Learning Chinese vocabulary

2011-04-26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6WC: Spanish!

2011-04-16

I’ve decided to join in on a project announced on HTLAL, which is a “6 week challenge” (6WC) in Spanish. Participants are expected to be at a beginner level in Spanish, and we see how much we can accomplish in 6 concentrated weeks, starting on May 1. My previous experience in Spanish consists of one university course that I took in 2002 or so, so I’ve previously studied a bunch of the grammar and basic vocab, but I have a lot of trouble reading real things, and I can’t speak it or understand it when spoken.

The idea of the 6WC is to work hard for 6 weeks to achieve whatever you can. In many cases, the same results can be achieved by lowering your allowed time period, creating some urgency for yourself. We hope to work harder than we normally would, due to this. We’ll also be able to easily sense the “end” of that period (although many of us may continue working afterwards anyway). Having the end in sight can help eliminate that sense of floating where you wonder what you’re doing and for how long.

With a short time limit like this, we also tend to get a lot of people who will join the challenge, since they can afford to spend that short period of time working with us. We plan to use a twitter bot to keep track of our work and create a “high score” sheet for amount of work, which will hopefully offer another type of motivation. We’ll also be making comments about what types of things we’re doing as we study, which will offer inspiration and motivation too.

I think I have some easy stuff in mind to start on, but I’m looking for further suggestions of Spanish authors to read. I’d like to try some poetry by Neruda and Lorca, since I’ve heard there are some parallel versions around, but some interesting novels would be good too.

Currently I’m still in Berlin, staying with some friends. My flight back to Canada is in a few days, and then I have a week to relax until the 6WC starts 🙂


Dealing with doubts about Dutch

2011-01-25

I’ve been having trouble keeping up my motivation in the past few days. My mind has been clouded by negative thoughts such as “I’ll never understand spoken Dutch better than I do now, so there’s no point in trying”.

It’s funny what the mind will come up with in the face of a challenge. I know from my own prior evidence that all I have to do is keep going and I’ll get there, but somehow these thoughts start coming up when I can’t see immediate progress from the activities I’m doing. I find that at these moments, it’s vital for me to have some other pre-defined numerical goals. For instance, I won’t stop reading until I’ve read 1 million words, and I’ll do at least 200 hours of study by the time the 6 week period ends.

These sorts of goals are independent of my current skill in the language, so they’re immune to any negative thoughts that may arise. As Khatsumoto says, the only way to fail is to stop, so I try to keep this in mind and focus purely on my numbers.

I think one of the major factors in this unfortunate mindset is uncertainty. I’m not sure how much spoken ability I’ll have at the end, which makes me want to drop some of my input time and focus on output, but then that makes me then worry that I won’t be able to understand spoken Dutch enough. I solve this by throwing out any new plans that interfere with my satisfaction, and to me the primary satisfaction will come from being able to first understand anything said in Dutch, which means I need to stop worrying about my output and just trust that it’ll come later after my understanding is increased.

Anyway, I’m over half-way to my stated time goal of 200 hours now. I’ve clocked 108 hours of Dutch study time so far this month, which is 54% of my goal, accomplished in 59% of the time…so I’ve still got some work left ahead of me.

Ok, time to get back on the clock. I’ve still got 3 hours left in my day, so it’s time to make them count 🙂


Dutch update: vocab self-test (91 hrs)

2011-01-22

I just did another vocabulary self-test. This time I used a 704-word selection from somewhere in the middle of the 2nd Stieg Larsson book. I chose this book because I know there’s some pretty advanced vocab in it, much more than in Harry Potter.

Out of 704 words, I had good knowledge of 678 words, giving me a score of 96.4%. I also had good comprehension of the text…in fact it felt nice to read, so I might be able to make an attempt at the airplane test” soon, which was one of my stated goals. This somewhat surprised me, since in the past few days it’s felt like I’ve been making zero progress, despite getting dozens of study hours in. The problem is just that the overal percentage recognition is only going up a tiny percent, so it’s hard to notice without computing some statistics like this. Therefore, for further projects I think I’ll administer these self-tests more often, to keep up my motivation.

Another bit of motivation was to write down all the unrecognized words and look them up afterwards. I noticed that there were several “unknown” words that I should have guessed from German, such as “onderzocht” (untersucht), “buik” (Bauch), bestaan (bestand), etc. This means that there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit left to pluck, if I keep working at it.

Since I’m currently at about 400000 words read, I’m now pretty confident that once I hit 1 million words read, I’ll be at a very satisfactory reading level. This mirrors my experience with German, where I was already at quite a decent level of comprehension by the 400000 word mark, and quite happy with my results after 1 million words.


Fun with Esperanto Wikipedia

2010-12-27

As you read this on Monday, I’ll be on the train to a week-long Esperanto new years party called JES. Stay tuned for more from me when I get back in January and start working on Dutch!

Lately I’ve been puzzling over new ways to practice active language skills. Over the past few years I’ve become much more skilled at acquiring passive language skills (reading / listening / understanding), but I haven’t really gotten the hang of the active part as much as I hoped.

When I arrived in Germany, it was extremely easy for me to understand what everyone was saying and what was on all the signs and menus, because I had already read a dozen full books in German, watched hundreds of hours of TV, and listened to a lot of audiobooks, all while I was working full time back in Canada to save up for the trip. As I started trying to speak to people, my active skills developed at a reasonable pace, proportional to how much speaking I did, and it was greatly helped by my ability to understand everything my other conversation partners were saying in return.

Esperanto, on the other hand, has been somewhat of a different story. I learned the basics through some step-by-step lessons in about 35 hours, and then I was able to read a lot of sites I found on the internet somewhat successfully (like an article from some Japanese antiwar activists who were writing, in Esperanto, about their country’s unconstitutional contributions to the Iraq War). I didn’t do that much reading in it at all, although I did a bit of listening to the Radio Verda podcasts, which are, incidentally, produced by two people in my home town of Vancouver (although I haven’t yet met them).

With Esperanto, I didn’t have as much of the intuitive sense of the language that I had with German, and I felt rather frustrated in my attempts to speak it. I had heard a lot of other people saying that Esperanto was the language that they felt most at home with, other than their native language, but I didn’t feel this at all.

I realized that the unique feature of Esperanto that comes into play here, is that the grammar is completely regular, which allows you to follow your intuitions and know that you’ll always be right, despite not being a native speaker. There’s no need to spend years receiving the input required to learn all the annoying exceptions that occur in the other languages.

With that in mind, I set out to pursue an output-oriented activity in Esperanto: I started editing articles in the Esperanto Wikipedia. My plan was to pick some Esperanto articles that need a bit of work, and then look for a larger article in the English Wikipedia and translate a section to add back to the Esperanto side.

It turns out that Esperanto Wikipedia is quite a fun project on its own. It already has around 138000 articles currently, which puts it among the top ranks in terms of size, compared to all the other languages. Compared to the estimated 1M – 2M speakers of Esperanto (very few of whom are natives), this is an exceptionally high ratio of articles to speakers. To make things more interesting, there’s also a system to show the List of 1000 articles every Wikipedia should have, which ranks the different Wikipedias according to the size of their verions of these 1000 articles. Stubs (less than 10kB) are worth 1, medium articles (10kB – 30kB) are worth 4, and large articles are worth 9 (more than 30kB). The overall score is then normalized to a score out of a possible 100, by dividing the total by 90.

If you look at the resuls of this “quality” metric, it’s interesting to note that Catalan is in the top position, above English. English has far more articles than Catalan, but of those important 1000 articles, Catalan has more detail. It appears that there’s some group of Catalan speakers who are quite dedicated to ensuring that their wikipedia is of high quality (which I think is a rather good idea, considering that the language was suppressed in various areas of public life under the Franco dictatorship, until his death in 1975) . In this ranking, Esperanto is in 33rd place, lacking none of the 1000 articles, but with only 57 of those in the “large” category.

For me, this means great fun! There’s a high score list, and anyone can help increase the greater glory of Esperanto ;). So I started picking some articles that sounded interesting, and read their Esperanto versions. Then I picked a section of the English version that looked easy to translate, and started working on it, trying to get my chosen article up past the 10kB mark into the realm of “medium” articles, which increases its worth from 1 to 4 points out of a possible 9.

At first, I was going quite slowly. I had to look up a lot of words, and I had to ask for a lot of help in formulating the sentences to convey the exact meaning I was looking for. If I were just chatting on the street, I probably would have been close enough for the other person to figure out what I meant, but it was harder to get the precision that I wanted for Wikipedia.

I spent most of this past week hacking away on various articles. The hard work paid off, though. My production speed has greatly increased, and now I can much more easily spot errors in other people’s writing. I can compose things from scratch, and I can translate with ease. I’ve also solidified the basic vocabulary much more, and learned a lot of rather obscure words too. Most importantly, the task was fun to do, which allowed me to continue for several hours each day without feeling like it was “work”.

So, I’m now feeling quite ready to spend the next week speaking nothing but Esperanto with friends and new acquaintances at JES, which will be held in a small town called Burg in the Spree forest just south of Berlin. Among the more than 300 attendees will be Chuck Smith, the founder of the Esperanto Wikipedia, who currently writes at the Transparent Language Esperanto blog, and is good friend of mine here in Berlin. Also a very good friend, the very experienced polyglot known to some of you on HTLAL as Sprachprofi will be coming, as well as globe-trotting polyglot Benny Lewis.

See you in January 🙂


Curiosity, complexity, and appreciation

2010-12-15

A big part of what makes me me, is curiosity. Following my sense of curiosity has led me down many new paths, and each of those paths has changed who I am. When you’re curious, you learn to see that each thing has its own uniqueness, and its own complexities. You learn to appreciate more things, because you know that beneath the surface, there’s something complex waiting to be discovered. Curiosity, for me, is about wanting to dive into that complexity and see all of it.

If you want to complete some big project, perhaps because of some end goal like a job, money, etc, then it can be hard to find the continuing motivation to complete the whole thing just by thinking about that end result. When you do this, it’s really just the end thing that you want, not the long process of getting there. Accomplishing great things is much easier when you cultivate a sense of wonder. Learn to see your chosen subject as an intricate and complex thing that is worthy of study just by itself.

By choosing to see all the internal and external connections and structures, you start to see the beauty of your topic. Something that may have previously seemed like a chaotic mess starts to become beautiful as you discover the patterns in it. Even as you see more and more patterns, there will still be areas that seem too complicated or too difficult, but this just means that there’s more left to discover.

In the case of languages, each language is its own landscape. There are historical relationships with other languages (as hinted in my previous post showing the similarities between English, German, and Dutch). There are many levels of structure in languages, and each of them can be interesting…from pronunciation to spelling to word morphology, sentence structure, sentence meaning, discourse, etc. Some people write their whole PhD thesis on tiny subsets of these things, so there’s a lot in there to investigate. There are also the many past accomplishments and creations by users of the language. There are many levels of meaning behind the great poets and novelists in each language. There’s no reason to ever get bored while learning a language, because there’s just so much to see.

When you view it this way, the end goal becomes somewhat secondary. You don’t see it every day because it’s in the far future. What you encounter every day is the neat little patterns that form the bits of the language. As you read a book, you might notice words that are related to some other word in another language…like Swedish “nog” that roughly corresponds to German “genug” and English “enough”. Finding little things like that is what interests me about a language, and it keeps me going.

Another example of interesting complexity is the world of birds. When I tell people that I like to go bird-watching, sometimes they ask something like “oh, so you like to count how many crows and pigeons you see?” What’s happening is that they’re failing to see the complexity of life, which allows it to be interesting. If all there was to birds was just crows and pigeons, then it’d obviously be boring. With only two things to see, you’d exhaust the space of possibilities pretty fast.

In fact, at most times of the year in my home town of Vancouver, there are over 150 types of birds that you can find in the surrounding area. In both Winter and Summer, I can take you to some of the parks within the city and show you 30 different types of birds within a half hour. Each one has its own preferred habitat and food, and its own unique behaviours. I can tell them apart sometimes just by seeing their silhouette or the way they fly and the shape of their wings, or just a short sound that they make. Each bird has its own story to tell, and the more you learn about them, the more interesting the whole topic becomes. You can continue studying them your entire life and always learn new things. Who needs to go to a zoo, when you can see more variety out in the world just by keeping your eyes and ears open!

When I meet a new person, I ask them what they’re passionate about. This usually leads me to a complex topic that they have learned to appreciate the details of. Instead of dismissing it based on what I’ve heard previously, I ask them to elaborate and tell me about their favourite parts of that topic. I want to discover what makes them love it so much, and the reasons why they can spend so much time doing it. Almost always, their motivation stems from an appreciation for the complex patterns they find in it…they ways that the complexity is made simple by seeing the patterns. As they continue learning about it, chaos turns to order, strangeness becomes familiarity, and complexity has its base in simple patterns.

Finding this inner beauty and simplicity is something that spans all disciplines. Our mind seeks out these patterns automatically, and as we grow accustomed to them, our mind adapts itself to recognize the patterns at a glance. This process is what takes us from confused to fluent, whether the topic is birds, languages, or physics. If you want to get good at something, then don’t focus on the end goal, but just keep looking for the patterns that make it interesting, and find ways to grow accustomed to it through massive exposure. Exposure is easy to get when you’re an explorer looking into each nook and cranny, trying to figure out what makes everything tick.

As you explore, learn to enjoy the pleasure of discovering some new pattern or detail. This feeling of satisfaction will be repeated over and over as you learn, and it will become your internal motivation to keep going. Internal motivation (that feeling of incremental satisfaction as you proceed) is always far more important than any external motivators that may be present (such as money, parental pressure, grades, goals and deadlines). Your internal satisfaction will lead you to become an expert by squeezing out that last little bit of efficiency, by repeating a difficult phrase or practicing your basketball jump-shot to perfection.

Feeding your sense of appreciation of beauty and complexity will mean that you no longer need the external motivators. You’ll be able to continue your project in the long term, and one day you’ll have become an expert without noticing.


methods vs. activities

2010-12-13

I find that people are quick to describe things as “methods” these days, as if the only way to learn a language is to follow a fully detailed algorithmic description of what to do. I just wanted to mention that my previous post about parallel texts does not describe such a “method”.

I prefer to have many different language activities that I can do. What you really need, when pursuing a language, is lots of different ways to gain exposure. You need them to be fun and interesting, so that you’ll pay attention while doing them and so that you’ll keep coming back for more. You probably also need multiple resources so that if you eventually get tired of one, then you can just switch to another one without hesitating.

If you like textbooks, then find more than one textbook…preferably at least 3. If you like watching TV in another language, then find more than one show. Same with novels. The idea here is that it’s usually unreasonable to expect that you’ll do the exact same thing over and over again until you’re fluent. You need something else beside you that you can pick up when you put the first one down, in order to continue your exposure.

This applies across activities too. You might have 1 TV show, 1 audio book, and 1 more difficult novel, or some other arrangement. You might also have more than one activity that you can do with the same resource, such as Intensive and Extensive reading. Having more activities is beneficial because each can seem like a break from the others. For instance, right now I have two easy Swedish audiobooks, several harder books with audiobooks, and some TV shows to watch. I try to use the harder books to figure out some vocabulary, but when I get tired then I just watch some TV to relax.

Be cautious of setting up anything too rigid, because then it might start to seem like “work”, and you may be demotivated because you feel like you have to do some boring activity over and over and over. Remember that different things can be “interesting” to different people at different times. Sometimes I really like to do some “dictionary surfing” where I look up successive words in the dictionary and write down a whole bunch of example phrases, but I wouldn’t want to make that my complete “method” for learning. It’s just one activity that I occasionally enjoy.

My hope here on this blog is to illustrate many different possible activities to people who might not have heard of them or thought them possible. Try them out, if you like, but they’re not the only way to do things.