Thai writing: When to learn?

I’ve been learning Thai for about two months now, but the writing still just looks like loopy squiggles to me.

When I asked my teacher if I should start learning the writing system, she counseled patience. She’s had students who learned Thai right from the start, and it ended up hindering their pronunciation and fluency: instead of using their ears to hear the way Thai was actually pronounced, they ended up speaking Thai the way they thought it should be pronounced, based on the spelling.

This makes sense to me. Hell, I didn’t start learning to read English until I’d been learning it intensively for two or three years. Then again, my brain was highly undeveloped during that time, so I probably missed out on a lot.

That said, not knowing the writing system can also be a hindrance when you’re trying to learn new things. A friend who has been learning Thai for a while recommended a song with relatively simple lyrics that I might be able to learn. Or I would be able to learn, if I had any way of reading the subtitles of the music video.

This is where transliteration becomes helpful. In particular, the site gives transliterations that are remarkably easy to associate with the sounds of Thai. I don’t know if there are multiple standards for Thai transliteration, but the version on Google Translate just boggles my mind.

Another cool thing about Thai2English: it translates both the original text and the transliteration word-by-word when you hover over it, so you learn the words in context. This is way better than just spitting out the whole thing in English.

Ok, but isn’t this just as bad as learning the writing system? Won’t I become dependent on the written version, and stop hearing the actual sounds? It’s possible. But maybe keeping in mind that this is merely an imperfect representation of the sounds of the language, and not the official writing system, will make it easier for me to remember the distinction.

In the meantime, I’ll hold off until my Thai self is a couple years old before I tackle any loopy squiggles.

Vision Quest, II

This humble language journal started exactly a year ago out of an experiment: I dropped everything I was doing, any projects that had any sense of obligation attached, anything I was used to doing to pass the time, and spent two weeks trying to answer a question: Without all these things, what would I spend my time on?

The silly idea of trying to learn a different language every month was the result of those two weeks. It was also during those two weeks that I found out about Polyglot Cafe, which has over the past year become an increasingly significant part of my life. I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made and everything I’ve learned through the Cafe, and through the twelve languages project.

How did the project actually go? What did I do?

  • I learned basic German,
  • I learned about language acquisition theory,
  • I got a little better at French,
  • I learned basic (abysmal) Korean,
  • I tried to learn Persian (and failed),
  • I tried learning Indonesian in a day (and failed of course),
  • I tried out lots of language learning resources like Anki, DuoLingo, Mango Languages, Assimil, LanguagePod101, Glossika, Pimsleur, and Italki,
  • I learned basic Taiwanese Hokkien,
  • I started learning Thai with a “speak from day one” approach,
  • I got a little better at Japanese, and
  • I spent an unfathomable number of hours speculating almost aimlessly — here and elsewhere — about language learning.

No, I didn’t actually try learning twelve whole languages. But my language learning “career” is miles beyond where it was a year ago, when I could only make vague guesses about why my Chinese had gotten pretty good, and had no clue about why my Japanese was stalling out.

Language learning is one of those things where the phrase “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” is really apt. I’m not out of the woods yet. Still, I’ve narrowed down the search space, I’ve canceled a lot of things out, and I think I know what it feels like to be making progress.

These last two weeks of July, I’m taking some time off (reading this journal, I’m afraid it’s all too easy to get the impression that taking time off is all I ever do) to symbolically wrap up this year of language learning, and think about what I want to do in the year to come. I’ll keep playing with languages as much as that’s become a natural part of my life, but I’ll stop anything that’s become a regular habit, especially flashcards. I’ll also stop making journal entries or blog posts. This is the only one.

Thai in July

No new language

I’ve been fretting about this non-problem for many days now, and I’ve finally decided not to start a new language in July.

Having started Thai lessons on Skype only a week or so ago, I’m just beginning to get into the Thai language. I have a four-day trip to Thailand coming up in a week. At this point, the last thing I want to do is divert to starting a new project the time I could be spending preparing for the trip.

I would like to spend more time getting trying new things and finding more material for my German and Taiwanese Hokkien, and to a lesser extent Japanese. I feel like these languages could start to take off soon if I actually devote enough time to them.

As I mentioned last time, I didn’t really give Glossika a good try last month with Portuguese (or I didn’t give Portuguese a good try with Glossika?). It may be fun to continue, and maybe try the more intensive version of Glossika, combined with some conversation practice at a Portuguese group in Taipei. Speaking of which, according to a polyglot I talked to at the language cafe yesterday who speaks Portuguese, Glossika was never meant to be a standalone method. It’s supposed to supplement other language learning methods. It all makes a little more sense to me now.

For all these reasons I’ve managed to convince myself that not starting a new language this month is still in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of the challenge I set for myself when I started writing this blog. Sure, it’s not as cool as 12 languages in 12 months. But those other languages will still be there, at least until 2100.

Portugues em junho?!

You could be forgiven for not having realized that this past month was Portuguese Month. Yes, I have been furtively reciting Portuguese sentences under my breath while the rest of you were going about your lives, blithely unaware.

Trying to stick to my goal of starting not just a new language every month but also a different learning method, I decided to try out Glossika.

Glossika offers two methods: intensive and relaxed.

The intensive method involves, very roughly, listening to mixed recordings of English and Portuguese sentences, copying them down, and then recording yourself speaking them. It means devoting at least 30 minutes a day to listening, writing, reading, and speaking. I’m still not clear on the details.

The relaxed method just requires listening to English and Portuguese sentences and reciting after it. It only takes about ten minutes. You hear an English sentence like “these bags are heavy,” and then you hear the Portuguese version. Unlike, say, Pimsleur, you don’t get time to come up with the Portuguese translation by yourself first. The sentences repeat in an interleaved fashion, simulating a spaced repetition system.

Naturally I chose the relaxed method. I also waited until the month was halfway over to start. Unfortunately, two half-asses do not make a full ass. I can’t say I really gave Glossika a fair shake (har har). What I can say is that after two weeks of listening and repeating, I find some of the sentences still echoing in my head later in the day. Sometimes I can come up with the Portuguese translation right before I actually hear it.

The Glossika booklet doesn’t say what kind of result I should expect after finishing all 100 relaxed method recordings. I don’t feel like I’m learning to speak Portuguese, not least because I’m not doing any active sentence production. However, next time a Portuguese speaker asks me, nicely, whether my bags are heavy, or whether Lisa is from Toronto, I’ll be ready.

Meanwhile, I’ll consider trying the intensive method.

Thai: taking the plunge

Like I talked about earlier this month, my Thai has had trouble getting off the ground since I started learning six weeks ago. I’ve been dutifully shadowing Hippo almost every day, but until last week could still count the number of Thai words I knew on zero hands. Granted, Terry’s version of natural acquisition is supposed to take a while to get going, but six weeks with exactly no tangible results makes me think I’m doing something wrong.

I had a choice: Either let Thai become another language I’ve tried for a little while and set aside; or try learning it another way. To be fair, I hadn’t really been using the Official Terry Method. I left out at least one important ingredient: real conversation in Thai. Duh.

So last week I had a couple hour-long lessons on Italki.

Lesson one

Maybe six weeks of ear training counts as some form of preparation, but I sure didn’t feel prepared when I started my first video chat with my new teacher, Pook. Incidentally, Pook is a monk.

I had cobbled together a list of sentences and questions I planned on saying, things like “I like learning languages” and “What do you do for fun?” Before I could consult my script, however, Pook started talking to me.

I nodded and tried to convey with an awkward smile that I both didn’t understand what he said and was embarrassed by this fact. Luckily, Pook was patient. He also knew some English, and using this he helped me piece together a few fragments of conversation. Our first exchange went roughly like this:

Pook: What do you do?

Me: I’m a… student.

Pook: What?

Me: I’m a chef.

Pook: Ok, chef – por krua. is – pen.

Me: Ok.

Pook: I am a monk. Pom pen pra.

Me: I am a chef… Pom… pen… por krua.

Pook: Good. You are a chef. Kun pen por krua.

Me: Pom pen por krua. Kun… pen… pra.

Pook: Right!

Me: Pom pen por krua. Kun pen pra. Pom pen por krua. Kun pen pra. Pom pen por krua. Kun pen pra.

Pook: Ok!

Unfortunately, this was one of our only successful conversations during that hour. The only other thing I remember is Pook trying to have us role play a restaurant situation, and my embarrassment at having nothing to contribute beyond “I like coconut.” When the hour was over, I was exhausted and relieved.

Lesson two

My second lesson was with a middle-aged woman named Ari. She spoke less English than Pook, but was abundantly patient. We got a lot of mileage out of material like:

“Will you go to Thailand? // I will go to Thailand. // Will you go to Thailand? // I will not go to Thailand.” and

“I like food. // What food do you like? // I like Thai food.”

I used Google Translate’s text-to-speech as a bug in my ear telling me how to say things, and Ari seemed amused by my earnest attempts to imitate her speech. Her amusement was reassuring, since one of my greatest fears in speaking a new language is boring my interlocutor.

When the hour was up, Ari even offered to keep speaking Thai with me off the clock. Exhausted, I did my best to politely decline. Still, this lesson with Ari was even more encouraging than the first with Pook.

What now?

If I could make this much progress with no vocabulary, doesn’t it stand to reason that I could do even better — maybe much better — with a foundation of basic vocabulary? Maybe, but it feels sort of like cheating. Also, I think one of the points of this exercise of learning Thai in this particular way is to get used to speaking without any preparation. It’s this mindset of willingness to learn a totally foreign language that’s the goal, and is maybe even more important than learning Thai in and of itself.

A week has passed since my first two lessons, during which time I meant to review the recording I made of my lesson with Ari, but didn’t.

I have to leave Taiwan to renew my visa in a couple weeks, and I decided to go to Thailand for a few days. Having made that decision, I doubled down and booked another lesson with Ari.

Lesson three

The second lesson with Ari was similar to the first, but I seemed to understand quite a bit more, even if this “understanding” involved a lot of guesswork. She asked me a question in which I only understand the word for “Thai” and I assumed she was asking me if I had studied during the previous week. I replied “No” and cringed, and she laughed. Does that count as speaking Thai?

Again combining Google Translate with Ari’s patience and hand gestures, and a few well-placed words of English, we were able to have exchanges in Thai that probably sounded something like this:

Ari: Will you go to Thailand?

Me: No. Uh… Yes!

Ari: Good! When?

Me: Nextmonth?

Ari: Huh?

Me: Next…

Ari: Oh! next month?

Me: Yeah! Next month!

We also covered subjects like:

  • I like to travel. What do you like? Do you like to travel?
  • What will you do today? I will go to the market. Where will you go? I will go to the cafe (coffee place).
  • Where do you live? Is it far from Bangkok?
  • I don’t like cars. I don’t have a car. Do you have a car?

This lesson was slightly less exhausting than the first two.

Afterward, Ari suggested (using more English now) that I try learning with her daughter, who is a professional trilingual translator and also teaches on Italki. According to Ari, her daughter said that after six hour-long lessons with her, I would be speaking Thai. It’s an enticing claim, even if a little vague. Imagine being able to get around in Thailand using only Thai!

From her daughter’s profile and reviews from current and previous students, it sounds like her lessons also involve speaking Thai from day one, but are more structured and have more supporting material (i.e. audio recordings and review lists). Her lessons are also twice as expensive. Still, the experiment might be worth the price.

Naming the problem in Language Acquisition

Several months ago I learned about Language Acquisition Theory through one of its major proponents, Stephen Krashen. The one-line summary is this: we learn languages through comprehensible input.

One of the key ideas beyond that is the concept of N+1 input. This means you’re getting input that’s a little above your level, so that it’s mostly comprehensible but you’re still being challenged. It makes intuitive sense to me that this should be the difficulty level that results in the fastest improvement. In addition, the input should be interesting, fascinating, even compelling, so that your brain actually gets engaged.

Language Acquisition has been relatively “known about” for decades now, and so I assumed (naively) that it would be easy to find good resources designed for Acquisition Learning, especially at lower levels where comprehensible input is hardest to find. It hasn’t. Finding low-level comprehensible input that’s also interesting has been one of the major ongoing challenges in my language learning for the last several months.

As recently as 2013, in an interview with Stephen Krashen, Steve Kaufmann of Lingq brings up this very problem. Namely, when you’re in the early days of learning a language, input tends to either be A) too boring, e.g. textbooks, miscellaneous lists of sentences, guided readers, mundane stories designed for bored children, or B) too incomprehensible, e.g. anything designed for native speakers. What is one to do, Kaufmann asks, during those first few months (or years)?

Kaufmann deals with the problem by slogging through those boring guided readers for the first two or three months, and then taking the leap into interesting but difficult material as soon he possibly can. He says that using Lingq to track progress and save words helps him manage the difficulty level when he’s still at low comprehension with the interesting stuff.

Krashen’s answer to Kaufmann’s question is vindicating, if not quite as helpful as one might wish. That is the problem of Language Acquisition, he says. The big challenge facing language learners and would-be educators today, assuming they acknowledge the efficacy of Language Acquisition, is to create the kind of material that is both comprehensible and compelling for beginning language learners. He does mention TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and Jason Fritze as good examples of the latest progress in this area, but says we still have a long way to go before we can expect to see anything close to ideal.

It’s at least a little encouraging to hear that I haven’t just been fumbling around in the dark for no reason — that some of the greatest acquisition proponents are still fumbling as well. In the meantime, I should probably check out Lingq and TPRS.

Making peace with the Hippo

I’ve been gradually and begrudgingly starting to work out how to get the most out of the Hippo audio for Thai. This is based on a few pointers I got from Terry Hsieh the other day.

I was spending too much time before shadowing the same track, thinking I would wait until I could shadow it perfectly before I moved on to the next one. Diversity is actually key. Hearing the same words repeated in different contexts is an important part of learning them. I had a small “a ha!” moment when I listened to the fourth track a couple days ago and recognized some phrases from tracks one and two. I still don’t know what they mean, but the fact that I recognized them means they’re starting to make an impression.

The story is another important point. No matter how mundane it is, following the story — instead of just hopping around, listening to random middle sections — will help my brain put what I’m hearing in context.

So my new daily practice for Thai is as follows:

  1. Listen to the next recording in Thai. If I listened to track 5 yesterday, I’ll listen to track 6 today.
  2. Listen to the same recording in German. I can usually understand about 80% of the meaning this way. Good enough.
  3. Listen to the Thai track again, on repeat, for about 10 minutes.
  4. Go back and listen to tracks from previous days, each once or twice.

By “listen” I really mean shadow.

Why do I listen to the Thai track once before I figure out what it means? Is this important? I think it’s probably valuable to grapple with the sounds in Thai first, to give my brain a chance to figure out the meaning before it has an official meaning that it’s “supposed to” hear.

Progress update: June, July, Thai, Italki’s challenge

Thai, Hippo, pivot

Thai month is over already?! But wait, I haven’t even learned any words yet!

Last month I took a class with Terry Hsieh, the polyglot who speaks 25 languages and founded the polyglot cafe here in Taipei. I decided to take it as an opportunity to start learning Thai.

I could probably get several posts just from what he talked about during those three two-hour lessons, but I left my notes at home today.

The homework for the class consisted of shadowing a track from Hippo Japan for at least 15 minutes a day. In the first week we were told not to listen to the translated version. This would help us focus on the music of the language instead of trying to convert it into words in our head.

Then we were asked to listen to the translation, and then listen again and try to figure out specific words. Somehow I missed this part. I listened to the Chinese version once and then decided I preferred not understanding what they were saying (Sonoko and I don’t always see eye to eye). Still, for the last month I’ve been dutifully listening and shadowing for 15 minutes a day, training my ear on the sounds of the Thai language.

This isn’t a good long-term strategy for learning Thai. In theory, I should be slowly picking out new words on each listen, my mind automatically associating sounds with meanings the way a child does with its first language. Again, I think the problem is that my mind doesn’t care about the mundane adventures of Sonoko and her white-bread hosts, the Browns.

Should I try to find a better story, or should I just give in and actually spend a little time studying? What would Terry do?


I think I can do better than just continuing what I’m doing. Is there some way I can stay true to Terry’s method (since that’s the exercise), but find better material? For a start, my friend sent me links to some hilarious TV commercials:

Maybe instead of spending 15 minutes shadowing Hippo, I spend 15-20 minutes on YouTube. If I do this, will I be able to pick up words from context? Maybe. We’ll see.

Another ingredient in Terry’s method — in pretty much any method, probably — is conversation. A similar question to the one posed above: can I learn words and phrases from conversation in Thai, starting from zero? There are a few community tutors on Italki with affordable prices. Hopefully I will soon know the answer.

Diversity Language Challenge

Italki is having a diversity language challenge next month, in July. They’re promoting learning languages that are in danger of disappearing by 2100. It’s a long list, and impressive if it means they have teachers or tutors for all those languages. Some attractive candidates:

  • Lithuanian
  • Icelandic
  • Burmese
  • Basque
  • Nahuatl
  • Gujarati
  • Xhosa
  • Blackfoot
  • Taiwanese Hokken is on the list too. One down, 2,999 to go!

If you count June, I have two more languages to go in my year-long language challenge (I skipped three months, though, so I guess I really have five languages left before I make it to 12).

Other, more common languages I’ve been considering:

  • Vietnamese
  • Portuguese
  • Italian
  • Polish
  • Quechua
  • Hindi
  • Hungarian
So many languages, so little time

The problem is I’m reluctant to give up my momentum in German, Japanese, and Taiwanese Hokkien. If this year has taught me nothing else, it’s that learning a language takes time, and while it’s plenty easy to waste time, there aren’t any shortcuts (Subs2srs notwithstanding).

I also have to admit something that seems obvious, but that I’ve been reluctant to admit for a long time: some languages are harder than others. I think the distinction one has to make is what level you’re at.

Once you get to a high enough level, say C1 or higher, one language really might be just as hard as any other — it’s just a matter of practice. But if you’re going from nothing to A1 or A2, having a lot of cognates, a recognizable script, familiar sounds, and/or intuitive grammar can give you a big head start.

So the language makes a big difference in the context of my language challenge, which is all about starting from scratch.

Suppose I want to learn a little bit of Portuguese this month. Enough to converse with my polyglot friend Alexander, for instance. That shouldn’t take too much time, right?

Then I’ll choose one of the above endangered languages and schedule a bunch of Skype lessons for July.

Solving the TV problem, part 2

AKA, Subs2srs

In the last post I talked about a way of cutting up podcast episodes or other target language audio, turning them into Anki flashcards, and efficiently transferring the audio into your brain.

This time I want to talk about a way of automating the same process and applying it to TV shows or movies.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to come up with this idea. Someone wrote a program just for turning video files and subtitles into Anki flashcards. It’s called Subs2srs.

I won’t spend much time explaining how it works, because the sourceforge site does a good job of that already. I’ll just talk about my experience using it.

[Note: My only complaint about Subs2srs is that it only works for Windows. For a while I tried setting up a Windows emulator on my Mac, but this turned out to be too much trouble. This kept me from trying Subs2srs for a while, until a friend graciously lent me her PC.]

Finding material

The hard part with Subs2srs is just finding the files to work with. You need to find a video file and a matching subtitles file in the same language. I haven’t found any strategies that I’m confident enough in to recommend, and in general this can take some trial and error and some adjusting depending on your comfort with downloading things.

Perhaps the safest method for getting a video file would be borrowing a DVD from the library and ripping it onto your computer with a program like Handbrake.

For subtitles, there are several websites that share free subtitle files in various languages. It may take more or less time to find this, depending on the specific movie or show, and depending on the language. There’s a site called Kitsunekko that’s dedicated to subtitles for shows (and some movies) in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean.

So far I’ve only tried Subs2srs with Japanese, as resources are relatively plentiful. I’ve tried various anime as well as the TV show 深夜食堂 (Midnight Diner). After some time, which depends on my number of new cards per day and the length of the show, I can watch the original show/movie with pretty much total comprehension.

There are tradeoffs when it comes to choosing the content. In general, it’s good to choose content that you’re interested in, but some consideration should also be given to usability. I enjoyed doing the reps for Fullmetal Alchemist and Attack on Titan, but most of the language in those shows I have rarely had the chance to use in daily life. Midnight Diner is a little better, though some accents are hard to understand, and there’s a lot of slang that I still don’t have enough experience or context to get the hang of. This probably just means I need more practice or some exposure to this kind of speech in real conversation.

Shortcut: use a pre-made deck

Maybe you don’t have access to a Windows PC. Maybe you can’t be bothered to make your own Subs2srs deck. Or maybe you just don’t know where to start. Luckily, some deck makers have been thoughtful enough to share what they’ve made. The biggest repository of Subs2srs decks I’ve found is It’s unfortunate that it’s limited to Japanese, but if you’re learning Japanese, there’s a lot here to start with. Anki Web sometimes has some subs2srs decks as well, but these tend to get taken down.

Another option is to find someone who has already created their own decks and reach out to them (I know at least one such person…). They may be willing to share their decks with you. It stands to reason that someone who is passionate and nerdy enough about language learning to make their own decks would also be excited to find someone else who might benefit from their work.

Case study: Tampopo (1985) – extracting subtitles from a .mkv

One movie I fell in love with recently is Tampopo, a “Ramen Western” bizarre comedy about two truck drivers, a single mother, and a motley gang of other characters on a quest to make the perfect bowl of ramen. I don’t know how everyday or usable the language is in this movie either, but I decided that I wanted to learn the lines anyway, just for fun.

The only hitch was I couldn’t find the subtitles file anywhere. The movie itself was an .mkv, which came with hard-coded subtitles. But Subs2srs needs a separate subtitles file to make the cards.

This is where another program came in handy, the descriptively titled MKVExtractGUI-2, also Windows-specific. I was able to use this to get a separate subtitles file out of the Tampopo .mkv. I believe this uses optical character recognition. As a result, the subtitles are tiny images instead of text. This comes with the downside that I can’t copy and paste the subtitles into a dictionary or Google Translate when there’s something I don’t understand. But it’s not a big deal: Subs2srs also lets you add a native language subtitles file, which can go on the back of the card alongside the target language subtitles.

Here’s an example of what one of my cards looks like. For the front of the card I see the still image an hear the audio, and for the back I see the subtitle.

I’ve only been reviewing these cards for about a week, at only five cards a day (I’m also doing Midnight Diner, and trying not to get overwhelmed). I’ll add more news here once I’ve made more progress.

More languages

As I said, I’ve only tried Subs2srs so far with Japanese. I’m curious to see what it’s like in other languages, like German, Chinese, and Korean, and someday maybe even Thai or Taiwanese Hokkien. I’m also interested in starting to compile a list of movies or shows particularly suited to Subs2srs, or for which it’s easy to find video and subtitle files. If you do give Subs2srs a try, I would love to hear about your experience.

Update June 9, 2017: I’ve been doing the Midnight Diner and Tampopo decks for a couple weeks now. I also created a German deck from the TV show Deutschland ’83 a couple days ago. Here are my impressions:

Midnight Diner – There’s quite a lot of slang and domain-specific vocabulary, e.g. stuff related to the occupation of the main characters of the episode. Most characters speak pretty fast, and some seem to have strong accents, but the subtitles are pretty precise and the audio quality is clear, which makes up for this.

Tampopo – There’s an even more diverse array of accents, slang, and silly, exaggeratedly pompous language (like when the “ramen master” is explaining how to properly show respect for the different ramen components). The audio quality isn’t always very clear, and the subtitles sometimes elide parts of the speech. In some cases this makes it impossible for me to really learn the line. I think this is fine, though. I can toss the cards that are too much of a pain to use. The theatricality of the speech has made it fun to learn so far.

Deutschland ’83 – This is a recent thriller about an East German youth who gets blackmailed by his aunt into working as a spy in West Germany during a nuclear crisis. As such the language is a little bit advanced, but the entertainment factor helps make up for the difficulty. It’s been tough to find German subtitles for German movies and TV. I found one website with lots of German subtitles, but I haven’t yet figured out if it has subs for German shows or if it’s all aimed at foreign-language material.


Nihongo Shark is another site that has a thorough discussion of Subs2srs and how to use it to learn anime (interesting that the majority of Subs2srs users seem to be focused on Japanese. Then again, Anki itself, which isn’t tied to any particular language, gets its name from Japanese (暗記). Coincidence?). The creator at one point uploaded some of his own anime decks to Anki Web, but they’ve since disappeared.

Learn Any Language has a page that explains how to use Subs2srs, and contains some links to other users who have tried it with various language.

Solving the TV problem, part 1

Two months is the longest time I’ve gone without posting since I started this blog last August. This is a major milestone, folks.

Not a bad time to take a step back and recap what I’ve done so far. Here’s a timeline:

Aug '16 - German, 4 hours a day. 
          Learn about language acquisition theory.

Sep '16 - French, < 4 hours a day. 
          [current languages: German, French]

Oct '16 - Travel to France. 
          [German, French]

Nov '16 - Korean. 
          [German, French, Korean]

Dec '16 - Travel to US. Stop actively learning French.
          [German, Korean]

Jan '17 - Indonesian 12-hour challenge. 
          [German, Korean]

Feb '17 - Persian lite. 
          [German, Korean, Persian]

Mar '17 - Event planning 101. 
          [German, Korean]

Apr '17 - Taiwanese Hokkien. Revive Japanese. Stop Korean.
          [German, Japanese, Taiwanese Hokkien]

May '17 - Thai (Terry Hsieh's class). 
          [German, Japanese, Taiwanese, Thai]

There’s a lot to record about my adventures with Taiwanese and Thai, but right now I want to talk about something else.

Space repetition systems + TV programmes


The problem

The best way to learn a language is to surround yourself and constantly interact with people who speak it. That’s how Terry Hsieh learned Quechua in two months (without taking any classes). If you can’t achieve this level of immersion, having a few good friends or a significant other who speaks the language with you on a daily basis is a close second.

If this doesn’t work out either, the next best thing is inundating your eyes and ears with movies, TV, videos, radio — and, yes, other people speaking to you — in the target language. Using this technique, Khatzumoto from AJATT, for instance, got fluent in Japanese in about 18 months.

In this day ‘n age, anyone with a good enough internet connection has this method available to her, in theory. But this is where it gets tricky. With so many options out there, what should I watch? And how? And how much? 

Such a plethora of choices can easily lead to paralysis. Furthermore, the field is fraught with danger. What if I turn on the TV or the YouTube to a German channel, but then I get bored after five or so minutes because my German isn’t good enough and I have no idea what they’re talking about? Or what if I do find something that I like, but there are still parts I don’t understand and I miss important plot points?

This has become a big problem for me. I find a TV series or movie that I really like, and then I have to choose between:

  1. Watching it without subtitles. Soon I’m Googling the plot (in English) or turning on subtitles to find out what I missed.
  2. Watching with subtitles once, then watching a second (and third, fourth, and fifth) time without. (These latter times never actually happen.)
  3. Finding a series I care little enough about that it doesn’t bother me to miss a lot. But then, what’s the point? If it’s a TV show, I usually don’t make it past two or three episodes.
  4. Watching something I’ve seen before in English, dubbed into my target language. Again, there’s almost no point. I rarely watch movies a second time, and usually get bored when I do.

I just can’t win. There is seemingly no right way for me to learn languages with movies and TV.

DIY pilot program for a V-212 helicopter

What I really need is a pilot program for a V-212 helicopter. Except, you know, replacing the helicopter flying part with “Japanese comprehension for a specific movie or TV show.” I plug it into my brain, and then when I watch the movie I miraculously understand everything!

That’s impossible, right?

Nope. Totally doable. The key is a combination of an SRS like Anki, and a way to chop up the TV show, movie, or other media into bite-sized pieces your mind can absorb. Sure, it might take a few weeks instead of a few seconds, but the result is just as rewarding.

Making the cards

This is what I’ve been doing with the podcast Der Explikator, for instance. I take a story that seems interesting, but that I can understand only about 20-30% of on a first listen. I download the mp3, open it with Audacity (any audio editing software will do), and start the card creation process, which looks like this:

1. In Anki, add a new basic card. 
2. Select a bite-size portion of audio, usually around 6-7 seconds.
3. Export the audio portion as an mp3 and drag-and-drop into the 'front' field of the Anki card.
4. Select the corresponding text in the transcript on, copy it into the 'back' field of the Anki card.
5. If there are any parts of the transcript I can't understand, use Google Translate to get the meaning, and maybe copy a few definitions onto the back of the card as well. 
6. Go back to step 1 until the whole podcast has been made into cards.

It took me about a minute per card when I first started, but now that I’m used to it I think it’s closer to 20-30 seconds per card. I’ve realized that this card creation process isn’t wasted, either, because it saves me from having to look up definitions later.

Using the cards

So I’ve made all my cards. Now what? Now I just start reviewing them with the Anki app on my phone. 10 new cards a day is more than manageable — depending on the difficulty, it might take 10-20 minutes a day to get through 10 new cards plus whatever reviews of older cards come due. At this rate, if the average length of audio is 6 seconds, I can do 7 minutes of material a week. A typical podcast is about 15 minutes, so in about two weeks I’ve encountered all the cards, and mastered most of them.

What does an Anki ‘rep’ actually look like with these cards? I listen to the audio and shadow it, and try to understand it. I repeat the audio several times if need be, without looking at the transcript. If I can accurately shadow and understand the whole thing without looking at the transcript, then I count that as a correct answer. If I can’t, I practice a few times while looking at the transcript, and then mark the answer incorrect.

The payoff

A couple weeks have passed. I’ve seen all my cards, and reviewed them until I can not only understand but pretty accurately shadow them all. Ok, now what was the point of all that?

This is where I listen to the complete podcast again. Remember how I only understood 20-30% last time? Oh wait, this time I can understand all of it! Not only that, I can shadow right along with it at normal speed with no difficulty. And because I learned it all in context, it’s easy to recall and use any of the phrases in conversation when I need them.

Was it worth the time I put into it? Let’s do the math. This is after 15 days at about 15 minutes at day, so a little under four hours total. How much time would it take to get to this level of familiarity with 15 minutes of foreign language audio using other methods? I’m not sure, actually, because I’ve never gotten this familiar with such a long segment of non-English audio using other methods. I usually get too bored or give up before it happens.

I can also say that the Anki reps are pretty painless. Thanks to the slight gamification of trying to answer cards correctly, the reps are even somewhat fun.

The next level

For a long time I’ve only applied this method to a few podcasts, and no TV shows or movies. Many podcasts don’t publish transcripts. It takes time to extract the audio from a TV show or movie, find a subtitle file if there is one, and even more time making the cards. Compared to podcasts, a lot of shows aren’t as nice to listen to without any visuals. Plus, hand-making every card does take time.

Well, it turns out there’s an easier way. In the next post I’ll talk about Subs2srs, a program that automates the card creation process.