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.

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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.


How can I learn a language quickly from novels?

2010-12-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Extensive reading: what convinced me

2010-11-17

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!


Getting started

2010-11-15

I’ve had a number of personal requests lately about how to get started in a language. In the past week, I’ve been asked about how to study German, Mandarin, and Dutch. Although what I’ve said to these people has been tailored a bit to their experience, there are some common threads, mainly Independence and Curiousity.

A lot of people have this idea that learning comes out of a textbook. The textbooks or classrooms have all the knowledge inside of them, and you are the empty vessel. You pour the knowledge out of the textbook until it fills up your brain and then you know it! Simple, right?

In reality, learning anything, particularly a new language, is more about the habits that you form and the things that you do. You need to continually make contact with the language and try to understand it, and to enjoy it. When your only contact is a boring textbook, it’s hard to keep going back. It usually starts to feel like “work”.

So, what I’ve been recommending to these people is to make a personal habit of trying to read a book in that language, and to listen to real audio content. This usually takes a bit of explaining, because people will start saying “but that’s the end result I want, not the first step!”. Actually, you get good at books by reading books. They have the best content, and they will keep you coming back for more, which is exactly what you need to do over and over again.

My favourite part about starting a new language is that it feels like a mystery. When I started learning Swedish, I couldn’t read it at all, but the first thing I did was to order a copy of The Hobbit in Swedish. While I waited for it to arrive, I prepped myself lightly by reading a bunch of example sentences from a grammar book, just to get a quick overall taste of the language and what it looked like.

When the book arrived, I was in heaven. Here was an interesting book that I liked reading, except now it was all upside down and sideways. I knew the story was in there somewhere, and I had to tease it out. I sat down and started going through it sentence by sentence, looking up words that I didn’t know. To me it was like an Indiana Jones movie, except instead of some ancient language, I could just go to an internet dictionary or google translate and get the answer whenever I wanted! How easy. So much easier than hieroglyphics or something. This sort of detailed investigation is Intensive Reading, wherein you try to understand the meaning of every sentence.

I also alternated this with another task: Extensive Reading. The idea here is to drop your dictionary and not touch it at all. You should just move your eyeballs over all the words, and if you don’t know the word then just skip to the next word. You actually don’t need to look up anything at all. Just keep reading.

When I started back on German last year after a 10 year hiatus, I started with Harry Potter. With the German translation of book 1 in my hands, I hit play on the German audiobook version and started reading. I barely understood anything, since at the time I only had very basic knowledge of German. I definitely wasn’t perfect, or even good. If you wait until you’re good before you start reading, you’ll probably never get there.

So I started reading Harry Potter, and it went something like “blah blah with blah blah in the blah, Harry blah to blah Ron”. Very quickly though, I started noticing patterns. I recognized words that were related to English, and I recognized German words that were related to other German words that I knew. I also started to get clues based on the dramatic reading by the audiobook actor (in this case, German actor Rufus Beck, who is fantastic at reading audiobooks).

For Extensive Reading, you might want to have a goal of the number of words. I had read about some Japanese students who were reading English books, and they had a goal of 1 million (1,000,000) words read (without using the dictionary while reading). They said that if you read 1 million words, there’s no way that you can suck at that language.

They were right! By the time I hit the 1M word mark in German, I could enjoy any novel I picked up. I rarely had to use a dictionary any more, and there were very few words per page that were unfamiliar….I actually had to actively search to find words that I didn’t know. It varies a bit from book to book, so I started to seek out harder novels, but they soon became easy.

Even when they were hard, they were still enjoyable at some level. I might not have gotten every single word, and at the start it was most of the words that I didn’t get, but I could still follow some of the story and try to have fun with it. That kept me coming back for more, and ultimately led me to success.

So, before dismissing it as “impossible” or “too hard”, go find an easy “young adult” novel and give it a shot. Do whatever you like…dictionary, or no dictionary, or a combination of both. Anything that gets you in contact with the language will make you better at that language. Just find ways to have fun with it, and you will win.

Update: related follow-up post here: Extensive reading: what convinced me


contact precedes comprehension

2010-03-26

After seeing a recent tweet by Khatsumoto where he says “One can never come to understand native-level material by avoiding it: contact precedes comprehension”, I decided I should weigh in on this. When I’ve suggested reading novels to people, a lot of them are really afraid of the idea. They tell me that they don’t understand enough of the language yet. WELL YA! you haven’t done any reading, of course you don’t understand much yet. I think they have it backwards.

Some people believe that you should have more than 90% understanding of everything before you try to read it, but I think this is nonsense. Even when I barely understand 50% of the words on the page, I’m getting something out of the process of reading and listening to a real novel in whatever language I’m learning. This type of learning cannot be easily counted and quantified; you are learning things not in a clear-cut black-and-white fashion such as “I now know these exact words!”. You are slowly gathering familiarity with many different words.

In the process, you are also seeing many of the most frequent words over and over and over. These really frequent words (usually quite important to the language) are quite easy to get a sense for, even if you understand very few of the other words in the sentences. A lot of the time, if you can just tell whether certain words are probably a noun or probably a verb or probably an adjective, then that can be enough context to learn more about the usage of some other words around them.

After a week of my ongoing experiment in reading lots of Swedish, I’ve found that I know a surprising amount of words already. I had thought that it would benefit me to go through the 2000 word wordlist that I have kicking around, but lately I’m finding that I just already know a lot of it. A few weeks ago, I’d go through one page of it and add almost every example sentence into Anki, but now I really have to search to find new words that I haven’t seen. I’m also able to guess a lot of them more easily now. I’m just becoming much more familiar with Swedish.

This gives me great confidence that I’ll be able to learn a ton just by reading for the next month. Although I saw drastic improvement in German due to reading, somehow I still have this doubt in my mind that I can just learn huge amounts of a language purely by sitting down every day to enjoy a book. I think this is an argument for spending as much time as possible doing it every day, because then the speed of the improvements is much more noticeable, and that helps your motivation.

Anyway, back to the topic. There’s no point in waiting until you already understand most of a language in order to start reading. You need to get used to the idea early that it is greatly beneficial to read native books no matter what level you are at. Maybe you won’t get that much at the start, but keep going and you’ll see that it moves fast. For simple language like small posts on blogs, I can already read Swedish quite well. I was linked to a bike forum called fixedgear.se and I found that I could quite easily read along with the articles and comments. Sure, I’m still learning a lot of new vocabulary from them, but actually reading and understanding their meaning is no longer difficult. This is an effect purely from reading difficult books like real Swedish-language novels, because I couldn’t do this a few weeks ago.

Don’t wait! Immerse yourself now! Why are you reading my silly English blog? You could be out getting exposed to some awesome content in your target language!