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.
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Report from the Talenfestival in Leuven

2011-02-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dutch update: 60 hours

2011-01-18

I’m now past 60 hours of study time in my 6-week-challenge, and things are progressing steadily. I find it quite fun right now to read books, since the majority of the words seem familiar, but I’m still sticking to parallel texts because there are many words that I need to learn.

As each day goes by, I get a greater sense of understanding of the language. Sometimes it feels like nothing is happening, but I definitely notice the changes when I consider them on a multi-day scale. I can usually sense a change in my abilities after every 20 hours of study time, so I just try to avoid thinking about it on shorter time-scales.

Currently I’m almost finished Harry Potter #3, but today I’m finding it more fun to read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea (Aardzee in Dutch), even though I don’t have a corresponding audiobook for that. It’s nice to get some variety, even if the lack of an audiobook means slower progress.

I’m still having some problems with time-wasting activities, such as web-surfing. I’ve stopped following reddit on twitter, so that I get fewer time-wasters popping up in my twitter program. I should probably also turn off the twitter program, but at least I’ve managed to check it less often, and to ignore the toast updates.

My sleep schedule is slowly progressing, so that I have less and less tired time during the day. Yesterday I felt great for the whole day, but today i was quite tired between 10am and 11am, resulting in lower productivity. I also spent some time on paid work, so I lost some study time that way too.

I’ve had several days in a row above 5 hours of study time, but I haven’t been able to reach 10 hours, which is somewhat of a goal for me. With 20 hours available in my day, it just seems like I should be able to hit 10 hours of study time at least once, so I’m still trying. It’d be amazing if I could manage it consistently for a week or so, but we’ll see if that ever happens.

Next update at the end of the week, and hopefully I’ll be past 80 hours by then. 🙂


Dutch update: 2 weeks

2011-01-15

I’ve finished the first 2 weeks of my 6-week-challenge for Dutch.

I’m at 46 hours of Dutch study time total, and I’ve finished reading the first two Harry Potter books while listening to the audiobooks (using Dutch-English parallel text format, constructed from ebooks using hunalign). In the past 7 days I’ve averaged about 5 hours of study time per day.

At the start, I had a lot of trouble with the listening, and found it difficult to figure out which word currently matched up with the audio. Whenever I glanced over at the English translation, I’d lose my place easily in the Dutch. I didn’t understand anything if I just listened to the Dutch, except maybe the occasional word that was really close to either English or German.

Currently, I find it quite easy to follow along with the audio, and it’s quite easy to scan through the Dutch to find my place again after I look away. If I only look at the Dutch and no English, then I understand enough to follow the story, although I miss a lot of details still. I’ve got a moderate sense for Dutch spelling now, but there’s room to improve. I still accidentally spell words in more of a German way sometimes.

To test myself, I just opened up an adult novel (by Dean Koontz) and did a quick word comprehension test on a random page. There were 11 words that I didn’t know out of a section of 296 words, giving 96% word comprehension when reading (I’m sure listening would be much lower). This is just the individual words that I know, not necessarily their full meaning in that context. To confirm, I tried another book, this time by Tad Williams, and flipped to a random page in the middle. I missed 13 words out of 212, which is 94%.

I’m rather amazed at these numbers, but I guess it makes sense after starting with excellent vocab in both English and German. I think I recognized most of those words as Dutch words though, not through guessing from a German word. It appears that I’ve actually learned a lot from reading a total of 170000 words of Dutch in the two Harry Potter books so far.

From here on, I guess it means I should focus more on an Extensive style rather than the slower Intensive style of reading. I need Extensive reading to continue to develop my intuitive sense for the language by seeing large quantities of content, rather than focusing on every minute detail. I also need to pay much closer attention to the audio to train my listening abilities, which are still lagging far behind my raw scores for visual word comprehension.

To test listening comprehension, I listened to 3.5 minutes of Harry Potter that I hadn’t looked at or heard yet, and counted unknown words with my clicker. I counted 79 unknown words, and the total word count for that section was 592, so 86% word comprehension approximately. I’m rather surprised that it was this high already, so this is rather encouraging.

My plan is to continue with input only, until I’m past 100 hours of study time. After that, depending on how I feel, I may start to blend in some output exercises.

I’ll have another update at the end of week 3, stay tuned!


How can I learn a language quickly from novels?

2010-12-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Help, I understand but I can’t speak!

2010-11-22

(This post comes as a response to a question on HTLAL, where someone asked for the best websites to teach him how to actually speak Hindi, although he already had excellent passive understanding of Hindi. I had a very similar experience with German where I could understand, but not speak. In this case, searching for a website that will give you magical knowledge is not what you need. Here’s my response: )

You might be better with something like Lang-8, where you attempt to write something and get it corrected. Also, reading more books would help you develop a better sense of intuition about the language (but won’t help you directly with actual speaking).

In my experience, if someone can already understand the language, but not speak it, the problem is just lack of speaking / writing practice. It feels really hard at first, but you have to try to come up with things to say, and when you don’t know how it would work, just come up with an approximation and then ask someone who knows. When you find out, then you know for next time. The process of just trying to talk a few times per week can have impressive results in a short amount of time, if you already have an in-depth understanding of the language passively.

Activation of that knowledge happens when you put some pressure on yourself to come up with something. You could be talking to yourself when nobody’s around, or you could be in a cafe trying to chat with someone. Sometimes it also helps to read something out loud, and try to act it out like you mean it, or imagine yourself saying that in some situation.

Even with languages that have widespread instruction amongst English speakers, such as German and French, there are very few, if any, web sites that are going to be able to just explain something to you in a theoretical sense and then suddenly allow you to be able to speak better. My feeling is that when you understand but can’t speak, it’s just a matter of speaking practice.

Online, try writing a blog, writing a diary, whatever, and have people on Lang-8 correct you. Think about the things you want to be able to say, and when you can’t figure out how to say it then write it down in a notebook, and then you can ask someone later. Practice saying helpful phrases. This is the stuff that has helped me with activation.

Try to concentrate on simple everyday tasks. Describe in simple terms what you did that day. If you can’t, you may have to look up some of the common words. Then try again. Describe what you did as you walked through a store…which items did you pick up, were you hungry, etc. Talk about what you want to do tomorrow. Once you’ve worked hard on describing the basics like this, then try moving to logical connectives. Try to explain the reason you did something, or explain some concept that you like to talk about.

All of these things are handy to know in all sorts of situations, and you have to deliberately practice them in order to get good at them. Get awesome at the fundamentals through practice, and then the harder things will just fall down easily with a little more effort.


Extensive reading: what convinced me

2010-11-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some further points I should mention one more time:

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

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


Getting started

2010-11-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


dealing with variety

2010-08-01

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.