Learning a language through reading feels like reading Jabberwocky


To take a rest from reading Harry Potter, I went over to wordpress.com and changed the language to Nederlands. This is a great way to find all sorts of blogs in your target language, which means you can sit back and surf the web to your heart’s content while still learning the language.

After some random surfing, I came upon an article about a painter’s interpretation of scenes from Alice in Wonderland (in Dutch, of course). When describing the scene where Alice finds the poem about the Jabberwock, the poem is repeated in English, and then some links were given to the Dutch translation.

This gave me the opportunity to read Jabberwocky again, but to consider it from the viewpoint of language learning. As I read it in English, it gives me a very similar feeling to what I get from reading books in other languages at an intermediate level. I get a good sense of what is happening in the story, but there are all sorts of words that I don’t fully understand. I can tell whether they’re adjectives or nouns, and I feel like I get some sense of them by recognizing the other words around them.

For instance, when the Jabberwock “Came whiffling through the tulgey wood”, it doesn’t really matter exactly what whiffling and tulgey might mean. You basically understand what’s happening in the scene. You can also come up with some ideas of what “tulgey” might mean, because it’s used to describe a forest through which a monster is walking. The next time you see this word, you’ll have another piece of information about it, and it’ll make even more sense.

This is what it’s like to me when I read Dutch or Swedish or whatever other language I happen to be working on. With an intermediate level of knowledge, there are plenty of words you don’t know, but the story still moves along somehow.

So, go out and find something to read! You don’t need perfect understanding to enjoy it, and in fact you’ll never get perfect understanding without reading a lot of books with only intermediate understanding. Exposure comes before knowledge, not after.

Dutch update: vocab self-test (91 hrs)


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.

(eo) legu unu milionon da vortoj


This post is an experiment in practicing my writing in various languages. I’ve taken an old post from almost 2 years ago, and I’m translating it into Esperanto. I plan to do more posts like this, with other languages.

I heard about an interesting idea last week. It’s sort of a mental game, suggested by someone from Japan who was learning English. The idea is that if you read a million words, then you’ll be quite good at reading that language. simple enough.

En la antaŭa semajno, mi aŭdis interesan ideon. Estas tipo de mensa ludo, kiun japano, kiu lernantis la anglan, proponis. La ideo estas ke se vi legus unu milionon da vortojn en la lingvo, kiun vi studis, do vi legos bone en tiu lingvo. Sufiĉe facila, ĉu ne?

The rules are as follows:

  1. No dictionaries
  2. When you don’t know a word, just keep going
  3. Read a total of a million words.

La reguloj de la ludo estas la jenaj:
1) ne uzu vortaron.
2) se vi vorton ne komprenas, simple kontinuu.
3) legu entute unu milionon da vortoj.

With something as simple as this, it’s hard to go wrong. There are several ideas that I take away from this game. One is that you should read for enjoyment and read for understanding the story, not just for “sentence mining”. Previously I had trouble getting anywhere in my reading because I was always trying to precisely understand every word in every sentence, and always on the first time that I saw it. This kills the natural ability of my brain to figure things out via multiple exposures.

Kun simplaĵoj kiel ĉi tiuj, estas malfacile erari. Mi akceptas diversajn ideojn de tiu ludo. La unua estas ke oni devas legi por ĝui la rakonton kaj por kompreni la rakonton, ne por vortokolektado. Antaŭe mi havis problemojn legi ĉar mi provadis precize unuafoje kompreni ĉiujn vortojn. Tio ĉi malhelpas la naturan kapablecon de via cerbo kompreni per multaj eksponoj.

I used to try and add tons of sentences to anki just because I didn’t know a word in them, and I was always using the dictionary compulsively, but it just slowed me down. What I actually need is better reading speed and more content (ie more input). I don’t need to memorize every word in the order that I see them. If it’s a common word, I’ll see it again soon anyway. No need to worry right now.

Mi antaŭe aldonis multajn frazojn al Anki nur ĉar mi ne komprenis unu vortoj de tiu, kaj mi devige uzadis la vortaro, sed fari tion malrapidigis min. Tio, kion mi vere bezonas, estas plibonigi la legrapideco kaj pli legindaĵoj (pli enigo por mia cerbo). Mi ne bezonas parkeri ĉiujn vortojn laŭ la ordo en kiu mi vidis tion. Se ĝi estas ordinara vorto, mi ĝin baldaŭ vidos denove. ne zorgu pri tio nun.

This way, I can focus on which words are particularly awesome…something I really want to learn. Hopefully I’ve seen it a couple times already so it has partially sunk into my brain via text, and then I can use anki to fully insert it.

Tiel mi povas koncentriĝi je bonegaj vortoj…tiuj, kiujn mi vere volas lerni. Espereble mi jam vidis ĝin kelkfoje dume, do ĝi pro legado ensinkis en mian cerbon, kaj post tio mi povas uzi Anki enigi ĝin.

This method is also supposed to be somewhat of a long-term method. Don’t pretend that you’re going to learn a language super-fast overnight, because you’re not. But I think you can actually read a million words in a reasonable amount of time…like several months. This is the proper length of time for your language learning goals. If you expect to see awesome results on the order of days or weeks, then you’re doing it wrong. You will see the BIG results on the order of months, so I think this game is good for that.

Ĉi tio metodo devas esti longe uzota. pensado ke ĝi rapidege lernigus lingvon estas eraro, sed mi pensas ke vi fakte povas legi unu milionon da vortoj dum modera tempo…eble malmultaj monatoj. Tiom da tempo estas deca tempo por via lingvolerna celoj. Se vi atendus bonegajn rezultatojn post nur tagoj aŭ semajnoj, do vi eraras. Vi vidos rezultategojn post monatoj, do mi pensas ĉi tiu ludo decas por tiu celo.

In the short term, just read and enjoy reading. Reading is fun! In the long term, it’ll make you awesome. If you can just avoid interrupting your reading to make notes or look up things in the dictionary, you’ll actually get more practice reading and become faster and better at it.

Mallongtempe, nur legu kaj ĝuu vian legadon. Legi amuzas! Longtempe, legi bonegiĝos vin. Se vi nur povas eviti interrompi vian legadon por fari komentojn aŭ uzi la vortaron, vi vere ekzercitiĝos pri legado kaj rapidiĝos kaj boniĝos.

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!

language mission: 45 days of Swedish


Lately my sincere desire to learn Swedish has been overshadowed by my inability to work on it more than just “here and there”. Late last year I was spending plenty of time working on German, and my initial switch to Swedish was full of enthusiasm, but it somehow died off.

I think that a big part of this has been my ho-hum attitude, arrogantly thinking that I know how this language thing is done, and I can just waltz my way through it in no time. I dropped my practice of recording my work in a spreadsheet, so I never really knew how much work I was or was not doing. I also had nothing concrete to aim for, and no timelines to follow. I thought that this lessening of restrictions would enable me to be more creative, but I think it just enabled me to waste more time on the interwebs.

So, following in the footsteps of Benny the Irish Polyglot, I’m going to design myself a “language mission”. Although unlike Benny, I can’t yet pack my bags and leave my job and my home here to travel the world (yet), I’ll be doing whatever I can over the next 45 days to increase my knowledge of Swedish. To accomplish this, I’ll be going back to my tried and true method of picking some precise numerical goals for my activities, then chopping those down to average daily amounts to aim for, and tracking my progress in a spreadsheet.

I predict I’ll be more successful if I have concrete goals, with concrete daily amounts that I should be reaching. I’ll also need to visualize my end goal, and remind myself that according to my calculations I should be doing a certain amount of work each day in order to reach that fabulous end goal. If all goes according to plan, I will have read several hundred thousand words of Swedish by the end of this mission, which will put me well on the way to my goal of actually speaking it well.

Reading about 1000 pages of Swedish in this time will be an ambitious goal, but I’ll be drawing upon the inspiration that I get from the other learners I read about online. I’ve seen some people on the HTLAL forums that are able to accomplish an incredible 6 hours of language work every day, so if I want to make myself a really serious contender (which I do) then I should aim at at least 3 hours per day. The only mistakes I can make are the choices not to work on Swedish. This is an input-only challenge, and as Steve Kaufmann said recently, you can’t make mistakes while just reading and listening. I will only lose if I choose not to participate.

Now, not everyone needs to create such a hectic schedule, but for whatever challenge you make for yourself, remember that at each moment in time you are either choosing to do it, or choosing to do something else. When analyzing yourself, you’ll never discover your mistakes by saying things like “my mistake was not working on X”…that’s not really a mistake, it’s a result. If you rephrase it as “my result was not working on X”, then you see it for the tautology that it truly is.

Instead, the invisible monster called “not doing X” is actually made up of many little tiny choices to do other things. They are all individual choices that add up over time. These are your actual mistakes to avoid. I choose to surf slashdot, I choose to surf facebook, I choose to download an episode of Naruto to watch, etc. You can conquer each of these choices one by one if you make yourself aware of them, but there is no single event that looks like “not doing X”. You will never be able to see yourself “not doing X”, but you will be able to see yourself doing all those other little things. I know when I’m surfing facebook, I know when I’m watching random anime, etc. Once I identify the distractions, I can stop them and choose to do my Swedish project instead.

When I do actually choose my project, I try to choose something that can absorb me. I get distracted very easily, but if I can throw myself into a book or a movie, then I’ll tend to keep going. Entertaining content is king. Boring lists lead to easy distraction (at least for me). Get lost in it, lose track of time, forget to eat lunch because you’re so involved in it. If you can do that, you’re on the way to winning.

These are the things I’ve been trying to remind myself of. Hopefully this will be helpful for others too. I’ll try to update within a week with what I’ve accomplished so far.

reading a million words: 300000


One of my ongoing projects is to read one million words in german. At the start i had severe problems understanding anything, despite having taken german classes in highschool for several years. I barely got any of the plot, and most of the words on the page were new to me.

I’ve passed 300000 words of reading in german so far, and i’m still going strong. Right now I’m reading Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, and i’ve finished the first two harry potter books. I read the first two while listening to the german audiobook at the same time, but with the current book i’m already on page 63 and i haven’t used the audiobook yet.

I’m able to read at a reasonable speed now, and the book is very enjoyable. I know the majority of the words on every page, and i almost never feel lost. There are still words that i don’t know, but missing them usually doesn’t affect my understanding of the plot. I’m able to guess a lot of words from the context because i already know so many of the words.

There are still some spots, however, where a bunch of confusing things happen all together, usually at some really vital plot point when something surprising happens. In those situations, i might mark a few words for later lookup in a dictionary, but i try to keep reading.

My habit lately has been to read with a highlighter felt pen beside me so that i can highlight sentences that i like, or sentences that i had trouble with. Later on, i can flip through and put all of those into Anki (my flashcard program) so that i can review them later. This means that i’m constantly stretching my vocabulary powers by getting the harder sentences reinforced many times. New words tend to stick better this way.

At this stage, reading is very enjoyable, and not a chore at all. I’m really much more focused on finding out what happens next in the plot than with meeting my weekly goals for words read, and as a result i’m exceeding all of my goals by quite a lot. I have the rest of the german Harry Potter books up to book 6, and if i complete all of those then i’ll be at around 1.5 million words read total. Whereas before it felt like i’d never reach 1 million, it seems like it’ll be quite easy now, and i should hit that before the end of the year hopefully.

1Mw: 70000 german words read


I’ve passed 70000 words in german now. I’ve been reading every day, and lately i’ve been listening to audiobooks at the same time. The gains are not as immediately visible as they were at the start when i was just reacquainting myself with the language, but the gains are still solid and consistent. There’s probably a lot that i’m learning without realizing it, but i’m still getting some “Aha!” moments all the time.

Currently i’m reading Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens (chamber of secrets), and also listening to the audiobook. I’m really liking this Listening-Reading method, as it more clearly cements the sounds of german in my head. For the last few nights i’ve been dreaming in german, and at random times through the day i notice that there’s a lot of “german chatter” happening in my head. Bits of phrases just turn over and morph into other phrases, like my brain is randomly walking the space of german.

The other benefit of Listening-Reading is that i can follow the story much more easily. The guy reading it does a lot of funny voices for the different characters and puts a lot of enthusiasm into the presentation, so it really allows me to understand a lot more of the situation, and pick up more meaning from that. It adds more context through tone of voice than i would otherwise get because of my lack of vocab.

This story definitely feels a lot easier to understand than the other book i was reading that had no audio. This could also be because harry potter is pretty easy reading anyway…this is book 2 and it’s really simplified and aimed at kids. I remember trying to read the english version once and i just couldn’t continue because all the plot points were reiterated so many times. But this becomes a great feature for someone learning a language.

Now, when i was back at 20000 words, it felt like 1M words was terribly far away, but now that i’m 7% of the way there, it doesn’t seem so far. I’m quite curious to see what my german reading skills are like once i’ve hit 1M.

I just looked back into the previous book and flipped back to page one. I remember not being able to get much at the time, just a word here and there, barely enough to get the idea of the story. Now it’s actually quite understandable, so my progress has actually gone further than i thought. Strangely, i don’t know the exact meaning of all the words, but they seem more familiar and i can guess a broad meaning for a lot of them that gives a partial understanding of the text.

This is definitely motivational. It’s good to go back and check on previous things and have journal entries to tell you what you thought about it several weeks ago so that you can compare. Keep reading, and improvement will magically happen!

1Mw: 31000 german words read


I’m making good progress towards my goal of reading a million words of German. I’m starting to get really caught up in the novel I’m reading, which is a fantasy novel that I read in English about 10 years ago. This is an update of how it’s going so far, but first a quick word on exactly what I’m doing.

My methodology has adapted slightly over the course of this experiment. What I’m currently doing is spending time just reading, with no dictionary…but I’ve made the slight adjustment that I can write down a couple of words every page. Sometimes I do this while reading, other times I go back through a couple pages I’ve read and pick out a couple of words. Later on, when I’m on the computer, I’ll take this list of words or phrases and make some of them into flashcards in Anki.

The purpose of all the reading is to get vast amounts of input. I do this with no dictionary beside me because each dictionary lookup takes away valuable reading time, and ruins the sense of immersion. Previously when I tried to read this book (about 8 years ago) I really got stuck on it because I tried to use the dictionary to look up almost every word i didn’t know. I lost all the enjoyment that comes from reading, and I didn’t get much exposure to the language….just lots of boring dictionary time.

On the other hand, I really think there’s some value in looking up a small number of things. Looking back at my logs, I seem to have written down an average of 3 words per page…sometimes zero, sometimes up to 10 if I got greedy. I try not to write down any word until I’ve seen it at least a couple of times. There are still plenty of frequent words that I don’t know, so there are many possibilities. If there’s a word that I haven’t seen at all before then chances are that I’m not going to see it again for a while, so the more frequent words are a higher priority right now.

This does two things for me. It builds my vocabulary in order of frequency, which gets me a lot of results very fast. This is encouraging, and encouragement is vitally important. Most of language learning is just keeping your motivation up. The other thing it does is increase my understanding of the story quicker than trying to absorb every word just via context. Yes, I’m getting plenty of words based on context too, but some of them continually occur in really general contexts and are hard to guess. These also tend to be really useful words.

Now let me be clear here, that on each page of approximately 320 words (avg) there are probably at least 100 words that I don’t know. If I looked up all the words I didn’t know, then after 2 pages I would have done more dictionary lookups than I’ve done for about 100 pages of reading already. What a supreme waste of time it’d be if I only read 2 pages and tried to learn every word in them. Instead, I’m getting much more benefit from reading vast numbers of pages.

Besides more cards in anki, the soft benefit I’m getting is i have more sense of comfort with German. At the beginning, reading was very tough, and I didn’t get much of the story. All that kept me going was that I’d already read the book in English 10 years ago, so I knew the vague outline of the story and who the characters were.

Right now at the 31000-word mark, I feel very comfortable with any spoken dialog between the characters. I still don’t know all the words, but I always get what they’re saying generally. The narrator’s description of the scenes and events happening is much tougher. In those spots, there tends to be much more varied and elaborate vocabulary. Whenever a character says something like “wait here, I’ll go get my sword”, then it’s followed by a few lines of stuff like “and he carefully lifted the masterfully crafted broadsword as it scintillated in the chilly eve’s moonlight”. Ugh. Sometimes I wish he’d just say “and then he went and got the sword” 😉

The other thing I’ve noticed lately is the huge connection between audio content and what I’ve read. Reading is really improving my understanding of spoken German, and listening to an hour of spoken German really makes reading much easier if I do it immediately after listening. Watching TV is great too, since there’s tons of dialog, which is much easier than dense description.

The result of this is that I’m really motivated to gather some TV shows, probably starting with Star Trek: Deep Space 9. If i order the full series from Europe, it comes dubbed in English, German, Spanish, French, and Italian. This could be great for my future plans for Spanish and Italian 😉

Anyway, I’m off to do some more reading. I’m only 3% of the way to my goal, but I’m already excited by my progress. This book has about 270000 words in it, by my estimate, so it’ll take me about 1/3 of the way to the goal. Next I have some new books coming along with the German audio version, so I’ll be able to listen and read at the same time, hopefully resulting in a whole new level of progress. Stay tuned for more details as the experiment evolves.