Report from the Talenfestival in Leuven

2011-02-20

Yesterday we spent the day in Leuven at the “Talenfestival” (Language festival), organized by a group called “Esperanto 3000”. The idea of a language festival is to have an event where people can be introduced to many different world languages in a short period of time.

From what I can tell, the original Language Festival was a 4-day event in a city in Russia, about 12 hours’ train ride from Moscow. There’s a room for each language and you can just wander around attending talks about whatever language you’re interested in. The language festival we attended here in Belgium was a bit different; there were 4 1-hour sessions spread over a single afternoon, so you had to choose wisely.

There were about 6 to 8 different rooms active during the afternoon, each with a different language lecture. Only a couple of the languages were repeated, so you really had to choose well. There was a non-european languages track, so you could spend the afternoon learning about Tshiluba, Lingala and Swahili, and Sinhalese. Since it was anticipated that some people would be interested in several of these, they were timed so that they wouldn’t conflict with each other.

For my first choice, I went to a Polish course. It was all in Dutch, but I found it quite easy to understand, which was comforting. The intimidating part was when the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves first, and say why we were interested in Polish. I was 6th in line for that, so a had a few moments to prepare, but then got through it pretty easily. I also got many questions about my Dutch-learning methods later in the break, since people were quite interested in how I managed to learn so much in less than 2 months. I told them that Harry Potter is magic in more ways than one 😉

In the intermission, I went to grab a beer in the common room. As a Canadian, I’m still a bit amused at the situation, since I bought my beer from a teenager who was the drink selling volunteer for the event, and then it was assumed that I would naturally want to take my tasty Belgian beer with me to further lectures (which I did). In Canada, both of these things would be illegal…there’d have to be a tightly controlled area for beer drinking and selling where no one under 19 would be allowed, and you would never be allowed to walk to another room with your beer. It’s rather ridiculous. I love being treated like a rational adult here.

Next for me was a talk on Kurdish. I was rather disappointed with this one, since it started with a lame video with not much actual information on Kurdish. They had some video clips of kids being taught Kurdish in school, which is perhaps really important for the Kurds since their language is banned in Turkey if I remember correctly, but I wanted to actually learn something about the language instead of just watching a bunch of smiling kids in a class with a music track overlayed.

Things turned around when I went to the next talk though, which was about Lingala. It’s a Bantu language from Congo and the surrounding area, which is apparently expanding in usage because of the spread of Congolese music in the area. The talk was given in French, so I only understood the “technical” words that are common in many languages, but luckily there was a translation into Dutch so that gave me most of the nuances of the talk. Between the bits of French that I was able to grasp, and the concepts of Lingala that looked similar to those I had heard about Swahili already, and then the Dutch translation of it all, I managed to actually learn bits of both French and Lingala from the talk.

Lingala seems to share many Bantu features with Swahili, such as having many classes of nouns that are indicated by prefixes that must match with other words in the sentence. You can think of it like the European idea of word “genders”, but instead of two or three genders, you have more than 10, and each gender has a different way to indicate plurals. It’s mostly a spoken language, and there are many more people who speak it as a second language, using it for communication in the region.

Finally, I attended a talk on Czech. The instructor was an Esperanto speaker that I’d met before, who had actually studied for a while in Leuven, so he spoke pretty decent Dutch. He explained a lot of the basic structures of Czech, and I noticed that there were many close similarities with Polish from earlier in the day. This makes sense, since they’re both part of the Western Slavic language family.

It appears to me that Czech is probably easier than Polish, but as a language learner I’m drawn more to Polish because of the wide variety of resources available on the internet. Polish has a more difficult distinction between the “hard” and “soft” versions of several sounds, many of which I’m currently incapable of distinguishing, but I think I could remedy that with a lot of listening. I’ve met a lot of Esperantists from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, so I was interested in how much Polish would be understood by speakers of the other Western Slavic languages. Our instructor confirmed this by saying that through slow and careful speech, Czech speakers can make themselves understood by Polish speakers, and they have quite an easy time learning each others’ languages. This bodes well for my plan of entering the realm of Slavic languages through Polish.

After 4 sessions, the festival came to an end. We had a final beer and found more Esperanto speakers to chat with before heading out to find food. We went to a nice Indian restaurant (which actually gave me decently spicy food) and proceeded to have an amusing multilingual conversation. Most of it was in Dutch and Esperanto, but there were some brief interludes in English too. The most interesting of which was a joke that required all three languages to understand. To understand, you need to know first that the Dutch word for “to breed animals” is “fokken”, which always amuses me when I see it. This means a breeder of animals is then a “fokker”. The other word you need is “paarden” which is “horses” in Dutch.

So, the joke starts out with an Esperanto speaker asking “Kion vi faras?” (What do you do?). A Dutch speaker wants to try out his English skills, so he mistakenly responds “I fok horses”. An English speaker is appropriately shocked by this statement, and exclaims “Pardon???”, to which the Dutch speaker confirms “Ja, paarden!”. I found it extra amusing trying to explain all this in German to the guy next to me who didn’t catch all of it the first time. Needless to say, it was a wonderfully multilingual evening.

It’s now Sunday, and we’re having a relaxing day back in Brussels. I think we’ll take one more opportunity to drink some beer before we by some extra chocolate to take home, and then we fly back to Berlin this evening, carrying our heavy load of new Dutch books home with us. All in all, a successful trip, and I hope to come back here again at some point. Until then, I have tons of reading to do 😉

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Belgium day 2: a visit to Antwerp and some Esperanto practice

2011-02-18

Today we set off to Antwerp to get a taste of a true Flemish city to get some language practice. We took the train from Brussels and got there quite quickly.

Antwerp was just as beautiful as Brussels, with lots of great architecture, and beautiful little streets. The train station was particularly beautiful inside. We got some lunch first, before starting to explore. As we fumbled our way through ordering things, I realized that this is a huge weak-point in my Dutch, since I’ve just never encountered that sort of situation in any of my learning materials. I don’t know any of the common everyday expressions that happen in regular business transactions.

After lunch, we went straight to a bookstore that we had researched. It was better than we expected; much better selection and prices than the Dutch bookstore in Brussels. I first picked up 3 novels for €10 on the sale shelf (nice and cheap compared with the €20 novels in Brussels). Then I found a big fat fantasy book that’ll take me a while to work through, but looks fun. As I wandered through the other sections of the store, I also found a book on Anarchism in Spain (by a Dutch author), so I’ll get my fill of political and philosophical sorts of words, to broaden my vocabulary. After hauling my bag of treasures out of the store, I felt great knowing that I have a new pile of books that I really want to read, rather than my previous materials that were just whatever I could find at the time that happened to be in Dutch.

Next we hung out in a cafe for a while, reading books and sipping coffees, then beers. We had arranged to go to an Esperanto club meeting in the evening, so we had some time to kill.

The Esperanto meeting was quite fun too. It was at a building in downtown owned by the Flemish Esperanto League (FEL), and they put on a big dinner. There were probably 30 people there for dinner, anywhere from beginners to advanced. I actually got to practice my Dutch a lot with some friends of attendees, who didn’t really know that much Esperanto. They were a bit reluctant to speak Dutch in front of the foreign guests at an Esperanto event, but we assured them that we understood Dutch too.

It was an interesting experience, since my Esperanto now seems to flow reasonably well. I chatted away to some people in Esperanto for a bit about various topics, but then decided to push Dutch a bit more with the others. They were quite happy to help me out, and nobody tried to switch to English at all. I was able to get my ideas across in Dutch without too much trouble, which was very gratifying.

So, now we’re back at our hosts’ apartment in Brussels, speaking Esperanto yet again. Tomorrow is the big day of the Language Festival in the neighbouring city of Leuven, which we’re all looking forward too. I’m now quite confident that I’ll be able to enjoy the talks in Dutch, and that I’ll be able to converse with people there. It should be a blast.

I’ve also been reading through my new books, and I find that I can actually read them pretty easily. I’m finally reaching the level of reading skill that feels very satisfying. I can read novels and non-fiction without too much trouble in Dutch now, so I just need to work on my vocab and reading speed a bit more. I’m nowhere near “done”, whatever that may mean, but I’m very happy with my level so far.

I still need more practice speaking, and that’s my goal for the next while. I don’t think I could really pass my “fun bar conversation” test yet, so I’ll have to search out some Dutch speakers in Berlin once I get back so I can practice more. I suspect I’ll be able to speak fairly well before I leave Europe, though.

Time for sleep now. I’ll report more after the Language Festival tomorrow 🙂


Learning Dutch while traveling: first impressions of Belgium

2011-02-17

I’ve just spent my first day in Belgium, in the capitol city of Brussels. I’m here with two friends from Berlin in order to attend a “language festival” on Saturday in Leuven. For the next few days, we’ll be staying with some Esperanto-speaking friends here in Brussels while we explore the surrounding area.

Today we wandered around downtown Brussels. We joked to each other that pretty much every store here has either a) waffles, b) chocolate, c) fries, or d) beer. It’s not totally true, but nearly. Unfortunately (for us), the majority of the people in Brussels speak French, even though it’s in the northern part of Belgium that is majority Dutch-speaking. Apparently it’s a large exception in the area.

Brussels is a very beautiful city. Lots of small streets, beautiful old architecture mixed with a lot of modern buildings too. It would be fun to have more time to explore around and try out all the local beers, and see more of the city. One thing that surprised me, though, was that the “Grand Place / Grote Markt” (a big square in the middle of town) seemed to be quite littered with trash and empty beer bottles, and was full of beer-swilling rowdies.

My friends and I began searching out bookstores (naturally ;), and found a decent-sized Dutch bookstore. It seems that book prices are quite high here, mostly around €20 for a novel. I managed to find “De Da Vinci Code” in Dutch for €5 though, so I have something new to read. Speaking of prices, I find food quite expensive here too, compared to Berlin anyway…although Berlin is widely known as a very cheap city.

We’ve been staying with some Esperanto speakers, one from Croatia and one from Slovenia, who met each other at an Esperanto event. It’s been quite fun practicing Esperanto with them. Tomorrow we’re heading to Antwerp where we’ll meet up with more Esperanto speakers, although we’ll be focusing on practicing our Dutch with them.

Saturday is the Language Festival in Leuven, where we’ll be attending several 1-hr seminars about various languages. I think I signed up for Polish, Lingala (from central Africa), and two others. All of the seminars will be given in Dutch, so it should be interesting to see how much I understand.

More soon, when I get some spare time 🙂


Learning a language through reading feels like reading Jabberwocky

2011-02-07

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.


Spending time in the unknown

2011-02-03

I’ve noticed a few things that have been different in my experience with learning Dutch, compared to learning German. One that keeps coming back is that I don’t really hear that much Dutch “chatter” in my head. While I was studying German, it was common for me to continue to hear German phrases in my head if I had done more than 2 hours of listening, and sometimes sooner.

I took this as a sign that my brain was continuing to process things after the stimulus had gone, and while my attention was on something else. Perhaps I was working on it so intensely, that my subconscious got the signal that it should continue even while I had moved on. So why am I not experiencing this that much with Dutch?

When I look back at my notes and records about German, I see that I spent a lot of time watching German TV at the beginning, quite a lot of which was without subtitles, and I spent a lot of time reading Harry Potter in German while listening in German. I picked a couple of words per page to look up, but most of my time was spent doing solid German every chance I could get.

So, fast forward to Dutch. I’m spending more time each day on Dutch than I did on German (probably double), but my time is spent mainly with parallel texts. This has been great for my word recognition while reading, but not so great for my listening. I find dedicated listening hard to do anyway, because my mind wanders, but the more time I spend with just Dutch text and concentrated Dutch listening, the better my listening gets.

The challenge is choosing to do this when it’s much easier to understand the story when I can peak over at the English side. Going Dutch-only is more difficult, things are uncertain, I’m not getting as many details of the story. This is a necessary step though. At least some of my time, and perhaps a majority of it, would be better spent in the “sink or swim” situation of all-Dutch with no English.

I’ve spent far less time on Dutch so far than I did on German, so I probably shouldn’t expect too much yet…when I was at the point with German where I felt really confident in my understanding of both listening and reading materials, I had consumed about 350 hours of audio (ie, TV and audiobooks), and done 600000 words of reading. Currently I’m at the same place with reading in Dutch, and my reading skills are somewhat ok, but not to where my German skills were, and my listening is behind. The listening lag is to be expected with only 140 hours of total time spent.

So, where is this going? I plan to spend more time going back to the fundamentals that I used while learning German. I’ll listen to Dutch while reading Dutch, and try to get absorbed into the story and understand as much as I can. Less time will be spent with the parallel texts, although that will still add an important aspect to my study time.

I’m thinking that I need to adapt to something similar to Teango’s method, where he goes through the text carefully in segments at first with the translation, then more quickly, then just listening. Then he reserves time to just read freely, with no pauses. It seems to me that I’m spending too much time in the “comfortable” zone of looking up everything, and not enough time in the “sink or swim” uncertain place of just going through the story with no translation and trying to get whatever I can.

And getting back to the start of this, I’m hoping that such a change will bring back that feeling of subconscious “chatter” that I’ve been missing, because somehow I get the feeling that that is a key thing to achieve.

Comments or suggestions are welcome. Does anyone else experience the mental chatter that I’m talking about?


January 2011 – 191 language hours

2011-02-01

Well, the first month of the year is over already, and I’m pretty happy with my language-learning results. But first I want to briefly cover my sleep experiment.

This week, I’ve decided to drop off the Everyman schedule and go back to monophasic sleep. I’ve found that polyphasic sleep requires a lot of discipline during the adaptation phase, and that you can expect several weeks of being tired. At this point, I’m tired of being tired, and I don’t really like constantly constraining my sleep. I prefer to just wake up when it feels good to wake up.

I might try polyphasic again some time in the near future, now that I know what to expect. For now I just want to be well-rested for a little while. At the end of my experiment, I was mostly adapted, but there was still a lingering tiredness for 1 or two hours per day on average. If I made any mistakes in the schedule, then this would increase. Some days were better, some days were worse, but it seemed to only be slowly progressing.

When I try it again, I’m going to be much more exact with my sleeping times, and I’ll be sure not to switch programs in the middle. I’ll also make sure to be more vigilant about setting multiple alarms and getting up right away, to prevent oversleeps.

So, now on to language tasks. I’m rather happy with the amount of language work I accomplished this month, although I think it could be improved more. In total, I spent 191 hours on language activities, with 132.5 of that spent on Dutch. The remainder was mostly German reading and TV time. My personal best was January 19th where I reached 10 hours of Dutch time, and in that week I hit 49.5 worth of Dutch time altogether.

I’ve learned a couple important things. One is that the content of your learning material is really important; the more interest you have in the material, the easier it is to do it. Since Harry Potter was the only material I’ve had so far where the audiobook matches exactly with the Dutch ebook, and for which an English ebook was also present, then I felt constrained in my choices for beginner material. Sometimes it was a strain to get back to work. With German, on the other hand, I have DVDs of Star Trek: Voyager with German audio, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to just sit down and watch a couple hours of that with Chani (who’s spending her time learning German these days).

I’ve also found that it can be very tempting to spend too much time on the English half of my parallel texts rather than focusing on the Dutch. There were many moments where I caught myself reading ahead in the English and ignoring the Dutch audio. For this and other reasons, my recognition of printed Dutch is much higher than my ability to listen to it. I’ve had some gains in the past week, but I still need to work on it more.

Another thing I noticed sharply was the Pareto principle, where 20% of my time got me 80% of my comprehension in reading. I was able to get to recognition of more than 80% of the words on each page after less than about 30 hours of work, and ever since then I’ve been trudging through the “long tail”, trying to acquire that very important last 20% of the words. This means that for the first little while, you feel a great sense of progress as you zoom through the most frequent vocabulary, but then it feels like your progress is slowing to a crawl as you struggle to add a few more percent here and there.

The struggle is worth it, though. You’ll get a magnificent feeling of accomplishment once you get up to the high 90s, where you’ll be able to just sit down with a novel in your new language and enjoy reading it for fun. This should happen by the time you’ve already read 1 million words in your target language, which is about 10 regular sized novels, but you might get there with only half of that, depending on what other language activities you’re doing, and how much the language differs from what you know already.

So, ahead of me is the month of February. This is where I’ll be starting the active phase of my Dutch project. I’ve got a lot more work to do in the first week and a half to prepare. Then I’ve invited a couple of Belgian Couchsurfers to come stay with me for a few days, so it’ll be “sink or swim” time. After that, I’ve booked a plane ticket to Belgium to go to Talenfestival Leuven, which is a “language festival” for one day which includes short seminars on many different languages (all conducted in Dutch). Interestingly, the talk on Irish will be given in Esperanto, with Dutch translation.

I’m still continuing my reading and listening, but I’ll be spending some time practicing output on my own before the couchsurfers get here to put me to the test. I’ve got a phrasebook that I can run through to practice a lot of common phrases, and then I’ll work on some writing exercises to help me with coming up with my own Dutch ideas from scratch.

Just one more month of concentrated Dutch studying, and then I’ll be switching my main project to something else. At that point I hope to have good understanding of spoken and written Dutch, so it should be easy to put it on the backburner and just read the occasional novel or watch the TV news in order to keep things fresh. I’m looking forward to it!


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.