I think you’ll be surprised at your progress 🙂

Kanji without Heisig


A bit of a tangent from the usual german content here. I was just reading a post over at Japanese From Zero where akanpanda asks “does anyone know a *non Heisig* way to learn Kanji? Heisig bores me even when I turn it into a game.” For those who are unfamiliar, the Heisig method of learning kanji is to build up from basic characters to complex ones, so that every complex one consists of pieces that are recognizable characters. You have to follow a certain order so that you always get those basic ones before the advanced ones. Here’s my response:

You probably want to find some way to go hardcore on an SRS because that’s the fastest way to fill your brain with reams of data, but it doesn’t have to be through Heisig. The problem i had with Heisig was learning a bunch of boring characters before the ones that i wanted. Instead of that, you could try adding chars as you encounter them in real life. You may not know the parts of them in an awesome way like in the Heisig method, but it’ll be ok. This way each character will mean something to you, and have value, instead of being force-fed.

What i did was go to the library and get an awesome book that i really wanted to read. A good one for me was a book of short sci-fi stories by famous authors like Ray Bradbury and George R.R. Martin, except translated into chinese (which is what i was learning). Then i’d go through one page, and just write down all the chars that i didn’t know. I’d look up each one, and make up an Anki card for it. Then i’d try to read the page, hopefully remembering some of the chars that i just looked up.

Every day i’d do my Anki reps, and add a new page full of the characters i didn’t know. As each day went on, I’d be able to read more and more of the stories, at least by guessing new words according to the Hanzi (aka Kanji) that i encountered. The benefit of this method was that all the characters i added were really valuable to me. They were helping me read more and more pages of the awesome book, instead of just being random boring characters from some predefined method. This way, i kept my motivation up because i wanted to get through more pages of the book, and each progressive page was getting easier and easier.

An important part of motivation is self-direction. The fastest way to hate something is to have someone else force you to do it, or to be spoon-fed. Pick your own direction, and you’ll be able to do it for longer. Also, mix things up a bunch. Never just use one method, or one book. Every time you sit down to work on your project, have a variety of materials in front of you and choose whichever one catches your eye first. When you start to get bored of it, just drop it and look around. Pick up the next one that catches your eye. If you have enough interesting materials in front of you, you can go all day. I did this by getting real books from the library. Sci-fi, or translated novels like “the godfather” (which was funny to try to read in chinese). It’s also good to get something that’s familiar, maybe like Harry Potter if you’re into that.

Good luck!