How I learn new vocabulary with parallel texts


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


dealing with variety


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



There’s clearly some benefit gained by focusing on certain attributes of a language as you listen. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how best to apply this concept in practice in order to gain a well-rounded knowledge of the language. Some people can be exposed to a language for many years and still speak and listen badly, so exposure alone is clearly insufficient.

What then, should we pay attention to, and how? One thing is training the habit of having an enquiring and curious mind. If you’re uninterested and just doing something hoping for a reward at the end, then you’re not going to get as much out of it. You have to cultivate that feeling of investigating something magical and important, and teasing out all of the facts and meanings. I hear some people like to pretend they’re and archaeologist, unearthing some ancient language and they have to make sense of it, For Science!

Besides starting from scratch with just curiousity, though, it also helps to have some pointers so you know what to look for. If you know that certain things exist in a language, then you’ll be better able to notice them as they pass you by in the course of your listening. If you, for instance, read about what sorts of sounds exist in a language, then when you’re listening you’ll be less likely to mistake two similar sounds for the same thing. Instead you’ll hear it, and think “that’s one of those sounds that will be tricky for me…I should try and distinguish it from the other similar one”.

I’m starting to think that a good way to “study” particular aspects of a language is to do this sort of “noticing” exercise. Perhaps there’s some complicated grammar aspect to a language that you just can’t get right. The problem is either that you haven’t had enough exposure to it, or you did but you never really noticed it before. Your brain never made the appropriate connections for you, because you assumed it was just irrelevant background noise. While the brain is a fantastic learning apparatus, it also is very good at ignoring and forgetting the unimportant minutae.

So, pick your target, get a little bit familiar with it by reading some explanations, but don’t worry about “memorizing” the explanations. Explanations alone are really no good for learning a concept…it’ll be much more strongly internalized through exposure to real content. Instead, go find your lengthy and interesting content (movies, books, audiobooks, conversations, etc) and then tell yourself that you need to pick out and mentally highlight any situations where your target concept happens. You want to practice using your ability to notice that particular feature. This will help you get the extra exposure needed to make the required connections for that concept. You’ll be learning something extra that was previously disregarded as background noise.

Remember that it won’t come instantly. Anything worth learning will take many exposures to become imprinted in your brain. Through exposure, it will change step-by-step from “huh?” to “ok, I think I see it”, to “ya, this is easy now”. The only effort required is your attentiveness to the concept. If it feels hard, just remember that you’ve encountered plenty of “hard” things before, but now they are easy. This is just one of those. I like to call this concept “secretly easy”, which means that nothing is really harder than anything else, you just have to see it enough times to become used to it. Things that are “hard” now are just as easy as those “easy” things you already know.

Another thing you can do, of course, is gather some of those examples that you found in your favourite long content, and add them to an SRS program for further reinforcement. Examples gathered from your content are worth much more than random artificial sentences gathered from a big list somewhere. When these sentences come up again in your SRS, you’ll be reminded of the situation in your book or movie or conversation where they occured. Your mind uses the full context of the situation to help remember it, making many connections. Having it come up regularly due to your SRS’s scheduling mechanism just means that this particular connection will be made much stronger than all of the other sentences you may have heard that day.

That’s it! Now go find something interesting to do in your target language, and enjoy it as often as you can 🙂

how much input do you need?


I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to this excellent article from Antimoon: “How much input do you need to speak English fluently?”

It first caught my attention because it mentions the little facts that you have to know about a language, but which are not classified as “grammar”. For example:

You can give an opinion, but not an advice; buy a cake, but not a bread; move a table, but not a furniture; share a fact, but not an information.

Then I realized that I really liked his comparison of language learning to facial recognition. When you remember someone’s face, you don’t remember a bunch of specific and logical facts about various features. You don’t remember that the distance between the eyebrows is 0.754 times as big as the length of each eyebrow, or something like that. You just know, because your brain has a special part for recognizing faces without use of the conscious part of your mind. Much of language acquisition is similar. You don’t need a bunch of explicit rules, because as you acquire the language naturally through exposure you’ll just automatically start to develop some magical part of your brain that absorbs the needed rules and principles. This is all done below the level of conscious thought and calculation. Perhaps later you can try to develop your explicit ability to describe such rules, but that’s mostly a boring job for professional linguists with Phds, not for those of us who just want to speak and understand a language.

Finally, there’s the question of how much input you actually need in order to speak and understand a language fluently. The Antimoon article does a nice job of going through the various factors in this, but basically comes up with a nice ballpark number of 1000000 sentences of exposure. The author then considers how much work it would require to be exposed to this much of a language within 3 years, which is what he says it took him for English. Remember that this is for a very high level of proficiency, where he speaks and writes almost perfect English. I personally believe that you can gain a really good level in a language related to your own in less than a year, and that there’s always room for improvement.

His summary makes this enormous task seem quite doable. He breaks down the 1000000 sentences in 3 years into 6400 sentences per week. This then gets broken down to 1600 written sentences per week (~60 pages) + 4500 spoken sentences (~6 hours of audio) per week. This is a very doable amount for almost anyone. Just find whatever content interests you, and try to expose yourself for about an hour a day, and then you can expect to be highly fluent in 3 years according to this estimate. For those of us who are even keener, you may be able to up this amount to multiple hours of exposure per day and thereby rapidly increase your learning rate.

To get these hours of exposure in, just try to fill up your “spare” time (like riding on the bus, or sitting at your desk at work if possible) with audio content in your target language. When you get home, instead of watching TV in your native language, have a selection of target-language books sitting on your coffee table so that you can just pick one up and start reading. Or better yet, have those same books along with an MP3 player containing the audiobook versions so that you can listen and read at the same time. If you really want to watch TV, order some dubbed versions of your favourite shows if they are available. If not, order some original shows in your target language.

If you use whatever method you can to understand more vocabulary, you will soon be enjoying real adult materials in your target language. I couldn’t understand even 1 word of swedish in december 2009, but right now I’m listening to an audiobook in swedish and I’m able to follow along with the story most of the time, and I catch a lot of the vocab. I’ve been slack recently too, so I probably just barely averaged 1 hour per day, if that. I just very efficiently got myself up to speed on basic vocabulary, and put a lot of basic sentence material into Anki flashcards so that I could review them regularly, and did as much listening and reading as I could. Now that I have this basic level, it’ll be easier to ramp up my intake, and hopefully soon I’ll be racking up dozens of hours of content and thousands of sentences worth of exposure, on my way to fluency.

You can do it too, just start reading and listening in any way that you can 🙂

what do you put in your SRS?


I just responded to the latest post over at Language Geek, where Josh asks “what do you put in your SRS?”. After my short comment turned into multiple paragraphs, i figured i’d just post it here too:

Firstly, i only put phrases or full sentences into anki, except if they’re nouns that really don’t require a sentence. a lot of nouns don’t really have much “usage” information, but it still makes me nervous to just put a single word in.

I generally get my sentences from books that i’m reading. Currently i’m reading harry potter #2 in german (”Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens”), and although i understand a lot of it, i constantly come across words that i don’t know. I don’t put every single unknown word into Anki, however. I usually wait until i’ve seen a word more than once, or if there’s a certain paragraph where there were MANY words that i didn’t understand, then i concentrate more on that particular paragraph.

I do this because i put a lot of emphasis on reading without stopping. If there’s a word that continually bothers me, then i’ll use a highlighter to mark it for later, and then go back to it later when i’m working on new anki cards. Sometimes when i go back to it later, it makes perfect sense so i don’t bother.

Combined with this, i sometimes get some cards in anki that just annoy me. Maybe they seem useless now, or maybe i always get them wrong and they just bug me. these get deleted mercilessly. I know i’ll have no problems finding more words to put in anki, so i don’t worry about losing a couple of the stupid ones.

Another thing i’ve been trying lately is using electronic copies of books in order to do some statistical sentence-mining. I use an emacs add-on that a friend wrote, which makes a list of all words that i have in any cards in anki, and then uses that “known” list to find words in my book that are “unknown” and are also of a high frequency. It then gives me example sentences for those words. This way, i can work through the important vocab in frequency order, which helps tremendously.

In general, i try not to focus too much on words i “need” to know. Ya, eventually i want to know EVERY word, but i don’t need to do them all right now. There are plenty of things to learn, and i think i’ll be more effective if i do them in a better order (and usually i think this means frequency order). This is why i try do wait until i’ve seen the word more than once in my paperbacks, or i actually do frequency analysis if i have the electronic form.

Also, remember that you don’t need to worry about how much you know in total so far, you just need to keep increasing. As long as your knowledge keeps going up, you’ll get there. Don’t worry about grabbing everything right now this instant.

august week 3 summary


I’ve been a bit busy this week, so i’ve done much more listening to audio on my mp3 player, and much less watching TV and anki. I’ve also noticed that i’m starting to judge myself by my ability again, instead of by my amount of work. This is probably my biggest mistake lately.

To get back on track, I’m going to try to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what i can and can’t understand at this point in time, it only matters that my numbers are going up. I know that my method will prove successful in the end, because others have done it before me. All i need to do is keep the numbers going up, week by week.

On that note, i also notice that i’m impatient to understand everything in an episode when i watch TV. This next week, i’m going to work more on cultivating the attitude that i should enjoy whatever i can in the episode. There’s no need to worry about fully understanding every minute plot detail, because i can just go back and watch it again later once i’m awesomer. For right now, i want to just watch and enjoy it for what it is.

Overall, i like my goal for tv and for listening. I’m not entirely convinced that my anki goal is right yet, though. 150 new cards every week seems to keep me quite busy, both in adding cards and in doing reps for them. I’m thinking of using a highlighter in my book so i can find sentences for later…that should save me some time. Then i can spend more time freely reading and just flip back later to grab some things. Ideally, i’d like to spend just one or two days per week on adding new cards, and the rest of the time just relaxing with tv and doing reps.

keeping stats


Lately I’ve been reading about some ways that other people keep track of their progress. I just thought i’d clarify what i’m doing, since some people appear to be interested.

First i set some goals, which were based on some numbers i picked for the rest of the year. Then i brought them down to the level of month/week/day, just to see if the number of hours was feasible. Once i had adjusted the numbers, i wrote down what i needed to do each week in a file called “goals”.

I then started a new file called “logs” where i just wrote down the date and what i did that day, in a short format. I quickly found that when i was updating my blog, it’s much easier to get the numbers right if i keep a weekly subtotal, and then i can just add the numbers for the current week onto last week’s subtotal. If you don’t keep track of that running subtotal then it gets hard to figure out if you’ve updated the total properly yet, especially if you end up doing more work after you update.

Another thing i’ve been playing with is making graphs with gnuplot. To do this, i use a file with various info separated by spaces, with different days on different lines. then i have a gnuplot script that will graph those datapoints. I haven’t quite streamlined all of this, so it’s a bit cumbersome right now. What i’d like to do is set up something where i update in one place, and then the data gets automatically placed into the gnuplot data file and graphs get generated. But right now i just do it manually every day or two, which means i’m updating several different text files. It only takes a few minutes though, and it makes me happy 🙂

The next thing i’d like to do is to find some sort of wordpress plugin that will create little progress bars, or maybe a thermometer picture where the “temperature” goes up as i progress. So far i have no idea how to do that, and i don’t want to spend the time to figure out how. I suppose i could write something using Imagemagick, but i’d rather be working on german instead of coding. Hopefully someone else has already written it somewhere else, and i just have to go find it some day.

Another method that i recently heard about was using a spreadsheet. John over at Global Maverick likes to create a spreadsheet with milestones in various boxes, and then change the color of each box as he progresses through those milestones. I quite like this idea, since the coloring thing sounds fun, and you end up with a list of accomplishments that is visually indicated.

What i’ll probably do with this stuff is make a little shell script or something, which can just gather the stuff i do. Then i can tell it “i watched 2 tv shows”, “i listened for 3 hours”, whatever, and it’ll keep track appropriately and spit out some stats and pretty graphs. I’ll let you know if i make any progress on this, but it’s still a low priority behind actually studying german itself 🙂