Dutch update: 85hrs

2011-01-21

So, at the end of 3 weeks of studying Dutch full-time, I’m at 85.5 hours total (split 9.5 / 33 / 43 by week), and I’ve read somewhere around 400000 words. Currently I’m in that nebulous “intermediate” area, where it’s hard to judge progress, so I just have to keep pushing. My sense is that my vocabulary is still increasing, but I’m not yet at that nice pleasant “easy reading” phase, which probably occurs when you know over 98% of the words on the page. Those last few percent take a lot longer to get, but they’re pretty important if you want to feel really comfortable when reading.

I’ve ramped up my study hours greatly over the past few days. Yesterday I put in 8 hours, and had 10 hours the day before, and I plan to do the same again today still. It’s definitely a new skill to learn, getting in that many hours in the day. I try to split them up throughout the day, aiming at 2hrs out of every block of 4 (since my day is divided into 4hr segments by my nap schedule). So far, though, I’ve had several small chunks and one or two much larger chunks of consecutive study time.

Currently, I still get somewhat lost when listening to something without reading along. Harry Potter is easier than other things, because I’m used to it and I know the story, but in other things I only get a rough impression of what’s going on if it’s something totally new.

Despite my complaints above, about not being totally perfect at reading yet, I’m actually pretty decent at reading Dutch now. The impatience is probably due to my extensive German reading skills that create a large contrast. When I honestly evaluate my Dutch skills though, I have to feel pretty good. For example, I can read Wikipedia pretty well in Dutch now. I just read the article on Paleontology without too many problems. Definitely enough to get informed about a topic, although like I said, still not with the ease that I can read German. There are still many words per page that I don’t know.

My goal for the coming week is to get 10 hours of study time every day, devoted to Listening-Reading. Currently I’m going over each chapter at least twice, trying to recognize as many new words as I can, and I’m trying hard to focus on the sounds of the words as I hear them, so that I don’t get too stuck on just reading off the page. I’m hoping to build more intuitive familiarity with the language, and get those last few stubborn percent of vocabulary words.

Once my recognition is higher, I’m going to move on to the activating stage of L-R, where I listen and try to repeat any recognized phrases. In this stage, you don’t want to read those phrases out of the book; the goal is to repeat the ones that you heard, and fully understood.

Before I attempt this, I’ll spend some time working on specific aspects of pronunciation. To do this, I’ll cut out single sentences from some recordings, and then listen to them about 50 times until they’re stuck in my head like a Michael Jackson song. Then I’ll start repeating along with the recording, repeating up to 50 times each in order to really cement the sounds in my mind.

Anyway, that’s still another week away at least, so I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. The next week is still strongly devoted to listening and reading recognition skills, hopefully getting my reading skills up near C1 if I can.

Next update at 120 hours 🙂

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Dutch update: 2 weeks

2011-01-15

I’ve finished the first 2 weeks of my 6-week-challenge for Dutch.

I’m at 46 hours of Dutch study time total, and I’ve finished reading the first two Harry Potter books while listening to the audiobooks (using Dutch-English parallel text format, constructed from ebooks using hunalign). In the past 7 days I’ve averaged about 5 hours of study time per day.

At the start, I had a lot of trouble with the listening, and found it difficult to figure out which word currently matched up with the audio. Whenever I glanced over at the English translation, I’d lose my place easily in the Dutch. I didn’t understand anything if I just listened to the Dutch, except maybe the occasional word that was really close to either English or German.

Currently, I find it quite easy to follow along with the audio, and it’s quite easy to scan through the Dutch to find my place again after I look away. If I only look at the Dutch and no English, then I understand enough to follow the story, although I miss a lot of details still. I’ve got a moderate sense for Dutch spelling now, but there’s room to improve. I still accidentally spell words in more of a German way sometimes.

To test myself, I just opened up an adult novel (by Dean Koontz) and did a quick word comprehension test on a random page. There were 11 words that I didn’t know out of a section of 296 words, giving 96% word comprehension when reading (I’m sure listening would be much lower). This is just the individual words that I know, not necessarily their full meaning in that context. To confirm, I tried another book, this time by Tad Williams, and flipped to a random page in the middle. I missed 13 words out of 212, which is 94%.

I’m rather amazed at these numbers, but I guess it makes sense after starting with excellent vocab in both English and German. I think I recognized most of those words as Dutch words though, not through guessing from a German word. It appears that I’ve actually learned a lot from reading a total of 170000 words of Dutch in the two Harry Potter books so far.

From here on, I guess it means I should focus more on an Extensive style rather than the slower Intensive style of reading. I need Extensive reading to continue to develop my intuitive sense for the language by seeing large quantities of content, rather than focusing on every minute detail. I also need to pay much closer attention to the audio to train my listening abilities, which are still lagging far behind my raw scores for visual word comprehension.

To test listening comprehension, I listened to 3.5 minutes of Harry Potter that I hadn’t looked at or heard yet, and counted unknown words with my clicker. I counted 79 unknown words, and the total word count for that section was 592, so 86% word comprehension approximately. I’m rather surprised that it was this high already, so this is rather encouraging.

My plan is to continue with input only, until I’m past 100 hours of study time. After that, depending on how I feel, I may start to blend in some output exercises.

I’ll have another update at the end of week 3, stay tuned!


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.


Learn by reading, personal example: Swedish

2010-12-06

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.


Mad Flow: become absorbed in your book

2010-11-19

When I learned to read foreign languages for enjoyment instead of worrying about the precise definition of every word, it was a big milestone in my language-learning progress. One of the things that makes this so effective is the ability to get lost in the story. You want to build up a sort of flow, a feeling of absorption into the story, where you lose track of the world around you and imagine a new world in your mind.

This sense of flow is important in many human endeavors. Think about a rap song where the performer is constantly missing the beats and stumbling through his words….it’s no good. Think about the musician that plays a wrong note and then has to stop and restart…it kills the whole song. There’s also the direct language analog of “fluency”, the ability to produce a seemingly effortless flow of language to communicate with someone. Flow is important in all of those, and it’s the same while reading.

If you are reading a book in detail, dissecting every word, it can be very hard to stay on task. While doing this, time seems to move slowly, and the outside distractions of the world seem to creep in. Other things start to seem like they’d be easier, so you wander away from your work.

This is the opposite of what people experience when they really enjoy a book. Have you ever read a book that was “a real page-turner”? Something that you couldn’t put down, and had you obsessively trying to read “just one more chapter”? When you get into this sort of mental state, the world around you disappears, time moves more quickly, and you can imagine the happenings in the story much more vividly. You are no longer reading individual words….you’re letting a story seep into your consciousness…and then suddenly it’s 3am and you have to be at work in 5 hours 😉

This dreamy state of mind is powerful, and you can use it when you want to learn a new language. Don’t get stuck on each individual word, because that’ll drag you out of the book and back to the real world. Worrying about each word becomes a speed-bump on the road to your imagination. You need to ignore them, skip past them, and develop a smooth flow. No bumps allowed.

It’s ok to not know words. Give yourself permission to not know them. Besides, in your native language, there are still thousands of words that you don’t know. You should expect that in your new language there will be plenty more, but that’s just fine. It’s expected. Once you realize this, then you can try to dig into the actual story and get lost in there. Just get whatever you can, and enjoy it.

When I want to extract some more knowledge out of a book, I make sure that I can do it without ruining my flow. I keep a highlighter beside me so that if there’s a word that keeps coming up and is really bugging me, then I can just swipe the highlighter over it and come back to it later. This lets me remove the bothersome word from my mind, because I know it’ll be taken care of. I won’t lose it now…it’s in bright yellow. Then I can just keep on reading and enjoy the rest of the story. Highlighting more than 1 or 2 words can be detrimental though, because then you end up spending more time “collecting” words than enjoying the story.

Some of those highlighted words will later go into my Anki flashcard deck, with their surrounding sentence or phrase of context. These can be quite valuable to review, because when they come up I remember the surrounding situation in the story, which really helps me remember the meaning of the word. Reviewing the words in Anki also helps solidify words that may not occur again for another 50 pages or more. A couple extra reps in Anki will make them stick for next time, and then they’ll just seem familiar.

But I also just ignore a lot of the highlighted words. Sometimes I go back over them and decide that I actually already know what they mean. Or I just think they’re boring now, so there’s no need to put it into Anki. Another possibility is that I just highlighted too many words and I don’t want to spend the effort to enter them all into Anki, which is fine too. Every word will come up again somewhere else, so I’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn them in the future.

So, Extensive Reading is best done as a sort of meditation. Forget the rest of the world, forget your other thoughts and worries, forget the challenging words. Just keep moving your eyeballs over all the words and try to “fall into” the story. Get lost in it, and just keep reading. You will be rewarded with an uncanny “sense” of the language, and your intuition will become more developed.

Your brain is a neural net, and you are training it with input. Just keep putting more words in front of your eyes, and your brain will do the work of piecing it together in the background. Just hang on and enjoy the ride.


first report from the Esperanto course

2010-07-04

I’m sitting here in Piešťany, Slovakia at the lernu.net “SES”: Somera Esperanto-Studado. The event is a week long, and is being held in a Hotel school here in Piešťany. Every morning we have some Esperanto class time (divided into 4 skill levels according to a placement test we took on the evening we arrived), and then in the afternoon we have various interesting workshops and activities. The evenings have performances and more workshops. There’s also a lot of social opportunities in which to talk with our fellow Esperantistoj.

So far, I’ve had interesting Esperanto conversations on a variety of topics with people from Russia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany, USA, China, Belgium, Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Hungary, Poland, and probably more that I’ve forgotten already.

One thing I’ve found particularly helpful is having my laptop with me, and using the wireless access provided to look up things on the internet. If there’s a topic in which my explanation doesn’t suffice, or the other person’s vocabulary is perhaps lacking, then I can quickly look up the topic on wikipedia and click their native language. Once they read the summary of the article in their own language, then we get back on track in our Esperanto conversation now that we’re on the same *ahem* page.

I found it quite hard to adjust to speaking Esperanto in the first day and a half, since my mind was really in German mode after spending a month in Germany and Austria. I actually tended to gravitate towards the many Germans here, because we’d have something to talk about immediately, and sometimes if we got stuck then we could ask what a certain German word was in Esperanto, and then continue. I’ve almost entirely avoided speaking English here, except when a Slovakian guy was trying to ask for help with his computer but his beginner-level Esperanto wasn’t up to the task. Once I understood his computer problem, we switched back to Esperanto.

There’s an interesting age range here, with a decent number of highschool students (some of whom have fantastically great Esperanto abilities), and quite a few people over the age of 50 as well. Being in the middle at 30, I’m somewhat of a minority, strangely.

The classroom setting is sort of what I expected. The teachers seem quite well versed in the popular teaching techniques these days (such as total physical response where we stamp our foot whenever we add an -n ending to an accusative word, or using some physical props to act out various positional prepositions), but it’s still pretty similar to every other classroom setting. The teacher hauls us through various meaningless exercises as an excuse to do something in the language.

Personally, I’d rather study on my own and just use the plentiful conversational opportunities. On my own, I get to do more vocabulary faster, because I don’t have to suffer through the words I already know, and I can move at my own pace. In self-study, I can also do more valuable things like reading a book or internet article, which are actually interesting content and are exposing me to new and challenging parts of the language. My preference is always to learn mostly through exposure to real and interesting content, either audial, visual, or written.

So, today I skipped class so that I could continue with my flashcards for basic Esperanto vocabulary (thanks Judith!), and so that I can read a couple easy articles and some bits from “La Hobito” by Tolkien ;). I’ve also been experimenting with the usage of a little “timer” applet on my laptop, so I can do some “Time-boxing”.

The idea is to limit my work on one topic to 3 or 4 minutes, and then when the timer beeps I switch to another topic. So maybe 3 minutes of flashcards, then 3 minutes of reading La Hobito, then 3 minutes of an internet article in Esperanto. What this effectively does, is turn “work” into “play” by giving me a time when I know I’ll be done, and some enforced variety. It plays with my short attention span so that this “study” work is more like websurfing. On AJATT, Khatsumoto compared it to eating a bag of chips. You’re not consciously trying to finish the whole bag, you’re just eating the current chip. Then another. Then another.

So, I’ve found that eating my Esperanto chips is doing a good job at keeping me on-task overall, while still allowing me my natural reaction of bouncing between multiple shiny tasks. Somehow it keeps it fun, so I’ll have to do this more in the future. Later today I’m going to add to my materials by buying some Esperanto comic books that I saw at the little book table that was set up. (I also want to get this awesome shirt that says “Lingva Revolucio!” and has a pic of Zamenhof wearing a hat with a star on it, similar to the famous Che picture).

Ok, time to get back to some studying. I’ll try and report back again near the end of the week. Ĝis!


the value of conversation

2009-12-13

Last Tuesday I went to meet a bunch of Germans at a local bar near my workplace. It was a German “meetup” organized through Meetup.com. They get every week or two at a bar or restaurant, and sometimes they do other things like going to see a movie (if it’s in German).

Up until now, my studies have mainly focused on absorbing content, such as books and tv. I’ve barely done any speaking, mostly because I was nervous about how much I’d understand. After finally deciding it was time to practice speaking, and going out to chat with some Germans, I was pleasantly surprised in two ways.

The first was that I was able to hang out in a bar having a beer with a bunch of Germans and I was able to understand everything they said. This was very encouraging for me, especially since I attempted to do the same thing about 10 years ago the last time I was in Germany, and it was mostly a lesson in how little I knew at the time. I sort of expected it to be pretty easy this time, though, because I can so easily understand most of what’s said on the TV shows I watch, so I figured talking in the bar wouldn’t be much different (except for the extra distracting noise of the music and other conversations).

Secondly, I was surprised that my ability to read things out loud seems to be improved. I have a better sense of how a sentence is supposed to sound when I say it. Maybe I was paying much more attention to everything that was being said when it was important for me to get everything in order to respond properly. Something about that activity felt clearly more beneficial than just trying to understand TV and Radio. This is quite encouraging since it was such a short period of only a couple hours, so it’s encouraging me to go back again for more practice.

What I need to work on next time is my ability to just keep saying words, even if they’re perhaps not the perfect word that I was trying to think of. There are many many ways to say things, and I just need to work on having something sub-optimal flow out. I can work on refining things later.