Learn by reading, personal example: Swedish


First I want to share this tweet with you:

Lately I’ve been trying hard to revive my Swedish skills, which I’ve somewhat neglected since coming to Germany. I’m trying now to make a concerted push to improve my Swedish literacy before the end of the year, but it’s been difficult. I really want to be able to read Stieg Larsson’s books in the original Swedish, but they’re over my level right now. I’m used to being able to read effortlessly in German, but with a difficult Swedish book like this it’s the opposite.

It’s taken a lot of effort, but I know that I just have to keep going and it’ll get easier. Literacy in another language follows the Pareto (aka 80/20) principle: 80% of the results are gained with just 20% of the effort. To get to that place of seemingly effortless reading, however, you have to be somewhere around 95% recognition, and that extra 15% takes at least as long as the first 80%.

When you keep on putting in the time, however, it actually will feel like you got there sooner than expected. Sometimes in the middle, you might feel down, but just keep on going. So, here’s what’s been going on for me lately…maybe some of you can relate.

I picked up Män som hatar kvinnor again some time last week (my first time reading Swedish since early september), turned on the audiobook, and promptly realized that I understood nothing at all. This worried me, because I had thought I had made some decent progress in Swedish. I decided that instead of the audiobook, I should spend some intensive time reviewing the vocab…by reading, of course.

So, with renewed enthusiasm, I grabbed the English version of the book, “The girl with the dragon tattoo”, and started working back and forth with the Swedish. I had to do a lot of work to figure out the Swedish sentences, and tried things like reading 1 chapter of English first, and then tried to read that chapter in Swedish, but it took too long. So I switched to 1 page of English, and then reading the equivalent page in Swedish, but it also took too long, so I moved down to paragraphs and sentences.

Slowly, my memory of some of the words started to come back, and I learned a lot of new ones. I remembered, though, that part of the slooowww speed was caused by my need to know absolutely every word precisely. This is unnecessary and harmful at the beginning, because you’re avoiding the benefits of the 80/20 rule! You’re trying to get all 100% of the words, which takes enormous time. Try instead to just worry about the more frequent words, or at least spend less time on the harder words. If you get the general idea, that’s enough for now, and you’ll quickly race up to the 80% level. From there, you can get more of the harder words.

My progress has been ramping up. Now I’m able to read more fluidly, and faster. Speed is important, because you have to read at a reasonable speed in order to enjoy the story. If you go too slowly, it gets really boring and you get tempted to give up. You should sacrifice accuracy for speed until you reach the pace that keeps the story enjoyable. Accuracy will catch up after that.

Remember that it often only takes just a little bit more effort to make that breakthrough you’ve been waiting for. Sometimes you might feel down because it’s taking too long, but you need to somehow make up some reasons to keep going for one more week, one more day, one more hour. All that matters is that you keep trying again. Keep starting over, try one more time. All that time adds up, and at some point it’ll “click”.

For extra fun, go back to one of your easier books after you’ve tried a hard one for a while. You’ll see that it’s actually gotten much easier due to your efforts. Any way that you can demonstrate your progress to yourself is helpful. Another way is to keep a hard book around, and every once in a while do a “test” where you pick a random page from the middle and count up what percentage of the words you recognize. You could even do this every day and make yourself a graph, if you like. You’ll see that the amount you recognize goes steadily upward over time, as long as you keep on trying to read.

Keep starting, keep trying, keep going, keep reading. It works.

How can I learn a language quickly from novels?


I thought I’d elaborate a bit today on how to use novels effectively to study a language. I was inspired to try this mainly by three people: Khatsumoto from AJATT, Steve Kaufmann (who says he learned most of his 11 languages just by reading and listening), and the late great Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb (who worked professionally in 16 languages).

The key to acquiring a language is comprehensible input. Your task as the learner is to find ways to make some text or audio at least minimally understandable, and to consume as much of it as you can. Your brain will pretty much unconsciously do the rest of it. For this reason, some people like to use that term “acquire” rather than “learn”, with regard to languages.

Here’s something I found on wikipedia, about Kato Lomb’s methods of learning from novels:

She attributed her success to massive amounts of comprehensible input, mostly through recreational reading. She was personally very interested in grammar and linguistics, but felt it played a small role in language acquisition, loved dictionaries but looked up words when she read only if the word re-appeared several times and she still did not understand it

I agree wholeheartedly with this idea. As I’ve said previously, using the dictionary while reading will kill your flow and slow you down. It’ll prevent you from absorbing as much as you might have. Use a highlighter while you read, and then do your dictionary work after you’re done your reading session (and sometimes you’ll discover that the dictionary merely confirms what you already suspected).

So, if you’re starting a new language, or even continuing to learn after having learned a lot already, how can you make new harder books more comprehensible? In general, I’d say that grammar is not the answer. Grammar is acquired naturally from reading, although I’ve found that it can sometimes be useful spending a tiny tiny fraction of your time just taking a quick skim over some grammar example sentences that illustrate a certain concept.

There is one textbooky thing that actually can help significantly though, and that is vocabulary work. Firstly, don’t think that you can learn all about each word and all its various meanings and uses just by memorizing lists. You can only learn this stuff from context, i.e. reading books and listening. What you can get from lists though, is a sort of outline or general meaning of a word…a sort of sense for it, devoid of context. This is helpful as a way to bootstrap yourself…to get started, with a bit of a sense for common words, which will let you more easily dive into real content where you’ll really learn things. However, I only find this helpful at the very start, perhaps by blasting through the 500 most common words in the language in a day or two.

So, vocab lists can be pretty boring. What I generally find more interesting is to move straight to real books by getting two copies: one in English and one in my target language (“L2”, as they say). Besides being less boring, you actually learn much more this way. I’ll give a quick outline of what I do.

Firstly, one of my current projects is Swedish. I’m fighting a bit of personal disappointment at the moment, because I can read advanced German novels very easily, but not in Swedish….currently I’m reading the German translation of Brandon Sanderson’s first “Mistborn” book, a rather good novel of what some might call “high fantasy”. I’d love to be able to read effortlessly in Swedish too, but so far I’m finding my copies of Stieg Larsson’s books to be a bit tough.

So, I’m working on this in two ways: Intensive Reading and Extensive Reading. For the Extensive part, wherein I try to just read as much as I can without interruptions, I’ve chosen two easier books: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho (which is quite good!), and “The boy in the striped pyjamas” by John Boyne. They both have very few infrequent technical words, and lots of dialogue, so they’re perfect to just listen to in Swedish while I read the Swedish book.

For the Intensive part, I focus on learning as many new words as I can, in context. For this, I pick any book I want, as long as I have both the Swedish and English versions. The reason for this is that it saves me a ton of time on dictionary lookups if I can just glance over at the English edition to figure out what’s going on. For this task, I’m using the first Stieg Larsson book, known in English as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, although the Swedish title is “Män som hatar kvinnor” (“men who hate women”).

In this book, there are many words I already know, but still quite a few that I don’t. I work through each sentence, and try to understand every single word in it, and the whole idea of the overall sentence (and the paragraph). I keep the English book on the same page, with my finger on the current paragraph so I can find it easily. I focus on the Swedish book, and try to figure out each sentence in my mind, and then if I have any questions I go to the English book.

Once I’ve read the English, I go back and read the entire Swedish paragraph again and try to understand all the details without looking at the English. I try to keep the words in my head, and really “feel” their meaning in that context. I don’t just want to repeat the English translations for each of them in sequence…I want to really feel what those words themselves mean in that sentence.

The purpose of the English is to give you comprehension of everything. You don’t need to memorize corresponding words, and actually the words don’t typically match exactly anyway. They only mostly match in this particular context. You want to extract the ideas of the story, and use that to understand the particular words in the L2 book. All you have to do is understand the L2 text as you read it, and this is enough.

Working slowly through the text this way can give you a lot of vocabulary very quickly. You don’t have to look up each individual word, and you can potentially learn several new words in each sentence, with very little effort. Also, once you’ve worked through a whole page, you can go back and read that page in the L2 all at once, and feel the satisfaction of understanding every single thing you saw.

I recently heard about another way to increase your feelings of satisfaction while doing this. Someone named “Teango” on HTLAL says that he uses a “clicker” to track all the new words he figures out. This is one of those small counting devices commonly used by officials in sports events. You hit a button or turn a dial so that it “clicks” up to a higher number.

Teango uses one of these to “click” every new word that he figures out that he hadn’t previously known. He might read part of the English text, and then come back to his L2 and see some word that he didn’t know before, but now he has a moment of epiphany as he realizes what it means, and then he clicks the clicker. At the end of his reading session, he writes down how many hours he spent, and how many clicks he had, so that he can track how many new words he’s learned overall. As he goes, he gets the satisfaction of watching that number go higher and higher. Apparently after a while, just the sound of the click itself makes him feel happy, as a sort of pavlovian response. There’s a more detailed description of his reading method here. You’ll see it if you scroll down to the bottom of that page.

So, coming back to my Stieg Larsson book, I’m going to work through the whole thing trying to understand every single word in it. I imagine that by the time I get only partway through, I’ll know almost every word there. By that point, I’ll just stop to check the English when a certain single word is causing me trouble, and then my Intensive work will slowly be transforming itself into Extensive. By the end of the year I plan to be effortlessly reading any Swedish book I like.

Overall, to acquire a language quickly, you just need entertaining materials that you’ll keep coming back to, and some way to make them at least a tiny bit comprehensible. If you just keep sticking a book in front of your eyeballs enough, you will learn a lot from it, even if it seems really really hard at the start. Working with a translation to help you along is a way to make that feel easier and to wring every last drop of knowledge out of it.

Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions 🙂

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

10 days of intense Swedish: day 9


In an attempt to bring up my Swedish comprehension level, I’ve been trying a little experiment. I’m trying to see how much time I can put in over a 10 day period, focusing on Listening-Reading. Using English text and Swedish audio, I’m studying at least 5 hours per day, and trying for more. While not for the faint of heart, this method suits me right now because I have a block of spare time, so I can throw all of my effort into this project. So far, after 8 days I’ve done 44.5 hours of studying in this fashion. Today is day 9.

I’ve discovered two difficulties. One is obviously to do with time. If I waste 15 minutes every hour chatting with people on the internet and surfing web pages, then it’s actually quite a significant fraction of my daily time, even though it seems insignificant in the moment. On the day where I tried the hardest, it took me over 15 hours to get 10 hours of productivity, but on most days it was far less than that. That extreme day meant that I only got up to cook/eat/shower, and I didn’t even leave my apartment the entire day. Not very sustainable, but it was interesting.

Incidentally, I also thought it would be easy to get 8 hours of productivity in, because it’d be similar to an office work-day. I found out, however, that in any 8 hour period of a “work-day”, not all of it is productive time. Trying quite hard, I’d be lucky to get 6 hours of productivity over that 8 hour period, which I suspect is actually far more than I ever did at a real job. It’s really hard to stay on-task for that length of time.

The next problem is attention. While raw time is important, its value will vary depending on how much attention you can pay to the various language features you encounter. While Listening-Reading, I noticed that sometimes I would get absorbed in the English text and block out the Swedish audio, and other times I was only half-listening to the Swedish audio, but not trying super hard to pick out every single word and come up with the meanings.

Overall I found this method quite satisfying. I fully understood everything since I was reading in English, but I was also picking up a lot of new Swedish words from the audio. So far I’ve read John Boyne’s The boy in the striped pyjamas (“Pojken i randig pyjamas”), Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (“Alkemisten”), Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and most of Stieg Larsson’s The girl with the dragon tattoo (“Män som hatar kvinnor”).

One thing I’d prefer in the future is to use parallel texts, where each sentence or paragraph of English is matched up with the transcript of the target-language audio. This would be vital for starting a language from scratch, I think, but I managed without it this time because of my previous experience with Swedish using other study methods. I haven’t created parallel texts yet for my Swedish books because I’ve had a lot of problems finding PDFs of the Swedish text online, so I’ve had to settle for my regular Swedish paperbacks. I have some tentative plans in the near future to try this method from scratch for other languages, and for those I’ll definitely be using line-by-line parallel texts.

I’m continuing today, after I get a few things done in the real world. I’m enjoying my new apartment here in Berlin, but I still have to buy some vital things like a fridge. It’s fun to ignore the world and study Swedish all day, but responsibilities sometimes intervene.

I should be able to easily reach 50 hours total by the end of my 10-day study period, but I also hope that I can raise that to 100 hours by the end of the month. Hopefully that should put me on pretty firm ground in Swedish, and I’ll be able to continue my studying a little bit more casually by just reading a lot of books whenever I have the chance.

dictionary surfing


I decided that I should write more about my daily language learning, which I hope will help people more than just ranting about various theory topics. Today I’ve been doing what I call “dictionary surfing”.

This is an activity that I started doing while I was in China in 2007. I had a nice big dictionary that was only one direction: Chinese to English. What I would do is start with some text that I was reading (a textbook, a book, any source of your desired language), and I’d pick any word that I didn’t know. Then I’d look it up, and (here’s the important part) read the example sentences or phrases listed for it.

This part is why I mentioned that the dictionary was one direction; I’ve found that generally in a one-direction dictionary, they’re not so worried about cramming in every possible word, so they usually add better entries. A dual direction dictionary has half the space, so they typically have fewer details (although there are exceptions, of course). As a side note, my favourite online dictionary for Chinese is nciku because it has plenty of example sentences.

So, I find a word, I look at the example sentences. Somewhere in those example sentences there’ll be other words that I don’t know. Whichever words are somehow interesting or useful, or otherwise catch my eye, are then looked up themselves. I just repeat this process as a way to “surf” through the dictionary by following whatever interests me.

When I was in China, I hadn’t yet discovered the wonders of SRS software like Anki, so I would just write down neat phrases in my notebook and try to review them later. Now that I have the advantage of an SRS, I enter any interesting phrases into Anki and then it’ll tell me when to review them so I don’t have to worry about remembering them.

This is what I’m doing right now for Swedish. I really want to be able to read these Stieg Larsson books that I bought in Sweden, but there’s lots of unknown vocabulary. In order to build my vocabulary a bit more, I’m trying to do some dictionary surfing every day to find new and interesting words. I flip open the book to a random page, and start looking for words that I don’t know. I’m just using the book as a starting place to find words, but I don’t have to stick to only the words I find in the book. Typically I’ll find 4 or 5 more words through surfing before I hit a dead end and go back to the book. I’m looking them up using the Norstedts online dictionary, which has plenty of example phrases.

I find that with this method, I can quite comfortably learn 10 new words every day. Sometimes I can do a lot more, but 10 is an easy number. As long as I have them entered with an example sentence in Anki, then I don’t have to remember to go back and review them later. They’ll just come up naturally in my daily review session, which I usually do every morning as soon as I wake up.

As long as I keep doing a little bit every day, then I know that I’m making steady progress. Some days I do more, some days less. I can adjust according to my mood that day. I don’t need to feel guilty about the days where I do less, because I know my number of cards in my Anki deck is still steadily increasing.

finding swedish dictionaries


Just a tip for those of you searching for online dictionaries for your favourite language…sometimes searching in English really doesn’t work. For example, I’ve been really dissatisfied with the dictionary sites I’ve found for Swedish but I couldn’t find anything better for a while. My favourite German dictionary site, dict.cc, is also in the process of creating a Swedish section of the site, but it only has about 10000 entries right now. Maybe later once more user-submitted entries are filled in, then it’ll be better.

So I searched (once again) for Swedish dictionary sites and came up with just crap. They seemed to be sites that were just hastily slapped together with bad dictionary content, and some of them wouldn’t even let me search for words with “å” in them, which is vital. Most of these sites just added Swedish so that they could have another language link at the side, to make them look extensive, and then they hope that the majority of their users won’t bother to look at the unpopular crappy Swedish section of their site.

The solution to this was to search in Swedish. Instead of searching for “swedish dictionary”, I searched for “svenska ordbok”. I immediately came upon tyda.se, which has a pretty ajax interface and seems to have a decent dictionary. My guess is that there are just not that many English speakers searching for Swedish dictionary sites, whereas a relatively high percentage of Swedes want one.

Another search tip is that you can have Google return multiple language results at the same time. Go to “Settings” in the top right, and then “search settings”, and then you can choose all the language results you want it to return, and hit save.

That’s all for now, I’m going back to working on my Swedish vocabulary 🙂

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.

first afternoon in Berlin.


I visited with Benny the Irish Polyglot today, and had a pleasant conversation over lunch. He encouraged me to jump right into Swedish and find some Swedes here in Berlin to talk to. He also stressed the usefulness of CouchSurfing as a method for just meeting people. The accommodations part of it is only incidental.

He got me thinking about taking one of the Goethe Institute language tests too. He just recently did the C2 test, which is the highest level. He got his results back today, but I’ll let him tell the story on his own blog. 😉

Let me just say that it was ballsy for him to even think of taking the test so soon. He had some high-school German knowledge from years ago, but his speaking was hopeless when he first came here (very similar to me). My speaking has ramped up rather quickly since I’ve been here, but I need work in certain areas and I need to develop the fluidity of my speech a little bit. That’ll come with speaking practice, I suppose. I would also need to specifically target certain grammar aspects that I normally try to gloss over.

This has me thinking, though. In order to fulfill one of my goals of becoming a software translator, it’d be really handy to have such an official certification stating that I have a high level of German, which would go well with my existing resume full of computer skills. And while I’m a social person, I also pride myself on my self-study skills, and tests are basically all about studying. I think it’d be up my alley.

It also has me thinking quite a bit about whether I could manage to get a C1 (2nd highest) certification in Swedish before I leave Sweden at the end of September. It’s sort of thrilling to me to have such a challenge. Perhaps that would help motivate my studies a bit, besides the communicative aspect.

I have no idea how tough it would be, but I’m willing to give it my best shot. I’ve already spent plenty of time on Swedish, and I’ve still got 2 and a half months to go until the end of September. I guess it’s doable, so I’ll just have to aim high….and it will be high indeed, in the number of study hours required.

By study here, I don’t necessarily mean reading a bunch of dry grammar explanations and doing textbook exercises. Instead, I’ll be concentrating on finding audiobooks that I enjoy (probably the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, with which I am intimately familiar), and then just simultaneously reading and listening for as many hours per day as I can, while occasionally picking out some new vocabulary for later review. That part is not exactly Benny’s style, but I enjoy it.

The thing that *is* Benny’s style is getting out to meet people and have fun socially, which for me is where the speaking practice comes in. I’m content to learn the content of the language from reading my favourite books/audiobooks, but it doesn’t translate directly into speaking skills. I was very familiar with German when I got here, but I stumbled through my speech constantly. A certain amount of speaking practice is absolutely necessary, no matter how good your listening comprehension is.

Perhaps the best thing for me to do at this time would be to come up with another spreadsheet to track my Swedish progress, and have some targets to meet, with the end goal being a C1 certification. Then it’ll just be a matter of filling in the blanks each day and marching towards completion.

first (brief) swedish conversation


I was just sitting in the common room of a hostel here in Bratislava listening to the Germany vs. Uruguay match while reading Olle Kjellin’s Accent Addition article, when I happened to notice that the fellow sitting beside me had a novel with a Swedish title!

I pointed at the book and asked him “är det svenska?” in my best Swedish accent and he replied “ja…men du talar svenska…” (yes, but you speak Swedish). I told him “jag vill lära mig” (i want to learn). He asked where I’m from, and was surprised when I said Canada, so then he asked (still in Swedish) why the heck I was learning Swedish, at which point I had to break the chain and reply in English.

So far this is encouraging, since I’ve been worried that all the Swedes I meet will automatically jump to English once they hear I’m from Canada. It was nice to have a counterexample. It also reminded me that I should find some “connectors” for Swedish conversation, similar to the czech connectors I’ve seen before…I like the idea.

Getting back to Olle Kjellin’s article for a moment (which is good, go read it), I’ve prepared some materials for my long train ride tomorrow. I sliced out a few sentences from a Swedish audiobook that is read by a particularly pleasing voice. My plan is to listen to each of them a few dozen times, and then if I have some time alone (so that I don’t sound like a fool) I’ll try and repeat them along with the recording. The goal will be to use the recording to correct myself, and to hear the sound of my own voice making the correct sounds with the correct rhythms. Auditory feedback is very important when speaking, so it’s important to train yourself in what it sounds like when you speak correctly.

I also have plenty of listening materials, and I might try to simultaneously listen to a Swedish audiobook while reading he translated text in English, and see if I can pick up some new vocabulary that way. I’d prefer to also read the Swedish text, but I don’t have any Swedish books with me right now, so that will have to wait until I arrive in Sweden later this month (although if anyone knows of a Berlin bookstore that has some Swedish books, please let me know right away).

studying while on bike tour


Today, a little excerpt from my bike touring journal over on the “crazy guy on a bike” website. For those not following along, I started in Frankfurt on July 1st, and I’ve ridden about 550km so far and have arrived in Munich, where I’m staying for about a week.


I might go into town later today, but that might not happen if I decide to take a nap or something. Until then, I’m working on languages again. With nothing pressing to do, I can work on my hobbies a bit.

Since I got some books the other day in Augsburg, I’ve been browsing through them a bit. The German bike-repair book is quite interesting, because it’s full of words I’ve never seen. I didn’t previously have any exposure to bike-specific terms, and this one does a good introduction. It’s aimed at total beginners, so it explains exactly how every part works, which makes it pretty easy to figure out the names for the parts just from context.

I also looked through my book on 1000 common Swedish words, which is written in German. It seems that reading has done a lot for me, because I know pretty much all the general words, and most of the specific ones. It’s more of a passive knowledge…I can’t recall a lot of them if I try to think of how to say something, but when I read or hear them then I know right away. I’ll have to go through it more thoroughly and see if there are any that I’ve missed, and add them to my flashcard program.

Although I’m feeling rather motivated to work on German and Swedish, the more urgent task is to do a bit of review on Esperanto, since I’ve got 3 weeks left until I start the week-long course in Slovakia. I have a bunch of 15-minute podcasts from Radio Verda to listen to, which were actually produced by a couple in Vancouver. They come out with a new one every week or two, and have over 100 online, so I downloaded a few dozen of them. I also have my Esperanto copy of “The Hobbit” with me for reading, although that doesn’t work so well when I’m riding.

I’ve actually really enjoyed listening to audiobooks as I ride. The countryside is quite peaceful, and I’m usually on roads with no cars, so audiobooks are the perfect passtime. Having hours and hours of extra listening time in German is really helping my comprehension and vocabulary too, so it’s a good combination. It lets me prioritize speaking practice when I actually meet up with people.

The opportunities for language learning are really great here. I’m quite jealous of the ability of people here to travel short distances from home and encounter a different language. The Dutch bike tourist I met here, for example, has been to Germany many times and is decent at German. There are some people here from Italy and Spain, although it seems that for them German is a bit of a stretch…it’s perhaps a lot easier for the Dutch since their own language is so similar.

It’s an interesting experience being in a place where everyone expects other people to know and speak other languages around them. In Vancouver, this is usually something that separates people a lot…people tend to form cliquey groups with their own language speakers. But here, although people join conversations in their own language more easily, most people also mix around and try to find common ground with the others.

Everyone is also quite tolerant of language mistakes, since it’s just a common occurance, and they know that not everyone can be expected to learn every language. Contrast this with the English-speaking culture of North America, wherein everyone is expected to learn lots of English to a high level, and where English speakers constantly make the assumption that they won’t have to learn anything else because the “middle ground” is always English.

This leaves people in quite a comfortable position if they already speak English, and not much motivation to branch out. I think this comfort also breeds expectation and assumption. Perhaps people just need to have things stirred up a bit more, so they don’t get complacent, which is exactly what happens here in Europe.

I’ve also started talking to other people about language-learning. Most people are quite amused to hear my story of having used hundreds of hours of Star Trek and CSI in German, and having read multiple Harry Potter books in German while listening to the audiobook in German too. Somehow, less focus on proper “study” makes them think that I’m some sort of language “genius”, but isn’t it odd that the people who speak the most languages all tell the common story that exposure to input is the most valuable thing you can do? Those who have trouble with languages (of which I was recently one), complain a lot about the defficiencies of classroom instruction and official “study”, whereas those who just find lots of ways to enjoy content in their target language talk about how fun it is, and how successful they’ve been.