How to create parallel texts for language learning, part 2

2011-02-23

I wrote previously about how to manually create a parallel text for language learning, which basically involved lining up paragraphs using a common spreadsheet program. Now I’m going to dive into my preferred method of parallelizing, which is by using special software to create a sentence-aligned text. This article is intended for a more computer-savvy audience, so if you’re confused by the tech terminology, then I recommend going back to the previous article.

The main feature of a parallel text is that it has aligned sections of text in at least two languages, enabling you to quickly understand the meaning in a new language using a language that you already understand. Having each section aligned means that you can totally eliminate annoying dictionary lookups, and you also get the benefit of having sentence-level translations that better represent the meaning of each word in context. This is an extremely valuable tool for language learning because it enables you to learn much faster, and to learn more in-depth features of the language quickly.
Read the rest of this entry »


How to create parallel texts for language learning – Part 1

2011-02-09

I’d like to say a bit about ways to make parallel texts. I think parallel texts to be a very valuable learning resource, as I’ve mentioned in the past. They enable you to learn a language much faster than from textbooks, because they make an enormous amount of content instantly comprehensible.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find parallel texts. The most common commercially available ones seem to be books of poetry and “classic” works of literature. Call me uncultured, but I usually get easily bored by books from the 1800s. I want something with an *interesting* plot, and I’ve been known to read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, for which there are basically zero parallel texts commercially available. Also, the commercial ones are not usually sentence-aligned or even paragraph-aligned…at best they’re page-aligned, if that. For easy learning, you want all the little translated bits right beside each other for easy comparison.

So, for that reason, it’s more realistic to assume that you’re going to have to either make your parallel texts yourself, or get someone else to make them for you. To this end, I’ll give you a bit of info about how I do it, so that you can perhaps give it a try.
Read the rest of this entry »


Spending time in the unknown

2011-02-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How I learn new vocabulary with parallel texts

2011-01-27

In response to my last post, someone asked how I’m currently learning more vocabulary, and my response started to grow past normal comment size, so I figured I’d make it a full post.

What I do is I try to have as many moments of recognition as I can. These are moments where some new word in the foreign language somehow becomes understandable or comprehensible. For instance, I see a Dutch word in my parallel text that I don’t know, so I look across at the matching English sentence and figure out what the mystery word means. This gives me a moment where I recognize that new word. By continually adding new learning moments such as this, my vocabulary increases.

This is part of the natural absorption process as you acquire a language. Each small moment of comprehension adds to your neural networks that are being unconsciously constructed. This is training material for your brain. Instead of trying to explicitly memorize a table or a list that needs to be consciously recalled (which is a slow access method), you’re instead building a net that gives you very fast subconscious recognition. Small moments of comprehensible input are the building blocks for these nets.

If I do this enough each day through my reading time, then I’ll get some repetitions for each of the words, which means I don’t have to use SRS. I usually try and purposely go over the same section of a book later in the day, to specifically repeat any words I saw before. If I were learning the language less intensely, I’d be adding sentences to Anki instead, so that I could get the right repetitions at the right time in order to solidify it, otherwise I might not see it again in time naturally. However, with 5 – 10 hours of exposure per day, I don’t think this is necessary.

Anki is actually quite a good supplement. Vocabulary is one of the few language features where it dramatically helps to “artificially” cram your head full of new items. More grammar rules don’t really help you speak at a normal pace (because a “rule” is something that must be explicitly recalled, and is therefore slow), but more vocabulary recognition actually does help you, because repeated exposure to new words in the context of a sentence that you’ve already seen somewhere, means that it is an exposure that is building subconscious recognition instead of just explicit slow-recall.

To the commenter, Dustin, I suggest that you continue with Anki, but delete any cards that cause you too many problems. Don’t get trapped in the attitude that every single word must be added. There’s a lot of time that can be wasted on cards that are just “hard” and never seem to get easier. Also, they can build frustration, leading to you not spending as much time on your reviews as you might have. The solution is to enthusiastically delete cards that cause you problems. It’s ok, you’ll see those words eventually in some other context, and it’ll be easier then.

There are lots of ways to quickly acquire more vocabulary, and I recommend that people focus heavily on vocabulary specifically when starting a new language, because those first 500 or so words can lead to tremendous amounts of understanding, even without grammar. The method that I prefer for this, though, is just reading a parallel text. Sure, I might not understand any of the new language on one side of the page, but with the assistance of the English section, I can quickly find correspondences for the most common words. In some cases, it’s possible to reach 70% word recognition in a text within the first day!

In summary, I suggest finding ways to make new words at least slightly more comprehensible, and then just do it often. You can even learn a lot just by seeing those common words a lot…just moving your eyes over a lot of unknown words will give you a sense for which words are most common, and which other words they tend to be beside. These are important steps on your way to learning the full meaning of those words. Therefore, simple reading can be one of the best ways to learn new vocabulary, even if you’re very new at a language.


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.


Dutch update: 85hrs

2011-01-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next update at 120 hours 🙂


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


10 days of intense Swedish: day 9

2010-09-13

In an attempt to bring up my Swedish comprehension level, I’ve been trying a little experiment. I’m trying to see how much time I can put in over a 10 day period, focusing on Listening-Reading. Using English text and Swedish audio, I’m studying at least 5 hours per day, and trying for more. While not for the faint of heart, this method suits me right now because I have a block of spare time, so I can throw all of my effort into this project. So far, after 8 days I’ve done 44.5 hours of studying in this fashion. Today is day 9.

I’ve discovered two difficulties. One is obviously to do with time. If I waste 15 minutes every hour chatting with people on the internet and surfing web pages, then it’s actually quite a significant fraction of my daily time, even though it seems insignificant in the moment. On the day where I tried the hardest, it took me over 15 hours to get 10 hours of productivity, but on most days it was far less than that. That extreme day meant that I only got up to cook/eat/shower, and I didn’t even leave my apartment the entire day. Not very sustainable, but it was interesting.

Incidentally, I also thought it would be easy to get 8 hours of productivity in, because it’d be similar to an office work-day. I found out, however, that in any 8 hour period of a “work-day”, not all of it is productive time. Trying quite hard, I’d be lucky to get 6 hours of productivity over that 8 hour period, which I suspect is actually far more than I ever did at a real job. It’s really hard to stay on-task for that length of time.

The next problem is attention. While raw time is important, its value will vary depending on how much attention you can pay to the various language features you encounter. While Listening-Reading, I noticed that sometimes I would get absorbed in the English text and block out the Swedish audio, and other times I was only half-listening to the Swedish audio, but not trying super hard to pick out every single word and come up with the meanings.

Overall I found this method quite satisfying. I fully understood everything since I was reading in English, but I was also picking up a lot of new Swedish words from the audio. So far I’ve read John Boyne’s The boy in the striped pyjamas (“Pojken i randig pyjamas”), Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (“Alkemisten”), Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and most of Stieg Larsson’s The girl with the dragon tattoo (“Män som hatar kvinnor”).

One thing I’d prefer in the future is to use parallel texts, where each sentence or paragraph of English is matched up with the transcript of the target-language audio. This would be vital for starting a language from scratch, I think, but I managed without it this time because of my previous experience with Swedish using other study methods. I haven’t created parallel texts yet for my Swedish books because I’ve had a lot of problems finding PDFs of the Swedish text online, so I’ve had to settle for my regular Swedish paperbacks. I have some tentative plans in the near future to try this method from scratch for other languages, and for those I’ll definitely be using line-by-line parallel texts.

I’m continuing today, after I get a few things done in the real world. I’m enjoying my new apartment here in Berlin, but I still have to buy some vital things like a fridge. It’s fun to ignore the world and study Swedish all day, but responsibilities sometimes intervene.

I should be able to easily reach 50 hours total by the end of my 10-day study period, but I also hope that I can raise that to 100 hours by the end of the month. Hopefully that should put me on pretty firm ground in Swedish, and I’ll be able to continue my studying a little bit more casually by just reading a lot of books whenever I have the chance.


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!


input based learning

2009-10-19

I just wanted to quickly write about this great post on Steve Kaufmann’s blog: seven principles of input-based language learning. The principles in there are very valuable, especially for those who are new to language learning and may not have thought about it this way before.

On the topic of input, i’ve hit a few milestones lately. I’ve passed 300 hours of listening and TV content in german, and I’m over 550000 words of reading in german. Right now i’m working on Harry Potter und der Feuerkelch (book 4 of the series). I really enjoy listening to the audiobook while i read, which matches Kaufmann’s recommendation of both listening and reading at the same time. For some languages (like chinese) i find it difficult to get audio with transcripts, but there seems to be a wealth of german audiobooks available.

Anyway, i’m halfway on my way to reading 1 million words, and i certainly won’t stop at 1 million because i’m enjoying it so much. I’m going to try to increase my pace in reading this month, since reading has more language content in it than tv, and i haven’t yet picked a new tv series to get obsessed with. I should be finished season 7 of DS9 this week.