Making a year-long language learning plan?


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).

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.

The magic of words


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 ausgeübt, 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 dziełem tylko tych istot, które mówią hardyckim narzeczem Światomorza albo też Dawną Mową, z której to narzecze wyrosło.

  • 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 Bannsprüche.
  • 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 język, którym mówią smoki, język, którym mówił Segoy, ten, co stworzył wyspy świata, język naszych ballad i pieśni, zaklęć, czarów i wezwań.

  • 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 słowa spoczywają, ukryte i zmienione, pomiędzy naszymi hardyckimi słowami.

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 “język, którym mówią smoki” and “język, którym mówił Segoy”. Without looking at any dictionaries, I would guess that mówi- is a stem for “to speak”, with -ą added for present and -ł added for past. I would also guess that język 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!

Extensive reading: what convinced me


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!

Getting started


I’ve had a number of personal requests lately about how to get started in a language. In the past week, I’ve been asked about how to study German, Mandarin, and Dutch. Although what I’ve said to these people has been tailored a bit to their experience, there are some common threads, mainly Independence and Curiousity.

A lot of people have this idea that learning comes out of a textbook. The textbooks or classrooms have all the knowledge inside of them, and you are the empty vessel. You pour the knowledge out of the textbook until it fills up your brain and then you know it! Simple, right?

In reality, learning anything, particularly a new language, is more about the habits that you form and the things that you do. You need to continually make contact with the language and try to understand it, and to enjoy it. When your only contact is a boring textbook, it’s hard to keep going back. It usually starts to feel like “work”.

So, what I’ve been recommending to these people is to make a personal habit of trying to read a book in that language, and to listen to real audio content. This usually takes a bit of explaining, because people will start saying “but that’s the end result I want, not the first step!”. Actually, you get good at books by reading books. They have the best content, and they will keep you coming back for more, which is exactly what you need to do over and over again.

My favourite part about starting a new language is that it feels like a mystery. When I started learning Swedish, I couldn’t read it at all, but the first thing I did was to order a copy of The Hobbit in Swedish. While I waited for it to arrive, I prepped myself lightly by reading a bunch of example sentences from a grammar book, just to get a quick overall taste of the language and what it looked like.

When the book arrived, I was in heaven. Here was an interesting book that I liked reading, except now it was all upside down and sideways. I knew the story was in there somewhere, and I had to tease it out. I sat down and started going through it sentence by sentence, looking up words that I didn’t know. To me it was like an Indiana Jones movie, except instead of some ancient language, I could just go to an internet dictionary or google translate and get the answer whenever I wanted! How easy. So much easier than hieroglyphics or something. This sort of detailed investigation is Intensive Reading, wherein you try to understand the meaning of every sentence.

I also alternated this with another task: Extensive Reading. The idea here is to drop your dictionary and not touch it at all. You should just move your eyeballs over all the words, and if you don’t know the word then just skip to the next word. You actually don’t need to look up anything at all. Just keep reading.

When I started back on German last year after a 10 year hiatus, I started with Harry Potter. With the German translation of book 1 in my hands, I hit play on the German audiobook version and started reading. I barely understood anything, since at the time I only had very basic knowledge of German. I definitely wasn’t perfect, or even good. If you wait until you’re good before you start reading, you’ll probably never get there.

So I started reading Harry Potter, and it went something like “blah blah with blah blah in the blah, Harry blah to blah Ron”. Very quickly though, I started noticing patterns. I recognized words that were related to English, and I recognized German words that were related to other German words that I knew. I also started to get clues based on the dramatic reading by the audiobook actor (in this case, German actor Rufus Beck, who is fantastic at reading audiobooks).

For Extensive Reading, you might want to have a goal of the number of words. I had read about some Japanese students who were reading English books, and they had a goal of 1 million (1,000,000) words read (without using the dictionary while reading). They said that if you read 1 million words, there’s no way that you can suck at that language.

They were right! By the time I hit the 1M word mark in German, I could enjoy any novel I picked up. I rarely had to use a dictionary any more, and there were very few words per page that were unfamiliar….I actually had to actively search to find words that I didn’t know. It varies a bit from book to book, so I started to seek out harder novels, but they soon became easy.

Even when they were hard, they were still enjoyable at some level. I might not have gotten every single word, and at the start it was most of the words that I didn’t get, but I could still follow some of the story and try to have fun with it. That kept me coming back for more, and ultimately led me to success.

So, before dismissing it as “impossible” or “too hard”, go find an easy “young adult” novel and give it a shot. Do whatever you like…dictionary, or no dictionary, or a combination of both. Anything that gets you in contact with the language will make you better at that language. Just find ways to have fun with it, and you will win.

Update: related follow-up post here: Extensive reading: what convinced me

What’s the best textbook for learning German?


this is a response to a question on the HTLAL forums about how to get started at German, from scratch

My recommendation is to focus on vocab and listening at the start, and gradually move into more and more reading (especially with audiobooks to go with the books).

At the start, you need to do a lot of listening in order to grasp the sound system and the rhythm of the language. Learn to love the sounds of it, and try to imitate it. You also need to rapidly learn the basic vocab so that you can start to understand some real sentences. A brief glance at some grammar examples will probably also help you to piece things together, but there’s no need to memorize any tables or anything.

For vocab, it can be quite handy to use some of those little phrasebooks. I’ve looked at a lot of German phrasebooks and compared, and I think that one of the best is the Kauderwelsch “German, word by word” phrasebook. There are actually a lot of nice explanations in it, and they do a word-by-word translation of all the phrases, in addition to the regular English translation. Another one that’s good just for sheer number of words, is the Lonely Planet German phrasebook.

You can also try downloading some of the shared decks in Anki, and working through those.

Ok, so the next step (or even simultaneous step) is to move into native materials, especially books. I recommend Harry Potter, since it’s fairly easy as novels go, and there’s a great audiobook. Rufus Beck reads the German audio version, and he’s fantastic! The problem for you is that at the start, you won’t know many of the words. You can balance this out a bit by spending more time at the start doing some lookups, but I also encourage you to just listen and read, even if you don’t get it all. You’ll get a lot from the voice-acting that Beck does, and from the surrounding words that you already understand from their relatives in English.

If you sit back and try to enjoy the book as much as you can, you’ll get into it a bit more and you’ll start getting partial meanings of the words from context. From the little bits and pieces that you get, you’ll be able to get more and more of the story. Keep a highlighter pen around for the words that you see multiple times and you really want to know. Just highlight it, and keep reading, and then you can go back later and look them all up at once and put them into Anki or some other flashcard program.

Last year I did something like this for several months. At the start, I hardly understood any of Harry Potter, and I also didn’t get much of the TV shows I was watching. By the time I got to book three in the Harry Potter series, I actually had begun to understand quite a bit. When I got to book 5 I understood almost everything.

The thing that’s nice about the audiobook is that it’ll keep pushing you through the text. Instead of going super slowly and getting stuck on every word, you’re pushed to try to make sense of the general story, and you get much more exposure to the language. You can go back and look up some of the words, but your desire to find out what happens in the story will keep you going back to the audiobook to find out.

Now, keep in mind that this is all passive. When I first got to Germany, I could read a real novel and understand almost everything, but I still spoke mostly like a beginner in terms of my expressive ability. At some point, you’re going to have to decide to start trying to speak, and there are differing preferences on when to do this. Some people prefer to start right away, but since you’re not coming to the country for a while then it should be fine if you decide to wait until you have high comprehension (because then you’ll have the handy ability to tell which things “just sound right” to you).

Above all, the most important thing is to find stuff that’s interesting to you. It doesn’t matter if everyone in the world rates a certain textbook as “super awesome” if you find it boring, because then you won’t continue with it. For most people, “interesting” usually equates with actual real native material such as books and movies, so then your task is to shoot through as much basic vocab as you can so that you can jump into native materials sooner. And don’t be afraid to use the native materials as your guide of which words to learn. You can learn the words as you come across them.

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.

a listener-friendly German accent


I’ve been having lots of fun chatting to people in German so far. The more I chat, the more I find holes in my vocabulary, but I can usually work around them. A lot of the time, I can say the word in English and people know it, even if they can’t converse much in English.

Since I’ve been here, almost everyone has been really enthusiastic about speaking to me in German. I think one part of this is my accent, since most people can’t place my native language. The Germans seem to think I’m Swiss, while the Austrians think I’m German. At least that’s their initial impression, until I start stumbling for words, and then they get this weird look on their face and ask me where I’m from.

When I speak, I try to use one of Benny‘s tips and smile a lot. If I were frowning and stumbling for words, then people might want to switch to English to make it easier, but if you smile and have a good time while stumbling for words, then it all works out and everyone continues in German. Smile and laugh while you say “sorry, I’m trying to improve my German” and everyone will be happy to help you out and compliment you.

There are times when the accent works against me, since people think I’m better than I am. I’ve had some people start using a bunch of local slang or dialect on me, so I have to tell them to speak clearly. I got pulled over by an Austrian cop last night while riding the wrong way down a confusing one-way street, and he started explaining my infraction with all these official sounding words until I said “woah woah, I’m a foreigner, slow down”. But at least he understood everything I said 🙂

Developing a listener-friendly accent requires a lot of listening. You also should have some knowledge about the physical production of the sounds, so that you can understand, for example, which part of your mouth should be used to make a German “R” (which seems to be a real problem for native English speakers). Some accent problems come in when you try and substitute one of your own language’s sounds for a letter in a word that is actually a different sound in the target language.

Particularly for English speakers here, if you try and say some German words using an English R and L sound, then the result will be confusing for the German listeners. If you can’t do the common back-of-the-tongue German R, then at least try to do a tip-of-the-tongue rolling R like russian or spanish, and people here seem to get that a bit easier. There are some native accents in southern Germany that use this rolling R more often than the back-of-the-tongue variety.

For a lot of English speakers, I think the R will come much easier once you’ve mastered the various sounds used for “ch”. The easiest is perhaps best described as the sound that a hissing goose makes. For those of you who’ve encountered an angry goose defending its young, you’ll recognize the noise I mean. They open their beaks wide, so the sound is clearly not a tip-of-the-tongue “ssssss”, but something else. This helps visualize the human equivalent, which is where the back of your tongue goes really close to the top of the back of your mouth, to make a “hhhhh” hissing sound. You might also try to visualize an angry cat hissing, which is the same sort of open-mouth idea. Practice making this sound to yourself for a while, and then you’ll be able to say “ich” properly, instead of the common mistake of saying “itch” or “ish” (which are both typical English front-of-the-mouth sounds). Also notice that in most cases, this “ch” is not like the harder Arabic noise…there’s no vibrating or spit-gargling. Don’t overdo it. Usually it’s very “clean” and smooth.

Once you can say “ch” properly, then you’re ready to move on to a good “r”. The sound is articulated in the same general area, although to me it feels slightly different. Try to start out by making a “ch” hiss, and then add some voicing to it. To make it work properly you’ll have to make a slight movement more towards the back of the mouth I think, but at least that’ll get you started in the right general area.

This R sound gets used at the beginning of words and after another consonant (like in the words “Rad” and at the beginning of “Trockner”). Keep in mind that German words ending in R don’t use the same sound. You can’t just use the same phoneme for every occurance of the letter R. At the end of words like “Trockner”, the “er” part sounds more like just “ah” with no clear “R” sort of sound (to my ears, anyway). If you start pronouncing the first R in “Trockner” the same as the last R, then I think you’ll start to sound more French or something.

Also, again I should stress that in most cases I don’t hear any sort of really hard R. It’s not usually a “rolling” thing at the back, and there’s no Klingon / Arabic vibrations. Try to make it soft and smooth. The number one rule is to listen a lot. Pick an audiobook or some other audio content that’s at least 15 – 30 minutes long, and practice listening for all the “R” sounds. Really listen hard to what sounds they’re making, and what sounds they’re NOT making. Pick one sound at a time to focus on, and just try to hear all of them without making too much effort to understand the actual words or content.

Another one to listen for is the German “L” sound. I might actually characterize this as more of a “European” L sound, since it seems to occur in French and Italian as well. It’s notoriously difficult for English speakers to grasp the difference between and English L and a German/French/Italian L, so make sure you listen carefully.

It’s even quite hard for me to describe the difference. I’m sure it’s an amusing scene here, as I sit in my friend’s kitchen in Vienna going “LLL” “lll” “LLL” “lll” trying to figure out what the heck my tongue is doing. It feels to me that the English L is more “closed”, with the back of the tongue squeezing closer to the back of the mouth (example: the word “ball”), making it a bit more nasal perhaps (“velarization” is the technical term), whereas the German/Italian/French L feels more “open” with easier airflow ability out the mouth.

As a decent approximation, try making an “awww” sound, and then slowly moving only the tip of your tongue up to touch just behind the teeth. While doing this, concentrate on making it an “awww” sound, and don’t think about making L sounds. If you unconsciously think too much about making it an L sound, you might automatically move the back of your tongue too, making it a velarized “dark L” from English. To make his new L sound, you have to retrain your mental autopilot.

Don’t forget to listen! Listen to hours of audio, and listen to yourself when you practice talking. If you have a transcript and some audio for it, then work on it in sections where you listen to a short section over and over again (maybe 20 to 50 times) to get it firmly in your head, and then try to repeat it many times while listening carefully to yourself.

I’ve ignored a lot of the subtleties here, so don’t complain too hard. This has been mostly an attempt to get the beginners up to speed a bit so they don’t sound so obviously like a typical English speaker. What I would love to hear from people, actually, is what other sounds give away a native English speaker when they speak German…any further suggestions?

out at the pub


I went out for drinks last night, here in Munich. It was a nice neighbourhood sort of pub/restaurant, slightly outside of the downtown area. As a spoken and listening exercise, it was quite fun.

One thing that I found was that the words I missed most while speaking, were considered rather simple. I need a lot more practice at regular everyday expressions. Having to use them is helping me a lot, although I still have to ask a lot of questions.

Generally, I’m finding conversations quite easy. The Germans I’ve talked to usually like to throw in a bit of English, but I’m ok with that. I usually use that as an opportunity to throw in English words of my own, and then immediately ask how to say them in German. It makes me comfortable to know that I can always get my point across through the use of multiple languages if necessary, and that comfort leads me to start and continue more conversations.

It really bothers me when I have to talk about really simplified things in a conversation, because the interest just dies and we run out of things to say. Part of this problem is solved by explaining to the Germans that I really do have a decent listening ability, even if my speaking hasn’t caught up. I encourage them to talk more, and to try to guess at what I’m saying. But by peppering in a few English terms with a questioning tone (to ask for the German version), I can advance the conversation quite a lot and learn some new words.

I need to get better at starting conversations, however. In the past, I haven’t really been one to start up random conversations in coffee shops, but now it’s becoming more of a necessity if I want to talk to people. I have to change the way I would normally act, and become someone different in order to achieve my goals. I’ll probably never see these people again anyway, so it won’t be a big deal if I “disturb” their coffee drinking with a little attempt at conversation.

If I don’t feel like conversing, I can always just retreat to my book. It’s something I really want to read, so it’s easy to get lost in it for hours. Perhaps it’s a bit more antisocial, but at least I’m still learning 🙂

Increasing confidence in speaking


I’ve been wandering around Munich for a few days, and I’ve had many more chances to speak. By now I’m quite convinced that it’s totally fine to wait until late in the game to speak. Spending so much time just listening and reading last year was the right thing to do.

With a pretty decent level of understanding, you can go quite far in practical situations. I’m finding it quite easy to pick up new words, because I can get them from context, or I can just ask someone what it means, and I usually understand their entire explanation. If I were working on a minor language (ie one that I don’t intend to pursue in-depth), then I’d be quite satisfied with my level right now. I can read novels that I like, I can go for dinner with friends and talk with their German-speaking parents. I can understand most of what people say in a noisy bar, and I can get my basic meaning across verbally.

German, however, is not a minor language for me, since I have some family background and other motivation to learn it. Therefore, much further work is required. One thing I’ve been trying to do is improve my verbal nimbleness. There are a lot of phrases that are still like tongue-twisters for me, especially when involving a mix of “ch”, “sch”, and “s” in sequence.

Good pronunciation is firstly a result of LOTS of listening, in combination with some knowledge of the general workings of the mouth, and some specific knowledge about what sounds exist in your target language. After that, you’ll have the tools required to practice speaking. Sure, try a bit out early on if you like, but at this point I sorta think that most of your speaking practice should wait until you have the above items first.

My personal speaking practice consists mainly of coming up with something I may need to say, and then trying some variations on it. I try to add more words to it, or say it differently, and then I repeat each of those a bunch while listening to myself very carefully, and trying to correct my mistakes. This sort of iteration is only worthwhile after LOTS of listening, because then you know a lot about what the language *should* sound like, so that you can correct yourself. This is even better to do if you have a native speaker around that can repeat the phrases over and over for you, and correct your mistakes, but it’s sometimes hard to find someone willing to do that for you, and they’re not usually present at all times when you wish to practice.

Today, I decided to work on my numbers a bit, which sounds like a basic topic, but I realized I don’t have them drilled into my head enough to be really natural at them, so I need more practice. My main problem is that 2-digit numbers in German are “backwards” compared to English, so something like “twenty-three” becomes “three-and-twenty” in German. It’s sort of embarrassing when someone asks for 24€ and you start looking for more than 40€ because you think they said 42€.

Anyway, as I was walking down the street by myself, I just started counting from 1 to 100 over and over. Every time I made a mistake, I’d go back to the nearest multiple of 10 and go through them again. My goal was to be able to do it fast and completely effortlessly, and I’m hoping that by drilling this into my head like this, I’ll also be able to recognize spoken numbers at lightning speed too. For every number I spoke out loud, I also visualized the written form.

During something like a bike tour, where you have plenty of “free” time during the day while you’re riding, it helps to also have a little notepad with you at all times. I tend to come up with a lot of things that I don’t yet know the words for, so then I write them down in my notepad to look up later, along with an example of what I was trying to say.

Things like this that have some personal importance to you are very valuable, because that experience of wanting to know them will aid your memory later when you actually look it up and try to use it in practice. If possible, you should also put anything you looked up into a flashcard program too, so then you won’t have to look it up in the future.

So, all this speaking practice is fine, but I also need more vocab! I just went to a bookstore here today and bought a novel. Last year, the latest book in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan (and now Brandon Sanderson) came out, but I was too busy working on my German reading skills to stop and read a big long English novel. Fortunately, it’s now available in a German translation, so I can finally read this eagerly-awaited continuation of the series, and also spend a lot of time studying German in the process. The best way to “study” is to do something you would do anyway, except all in your target language.