January 2011 – 191 language hours


Well, the first month of the year is over already, and I’m pretty happy with my language-learning results. But first I want to briefly cover my sleep experiment.

This week, I’ve decided to drop off the Everyman schedule and go back to monophasic sleep. I’ve found that polyphasic sleep requires a lot of discipline during the adaptation phase, and that you can expect several weeks of being tired. At this point, I’m tired of being tired, and I don’t really like constantly constraining my sleep. I prefer to just wake up when it feels good to wake up.

I might try polyphasic again some time in the near future, now that I know what to expect. For now I just want to be well-rested for a little while. At the end of my experiment, I was mostly adapted, but there was still a lingering tiredness for 1 or two hours per day on average. If I made any mistakes in the schedule, then this would increase. Some days were better, some days were worse, but it seemed to only be slowly progressing.

When I try it again, I’m going to be much more exact with my sleeping times, and I’ll be sure not to switch programs in the middle. I’ll also make sure to be more vigilant about setting multiple alarms and getting up right away, to prevent oversleeps.

So, now on to language tasks. I’m rather happy with the amount of language work I accomplished this month, although I think it could be improved more. In total, I spent 191 hours on language activities, with 132.5 of that spent on Dutch. The remainder was mostly German reading and TV time. My personal best was January 19th where I reached 10 hours of Dutch time, and in that week I hit 49.5 worth of Dutch time altogether.

I’ve learned a couple important things. One is that the content of your learning material is really important; the more interest you have in the material, the easier it is to do it. Since Harry Potter was the only material I’ve had so far where the audiobook matches exactly with the Dutch ebook, and for which an English ebook was also present, then I felt constrained in my choices for beginner material. Sometimes it was a strain to get back to work. With German, on the other hand, I have DVDs of Star Trek: Voyager with German audio, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to just sit down and watch a couple hours of that with Chani (who’s spending her time learning German these days).

I’ve also found that it can be very tempting to spend too much time on the English half of my parallel texts rather than focusing on the Dutch. There were many moments where I caught myself reading ahead in the English and ignoring the Dutch audio. For this and other reasons, my recognition of printed Dutch is much higher than my ability to listen to it. I’ve had some gains in the past week, but I still need to work on it more.

Another thing I noticed sharply was the Pareto principle, where 20% of my time got me 80% of my comprehension in reading. I was able to get to recognition of more than 80% of the words on each page after less than about 30 hours of work, and ever since then I’ve been trudging through the “long tail”, trying to acquire that very important last 20% of the words. This means that for the first little while, you feel a great sense of progress as you zoom through the most frequent vocabulary, but then it feels like your progress is slowing to a crawl as you struggle to add a few more percent here and there.

The struggle is worth it, though. You’ll get a magnificent feeling of accomplishment once you get up to the high 90s, where you’ll be able to just sit down with a novel in your new language and enjoy reading it for fun. This should happen by the time you’ve already read 1 million words in your target language, which is about 10 regular sized novels, but you might get there with only half of that, depending on what other language activities you’re doing, and how much the language differs from what you know already.

So, ahead of me is the month of February. This is where I’ll be starting the active phase of my Dutch project. I’ve got a lot more work to do in the first week and a half to prepare. Then I’ve invited a couple of Belgian Couchsurfers to come stay with me for a few days, so it’ll be “sink or swim” time. After that, I’ve booked a plane ticket to Belgium to go to Talenfestival Leuven, which is a “language festival” for one day which includes short seminars on many different languages (all conducted in Dutch). Interestingly, the talk on Irish will be given in Esperanto, with Dutch translation.

I’m still continuing my reading and listening, but I’ll be spending some time practicing output on my own before the couchsurfers get here to put me to the test. I’ve got a phrasebook that I can run through to practice a lot of common phrases, and then I’ll work on some writing exercises to help me with coming up with my own Dutch ideas from scratch.

Just one more month of concentrated Dutch studying, and then I’ll be switching my main project to something else. At that point I hope to have good understanding of spoken and written Dutch, so it should be easy to put it on the backburner and just read the occasional novel or watch the TV news in order to keep things fresh. I’m looking forward to it!


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!

Learn by reading, personal example: Swedish


First I want to share this tweet with you:

Lately I’ve been trying hard to revive my Swedish skills, which I’ve somewhat neglected since coming to Germany. I’m trying now to make a concerted push to improve my Swedish literacy before the end of the year, but it’s been difficult. I really want to be able to read Stieg Larsson’s books in the original Swedish, but they’re over my level right now. I’m used to being able to read effortlessly in German, but with a difficult Swedish book like this it’s the opposite.

It’s taken a lot of effort, but I know that I just have to keep going and it’ll get easier. Literacy in another language follows the Pareto (aka 80/20) principle: 80% of the results are gained with just 20% of the effort. To get to that place of seemingly effortless reading, however, you have to be somewhere around 95% recognition, and that extra 15% takes at least as long as the first 80%.

When you keep on putting in the time, however, it actually will feel like you got there sooner than expected. Sometimes in the middle, you might feel down, but just keep on going. So, here’s what’s been going on for me lately…maybe some of you can relate.

I picked up Män som hatar kvinnor again some time last week (my first time reading Swedish since early september), turned on the audiobook, and promptly realized that I understood nothing at all. This worried me, because I had thought I had made some decent progress in Swedish. I decided that instead of the audiobook, I should spend some intensive time reviewing the vocab…by reading, of course.

So, with renewed enthusiasm, I grabbed the English version of the book, “The girl with the dragon tattoo”, and started working back and forth with the Swedish. I had to do a lot of work to figure out the Swedish sentences, and tried things like reading 1 chapter of English first, and then tried to read that chapter in Swedish, but it took too long. So I switched to 1 page of English, and then reading the equivalent page in Swedish, but it also took too long, so I moved down to paragraphs and sentences.

Slowly, my memory of some of the words started to come back, and I learned a lot of new ones. I remembered, though, that part of the slooowww speed was caused by my need to know absolutely every word precisely. This is unnecessary and harmful at the beginning, because you’re avoiding the benefits of the 80/20 rule! You’re trying to get all 100% of the words, which takes enormous time. Try instead to just worry about the more frequent words, or at least spend less time on the harder words. If you get the general idea, that’s enough for now, and you’ll quickly race up to the 80% level. From there, you can get more of the harder words.

My progress has been ramping up. Now I’m able to read more fluidly, and faster. Speed is important, because you have to read at a reasonable speed in order to enjoy the story. If you go too slowly, it gets really boring and you get tempted to give up. You should sacrifice accuracy for speed until you reach the pace that keeps the story enjoyable. Accuracy will catch up after that.

Remember that it often only takes just a little bit more effort to make that breakthrough you’ve been waiting for. Sometimes you might feel down because it’s taking too long, but you need to somehow make up some reasons to keep going for one more week, one more day, one more hour. All that matters is that you keep trying again. Keep starting over, try one more time. All that time adds up, and at some point it’ll “click”.

For extra fun, go back to one of your easier books after you’ve tried a hard one for a while. You’ll see that it’s actually gotten much easier due to your efforts. Any way that you can demonstrate your progress to yourself is helpful. Another way is to keep a hard book around, and every once in a while do a “test” where you pick a random page from the middle and count up what percentage of the words you recognize. You could even do this every day and make yourself a graph, if you like. You’ll see that the amount you recognize goes steadily upward over time, as long as you keep on trying to read.

Keep starting, keep trying, keep going, keep reading. It works.

Making progress with your accent


There are many ways to work on your accent, and I’d like to touch on a few of them today. To learn pronunciation, you necessarily have to do a lot of listening, but there are some varying ideas about what you should listen to.

Recently, I’ve heard some people suggest that you can listen to speakers of your target language when they try to speak your own language. Find some recordings (perhaps on youtube) of some people with a heavy accent in English, and learn to imitate their English accent.

If you listen to beginners in English who are native speakers of your target language, you’ll hear which sounds they consistently have trouble with, and you’ll be able to hear how that sort of sound differs from a familiar English sound. You can also look for hints about the rhythm and intonation that they use in their sentences.

When listening in the L2, you may not always hear how it is different from what you’re attempting to say, because you’re not yet familiar with how it sounds. That said, you really need to become familiar with those sounds, and the way to do this is to do a lot of careful listening, even to things that you understand absolutely nothing of. It might even be better if you understand nothing, because then you have no choice but to pay precise attention to the sounds.

I still think that there can be great benefits from finding a very fast but precisely spoken newscast, and listening to it carefully for as many hours as you can. Try to hear every little sound, and let it put you into a sort of trance. Just keep listening, and eventually you’ll get random phrases bubbling into your head when you’re *not* listening, even if you understand nothing of what they mean. This is what I think really helps you learn the sounds…when you can compare your own productions with those precisely “recorded” sounds that bubble into your mind.

The main idea with all of this is that you have to train your brain to process these new sounds. At some time in your past, probably while you were very young, you learned to filter out certain sounds, or that some sounds are “equivalent” to others. For instance, in English we say our Ts in several ways…we can aspirate them (with a puff of air like in the word “Attack”), or say them in an unaspirated way like in “a bit”. But they both still signify a T sound…if you mistakenly aspirate every single T in English (like some Germans tend to do), then you’ll perhaps sound a bit more “precise” and “foreign”, but it won’t change any of the meanings of the words. In this sense, aspirated and unaspirated T are somewhat equivalent in English. This is not the case in other languages, such as Hindi, where they represent different distinct letters and might change the meaning of words if pronounced wrong.

When learning an accent, you have to learn these new categories. The way that you do this is through lots and lots of attentive listening. You need to first hear the proper sounds of the language in your head. Find something that you can listen to over and over again, until it gets stuck like a Michael Jackson song that won’t stop repeating in your head. Once you’re at this stage, then you’ll be better able to compare the things that you say with how it sounds in your head.

It also helps if you can read a bit about the sounds, perhaps in a technical linguistic description. Some of the terminology may take some getting used to, but such descriptions can help point out the technical differences in the pronunciation that you may not be aware of just from listening. A good teacher will also do this for you, but not all of us have that luxury. These descriptions can also tell you where to place your tongue in order to produce some of these sounds, which also may not be obvious from listening.

Once you’ve heard about these concepts, you’ll be better able to notice them when they happen in your materials. Noticing is very important, because if you just listen with your prior English language preconceptions, then you’re going to hear them as English sound categories. You need to use all tools available to you to be able to notice when they actually differ, and how.

Accent study is mainly the combination of these two activities: 1) being able to notice when something is different, and 2) massive amounts of attentive listening that will allow you to hear examples of those differences many hundreds of times. With these two things under your belt, you’re well on the way to having a good accent.

The final part is practice. You need to condition your tongue to go in the right place at the right time to make those new sounds, and this can be quite difficult when the sounds are very similar to your familiar English sounds. In all of the languages I’ve tried, there’s always a stage where I’m better able to recognize good and bad pronunciation than I am at actually producing it myself. This is actually a good place to be at, because then you’ll be able to apply those listening skills to yourself!

What you do is make a recording of yourself talking, as best you can. Ideally, you should say some sort of script that you already have as a recording from a native speaker (perhaps from an audiobook, or from a site like Rhinospike). When you play your own recording back to yourself, you’ll hopefully be able to hear some of the places where you did something sloppy. Listen to the native recording again, and then record yourself once more.

Another exercise to try is to set the native recording on infinite loop. Listen first, for maybe 50 times. This will allow it to seep into your head and become stuck. Yes, really 50, not 10. Next, you try and repeat along with the recording. You’ll suck at first, and you may have to listen a couple more times and try again, but keep repeating along with it. Try to do this 50 times in a row as well. As you go, you’ll be adapting your mouth movements and breath in order to be closer to what you’re hearing. After enough practice, it’ll become a lot easier and it’ll just happen automatically when you’re speaking normally.

For a more in-depth description, I very highly recommend reading Olle Kjellin’s paper on “Accent Addition“. His suggestions that pronunciation and prosody (the rhythm and intonation of speech) should be learned first are very valuable, and I wish all language teachers would take his advice.

How do I practice speaking on my own?


(This was a response to a question about how introverts can practice speaking a language. Not all language practice needs to happen in front of other people, if that makes you nervous.)

I’m increasingly starting to see a relationship between active language skills and playing strategy board games (like Go or Chess).

When playing Go or Chess, knowing the basic rules is not enough to play well. While you can calculate out a couple of moves, no one ever gets good just by learning those basic rules. What distinguishes the better players is that they automatically only consider the “good” moves, and can find a good move much faster.

In conversation, one can memorize all the grammar rules one wants, and perhaps you could calculate out a sentence based on grammar rules, but it’d be painfully slow. In the same sense as Chess and Go, the experts have a natural feeling for good sentences, and they just “come out” without thinking too much.

It’s my hypothesis that these are related to development of your brain with this new skill. You need to do some type of repeated deliberate practice to burn in some new pathways. In Go, you get good by solving practice problems, and imagining the stones in your head. Some people say you should just get better by playing more games, but that’s much slower progress for almost anyone. Doing targeted practice problems is superior, because you can find a bunch that aim for the same concept, and practice until you’re good at that concept, whereas it might only rarely be found in your games.

So, since I can, as a Go player, get much better at Go without playing any games with other people, merely by doing individual deliberate practice, how can we apply this to languages?

Firstly, let’s assume that you already have decent pronunciation (at least according to knowledge and production of all the sounds). If not, then do that first. Given that, I think step one is just reading out loud. You have some predefined content, so the bottleneck is not in coming up with material, and you just read it out and try to get it smooth. This will get you used to producing the language at a real speed. In all the languages I’ve studied, I experience a time period where I can pronounce everything very well if I’m doing it one or two words at a time, but for several sentences at regular speed, I get a lot worse. So, simple practice reading out loud.

Next, now that you can utter multiple sentences correctly when they’re already supplied, you want to work on your ability to produce those sentences. I think this relates well to the task in Go (and I suppose Chess) of having to practice imagining the next 3, 4, 5 moves in advance in your head. It’s hard at first, but improves with practice.

So one thing to start off with is to imagine some situation you might encounter, and then work out a bunch of things that you can say in that situation…which will probably take some time at first. Then, you can act out the situation while visualizing it in your head. Pretend it’s actually happening, and then try to give the response naturally, and imagine what the other person is saying next, etc. Basically, self role-playing and working through a number of scenarios so that you’ll be prepared when those scenarios come up.

This has the added effect of confidence, which is something I find quite important. When you actually get into one of these situations in real life, then you can quickly respond because of your practice. Given the confidence that comes from this familiarity with the situation, you can allow yourself to feel relaxed as the conversation proceeds, and hopefully you’ll be better able to draw on your passive vocabulary as things get more difficult.

Along with situational practice, I think one should also do structural practice, where you work on some sort of sentence pattern and try to substitute other things in. What immediately comes to mind for me is logical connectives. The conversations I prefer are the ones where we’re discussing something of interest to me, and I want to make a point about my opinion, or perhaps argue against someone else’s opinion (like, say, on a language forum ;).

Practicing logical connectives and explanations will be very helpful, no matter what the conversation topic is. There’s certain vocabulary necessary, and certain sentence forms, and they apply to almost anything, so you need to have them well-practiced so they come out fast and naturally. Then you can pause, if necessary, to search your passive vocab for whatever the difficult words might be, but the rest of the sentence will flow well.

So, in summary, come up with ways to practice on your own in such a way that you are pretending that this realistic scenario is happening, and you’re trying to make the words flow. You should research the words that are likely to happen in these scenarios and practice saying them genuinely, so as to build up your active abilities with them. Also, once is not enough. You need to do this many, many times in order to really burn it into your brain. If the strategy games are indeed a proper analogy, then thousands of practice runs will be necessary.

Oh, and one last thing, while I’m on the topic of games. I also find it much easier to practice a language when there are not as many expectations placed on me, and I’ve found that this is the case when playing board games! Play a game of Settlers of Catan or Agricola or something, and try playing the game entirely in your language. Describe what you’re doing (“I’m drawing two cards, and discarding one of them”). The speech required is very formulaic, and nobody expects you to say something deep and meaningful, or even to follow up anything you’ve said. You have fun playing the game, and it’s a low-pressure practice situation too 🙂

Some people seem to find it easier to try and gain this practice purely through going to bars or cafes and talking to real people, and a certain amount of that is necessary, but I firmly believe that a lot can be achieved by deliberate practice alone in the comfort of your own home. Once you’ve practiced and become a little bit better on your own, it won’t be such an issue to naturally talk to other people whenever you want.

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.

first report from the Esperanto course


I’m sitting here in Piešťany, Slovakia at the lernu.net “SES”: Somera Esperanto-Studado. The event is a week long, and is being held in a Hotel school here in Piešťany. Every morning we have some Esperanto class time (divided into 4 skill levels according to a placement test we took on the evening we arrived), and then in the afternoon we have various interesting workshops and activities. The evenings have performances and more workshops. There’s also a lot of social opportunities in which to talk with our fellow Esperantistoj.

So far, I’ve had interesting Esperanto conversations on a variety of topics with people from Russia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany, USA, China, Belgium, Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Hungary, Poland, and probably more that I’ve forgotten already.

One thing I’ve found particularly helpful is having my laptop with me, and using the wireless access provided to look up things on the internet. If there’s a topic in which my explanation doesn’t suffice, or the other person’s vocabulary is perhaps lacking, then I can quickly look up the topic on wikipedia and click their native language. Once they read the summary of the article in their own language, then we get back on track in our Esperanto conversation now that we’re on the same *ahem* page.

I found it quite hard to adjust to speaking Esperanto in the first day and a half, since my mind was really in German mode after spending a month in Germany and Austria. I actually tended to gravitate towards the many Germans here, because we’d have something to talk about immediately, and sometimes if we got stuck then we could ask what a certain German word was in Esperanto, and then continue. I’ve almost entirely avoided speaking English here, except when a Slovakian guy was trying to ask for help with his computer but his beginner-level Esperanto wasn’t up to the task. Once I understood his computer problem, we switched back to Esperanto.

There’s an interesting age range here, with a decent number of highschool students (some of whom have fantastically great Esperanto abilities), and quite a few people over the age of 50 as well. Being in the middle at 30, I’m somewhat of a minority, strangely.

The classroom setting is sort of what I expected. The teachers seem quite well versed in the popular teaching techniques these days (such as total physical response where we stamp our foot whenever we add an -n ending to an accusative word, or using some physical props to act out various positional prepositions), but it’s still pretty similar to every other classroom setting. The teacher hauls us through various meaningless exercises as an excuse to do something in the language.

Personally, I’d rather study on my own and just use the plentiful conversational opportunities. On my own, I get to do more vocabulary faster, because I don’t have to suffer through the words I already know, and I can move at my own pace. In self-study, I can also do more valuable things like reading a book or internet article, which are actually interesting content and are exposing me to new and challenging parts of the language. My preference is always to learn mostly through exposure to real and interesting content, either audial, visual, or written.

So, today I skipped class so that I could continue with my flashcards for basic Esperanto vocabulary (thanks Judith!), and so that I can read a couple easy articles and some bits from “La Hobito” by Tolkien ;). I’ve also been experimenting with the usage of a little “timer” applet on my laptop, so I can do some “Time-boxing”.

The idea is to limit my work on one topic to 3 or 4 minutes, and then when the timer beeps I switch to another topic. So maybe 3 minutes of flashcards, then 3 minutes of reading La Hobito, then 3 minutes of an internet article in Esperanto. What this effectively does, is turn “work” into “play” by giving me a time when I know I’ll be done, and some enforced variety. It plays with my short attention span so that this “study” work is more like websurfing. On AJATT, Khatsumoto compared it to eating a bag of chips. You’re not consciously trying to finish the whole bag, you’re just eating the current chip. Then another. Then another.

So, I’ve found that eating my Esperanto chips is doing a good job at keeping me on-task overall, while still allowing me my natural reaction of bouncing between multiple shiny tasks. Somehow it keeps it fun, so I’ll have to do this more in the future. Later today I’m going to add to my materials by buying some Esperanto comic books that I saw at the little book table that was set up. (I also want to get this awesome shirt that says “Lingva Revolucio!” and has a pic of Zamenhof wearing a hat with a star on it, similar to the famous Che picture).

Ok, time to get back to some studying. I’ll try and report back again near the end of the week. Ĝis!