The magic of words


In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series of novels, magic power can be gained over something by discovering it’s true name in the ancient language of the dragons. Young wizards who are training in the magical arts have to spend significant time memorizing many of these ancient words, and it can be hard to keep going. To help them along, their teacher gives a little speech about the ancient language.

In his speech, he explains to them that because their language is related to the ancient language, they can find clues within their words. Some of their words are made of bits of the older words. By investigating the older language, they can learn new things about their own. Also, the more words they learn, the more things they can precisely describe and thus have power over. This motivates them to keep going in their long task.

So, as an illustration of how to learn from parallel texts, I’d like you to take a look at the parallels between the different language versions of some of this speech. I’ll lay out 3 sentences along with their corresponding sentences in the other languages. First is English, then German, then Dutch, and finally Polish to give some contrast. These are from the official translations, not google translate.

  • But magic, true magic, is worked only by those beings who speak the Hardic tongue of Earthsea, or the Old Speech from which it grew.
  • Aber Magie, wahre Magie, wird nur von denen ausgeübt, die das Hardisch der Erdsee sprechen oder die Ursprache, aus der es stammt.
  • En magie, ware magie wordt alleen gewrocht door hen die de Hardische taal van Aardzee spreken, of de Oude Spraak waaruit deze is voortgekomen.
  • Ale magia, prawdziwa magia, jest dziełem tylko tych istot, które mówią hardyckim narzeczem Światomorza albo też Dawną Mową, z której to narzecze wyrosło.

  • That is the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world, and the language of our lays and songs, spells, enchantments, and invocations.
  • Das sind die Sprache der Drachen und die Sprache Segoys, der die Inseln dieser Welt schuf, und es ist auch die Sprache unserer Lieder und Epen und unserer Zauber- und Bannsprüche.
  • Dat is de taaldie de draken spreken, en de taal die Segoy sprak toen hij de eilanden van de wereld schiep, en de taal van onzwijzen en zangen, onze spreuken, oproepingen en bezweringen.
  • Dawna Mowa to język, którym mówią smoki, język, którym mówił Segoy, ten, co stworzył wyspy świata, język naszych ballad i pieśni, zaklęć, czarów i wezwań.

  • Its words lie hidden and changed among our Hardic words.
  • Die Worte dieser Sprache sind versteckt in unserem Hardisch.
  • Haar woorden liggen nauwelijks herkenbaar verscholen tussen de woorden van ons Hardisch.
  • Jego słowa spoczywają, ukryte i zmienione, pomiędzy naszymi hardyckimi słowami.

For those of you who already speak some German or Dutch, you’ll notice right away that the translations are not exactly literal. There are some words that have been removed or added. Also, even for those who don’t know any of these languages, you might have noticed that there are some changes in word order.

If I were starting these languages completely from scratch (which I sort of am with Dutch and Polish, although I have a background in germanic languages to help me with Dutch), then the first thing I’d look for is some “anchor” words. Typically these are proper nouns for people and places, and they tend to stay roughly the same between translations. This will help you even with unrelated languages like Chinese, where the foreign names are usually spelled out somewhat, using rarer characters as phonetic approximations.

In this case, the words that are going to transfer across all translations are “Hardic” and “Segoy”. Due to their connections as indo-european languages, you’ll also see Magic / Magie / magie / magia corresponding. And then among the germanic ones you’ll see more words corresponding like dragon / Drachen / draken (which amusingly seems to be “smoki” in Polish, as far as I can tell). I also guess “ballad” as the Polish word for song. If words were chosen differently by the translators, the different versions could be made to correspond even more closely.

The next thing you can try, is finding a passage that repeats itself with only a slight change, and then see what changed. A good candidate for this is “the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke”. Looking at the polish, you’ll see “język, którym mówią smoki” and “język, którym mówił Segoy”. Without looking at any dictionaries, I would guess that mówi- is a stem for “to speak”, with -ą added for present and -ł added for past. I would also guess that język is the word for language, which is somewhat confirmed by looking at the sentence after that too. I could be wrong, but I would be aided by reading along further in the story.

This is basically the first time I’ve ever looked at Polish in this detail, yet I can still find patterns and start working things out. This is only with 3 sentences. By finding slight hints at patterns, and then seeing those patterns represented in hundreds or thousands of different sentences, you can learn a lot of the language without ever looking at a dictionary. It would take ridiculously long to look up every single unknown word in the unknown sentences.

So, this is why I suggest that learning with books can be really productive, even from the very start. It’s made much easier by having a translated version of the text to make it comprehensible, and you should probably limit your dictionary lookups to those words that you’ve already seen many times (the “high frequency” words). By seeing many many somewhat-comprehensible examples, you can learn a lot very quickly.

Another thing that might help make things more comprehensible, is to do a quick browse through a bunch of grammar examples, just to see what’s possible. No need to try and memorize any tables or do any “exercises” from textbooks, because you’ll pick up their workings naturally as you read through your novel. Looking at a bunch of clear examples is helpful though, because it lets you see what’s possible in the language…to see what’s out there for you to discover. This helps you notice it when it comes up for real in your novel.

Just remember that Exposure comes before Knowledge, not the other way around. Don’t wait until you’re “ready” to expose yourself to the language, because then you never will be. Also, go out and buy some real books. As Khatsumoto has said, you have to own before you pwn. If you have no books on your shelf, you will have limited access to the language.

Have fun reading!

Extensive reading: what convinced me


Some time in the spring of 2009 I was considering getting back into learning German after a long hiatus. I had taken German in high school, but learned very little. I couldn’t read books, I couldn’t understand TV, and I couldn’t have even a basic conversation.

Nine years before this, I had gone on a couple of business trips to Germany, and at some point I picked up a German copy of Tad William’s “The Stone of Farewell”, a high fantasy novel that I had read already in English. My idea was that when I got home from the business trip I’d sit down and try to read it in German, since I had an intuitive idea that reading should be a good way to improve my language skills.

I got back to Vancouver and sat down with this fantasy novel and a German-English dictionary, and started working on it. It seemed impossibly hard, and most of the words were unknown to me. I tried to look up every single unknown word in the dictionary in order to figure out what was going on. I wasn’t getting any sense of the story, and after a long time I was still stuck on the 2nd page. I eventually gave up, thinking that it was a horrible idea.

Fast-forward 9 years to 2009, and I was once again starting to work on German again. I had been reading AJATT and Steve Kaufmann, who were both saying “just read”. I then heard about Japanese students who were trying to read 1 million words of English without using a dictionary, which sounded sort of absurd.

So, I decided to give this crazy idea a shot. I would pick up this book that had caused me so many problems before, and I would just move my eyeballs over all the words. Whenever I encountered a word that I didn’t know, I’d just skip right over it and keep on moving. I would try my best to imagine whatever parts of the story I could figure out, piecing it together from my past knowledge of the English version of the book and the understandable words in German in front of me.

What happened was an epiphany for me. By ignoring the hard words and continuing to move my eyes, I started to get a sense for the story. It was only a vague sense, because there were lots of words I didn’t know, but it still seemed like what it really was: a story. I could pick out the main characters, and I knew when they were doing something with someone else, and a few basic words like Drachen (= dragon), and Wald (= forest), etc.

I kept going until I had read 50 pages without using a dictionary, and I had felt it getting better and better, so I decided to go back to the start and see if I had learned anything. Miraculously, I understood a lot more! The beginning of the story made a lot more sense now. Although it was hard to point to any particular things that I had learned beyond a couple words I knew I had figured out, I just knew that something had changed and I was understanding much more.

This catapulted me forward, and I began pursuing German wholeheartedly. It set me on the path to reading dozens of books in German, and eventually moving here to Berlin. Now I can go out for a beer with some Germans in a noisy bar and talk about feminism or geohashing or whatever I want, and it all started with learning to move my eyeballs over some foreign looking words.

Some further points I should mention one more time:

  • Bootstrapping yourself by learning some basic vocab is helpful, but don’t use vocab as an excuse not to read. Exposure comes before knowledge, not after.
  • The further the language is from your native language, the longer it will take to absorb the meanings…but don’t give up, it still works. (I’ve done it in Chinese too)
  • Audiobooks are phenomenally helpful. I highly recommend using them whenever possible while you read.
  • Another way to go about it is to keep the English version of the book beside you so that you can look at it as a reference when you get really stuck. Reading 2 paragraphs of English every few pages will resynchronize you…just don’t get too distracted with the English when your main task should be the new language. (for something like Chinese, it’s definitely handy to have a parallel text…I didn’t find it necessary for Swedish and German)

Anyone who hasn’t tried this should go pick up the nearest book in your target language and move your eyeballs over the first 50 pages, and then I dare you to tell me that you haven’t learned anything and that reading isn’t easier!

Getting started


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

What’s the best textbook for learning German?


this is a response to a question on the HTLAL forums about how to get started at German, from scratch

My recommendation is to focus on vocab and listening at the start, and gradually move into more and more reading (especially with audiobooks to go with the books).

At the start, you need to do a lot of listening in order to grasp the sound system and the rhythm of the language. Learn to love the sounds of it, and try to imitate it. You also need to rapidly learn the basic vocab so that you can start to understand some real sentences. A brief glance at some grammar examples will probably also help you to piece things together, but there’s no need to memorize any tables or anything.

For vocab, it can be quite handy to use some of those little phrasebooks. I’ve looked at a lot of German phrasebooks and compared, and I think that one of the best is the Kauderwelsch “German, word by word” phrasebook. There are actually a lot of nice explanations in it, and they do a word-by-word translation of all the phrases, in addition to the regular English translation. Another one that’s good just for sheer number of words, is the Lonely Planet German phrasebook.

You can also try downloading some of the shared decks in Anki, and working through those.

Ok, so the next step (or even simultaneous step) is to move into native materials, especially books. I recommend Harry Potter, since it’s fairly easy as novels go, and there’s a great audiobook. Rufus Beck reads the German audio version, and he’s fantastic! The problem for you is that at the start, you won’t know many of the words. You can balance this out a bit by spending more time at the start doing some lookups, but I also encourage you to just listen and read, even if you don’t get it all. You’ll get a lot from the voice-acting that Beck does, and from the surrounding words that you already understand from their relatives in English.

If you sit back and try to enjoy the book as much as you can, you’ll get into it a bit more and you’ll start getting partial meanings of the words from context. From the little bits and pieces that you get, you’ll be able to get more and more of the story. Keep a highlighter pen around for the words that you see multiple times and you really want to know. Just highlight it, and keep reading, and then you can go back later and look them all up at once and put them into Anki or some other flashcard program.

Last year I did something like this for several months. At the start, I hardly understood any of Harry Potter, and I also didn’t get much of the TV shows I was watching. By the time I got to book three in the Harry Potter series, I actually had begun to understand quite a bit. When I got to book 5 I understood almost everything.

The thing that’s nice about the audiobook is that it’ll keep pushing you through the text. Instead of going super slowly and getting stuck on every word, you’re pushed to try to make sense of the general story, and you get much more exposure to the language. You can go back and look up some of the words, but your desire to find out what happens in the story will keep you going back to the audiobook to find out.

Now, keep in mind that this is all passive. When I first got to Germany, I could read a real novel and understand almost everything, but I still spoke mostly like a beginner in terms of my expressive ability. At some point, you’re going to have to decide to start trying to speak, and there are differing preferences on when to do this. Some people prefer to start right away, but since you’re not coming to the country for a while then it should be fine if you decide to wait until you have high comprehension (because then you’ll have the handy ability to tell which things “just sound right” to you).

Above all, the most important thing is to find stuff that’s interesting to you. It doesn’t matter if everyone in the world rates a certain textbook as “super awesome” if you find it boring, because then you won’t continue with it. For most people, “interesting” usually equates with actual real native material such as books and movies, so then your task is to shoot through as much basic vocab as you can so that you can jump into native materials sooner. And don’t be afraid to use the native materials as your guide of which words to learn. You can learn the words as you come across them.

dealing with variety


Home, sweet home. Berlin feels so comfortable and easy now. I’m back, after a brief trip over to Copenhagen. Although I had a good time there and in Malmö, I still want to work full-time on German. I have some great opportunities to study German intensively here with some expert instruction. What makes me hesitate is that I usually just focus on one topic, but right now I’m trying an experiment by juggling several.

I just unpacked a big stack of books that I brought back with me from Sweden and Denmark. I love books, and I sometimes seem to gather them faster than I can read them. Now that I have a solid place to stay for a while in Berlin, the books are already starting to pile up. Right now I have 2 novels, a comic book, and a book about beermaking in Esperanto; 5 novels in Swedish (plus various audiobooks and ebooks); 1 German novel, but soon to be more; also 3 novels in Danish (yes, I’ll be expanding to another language soon).

So how do I plan to deal with all of these while I’m “supposed” to be studying German here in Berlin? After some advice from one of my language-learning pals here in Berlin (thanks, Judith!), I’ve decided to try to moderate my excesses a bit, and try to do a little bit of many things. My normal pattern is to work intensively on only one thing until I burn out and get wanderlust, or sometimes I just flit from subject to subject with no focus at all. Now I’m going to try finding a nice middle ground.

German is still my primary task right now, but I’m allowing myself to also do some work on Swedish and Esperanto every week, in order to keep progressing in them. This gives me one thing where I’m quite good, and two where I’m sort of mediocre. They each feel different when I’m studying them because of my different skill levels.

To help me moderate the time I spend, I’ve created a new sort of spreadsheet to track my effort. Some of you may recall my previous spreadsheet style, which was to track my time and effort day by day, which was summarized in weekly and monthly totals. I’m changing that now, so that I only track weekly amounts.

The reason for this was that I used to want to fill in every box for every day, which indicated that I’d done something for every daily task and gave me a sense of progress….but now I don’t really have “daily” tasks anymore. I have a whole pile of tasks, and I may not feel like working on all of them in every day. The focus is now weeks, and on using any small bit of time effectively.

Each week will have a sort of laundry list of things I could do. I have certain goals for each week, but nothing is nailed down to a specific day. Instead, it provides me with a list of things that I am allowed to work on whenever I have time (which is often). For each language, I have three tasks: Reading, Listening, and New Anki Cards.

Reading is from my stack of books, which I’m eager to work through, and is tracked by the estimated number of words read (by multiplying the pages read times the estimated words per page for that particular book, to account for the differences between books). Generally I want to read as much as possible, but I also have some weekly goals that I hope not to go under. Some of this reading will also be done as “Listening-Reading” if I have the appropriate audiobook to simultaneously listen to.

Listening includes many activities. It could be watching a movie in that language, or listening actively to the radio, or doing some simultaneous Listening-Reading with an audiobook and a novel. Listening by itself is handy, since I can also do it while I wash dishes or buy groceries, etc.

Lastly, making new Anki cards refers to my favourite “Spaced Repetition System”, which shows me flashcards at calculated times in order to efficiently stimulate my long-term memory production. Whenever I take the time to look up a new word or phrase from one of my novels, I usually add it to my flashcard system as a full example sentence. The system will then show it to me at increasing intervals over time, in order to keep that new knowledge fresh in my mind until it sticks for the long-term. This way, I know I’m making certain progress in the language, and I don’t have to worry about reviewing what I’ve learned because the computer will automatically show me the right things at the right time.

Besides these three categories for each of my three languages, I also have some columns in my new spreadsheet for other non-linguistic activities. I want to improve my abilities in the strategy game called Go, or Wei qi depending on whether you use the Japanese or Chinese name for it. To that end, I want to do a certain number of practice problems each week. I’m also tracking a couple of fitness exercises such as pushups and crunches. These things don’t take that much time to do, and I’d like to do them on a consistent basis over time, so they’re getting tracked in the spreadsheet too.

Having all of these things in my list gives me the variety that I like. Any time I have the opportunity to work on something, I can choose from dozens of different activities, and if I get bored of one activity then I can easily switch to another. If I’m only choosing from this list, however, then I’m still targeting all of my current goals, and not getting sidetracked on other things. By looking at the weekly totals, I can help direct myself toward my weaker areas too, so that I don’t overconcentrate on one task.

Speaking of getting sidetracked, what about those Danish books I mentioned? I should have known that spending time in Copenhagen would leave me with an interest in Danish. There are several Esperanto events in Denmark scheduled for next year, so I wouldn’t mind starting on Danish in January maybe, so that I’m prepared.

This is also serving as extra motivation for Swedish though. I’m not allowing myself to start on Danish until I reach a sufficient level in Swedish. This is both an encouragement to keep improving my Swedish, and also a way of indirectly working on Danish. The two languages are very similar in the written form (and I could already read the Danish menus in Copenhagen restaurants, for example), so the better I am at Swedish, the faster I’ll be able to learn Danish once I eventually start. Therefore, the Danish books will sit quietly on my bookshelf until at least January, and they’ll serve as a steady reminder that there are many reasons for me to continue working on my Swedish goals.

So, that’s pretty much the current state of things for me. My spreadsheet has a row for each week of the remainder of the year, and the columns are the different tasks. When I do any part of a task in that week, then I put a number in the box and color the box blue. If I surpass the weekly goal for that task, then the box changes to green. The plan for the rest of the year is to color in the entire grid, hopefully in green, but blue would be enough.

I’ll be sure to post some updates about this in a few weeks.

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.

a listener-friendly German accent


I’ve been having lots of fun chatting to people in German so far. The more I chat, the more I find holes in my vocabulary, but I can usually work around them. A lot of the time, I can say the word in English and people know it, even if they can’t converse much in English.

Since I’ve been here, almost everyone has been really enthusiastic about speaking to me in German. I think one part of this is my accent, since most people can’t place my native language. The Germans seem to think I’m Swiss, while the Austrians think I’m German. At least that’s their initial impression, until I start stumbling for words, and then they get this weird look on their face and ask me where I’m from.

When I speak, I try to use one of Benny‘s tips and smile a lot. If I were frowning and stumbling for words, then people might want to switch to English to make it easier, but if you smile and have a good time while stumbling for words, then it all works out and everyone continues in German. Smile and laugh while you say “sorry, I’m trying to improve my German” and everyone will be happy to help you out and compliment you.

There are times when the accent works against me, since people think I’m better than I am. I’ve had some people start using a bunch of local slang or dialect on me, so I have to tell them to speak clearly. I got pulled over by an Austrian cop last night while riding the wrong way down a confusing one-way street, and he started explaining my infraction with all these official sounding words until I said “woah woah, I’m a foreigner, slow down”. But at least he understood everything I said 🙂

Developing a listener-friendly accent requires a lot of listening. You also should have some knowledge about the physical production of the sounds, so that you can understand, for example, which part of your mouth should be used to make a German “R” (which seems to be a real problem for native English speakers). Some accent problems come in when you try and substitute one of your own language’s sounds for a letter in a word that is actually a different sound in the target language.

Particularly for English speakers here, if you try and say some German words using an English R and L sound, then the result will be confusing for the German listeners. If you can’t do the common back-of-the-tongue German R, then at least try to do a tip-of-the-tongue rolling R like russian or spanish, and people here seem to get that a bit easier. There are some native accents in southern Germany that use this rolling R more often than the back-of-the-tongue variety.

For a lot of English speakers, I think the R will come much easier once you’ve mastered the various sounds used for “ch”. The easiest is perhaps best described as the sound that a hissing goose makes. For those of you who’ve encountered an angry goose defending its young, you’ll recognize the noise I mean. They open their beaks wide, so the sound is clearly not a tip-of-the-tongue “ssssss”, but something else. This helps visualize the human equivalent, which is where the back of your tongue goes really close to the top of the back of your mouth, to make a “hhhhh” hissing sound. You might also try to visualize an angry cat hissing, which is the same sort of open-mouth idea. Practice making this sound to yourself for a while, and then you’ll be able to say “ich” properly, instead of the common mistake of saying “itch” or “ish” (which are both typical English front-of-the-mouth sounds). Also notice that in most cases, this “ch” is not like the harder Arabic noise…there’s no vibrating or spit-gargling. Don’t overdo it. Usually it’s very “clean” and smooth.

Once you can say “ch” properly, then you’re ready to move on to a good “r”. The sound is articulated in the same general area, although to me it feels slightly different. Try to start out by making a “ch” hiss, and then add some voicing to it. To make it work properly you’ll have to make a slight movement more towards the back of the mouth I think, but at least that’ll get you started in the right general area.

This R sound gets used at the beginning of words and after another consonant (like in the words “Rad” and at the beginning of “Trockner”). Keep in mind that German words ending in R don’t use the same sound. You can’t just use the same phoneme for every occurance of the letter R. At the end of words like “Trockner”, the “er” part sounds more like just “ah” with no clear “R” sort of sound (to my ears, anyway). If you start pronouncing the first R in “Trockner” the same as the last R, then I think you’ll start to sound more French or something.

Also, again I should stress that in most cases I don’t hear any sort of really hard R. It’s not usually a “rolling” thing at the back, and there’s no Klingon / Arabic vibrations. Try to make it soft and smooth. The number one rule is to listen a lot. Pick an audiobook or some other audio content that’s at least 15 – 30 minutes long, and practice listening for all the “R” sounds. Really listen hard to what sounds they’re making, and what sounds they’re NOT making. Pick one sound at a time to focus on, and just try to hear all of them without making too much effort to understand the actual words or content.

Another one to listen for is the German “L” sound. I might actually characterize this as more of a “European” L sound, since it seems to occur in French and Italian as well. It’s notoriously difficult for English speakers to grasp the difference between and English L and a German/French/Italian L, so make sure you listen carefully.

It’s even quite hard for me to describe the difference. I’m sure it’s an amusing scene here, as I sit in my friend’s kitchen in Vienna going “LLL” “lll” “LLL” “lll” trying to figure out what the heck my tongue is doing. It feels to me that the English L is more “closed”, with the back of the tongue squeezing closer to the back of the mouth (example: the word “ball”), making it a bit more nasal perhaps (“velarization” is the technical term), whereas the German/Italian/French L feels more “open” with easier airflow ability out the mouth.

As a decent approximation, try making an “awww” sound, and then slowly moving only the tip of your tongue up to touch just behind the teeth. While doing this, concentrate on making it an “awww” sound, and don’t think about making L sounds. If you unconsciously think too much about making it an L sound, you might automatically move the back of your tongue too, making it a velarized “dark L” from English. To make his new L sound, you have to retrain your mental autopilot.

Don’t forget to listen! Listen to hours of audio, and listen to yourself when you practice talking. If you have a transcript and some audio for it, then work on it in sections where you listen to a short section over and over again (maybe 20 to 50 times) to get it firmly in your head, and then try to repeat it many times while listening carefully to yourself.

I’ve ignored a lot of the subtleties here, so don’t complain too hard. This has been mostly an attempt to get the beginners up to speed a bit so they don’t sound so obviously like a typical English speaker. What I would love to hear from people, actually, is what other sounds give away a native English speaker when they speak German…any further suggestions?



Hi all, I’m back from a busy holiday season, and I’m ready to start the new year. Corresponding with some of my travel plans and my enthusiasm, my projects for 2010 will be German, Esperanto, and Swedish.

Currently I can happily read most German items I stumble upon, and enjoy reading novels. My spoken abilities definitely leave something to be desired, though. My Swedish is currently at “basic” level, wherein I have some beginner understanding of everyday phrases and of the general features of the language. My Esperanto is a fast-moving train, since it’s so easy to learn. After 43 hours of study, I can figure out a lot of stuff on wikipedia already, and I’m getting a lot more of the podcasts I’m listening to.

Since starting both Swedish and Esperanto from scratch about a month ago, my methods have mostly involved randomly picking through several different “instructional” materials to pick up the basic ideas and concepts, and then moving quickly to real native content in the form of books. For Swedish I’m working my way through the Swedish translation of The Hobbit (“Hobbiten”), with the accompanying Swedish audiobook. For Esperanto, I’m reading some wikipedia, and some of Le Monde Diplomatique. I just ordered a copy of The Hobbit in Esperanto too, so when that arrives I’ll be able to compare all three language versions.

Because of the speed at which I seem to be learning Esperanto, I’m going to mostly concentrate on that this month in order to really jump-start it. My goal is to break the 100-hour mark by January 31. The hope is that this will leave me at a place that makes further learning very easy, because I’ll be able to understand quite a bit and read easily. Then I can just put it on cruise-control by occasionally reading and listening over the next several months. After that, I’m considering going to the SES (Summer Esperanto Study / Somera Esperanto-Studado) in Slovakia in the first week of July. This sounds like it may be a fun opportunity to practice speaking with a bunch of other people at the same level.

For Swedish, I plan to do little bits of practice during January, and then move back into it full time for February / March / April. I’ll be adding sentences as flashcards in Anki (which I’m still doing for German and Esperanto too), and I’ll also be watching some of the Swedish films I’ve been slowly acquiring and listening to some audiobooks.

All of this is subject to change, so I’ll probably add some more details as I go along, but for now I’ve got my short-term goal of about 60 more hours of Esperanto study in January to reach that 100 hour mark. Until that’s reached, everything else is for later.

the value of conversation


Last Tuesday I went to meet a bunch of Germans at a local bar near my workplace. It was a German “meetup” organized through 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.

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”