Curiosity, complexity, and appreciation

2010-12-15

A big part of what makes me me, is curiosity. Following my sense of curiosity has led me down many new paths, and each of those paths has changed who I am. When you’re curious, you learn to see that each thing has its own uniqueness, and its own complexities. You learn to appreciate more things, because you know that beneath the surface, there’s something complex waiting to be discovered. Curiosity, for me, is about wanting to dive into that complexity and see all of it.

If you want to complete some big project, perhaps because of some end goal like a job, money, etc, then it can be hard to find the continuing motivation to complete the whole thing just by thinking about that end result. When you do this, it’s really just the end thing that you want, not the long process of getting there. Accomplishing great things is much easier when you cultivate a sense of wonder. Learn to see your chosen subject as an intricate and complex thing that is worthy of study just by itself.

By choosing to see all the internal and external connections and structures, you start to see the beauty of your topic. Something that may have previously seemed like a chaotic mess starts to become beautiful as you discover the patterns in it. Even as you see more and more patterns, there will still be areas that seem too complicated or too difficult, but this just means that there’s more left to discover.

In the case of languages, each language is its own landscape. There are historical relationships with other languages (as hinted in my previous post showing the similarities between English, German, and Dutch). There are many levels of structure in languages, and each of them can be interesting…from pronunciation to spelling to word morphology, sentence structure, sentence meaning, discourse, etc. Some people write their whole PhD thesis on tiny subsets of these things, so there’s a lot in there to investigate. There are also the many past accomplishments and creations by users of the language. There are many levels of meaning behind the great poets and novelists in each language. There’s no reason to ever get bored while learning a language, because there’s just so much to see.

When you view it this way, the end goal becomes somewhat secondary. You don’t see it every day because it’s in the far future. What you encounter every day is the neat little patterns that form the bits of the language. As you read a book, you might notice words that are related to some other word in another language…like Swedish “nog” that roughly corresponds to German “genug” and English “enough”. Finding little things like that is what interests me about a language, and it keeps me going.

Another example of interesting complexity is the world of birds. When I tell people that I like to go bird-watching, sometimes they ask something like “oh, so you like to count how many crows and pigeons you see?” What’s happening is that they’re failing to see the complexity of life, which allows it to be interesting. If all there was to birds was just crows and pigeons, then it’d obviously be boring. With only two things to see, you’d exhaust the space of possibilities pretty fast.

In fact, at most times of the year in my home town of Vancouver, there are over 150 types of birds that you can find in the surrounding area. In both Winter and Summer, I can take you to some of the parks within the city and show you 30 different types of birds within a half hour. Each one has its own preferred habitat and food, and its own unique behaviours. I can tell them apart sometimes just by seeing their silhouette or the way they fly and the shape of their wings, or just a short sound that they make. Each bird has its own story to tell, and the more you learn about them, the more interesting the whole topic becomes. You can continue studying them your entire life and always learn new things. Who needs to go to a zoo, when you can see more variety out in the world just by keeping your eyes and ears open!

When I meet a new person, I ask them what they’re passionate about. This usually leads me to a complex topic that they have learned to appreciate the details of. Instead of dismissing it based on what I’ve heard previously, I ask them to elaborate and tell me about their favourite parts of that topic. I want to discover what makes them love it so much, and the reasons why they can spend so much time doing it. Almost always, their motivation stems from an appreciation for the complex patterns they find in it…they ways that the complexity is made simple by seeing the patterns. As they continue learning about it, chaos turns to order, strangeness becomes familiarity, and complexity has its base in simple patterns.

Finding this inner beauty and simplicity is something that spans all disciplines. Our mind seeks out these patterns automatically, and as we grow accustomed to them, our mind adapts itself to recognize the patterns at a glance. This process is what takes us from confused to fluent, whether the topic is birds, languages, or physics. If you want to get good at something, then don’t focus on the end goal, but just keep looking for the patterns that make it interesting, and find ways to grow accustomed to it through massive exposure. Exposure is easy to get when you’re an explorer looking into each nook and cranny, trying to figure out what makes everything tick.

As you explore, learn to enjoy the pleasure of discovering some new pattern or detail. This feeling of satisfaction will be repeated over and over as you learn, and it will become your internal motivation to keep going. Internal motivation (that feeling of incremental satisfaction as you proceed) is always far more important than any external motivators that may be present (such as money, parental pressure, grades, goals and deadlines). Your internal satisfaction will lead you to become an expert by squeezing out that last little bit of efficiency, by repeating a difficult phrase or practicing your basketball jump-shot to perfection.

Feeding your sense of appreciation of beauty and complexity will mean that you no longer need the external motivators. You’ll be able to continue your project in the long term, and one day you’ll have become an expert without noticing.


methods vs. activities

2010-12-13

I find that people are quick to describe things as “methods” these days, as if the only way to learn a language is to follow a fully detailed algorithmic description of what to do. I just wanted to mention that my previous post about parallel texts does not describe such a “method”.

I prefer to have many different language activities that I can do. What you really need, when pursuing a language, is lots of different ways to gain exposure. You need them to be fun and interesting, so that you’ll pay attention while doing them and so that you’ll keep coming back for more. You probably also need multiple resources so that if you eventually get tired of one, then you can just switch to another one without hesitating.

If you like textbooks, then find more than one textbook…preferably at least 3. If you like watching TV in another language, then find more than one show. Same with novels. The idea here is that it’s usually unreasonable to expect that you’ll do the exact same thing over and over again until you’re fluent. You need something else beside you that you can pick up when you put the first one down, in order to continue your exposure.

This applies across activities too. You might have 1 TV show, 1 audio book, and 1 more difficult novel, or some other arrangement. You might also have more than one activity that you can do with the same resource, such as Intensive and Extensive reading. Having more activities is beneficial because each can seem like a break from the others. For instance, right now I have two easy Swedish audiobooks, several harder books with audiobooks, and some TV shows to watch. I try to use the harder books to figure out some vocabulary, but when I get tired then I just watch some TV to relax.

Be cautious of setting up anything too rigid, because then it might start to seem like “work”, and you may be demotivated because you feel like you have to do some boring activity over and over and over. Remember that different things can be “interesting” to different people at different times. Sometimes I really like to do some “dictionary surfing” where I look up successive words in the dictionary and write down a whole bunch of example phrases, but I wouldn’t want to make that my complete “method” for learning. It’s just one activity that I occasionally enjoy.

My hope here on this blog is to illustrate many different possible activities to people who might not have heard of them or thought them possible. Try them out, if you like, but they’re not the only way to do things.


Finding motivation in little things

2010-11-30

The end is near!

The end of the year, that is. We’ve just finished the 47th week of the year, leaving us 5 weeks left. The end of the year is pretty much a completely arbitrary date choice that happened some time long ago, but I want to emphasize that we can create meaning out of this meaninglessness.

Learning a language can be a long process. There’s a lot you need to experience as you get more and more used to hearing it and understanding it. Sometimes the weight of the whole task can be a bit intimidating. Motivation is an essential key to staying on track and achieving your goals, language-related or otherwise. When we see an opportunity to make a little mental game, we should take it.

This is what the end of the year can offer us. I made a plan earlier this year to study 3 languages this year: German, Swedish, and Esperanto. At various times I worked more or less on each one, according to my needs and desires at the time. Now I feel the urge to have something “done” by the end of the year.

I don’t pretend to believe that I’ll ever be “done” with any of these languages. Languages are beautiful that way: there will always be more to learn. I am motivated, however, to try to make a “final push” to work hard for the rest of the year so as to increase my accomplishments. This is a little game that I can play with myself, to try and squeeze in a bit more work each day.

So, what I’ve done may not work for everyone, but it seems to help me. Here’s what I did. I want a way to reward myself for doing at least a little bit of work each day in my chosen subjects. I have 4 subjects: the 3 languages I mentioned, plus studying the deeply interesting strategy game called “Go” or “Weiqi”. The idea with my system is that the hardest part of studying is starting. I find many different ways to procrastinate, but if I manage to just start, then I rediscover my enjoyment of it and end up continuing for a longer period than I originally thought.

Therefore, with the key goal of starting each topic once per day, I make a set of boxes in a spreadsheet. Each box represents the work I’ve done on that topic in a certain time period (could be a day or a week, as you see fit). If I do any work at all on that topic in that time period, then I get to colour it in with a nice shade of blue. If I really succeed at doing a lot of work there, then I’ll elevate it up to green. No work gets me a “bad” colour like yellow or red…something noticeable.

The goal of the spreadsheet is to colour everything at least blue. In some ways, this is similar to Jerry Seinfeld’s method of “don’t break the chain”, wherein he tries to do a little bit of writing every single day and then he marks that day with a red X on the calendar, and tries to string together the longest chain of Xs possible.

Technically, I could “succeed” by these standards by just doing 2 minutes of each of my 4 subjects every day…a total of 8 minutes. But in practice, this never happens. I really like studying each of them, and I tend to get absorbed in it once I actually start, so it ends up being quite a significant amount of time.

The other thing that keeps me going is to come up with some numerical goals. This time around, I’ve picked both hours of work and (estimated) number of words read in books. I pick some number as my weekly goal, and try to make all my amounts from all topics add up to that number. For reading, I’ve decided that I want to try to read 100,000 words each week, and I want to get 40 hours of work done each week. This is because I’ve drastically lowered my paid work hours lately, so that I can devote more time to learning. I’m basically considering learning to be my new full-time job, so I picked 40 hours per week.

Other people in different situations might choose a different number, but the number itself doesn’t matter. It’s just another game to play. This gives me a concrete number to try and reach in order to colour some boxes in green. It’s like bonus points. Success is just measured by whether I got each box to at least blue, but I get bonus points for green 🙂

So, back on the end-of-year topic, this gives me some numbers for that game. I’m hoping to have 600,000 words read in this 6-week period (5 weeks of which are left), and 240 hours of time spent on these projects. This is actually a very substantial amount of work. In comparison with last year, when I was intensively working on German while working full time, I was lucky to get 250,000 words read in a month, so 400,000 in a month is a more accelerated pace.

Having a somewhat lofty (although still doable) goal like this is another way that I motivate myself. I’m really eager to have succeeded at doing all that, so that I’ll be better at my various skills. Although I’m eager for the results, I also have a short-term “next step” to follow at any particular time: Just do any amount of work, no matter how tiny, and then I’m allowed to colour a box blue. The amount of words I read and the hours that I spend are continuously added up in the spreadsheet, giving me a number that goes higher and higher (like experience points, for those who play D&D).

All of those incremental steps are what’s going to add up to my spectacular gains. One step at a time is all it takes.


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.


many simultaneous languages?

2010-07-05

(from a post at HTLAL, in which someone asked for advice on learning multiple languages over the summer)

Some people manage multiple languages at once, and some people get bored with doing the same language all the time, so they need a couple in order to switch between them to keep things interesting. But you should evaluate this for yourself.

Personally, my biggest problem in learning languages is keeping up the motivation after it gets hard and I stop seeing the quick progress I had at the beginning. If it takes longer, I won’t stay interested. For this reason, I like to concentrate on one language until I get to a certain comfortable level. For instance, in 2009 I concentrated on German for about 5 months solid, and was able to understand most of what I was reading, so then I decided to start Swedish.

I think if I had done both German and Swedish simultaneously, I would have spent a long time in that middle-zone where I can’t quite understand everything, and it seems frustrating. To keep my motivation up, I want to spend as little time as possible in that frustrating zone, so I try to do my most intense immersion then. I read every book I can find, and constantly listen to audio. I do nothing else, and purely concentrate on that language.

I don’t know what your current level is in any of these languages, but my recommendation would be to pick one first and power through it as hard as you can. Find every method possible to put your language superpowers to work. Start re-reading those posts where some crazy person says “ya, I learned 5000 new words in a month” and be inspired. Once you can sit down with a new novel and enjoy it with ease, then you will have gone through most of the hard stages of a language, and you’ll know what to expect for the others.

Once you have a satisfactory experience of being able to enjoy a novel in a new language, or something else that might signify “victory” for you, then perhaps at that point it would be a better time to try to take on multiple simultaneous languages. When you’re working on those languages, you can look back on your previous victory and use it as motivation, and as proof that if you just keep working then you’ll get there in the end.

I commonly feel a strong desire to work on many languages, mainly because I’m eager to be able to speak those languages to people around me. Language-learning (and especially polyglottery) is a long-term project, and you have to treat it as such. If you want to learn 5 languages, budget 5 years. If, after 5 years, you’ve learned a decent amount of those 5 languages, you’re actually huuuugely ahead of most people, and you will have accomplished it very fast. Personally, I just really want to be there at the end, speaking with many people in their own languages, but I know that it’ll take a little while.

It’ll probably be more satisfying to speak 1 language after 1 year, 2 languages after 2 years, 3 languages after 3 years, etc…rather than 0 after 1 year, 0 after 2 years, 0 after 3 years, until eventually you’re able to speak all 5 that you were simultaneously working on. This is my experience, anyway, since I spent multiple years with 0 functional languages, despite dabbling in over 10 of them.

Getting awesome at one language first will also help your language-learning skills, enabling you to learn the rest faster. Spending multiple years being a beginner at 10 languages only helped me get good at blasting through the beginner portion of language learning, but then I’d just drown in the intermediate “frustrating” section until I’d quit and start something else.


first report from the Esperanto course

2010-07-04

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!


the problems with Rosetta Stone

2010-06-30

There was a question on the HTLAL forums about why a lot of people were against Rosetta Stone, and my response to the question sorta grew into a giant post, so I thought I’d stick it here too. enjoy.
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Over the years I’ve dabbled in a lot of languages, and I fell for the Rosetta Stone marketing in about 2002 or so. I bought German,Japanese, and Spanish, if I remember correctly. I now speak German, but only because of considerable effort 8 years later using totally different methods. I’m not necessarily a “hater”, but I usually recommend people away from Rosetta Stone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) “It doesn’t have enough content”.

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

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

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

3) “The content is boring”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) “It’s expensive”

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

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

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

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


noticing your progress

2010-03-28

This is a response to a question about a “dummy-proof” method for language learning. What do you do when your progress at learning a language looks like nothing is happening? If you’re working on a difficult language, how do you keep going when you can’t tell if you’re getting better or not?

I’ve frequently found that making goals based on the number of hours of listening, or number of words read, or number of episodes of TV watched was very helpful. It let me refocus my efforts towards exposure, rather than judging my progress based on what I could or could not say. In this way, the numbers always go up if you keep doing it. The only way to fail is to stop.

This points out that the main problem of language learning is motivation. You have to keep choosing to do it day after day. Along this line, I really like the idea of the “Victory Calendar”. You pick some relatively far off date like 1 year from now, and the idea is to do something every day until the end. Also, you have some other numerical goals about how much you want to do on an “ideal” day. Then you have some way to mark down whether you did anything at all that day, and then another way to mark down whether you exceeded the day’s goal. A day is a success if you did anything at all, but it’s an even bigger success if you exceeded the daily goal. For me, this is a color scheme for each day: yellow for nothing, blue for something, green for exceeding the goal. I’ve also used pencil marks when I have a physical piece of paper with boxes on it: A big X for nothing, a shaded triangle for something (like half of the box is full), and then a full shaded box for exceeding the goal.

None of this has anything to do with being able to say certain things by a certain day. Progress is only measured by exposure to content. Success is (rightly) tied to doing it over and over and over again. I’ve found that the most common reason that I give up on a language is because I can’t see obvious progress in my abilities in the language. I start to wonder if I’m getting better or just staying the same. This is a very big problem in a language that’s far from the ones you know. At some point you just have to trust that repeated exposure to the language over your chosen long-term timespan will result in you being much better at the language, even though you won’t be able to see those improvements from day to day or maybe even week to week.

In this sense, it becomes similar to weight training. You can’t just go to the gym one day and lift 20kg, and then the next day be sad because 30kg is still impossible. A potential bodybuilder can’t give up when they don’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger after a few weeks. What you have to do is be confident that lifting weights over and over again for an extended time period will make you stronger.

One common strategy for weight lifters is to keep a record of what they’ve lifted each workout, so that they can look back on it 2 months later in order to realize how much progress they’ve actually made over that time, even though it looked like nothing was happening from day to day or week to week. Perhaps for the language learner, this would be a record of what’s hard to understand, what’s easy to understand, and also what was just discovered. When I look back on my “new discoveries” a month later, they all seem so obvious. How could I not know that? This is a big sign of improvement, when the difficult becomes obvious, but that is something that can’t be noticed over a short time span.

These sorts of strategies aren’t just useful for very difficult languages. I thought that Swedish would be so easy and quick that I wouldn’t need to use any of these strategies to keep me going, but I quickly learned that this was a mistake. No language learning is fast (although some languages are clearly quicker than others). It needs to happen again and again, over a long period of time, and this means (for me, anyway), that I need to have some sort of record to look back at in order to see how far I’ve come.


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!


how do you spend so much time on languages?

2010-03-22

This is a response to someone’s question from HTLAL about how much time is enough, or too much, and how do we get all that time in?

For me there’s some sort of turning point once I actually sit down to do something. If I somehow spend an hour working on something one day, then the next day I’m much more likely to spend lots of time on it. If I spend zero time one day, then I’ll probably also spend zero time the next day. It’s sort of a “momentum” thing. The hardest part is starting.

I always have many materials present when I sit down to work. I also like to have a specific time of day where I always start to work. Before I went to china, I had a habit of sitting down every day at 7:30pm, and I’d spread out several books in front of me. Some were textbooks, some were readers with vocab lists, some were half english / half chinese, and some were native materials (like some WeiQi strategy books I had). Nowadays I spread out DVDs, audiobooks, novels, and other materials too.

So I’d sit down, spread out the books, and then pick whichever book looked interesting at that moment. My promise to myself was that I’d spend at least 20 minutes doing anything. What usually happened was that I’d flip through one book for a few minutes, but then I’d switch to another one that caught my eye. Once I started working on it, I’d usually get right into it and end up spending an hour because it was interesting. If I ever got bored of whatever activity I was working on, I’d just switch to something different and try to do 10 more minutes of that. If I was reading, I’d switch to writing characters or something. And normally if 10 minutes went by, then I’d stick with it for longer just because I got into it.

Another thing I like to do is make numerical games out of it. I count up the minutes of reading, or the number of pages or number of words. I make it into something where I can get a “high score”. If there’s a number that I want to reach for the week, then I make a game of trying to get to the week’s goal before the week was over, or trying to get double the week’s goal in only one week.

Combined with this, I like having a calendar where I cross off days where I was successful. I try to get as many successful days in a row as I can. It’s just another type of game. I find it also helps to modify that so that there are two types of “success” for each day. I mark the day with blue if I did ANYTHING that day. If I do nothing, then I get the “bad” color like red or yellow or something. But the second type of success is where I did more than the day’s goal. Then it gets colored green.

The blue color helps me stay consistent, because it’s super easy to just sit down and read something for 5 minutes, and then I’m allowed to color the day blue. But as I said previously, if I already started for 5 minutes, then it usually goes much longer. Reward yourself big for doing that first 5 minutes, because it’s the most important.

The biggest problem was always the start. That’s why I tried to do it at the same time every day. I removed my other excuses and distractions, and made the time and the materials available. I made up new motivations like coloring the day blue, or reaching a numerical value. The rest took care of itself.