March 2012 update – revitalizing Mandarin

2012-03-24

Hi all. I’ve been a bit absent from the land of language learning for a while. I’ve had several other projects on the go and have been generally busy.

Currently I’m working at a new job, where many of my coworkers are native Mandarin speakers. I’m hoping to revitalize my Mandarin skills over the next little while.

My first step is to do lots of listening, to revive the “natural” feeling. By this, I mean that I want the language to again feel really familiar, which is a vague feeling I get after having lots of exposure to it. I’m also hoping that lots of listening will reactivate some of the vocabulary that I’ve nearly forgotten.

Next is learning new vocabulary, or relearning words that are well on the way to being forgotten. For this, I’ll be using a parallel text of Harry Potter. I can read through the Chinese half with mouseover translation for some of the words, and use the corresponding English paragraph to confirm that I have the right overall meaning for the sentences and paragraphs.

Since there are some really basic words that I’ve forgotten, I’ll be delaying my speaking practice for another week or two, but then I hope to start saying more simple things. My coworkers are not used to speaking with non-native speakers, so when they hear that my accent and pronunciation are pretty decent then they just charge straight ahead with a highly technical conversation relating to work. I’m not really at the level where I can discuss embedded Linux devices and which MTD partition on the flash ROM contains the boot loader, in Chinese 😉

To that end, though, I bet there’s a small subset of vocabulary that I could specifically study in order to catch on to more work-related concepts. I’ve found previously that a lot of these sorts of technical conversations can be mostly understood with only 20-30 new vocab words that get used all the time. Do you want to understand Economics conversations? Go learn just 30 new Economics vocab words, and I suspect you’ll have most of what you need. These things follow the Pareto principle quite well, where 80% of the benefits can be had by doing only the first 20% of the work.

That’s it for now. I’ll try and update soon. Currently my work contract is only for 4 weeks, but I’m hoping it will be extended past that so I can continue being surrounded by Mandarin while getting paid to be there 🙂


bouncing to japanese

2011-10-08

As sometimes happens when one is fascinated with so many topics, I have accidentally bounced over to learning Japanese. I’m still reviewing my Hindi books from time to time, but with my girlfriend expressing her interest in learning Japanese, it’s hard for me to resist doing it too. I really love working on a project with someone else rather than just by myself.

So far I’ve become addicted to Slime Forest Adventure for learning the writing system. It’s a simple RPG-style game (for windows, mac, and linux) that teaches katakana, hiragana, and kanji. I’m trying to learn as many kanji as I can in as short a time as I can, so that I can incorporate that knowledge into the rest of my vocab study.

Much of my study time will be through consumption of media. We’re re-watching a long anime series, which has English subtitles. Sometimes it’s really tough to ignore the English, but I’m sort of getting into the habit of quickly reading the English and then concentrating hard on listening to the corresponding Japanese sentence.

To assist with this, I’ve been reading Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide in order to just see what sorts of structures exist in Japanese. I’m not trying to memorize any tables of conjugations; I just want to get a taste for what’s there. After reading a section of examples, then I go watch another anime episode and try to listen for that grammar concept to come up in speech. This allows me to sort of fit together more pieces as I listen to them.

Once I finish going through the ~2000 standard kanji, and learn some of the basic vocab, I’m eager to start on some actual reading. I’m not sure what I’ll use for this, but good old Harry Potter might be an option.


6 week challenge: Hindi

2011-08-02

Hi all. I’ve had a bit of an extended absence from blogging lately, but I’ve returned from holidays. I plan on bringing some new insights from my new project – Hindi.

I’ve joined the 6 Week Challenge that started on August 1st. For those who haven’t heard about it, it’s a game we play to keep our motivation up through a little bit of friendly competition. There’s a high score list, and we each tweet the amount of time we’ve spent studying so that we can gain some motivation by seeing what other people are doing.

I don’t have any specific goal with regard to my Hindi skills after these 6 weeks, but rather a numerical goal for my work. I’d like to average 4 hours per day of language study during this 6 week period, and most of that work will be on Hindi. No matter where I end up, it’ll be far from where I am now (which is almost nothing).

Currently I can read and write the Devanagari script sorta ok, and I know a few words of basic vocab. Previously I’d worked through the first few chapters of Hindi ohne Mühe (the German Assimil book for Hindi). Throughout the Challenge, I’ll be working on both Assimil and Teach Yourself Hindi, since they both seem to have plenty of basic content.

At the start I’ll be focusing mostly on vocab, and picking up some of the grammar along the way. I’m trying to find more sources of audio to listen to, but so far I just have one mediocre audiobook and some online radio stations to listen to.

One thing I’ve noticed so far is that it feels a lot more challenging than the other languages I’ve worked on in the past while, except polish. It feels about the same as polish in terms of vocabulary distance; some words are similar or guessable, but most are totally unknown to me.

I have to remind myself that each moment spent on it and each new word learned is just as important as the last, and that there’s no need to think about all the work ahead of me. All I need is consistent work each day on whatever chapter I’m on, and I’ll get there where I get there.

If anyone knows where I can find some Hindi novels, I’d really appreciate it!


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!


6WC: week 1 progress report

2011-05-05

I started on my new Spanish project on the weekend, and I’ve been enjoying it so far. I’ve been trying to gather a variety of materials to work on, so that I don’t get bored of any one particular thing.

I’m watching a bit of two different TV series on DVD; both american shows that have been dubbed. It’d be better for the lips if I had some original spanish language series, but at the beginning it’s much easier to go for something that’s easily predictable. To that end, I’m watching lots of Star Trek, because I know what’s supposed to be happening, so all my learning time is spent on the language, not figuring out the new characters and plots.

For reading, I’ve found an audiobook for Albert Camus’ El Extranjero (“The Stranger” in English). It’s been hard to find audiobooks that have a Latin American accent, rather than the funny “th” sound for z and c in the accents from Spain. Here in Vancouver there are very few people from Spain, but thousands from Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, etc.

I’ve also been spending a small percentage of my time on an old Spanish textbook that I tried to use about 8 years ago when I last studied Spanish. I was at about an A1 level back then, and I’ve quickly revived most of my basic vocabulary. I’ve been using the textbook just to review some of the grammar points that I’m encountering in my novels and TV shows.

If I go slow and use a pop-up dictionary a lot, then I can figure out quite a lot of the books I’m reading, even though they’re regular adult novels. When I just read along while listening to the audiobook though, it’s quite a struggle to understand anything. I’m just getting little bits and pieces here and there. I know from experience that this will improve over time; I just need to put in enough hours.

For those interested, you can see the high-score list for the contest here: http://6wc.learnlangs.com/. There are two “score” columns in the chart. One is for the “target” language, which is Spanish in my case. The other is a total number of hours spent on any language learning activities, although at this point I’m putting almost all of my study time into Spanish.

That’s it for now, nothing much to report yet since I’ve only put in 14 hours. I’ll keep updating as time goes on.


Learning Chinese vocabulary

2011-04-26

So I’m back in my home town of Vancouver now, on the Pacific coast of Canada. Next week I plan to start on the 6 Week Challenge that I mentioned, in which a bunch of people will try their hardest to learn as much Spanish as we can in 6 weeks. Until then, however, I’ll be working on a variety of other projects, several of which will continue throughout the year. One of those projects is to revive and improve my Chinese.

For those who don’t know already, I should explain my history with Chinese. I decided a while ago that because it’s such an important language group in Vancouver, I should learn a Chinese language. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken here in large numbers (with several areas of the city having more native speakers of Chinese languages than of English). I went back to university to participate in a full-time Mandarin immersion course. After doing that for 4 months, I decided to go to China and continue the program for another 7 months. During this time I learned a lot about how to learn languages (and how not to).

In the last 2 years, I’ve been working much more on European languages, and I’ve mostly neglected my Chinese studies, but I’d like to balance this out a bit. In addition to whatever my focus language may be, I’d like to keep up a steady amount of Chinese work so that I can continue to improve.

At this point, I’m just trying to find interesting ways to challenge myself, and to expose myself to the language. One thing I find really helpful for my motivation is to have several physical books to work from. I grab a bunch of my books, and I sit down at a big table and spread the books out. I pick up whichever book looks interesting, and start reading through. If I get tired of it, several other books are waiting for me, so I can just pick up another one.

Currently I’m working through a book that’s meant for studying vocabulary for an HSK (chinese proficiency) exam. It just has a list of words with examples for each, and then some exercises. In order to have some fun with it, I’m just reading whichever words are interesting. I’m not stressing out about memorizing every single word on the page, just getting some exposure.

One of my favourite vocabulary exercises is to jump from word to word, “surfing” the dictionary. I go to my favourite dictionary site for chinese, nciku.com, and I look up any word that I don’t know. It will then show me example sentences for it, and then inside those example sentences I’ll find further words that I don’t know, and I’ll repeat. In this activity, I can use the words in my HSK study book as starting points, and branch off from there.

This is just one of many low-stress activities that I do from time to time to get some exposure to new words. There’s no grades, no “must learn” items, no pressure. I’m just looking around for interesting new words and investigating them. If you stress yourself too much by trying to go one-by-one in order through the entire book, memorizing each one, then you run the risk of turning it into “work” that you start hating, and then your motivation gets killed. By making it into a task of curiousity and exploration, I make it more interesting and remove stress. It’s something I can keep coming back to, and it’s rewarding.

While I’m doing all of this, I have some news radio on in the background, and from time to time I hear a word in there that’s interesting. It keeps me familiar with the sounds of Chinese, and it offers another casual source of interesting items to investigate.

Once the 6WC starts next week, I plan to do something similar with Spanish to get reacquainted with it. I’m just going to browse around for a bit and look at whatever seems interesting, before I move on to reading real books. By keeping it light and fun, I can review a lot of the words I’ve forgotten without getting too tied up in the task of doing them all in order without skipping anything. It doesn’t matter if I do all of them or if I do them in order, only that I keep exposing myself to the language and keep myself interested in it.


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.


Making a year-long language learning plan?

2011-03-21

A question was asked on HTLAL about making a plan to learn a language for a whole year. The person layed out a plan with a bunch of different textbook sources that he intended to complete within that year (about German specifically, in this case), and asked for advice, so here’s my response.

What’s important is not how many months or years you take, but how many hours you spend on it. If you spend only 1 hour per day, then a year might not be enough to reach basic fluency. If you spend more than 3 hours per day, then you might be at basic fluency in a matter of months.

Also, I have to agree with a previous response that there’s no guarantee that you’ll be at a certain level just by finishing a bunch of textbooks. In my view, textbooks can be useful for giving you some of the straight-up foundations of the language, but they also tend to have a lot of boring or useless stuff, like “Schalthebel”, as was mentioned. I had to look that one up, and I’m quite confident in my German vocabulary in most situations that apply to my life.

In order to keep working on a language for a year, I really think you’re going to have to find some more interesting materials than those textbooks. You need to keep up your motivation if you’re going to last for the whole year. I suggest going to native materials as soon as you feel the slightest bit ready, mainly because they’ll be more fun. It would take me a LOT of effort to work on textbooks for even a month, but I’m still watching 1 or more hours of German TV even after I’ve done it for a long time. I’ve watched hundreds of hours of German TV, and there’s still new stuff that I learn all the time, and it’s continually interesting. Can you say the same about textbooks?

In the end, I suggest you go with whatever feels the best to you. If that’s textbooks, then great. But my prediction is that you’ll get bored, so I suggest you strongly consider finding some real German books when that happens, and start working through them. Maybe start with a translation of something you already know, or something that you know has simple language (such as a translation of either Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”, or John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, both of which have interesting plots but simple words).


Bootstrapping yourself – how to start a hard language

2011-03-16

This week I’ve been working on Polish on and off between my other projects, and I’ve been trying to figure out what it really means to study a language that’s in a different difficulty category. The last 4 languages that I’ve seriously worked on have been German, Swedish, Dutch, and Esperanto, all of which are in the category of “easy for English speakers”, and in fact Esperanto is in it’s own category of easiness. But what is it that makes these easier than say, Polish or Chinese? This was one thing I wanted to figure out, and this week I definitely got a taste for it.

In my experience so far, I’ve found that there are certain things you want to do at the start in order to give yourself a sense for what exists in the language, so that as you continue exposing yourself to examples of the language, you already have some hints in your mind about what to look for and what to notice. With Polish, there were a whole series of things that I couldn’t just assume like I could with Dutch or Swedish.

One thing was the ability to recognize which words were adjectives, verbs, or nouns. It’s really hard to make any sense of a sentence when you don’t even know which type a word is. With Dutch, I could tell right away which words were nouns and verbs and adjectives because they fit the familiar Germanic language patterns. From there, if I compared an English sentence and its direct translation in Dutch, I could figure out which words corresponded. The word order was also quite familiar, which helped me figure out the type of word based on its place in the sentence.

Polish, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. There’s a very free word order, where subject and object can go pretty much anywhere, and anything could potentially be the verb, and even adjectives could be before or after nouns. And because there are very very few obvious similarities between the vocabularies, it was almost impossible for me to figure out which word was which even if I have the exact translation of a particular sentence.

So, that became my task this week: to look through a bunch of examples to find out the answer to “what does an adjective/noun/verb generally look like in Polish?”. This is the sort of basic concept that I wanted to gets hints for, in order to enable me to puzzle my way through the rest of it.

To do this, I browsed through books like “Teach Yourself Polish”, and other such instructional books, purely because they come with a lot of simple examples, along with some explanations of what to expect grammar-wise. I didn’t bother spending any time trying to memorize any words, or memorize the (horribly confusing) tables of noun endings based on the grammatical cases, or any of that. I merely looked at what was possible.

I learned that nouns have different cases depending on their purpose in the sentence (like in German or Latin or Russian and many other European languages), and that there are certain ways that the noun endings change. They’re not always exactly predictable, but there are definitely patterns to it. There are also different adjective endings that make them match up with the corresponding noun that they modify.

I learned about some of the verb conjugations, and what a past tense verb generally looks like, and I found out that there are a lot more categories of verbs. There are also prefixes to verbs to indicate whether it’s the “perfective” version or the “imperfective” version of that verb, and this is something else that’s not predictable, but you just have to get used to it.

So, as I looked through this, I separated the ideas into “what to pay attention to when it comes up”, and “what I’ll just get used to as I read”. There was no reason for me to memorize which ending happens for masculine genitive singular nouns yet, because a lot of it you just have to know for each particular noun. Instead, I know to pay attention when certain endings happen, and that’s it. I’ll get used to them as I encounter them in my reading.

I now know some of the endings that indicate an adjective, adverb, or noun, and I know some of the ways that verbs are conjugated. I’d fail a school test on it all, but at least I know some of what’s out there.

I also learned a bunch of basic vocabulary. This is something that I might actually spend some time with flashcards or something. It can be really helpful to have a bunch of the basic words available in your head for when you encounter them in a book, even if you don’t remember their full meaning. Just being a little bit familiar with them will allow you to better guess them when you actually see them.

My general theme here is that I want a very broad sense of familiarity with the types of things that exist out there in the land of Polish, and some experience with what some of them look like. I don’t have to memorize any of them yet, I just want that vague sense of them so that things sort of “fall into place” as I read my parallel text.

Something I’m thinking of, but haven’t tried yet, is scanning through the English version of my current book, and picking out the really common verbs and nouns, and learning their Polish equivalents. In the beginning of “The Alchemist”, this will be words like shepherd and sheep, book and read, king, world, travel, etc. The main themes of the first chapter. Then when I go through it again in Polish, those words will serve as anchors, and I’ll be able to spend more time on the other words surrounding them.

Overall, I’ve spent about 10 hours this week investigating the general features of Polish in order to form a baseline to build from. This small amount of time has now enabled me to pick out some adjectives and nouns and recognize a few words when I listen to Polish audio that was previously totally incomprehensible. I’m happy with this progress so far, and I think this should allow me to make much better use of my time while I read my parallel texts.


The role of grammar descriptions in language learning

2011-03-14

In my mind, there’s a difference between grammar-only methods (like most classroom settings I’ve encountered), grammar-light methods, and no-grammar methods.

In many classrooms there’s such an exclusive focus on memorizing grammar rules that students don’t get enough exposure to the actual language to internalize it. It’s clear that at some point, the language must somehow be internalized, because we don’t speak our native language through a series of calculations, as grammar is taught.

Instead, I feel that grammar is more efficiently used as a reminder or a hint of what exists, and what patterns may occur as you read. This way, it becomes a helpful pointer toward what patterns you might notice. Sometimes it can be hard to notice those patterns on your own, if they have too many exceptions. Once you’ve had it pointed out though, then it becomes much easier to internalize it through extensive reading, which is where Krashen’s advice becomes valuable.

That said, if the patterns are already familiar, then you can just read. I’ve never in my life looked at any Dutch grammar, I just read parallel texts to learn it. The ideas were similar enough to German that I picked up the patterns very easily. And I was able to learn to understand German quite well without reading about grammar as well, although I did remember the basic conjugations from my high school classes more than a decade before.

In the coming months, as I start to get acquainted with Polish, I’m going to follow a similar strategy, even though the grammar is apparently much more complicated and unfamiliar. I’ll look at some simple examples just to see what’s out there, and then as I read I’ll mentally make a note of the patterns as I see them, and that way I’ll become familiar with them through exposure. I don’t think there’s really a need to suffer through a bunch of boring textbook exercises. I plan to just keep doing something fun.