Mad Flow: become absorbed in your book


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.

the problems with Rosetta Stone


There was a question on the HTLAL forums about why a lot of people were against Rosetta Stone, and my response to the question sorta grew into a giant post, so I thought I’d stick it here too. enjoy.

Over the years I’ve dabbled in a lot of languages, and I fell for the Rosetta Stone marketing in about 2002 or so. I bought German,Japanese, and Spanish, if I remember correctly. I now speak German, but only because of considerable effort 8 years later using totally different methods. I’m not necessarily a “hater”, but I usually recommend people away from Rosetta Stone.

Here are my main problems with it:
1) it doesn’t give beginners what they need to feel more comfortable
2) it doesn’t have enough content to take you to an intermediate level
3) the content is boring
4) it doesn’t help you develop the skills that you will need in order to get through intermediate and advanced levels (because this would contradict the promise that buying Rosetta Stone gives you EVERYTHING YOU NEED!)
5) it’s expensive

I’ll go through these in a minute, but firstly let me say that I’m still impressed that they continue to tell people that there are different ways to learn languages, and that languages can be learned by “absorbing” things without necessarily fully understanding them in an academic / mathematical sense. These are important concepts. Now, onto my beefs.

1) “They don’t make beginners feel comfortable.”

I think that when a lot of people start learning a new language, they want something that makes sense, something they can hold on to and feel secure. This makes it hard to advocate that they start right away with an “absorbing” method where there’s a long period of semi-confusion before the full absorption has occurred. For that full-absorption to happen, the learner has to listen to hundreds of hours of content in order to feel secure in the language. Most
beginners are going to give up long before then, because they don’t know how long they might have to wait, and they’re unsure about their progress.

As an alternative, what I like to suggest to beginners is to do a “bootstrapping” phase, where they get themselves a little bit familiar with the language and start to feel more comfortable with it. I think it helps to just know what’s out there, what types of things exist in the language. Do some reading ABOUT the language first, like what types of sounds exist, what types of grammar ideas exist (like
genders, cases, etc), how the language relates to other similar languages, how the writing works, who the famous authors are, what the history is.

None of this bootstrapping phase should be about memorization or perfection, but rather just about getting a little bit of familiarity. There’s no test on this stuff, just read it and explore a bit, and see what’s interesting and unique. This gives you a bit of grounding in the language and makes you feel a bit more at home. It helps give a framework to relate things to.

One of the ways I like to do this (which I did recently with Swedish) was to find a book like one of those “Essential Grammar” books that tries to cover every topic. Instead of memorizing or doing workbook exercises or trying to calculate out my own unique sentences, I merely read the examples. Just look at all sorts of different example sentences in there, to try to get a sense for how things work
generally. Ideally you want to be able to say “oh neat, I see how that sentence is put together now”, but there’s no need to be able to put together your own sentences yet.

An exercise like this lets you see a new sentence with all sorts of strange words, but it will still feel a little bit familiar because you can kinda see how it fits together. You can’t create yet, but you can recognize a little bit, and this makes you feel more confident. It generally takes very little time to get to this point.

Rosetta Stone did not give me this feeling at all. I just felt confused, until I got bored and quit.

2) “It doesn’t have enough content”.

In order to really absorb a language, you need to expose yourself to a lot of real content. Just to give you a sense of the scale, you probably will have to read a few hundred thousand words in that language (I like to aim at 1 million, personally), and listen to hundreds or maybe thousands of hours of audio. This is what I think you need in order to reach some sort of basic fluency…if you just
want to ask for train tickets, then clearly a lot less work is required, but if you want to talk to cute people in a bar about things that interest you generally, then you need wide-ranging comfort in the language and that comes from lots of input.

Rosetta stone just doesn’t have that much in it. I think it’s good that it has a lot of stuff that might not be in a typical textbook, or maybe it comes at it from a different direction with a different conception of what’s “hard” and “easy”, but in total I just don’t think it has enough substance.

To get real substance and to make real progress to fluency, you need a way to get lots of interesting native content. And the word “interesting” is key here, which leads to my next point.

3) “The content is boring”

To make progress in a language, you need to maintain your motivation. For me, this has been the single biggest obstacle to learning other languages, because when I get bored of the content I tend to jump to the next new shiny topic. I used to spend a few weeks on one language, then I’d get bored and stop, and a few weeks later I’d pick up a new language because it was bright and shiny.

Rosetta Stone didn’t help with this. Seeing these dumb pictures and simple sentences about counting tennis balls, and which color the clown’s hair was, did not keep me interested and motivated, so I’d usually give up after a while. What really interested me was reading books (especially fantasy novels) in other languages.

I thought it’d be super awesome if I could read alternate language equivalents of Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I wanted to find cool books like that in German and Spanish. I also developed an interest in poetry after reading a dual-language English/Spanish book of Pablo Neruda poems, and wanted to find more like that….but listening to a bunch of lame sentences with funny pictures didn’t really help me get there…

4) “it doesn’t help you develop skills”

Rosetta Stone markets itself as an all-in-one package that will teach you the language. When I used it, I really felt that I had to force myself to work through it from start to finish so that I’d get awesome! They didn’t give any suggestions about how to work from other materials using their ideas.

Also, because their sentences were generally stupid and boring, and all isolated from each other, with no sense of context, it kept me thinking about learning in a counterproductive way. I was still thinking in a textbook mindset, where I had to master simple context-free examples before I could tackle real native content, which I think is totally backwards.

Now I think that context is king. It doesn’t matter if you understand every little detail of a sentence in a book as long as you can get the general idea from using the context. Reading a book is not an exercise in perfection, but actually starts like a picture loading on the internet. First you get a blurry approximation, and then you improve over time until you see a precise image. You still get a lot
of good information from the blurry approximation, but it doesn’t work too well when you just read one sentence at a time that is totally separated from everything else.

5) “It’s expensive”

This one is a no-brainer. Back in 2002 I spent hundreds of dollars buying Rosetta Stone in German, but it got me basically nowhere. I couldn’t converse, I couldn’t read a book, I couldn’t understand TV. In 2009, I spent hundreds of dollars buying DVDs of my favourite TV shows dubbed in German, like 150+ hours of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, along with some CSI and South Park, etc. I also bought a bunch of Harry Potter books with the audiobooks.

This stuff was all fun and very interesting to me. It was very challenging at the start, but I found that by doing a lot of listening and reading, combined with some occasional dictionary lookups (but not too many), then I made steady progress. I spent less money than I did on Rosetta stone 7 years before that, but I had way more fun and got way better results.

Now I’m off in Germany (actually, technically I’m in Austria this week but I’ll be back in Germany soon), and I’m speaking with cute girls in a bar about general topics of interest. Mission accomplished, no thanks to Rosetta Stone.

In summary: you need lots of content, it has to be fun otherwise you’ll quit, and Rosetta Stone doesn’t give you these (plus it’s expensive). If you really want a very structured approach to starting a language, I recommend Assimil, because it mostly solves the 5 problems I listed above. It helps beginners feel comfortable, has more content, is more interesting, it helps you develop skills that will enable you to move quickly to real native content, and it’s not as expensive.

defining “fluency”


(i was just discussing this over at and i figured i should post it here too)

I don’t think there’s much point in universally defining the term “fluent”, but for me it holds a useful purpose as a goal in my learning. I view “fluency” as that point where I can use the language without thinking about it consciously, and have a good conversation with someone about any topic that doesn’t require special education. Also, my accent should be good enough that I don’t have to repeat my words in order for native speakers to understand them.

When I try to apply these standards to some of the people I know, I think it fits quite well with my opinion of “who needs to study more” vs. “who is good enough”. For instance, I have two coworkers who are clearly not native speakers of English, but I would classify them as “fluent” as defined above. I never have to ask them to repeat their words, and they talk naturally without stopping, so it seems like they do it effortlessly. Sure, they make mistakes, and they don’t have a perfect accent, and there are some special topics that cause difficulties, but I can still easily classify their English as “good enough” in my eyes.

I have two other coworkers, however, who have trouble getting understood. They can talk about a lot of topics, sure, but people often have to ask them to say some words multiple times because they just can’t understand what word it was. Also, their grammar is noticeably weird, so I sometimes have to think about it a bit in order to get their meaning. For these two people, I would not call them “fluent” as I defined it, because I (as a native speaker) have to put in so much extra effort in order to get what they’re saying, and because it seems difficult for them to formulate things in the language.

Although they still manage to communicate quite well about many things, I would classify their skills as “needs more work”, and therefore as not yet fluent. In this sense, I see “fluency” as a worthwhile goal for myself. I want people to be able to understand everything I say without them putting in a lot of extra effort to figure out what I said. I want to effortlessly speak the language, and I want other people to effortlessly understand what I just said. Maybe I won’t be perfect in all ways, and maybe I won’t understand all sorts of obscure cultural references that they say, but all the stuff that I say will be clear, fluid, and easy to understand.

Becoming fluent is still a challenging and useful thing with this definition, but is clearly far below the level of a native speaker (linguistically and culturally). Right now, I understand almost everything I read in German, but my speaking ability would not pass this test, so I wouldn’t call myself “fluent”