Vocab deck, pictures, translations

In Fluent Forever, Wyner suggests making SRS flash cards for the top 1,000-or-so most common words in the target language. For most languages, this short list of words comprises around 80% of daily communication.

The cards Wyner proposes have several possible templates. The front might be a vocabulary word, and the back could have a picture, the audio pronunciation (which one can find on Forvo.com), the phonetic spelling, a reminder of a personal memory connection to the word, or all of the above. Another type of card could use the picture as the front, and have the word on the back. The guidelines say to use two or more different types to build multidirectional connections. One should also make sure each card has only one answer, otherwise they get too complicated.

The idea is to use all this sensory input — and not the English translation — to create strong, multifaceted connections to these vocabulary words.

My initial reaction is to question the effectiveness of single-word vocabulary cards. Most of what I’ve heard and my personal experience so far says that sentences are better. But why are sentences better than words? Because they add context. When one learns a word in the context of a sentence, one learns how to use the word at the same time that one learns the word itself.

So sentences are good. But doesn’t Wyner’s approach make up for the lack of a sentence with the other contextual information — the image, sound, and personal connection? Is an out-of-context sentence really any better than an in-context word?


The day before yesterday I spent a couple hours adding pictures to around 80 French flash cards from my 10,000 sentences deck. I searched Google Images for the whole sentence or part of the sentence, chose the image that I felt was most interesting, funny, or evocative of the given sentence, and put it on the back of the card right under the French text.

Reviewing these cards yesterday, I wasn’t sure what the result actually was. Is having this visual association really strengthening my ability to understand the sentence? Maybe it’s too early to say, but I suspect that the format of these cards doesn’t lend itself as well to this kind of augmentation as the type outlined above.

What skill are these cards strengthening, after all? Audio comprehension is part of it, clearly. Making sense of the grammar and sounds of the language is another. However, one major problem is that the back of the cards still have the English translation on them. This means I’m actually still learning to translate these sentences into English instead of internalizing the meaning in French. Even if I were to only look at the English once, when I first see the card, this may create a lasting connection with the English, which I certainly don’t want.

Further, most of these cards are both similar and abstract. Is it really feasible to have a separate image for “she didn’t tell me yet” and “I don’t know yet”? Does it make sense to connect this to personal memories — that one time I was waiting to know something, as opposed to that other time I was waiting for her (whoever she is) to tell me something?

The English problem is easy to solve. I could do away with the English translation completely. Would this cause problems? Maybe it’s worth it to be unsure about the meaning of the sentence in order to keep it in the target language. Wyner would surely suggest I do it this way. If there are particular words I don’t know, I can search for them on Google Images and — assuming they aren’t too abstract — infer the meaning from the results.

The second problem, that the sentences are too similar and abstract to lend themselves well to images and memories, seems harder. In particular, it suggests to me that I’m really dealing with two different categories of cards, and it’s fruitless to mix them.

I’m going to try two things. First, I’ll remove the English field on the 10,000-sentence deck cards. Will this make it easier for me to avoid mental translation? Will the deck seem more useful once I do this?

[Update]: Unfortunately, the 10,000-sentence deck is formatted in such a way that I can’t just remove the English translation and keep the French. Should I just not look at the back of the card at all? 

Second, I’m going to experiment with making a French vocabulary deck the way Wyner suggests.

To make sure I have enough time to do this, and while I’m deciding whether it’s worth it to keep doing the 10,000-sentence decks, I’m reducing the number of new cards on these decks to five per day (for German too).

Pronunciation check

I’ve been shadowing this French audio from IE languages for a couple days. I recorded myself this morning reading the text aloud so I can hear how different I sound from the native speaker. Hopefully in a few months I’ll be able to look back and cringe at my bad pronunciation.

Here’s the native speaker version:

And here’s my version (after two days of shadowing, ~10 minutes each time):

To my ear, I sound like an American trying to speak French. However, I can’t tell exactly what the differences are or where I’m making mistakes. In Fluent Forever, which I mentioned in the last post, Wyner introduces the idea of using minimal pair flash cards to learn pronunciation. The idea is to find words that differ in only one phoneme, and make flash cards where you hear the audio for one of these words and have to guess which of the two words is being spoken. This trains your ear to recognize the sounds of the language. For pronunciation, Wyner suggests using a phonetic alphabet, among other things.

These sound like good suggestions, but I’m not sure where to start. Again, I’m not pronouncing quinze like “quinzy” or anything so obvious. I know I have trouble with some vowels, though, like the ‘i’ in intérresant. Maybe I should consult with a native speaker at the next French conversation table I go to.

I also recorded a reading of the German dialogue from Slow German about the weather. It’s paid material, so I won’t post the original, but you can hear a slower version on the Slow German website.

This one I’ve been shadowing for about a week, around 15 minutes a day:

I haven’t mastered it (the end especially still trips me up), but I think a week is long enough that I ought to start shadowing a new dialogue. I’ll continue doing this one, but just once or twice a day.

Hey you, reading this! If you happen to be a native German or French speaker and can point out where my mistakes are, I will gladly trade you good karma points, redeemable from participating retailers while supplies last offer expires on the third harvest moon of the sixteenth year after the return of the true Quetzalcoatl.

What techniques have you found for improving your pronunciation?

Native speaker audio

Here’s one possible way to make good Anki cards with audio. Rhino Spike is a site where you can request native speaker recordings of particular sentences. It looks like it works on the Lang 8 model, where you’re more likely to get requests fulfilled if you help fulfill others’ requests yourself. This could also be a great way to make your own shadowing material.

Strong memories and spaced repetition systems

I recently started reading Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. I’ve only read the first two chapters, but so far it’s been a refreshingly specific and practical take on language learning, told from the perspective of a successful and creative language student, instead of someone professing to be a qualified language teacher. Wyner is fluent in a lot of languages, and the book is a condensation of the lessons and techniques he’s picked up in the process of learning those languages.

The second chapter is all about memory and spaced repetition systems (SRS). While he hasn’t yet gone into the specifics of exactly what to learn with an SRS, it sounds like it does involve memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules. Normally, this would be a red flag for me on my march to Krashen- and Hippo-style language acquisition. But Wyner makes some intriguing points about memory that I hadn’t heard before, which might even in theory redeem the idea of learning vocabulary and grammar, so I’m willing to suspend disbelief for now.

According to Wyner, for SRS cards to be effective, they must be based on strong memories. Seems true enough. But how do these strong memories get created? The most straightforward way is through the process of creating your own cards, especially cards with images. When you make up your own card for some vocabulary word you’re trying to learn, and when you either draw your own picture or choose an image from Google Images, by the very act of making or choosing this image, you’re creating a rich, personal memory around this image and this concept.

The key difference between your own cards and someone else’s cards is the experience you then have when you meet a new card for the first time. If it’s a card that you’ve created yourself, you’ll flash back to the decisions you made in creating that card, along with the other thoughts and sensations you were having at that moment. The more you review the card, the more this particular memory gets cemented into your brain. If, on the other hand, it’s a card you didn’t create, you’ll miss these associations. If it’s a word or phrase you’ve never seen or heard before, your first reaction will probably be some form of confusion as your brain tries to figure out a) the meaning, and b) whether it’s actually important enough to remember. Unfortunately, in this case, this then becomes the basis for your new memory. A memory of uncertainty or outright confusion.

This seems like an excellent point, regardless of what exactly one decides to put on one’s SRS cards. It also gives me a clearer idea of what is wrong with my current Anki decks — or rather, what could be improved. Namely, they don’t have pictures, and I didn’t make them myself. When I hear a new sentence, I have to struggle (consciously or unconsciously) to construct a mental image to give the sentence meaning and context. This is closely related to the doubts I was having in my last post about context, but now I understand more thoroughly why this context is so important.

So should I just delete my current decks and start from scratch?  I hate to do that, mainly because these decks have audio. That would be hard to recreate by myself. Until I find some better way to make my own cards with audio, I’ll try experimenting with a couple compromises. First, for some cards I’ll draw pictures (I said I was going to do that in the last post but I haven’t gotten around to it yet). Second, for some other cards I’ll do a Google Image search and choose an image to add to the back of the card. Even if it’s a picture that doesn’t wholly represent the sentence being spoken, it may provide enough associative richness to make the cards more memorable.

Sourdough oatmeal pancakes and context

This has nothing to do with languages (or does it?). I’ve struggled for a while to make good, fluffy sourdough pancakes. Sometimes they taste good but don’t rise enough. Sometimes they rise but don’t taste good (usually because I added too much baking soda).

Last night I mixed one part high-gluten flour, one part oats, one part water, and about half-part sourdough starter — where one part is about half a cup — and added an egg. I mixed it all together and went off to have nightmares about food poisoning from raw eggs left to sit at room temperature overnight.

This morning the batter was full of bubbles, and made a fluffy and intensely sour pancake. No baking soda necessary. What was the difference? The oats? The fact that I let the egg ferment with all the other ingredients instead of adding it right before cooking like I usually do? The only thing is the edge of the pancake, instead of being a smooth curve, is lumpy, kind of like the edge of some oatmeal cookies.


These pancakes are the perfect thing to eat while watching Breaking Bad dubbed in French with French subtitles. I tried watching for a while without subtitles but got frustrated that I was missing so much. Then I turned on Chinese subtitles. This made the story comprehensible if I paid attention to the subtitles, but then I started tuning out the French audio. Now, the French subtitles don’t match the audio very well it seems. But I think this is still the best compromise. It’s enough that I can understand the story, and hey, everything is French, so I must be learning something, right? Doesn’t that satisfy all the criteria of comprehensible input?


Anki sentences: creating context

When I’m doing reps on my Anki deck of sentences, I still find myself translating mentally into English for most of the cards. It’s understandable. Without any context to help me create a mental picture of what’s happening, it’s not surprising that it often takes less mental effort to just translate into English.

I have also caught myself using memory on some of the cards. Some of the sentences do appear too frequently in slightly varying forms for me to do this, things like “he didn’t tell me everything”/”she didn’t tell me everything”/”that’s all he told me”, etc. are so similar that I really do need to understand the whole sentence to get it right. But some cards, like “I simply kept my mouth shut”, only appear once. All I have to do is recognize one unique word in the sentence, and then my brain stops working because it knows the answer.

Here’s one idea. What if I add context by making up a story around some of these sentences? We used to have an illustrated version of the Elements of Style. The pictures are often humorous, sometimes loosely associated illustrations of example sentences used in the book. By supplying imagery to go with the text, they make it both more entertaining and easier to remember (for me, at least).

Maybe I can try something similar, like drawing pictures to illustrate things being described in the sentences I’m learning. If there’s a readymade mental image at hand, maybe my brain will be less tempted to go down the English-translation route.

Of course, it would be time-consuming to draw pictures for every single sentence. Maybe at first I can focus on a few sentences that I find myself most clearly having trouble visualizing. Or maybe I can find some way to draw a picture that applies to multiple sentences with just a little adjustment (“I gave her a book”/”He gave me the book”). Even better if these images could somehow be broad enough to cover most or all of the sentences in the deck.

What makes good shadowing material?

I found this database of educational materials called MERLOT, which is where IE Languages says its audio comes from. Browsing all the French language material, there’s a lot of irrelevant stuff, but I haven’t given up hope of finding hidden gems.


Status update

Here’s what I’ve been up to these past few days. I’m still doing the 10,000-sentence Anki decks for French and German, with 60 new French cards a day and 30 new German cards, which takes me around 30 minutes total. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s 30 minutes of pretty intense concentration. It’s around 600 repetitions total, which is like three seconds per card.

I bought a few more natural-speed dialogues from Slow German (for €0.84 each), and I’ve been shadowing just one, about the weather, the last three or four days. It’s just under 2 minutes, and I shadow each of the two speakers four times, so that takes 15 minutes. I remember the gist of what they’re saying, but some of the pronunciation (especially consonants) and some words still mystify me.

What makes for good shadowing?

I tried shadowing a story from Français Authentique, but my brain kept revolting and refusing to pay attention to such a boring story. I’m surprised and a little amazed that this story, which is five minutes long and about a woman visiting her grandmother for tea, is so much more boring than the two-minute Slow German dialogue, which is just two people chatting about the weather. I can get through the Slow German dialogue eight times with only a little impatience, but I couldn’t even make it through this French story once before I started to think about what to make for dinner or how I still have to make that dentist appointment.

Sure, a pleasant trip to grandma’s house isn’t going to keep anyone on the edge of his or her seat. But I would have thought that some guy complaining about the weather wouldn’t be much of an improvement, right? So why is there such a big difference? Is it that the Slow German one features two people speaking in the first person in pretty realistic-sounding voices, while the French story is told in the third person in a single, rather indifferent-sounding voice? Or is it that I can imagine myself having such a conversation about the weather, however banal, more easily than I can imagine myself asking my gardener for advice about traffic before setting off on an expedition to help my grandma move her big flower pot? Or maybe it’s just that two minutes is short enough that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even though I know I have to go back in the tunnel seven more times?

Whatever it is, the important thing is that I know I need to find some new shadowing material for French. I just checked out IE Languages again. Most of the audio is spoken by one male voice, talking about certain aspects of his life. It sounds like he’s talking to an interviewer, probably someone who also speaks French, because although he speaks slowly and clearly, he doesn’t over-enunciate, and it sounds like most of this slowness is caused by his pausing for thought. Each file is between one and three minutes.

Using the IE Languages material for shadowing will be an interesting experiment, since it has some things in common with the Slow German material (natural sounding voice, relatively short files), but there’s only one speaker.

The above shadowing and Anki is what I’m currently looking at as the core of my French and German practice. That said, I’m not completely confident it’s working. Of course, if the idea is to do the natural acquisition thing, I might not necessarily see my own improvement over such a short period. It’s not like memorizing vocab lists or grammar rules, where you can point to the things you learn each day as clear proof of progress.

I would still like to find a way to add daily conversation practice, though. To do that, I need to reorganize my time. It was more feasible to have daily conversations back when I was spending four solid hours — which was really between six and eight hours — every day on language. And even then I failed to do it. It’s even harder now, when it seems like just the Anki reps and shadowing in two languages are tough to fit into my schedule on some days.

What TV shows should I watch?

The last couple days I have also been browsing for more entertaining comprehensible input. I’ve been mainly looking for French, since my hope of finding something at least a little bit comprehensible that I also like to watch is a little bit higher than for German. I limited myself to TV series, hoping that if I find the right one I’ll get addicted.

I exposed myself to the Netflix Daredevil series, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (also on Netflix), Spongebob Squarepants, and Adventure Time. So far none have pressed charges. Unlike the nice, slow, repetitive lessons on Français Authentique with Johan, where I understood close to 80%, with these shows I understood closer to 10%. A lot of the scenes in Daredevil, unless there was fighting, meant nothing to me, and all of the non-visual jokes in Kimmy Schmidt went over my head. The best so far was Adventure Time, where there were enough visual clues to help me follow the story, and the language was a little bit slower and easier (even if full of bizarre vocabulary).

More generally, I’m interested in continuing this experiment of watching shows in French without any subtitles. I’ve never really done this experiment before (at least, not since I was three), but it seems to me now like a more natural and interesting way to learn compared to watching once with subtitles and then repeating over and over without.

Growing your language homunculus

All that time I spent listening to bootleg quality audio and trying to make out blurry facial expressions while whatever sketchy site I was watching movies on infected my computer with malware, I could have been watching German Netflix. It turned out to be as simple as going to the settings page and clicking on languages. I just watched the first episode of Breaking Bad dubbed in German.

I watched it with English subtitles. The question now is how to make this useful. Do I watch or listen to the same episode repeatedly? Or do I take the audio, cut out a short segment, and shadow it until I have it memorized? Are either of these things interesting enough that I’d actually do them? Maybe it would be better to just watch the whole series without subtitles. As Johan from Français Authentique points out in his intro series, this wouldn’t actually mean no repetition, since common words and phrases repeat anyway. But it might also get frustrating given that my German level is still low enough that I’d probably have a hard time following the story.


I met a polyglot from Korea today who speaks English, French, and Japanese fluently with almost no accent as far as I can tell. He’s been learning Chinese for three months, and it’s his fifth day in Taiwan. His Chinese isn’t as good as his other languages, but it’s already better than a lot of people who have studied for a year or more.

I asked him about his technique. I tried speaking English at first, but he kept replying in Chinese so I gave in. We spoke Chinese for a while, even though he didn’t have all the words to express clearly what he wanted to say. Later I tried talking to him in French, but after a few minutes he said he didn’t want to speak French anymore. He was here in Taiwan to learn Chinese. I tried reminding him that Chinese wasn’t my native language and I was trying to learn a new language too, but he just nodded and kept speaking in Chinese.

Here’s what I gathered from our linguistically hodgepodge interview. He studies for ten or more hours a day. He reads a textbook and watches movies in the target language. How could he spend so long studying? I asked. Even if it’s just watching movies, doesn’t that get tiring? He said he enjoys it and doesn’t get tired because he avoids thinking about the future. Still, I was curious how could he get so fluent with materials like textbooks that have failed to work for so many people. I asked him if perhaps he was just a genius. He shrugged and nodded. So maybe that’s that. Or maybe he misunderstood my question.

The most striking thing to me about this Korean’s Chinese is that, although he was a beginner, he didn’t sound like any other beginner I’d ever heard. He didn’t sound like someone learning a new language. He sounded like a native Chinese speaker who just happened to be a little taciturn, have a limited vocabulary, and inexplicably got lots of tones wrong. So in what way did he sound like a native speaker? Despite all these impediments, he seemed comfortable speaking Chinese. He would reply without much hesitation, and without spending much time searching for the right word. In a certain way it was like talking with a child.

When this polyglot switched to French his personality changed. His demeanor was different, he wasn’t taciturn, he had a good vocabulary and excellent pronunciation. It was like an adult Frenchman had been hiding inside of this Taiwanese child for the last thirty minutes. I felt like I’d been tricked.

This is a wonderful example of learning a language the same way we acquire our first language. Acquiring a new language is like growing a new personality. If you try to have your current self learn a new language, then when you speak it everything will be translated through this current self who speaks your native language. You’ll speak slower, sound less natural, and probably have a stronger accent. You’ll waste time trying to remember to use specific words you recently learned instead of making use of the words at hand the way native speakers do.

So the trick is to figure out how to grow a new person instead of relying on your current self or selves. Here’s one idea. Say I’m learning German. When I’m speaking in German, instead of thinking about how I would express something, i.e. how my English-speaking self would speak, I should choose what I say based on what I know how to say in German already. This might not lead to the most intelligent of utterances, but children say stupid things all the time and we forgive them. That’s how they learn and eventually grow up to be adults, and that’s also how you can grow a new language-person in your mind.

This also helps illustrate why it makes sense to go through a period of just listening and not speaking when you first start acquiring a language. If you don’t know how to say anything in the target language naturally, all you can do is translate from a language you already speak, which is not a habit you want to cultivate. Even if you’re still at the level where you can just speak in one-word sentences, that’s better than racking your brain or constantly checking a dictionary to come up with just the right word, phrase, or verb conjugation.

The Korean guy gave me some parting advice: Don’t be too serious. Go after what you like.

Why my language goal sucks

What’s my language goal again? I just listened to an episode from the Creative Language Learning podcast about why my language learning goal sucks, and you do have a point, Kerstin. “Get fluent” doesn’t really mean anything, and “study for X minutes a day” doesn’t say anything about how effectively that time is being spent. Even “spend X minutes doing Y” isn’t really specific enough, because it doesn’t explain why you’re doing Y for so long. What are you trying to accomplish by doing Y? What if you accomplish that in half the time you expect?

I wish Kerstin would give some examples of good language goals. The best I can figure from the podcast is that they would be something like “read a newspaper article in French” or “have a three-minute conversation with a German speaker in a month.”

But I’m having a hard time making any specific language goals for myself. If you pointed a knife at my throat I would say my goal is to “acquire” 12 languages in a year, or better yet to get on the road to acquisition of 12 languages. Which means what, exactly? That I make a best effort attempt at exposing myself daily to enough comprehensible input in all these languages, spread out over time, that my brain learns all these languages.

Like magic. It’s not really that simple, is it? But that’s my current understanding of how language acquisition works. Maybe I need to ask some more experienced leaners what’s missing from my plan.


Wednesday is also Taiwanese national personal self-reflection day. I would like to start by congratulating myself for something. I have finished all of my Anki reps for the 10,000 sentence German deck every day since I started it about a month ago. And I’ve done my French reps every day for the past three days. Pat yourself on the back there, Isaac.

Now for the reflection. I have noticed my motivation flagging. I can think of three reasons:

First, I still wonder if this method is really helping. The sentences are out of context. The back of the card has an English translation, so I might be learning to translate from German or French into English in my head.

Second, now that the novelty has worn off, the repetitions are starting to get boring. If I believed they were really useful, I could probably push myself to do the reps and even like them, like how I learned to like natto over the past couple months after learning it was the key to immortality. But the doubts about usefulness plus boringness is a combination of deadliness.

Third, I wonder if it’s taking the place of more useful things, specifically listening to comprehensible input like podcasts. One nice thing about Anki is it’s easy to quantify your progress. You do your reps for the day, and you feel like you’ve accomplished something. This makes even the most boring deck bearable for a while. The downside is it’s easy for me to just finish my Anki reps and then let myself off the hook. So far I have been doing a fair bit of shadowing and listening, but I can tell on some days it’s really more of an afterthought.

What to do about this? Maybe making my other listening goals for each day more specific would help.

For instance, I’ll:

  • Listen to an episode of Francais Authentique five times.
  • Shadow dialogues or monologues from slow German for 15 minutes.
  • Shadow a piece of some French podcast — whose meaning I’ve looked up — for 15 minutes.
  • Listen to an episode of Der Explikator or Slow German five times.

I’ll try doing these four things every day for a week (weekends included) and see how it goes. Is this what you had in mind, Kerstin?


Another thing Kerstin says, that I’ve heard from enough people it must be true, is to make your goals small. It’s better to have a small goal and get the positive reinforcement and motivation boost of accomplishment than to have an ambitious goal, fall short of it, and be devastated.

Why the hell am I trying to learn 12 languages? That seems like the antithesis of this idea. I’m never going to actually learn 12 languages in a year (well, a year and five months if you consider that I’ll only start the last language in the twelfth month and it takes six months to start to be able to speak fluently).

It’s hard enough to keep up anything for a whole year, let alone something that will eventually take up at least three hours a day (six languages at a time, half an hour each), plus the time spent setting up the next language.

I chose this goal partly because it’s audacious enough to be inspiring and motivating. I know it’s not a realistic goal, but I would rather be able to say I tried learning 12 languages and failed than to say I spent a year learning just one language and, hey, did a good job. Is having a goal you know is doomed from the start an evasion of responsibility?

The most hopeful interpretation of all these admittedly reasonable doubts I can come up with is that my understanding of language learning is still very much incomplete, and my goals will necessarily undergo further revision. Maybe someday I’ll have a goal that I actually think is realistic and can feel excited about.

Le sommeil, la répétition, et la représentation mentale

Sleep

I intend to start going to bed and waking up earlier. Does this have anything to do with learning languages? Yes, of course it does. Learning a language requires repetition, which takes persistence, which relies on motivation, which is closely related to time management.

Simply “deciding” to change my schedule often has no effect, I’ve noticed. I just downloaded an app called Fabulous (the Fabulous?), which is supposed to help one build new routines. I hope this will also help me change my sleeping schedule, though I haven’t spent any time yet thinking about how this would work. My only goal so far is to drink a cup of water tomorrow morning when I first wake up, optimistically at 9am.

Often the reason I fail to change my schedule is something like this: I wake up late, and give myself too many things to do in a shortened day. Because I have too much to do, I stay up late trying to finish it all. Then I reluctantly unset my alarm for the next morning, since I’d rather have a short day and be well rested than a long day where I’m too tired to do anything. But maybe waking up early and being tired is better. I suppose I could take a nap.


La répétition

I watched the second video from Français Authentique. It’s about… repetition! In it, Johan says that he recommends listening to any given learning material at least 30 times. To get the most out of it, you should make sure you understand about 80 percent of it. It’s not important to understand it all perfectly, but you should have some idea what the message is, and what most of the phrases are conveying. Hey, this sounds a lot like comprehensible input.

Johan also emphasizes that it’s important to use “authentic” material, i.e. speech the way it’s actually spoken, not something with poor voice actors speaking boring, unrealistic pedagogical dialogues in monotone voices. If you don’t understand 80 percent of something, then it’s OK to study. You can use the transcript, a dictionary, grammar guides, or whatever, to get to where it’s comprehensible. Then put all that material aside and just listen over and over and over. The actual acquisition happens unconsciously during this phase.


Escaping the script

I have a friend who has been learning Japanese for about five months, using the acquisition method. He watches a lot of Japanese TV shows: first he watches an episode with Chinese subtitles (his first language is Chinese) and then he turns the audio into an mp3 and listens to it on repeat.

Yesterday he mentioned offhand that he can’t really read or write Japanese. Sure, of course he knows a lot of kanji, but he barely knows the kana. His Japanese is exceptional for someone who has only learned it for five months, so I thought surely he would at least know some basic reading and writing. Well, this is actually just like the example of Thierry Hsieh learning Quechua.

When I hear a Japanese word or phrase (or a word in any language I’ve studied, for that matter), I usually see it written out in my mind’s eye, in some mix of Romaji, kana, and kanji. I asked my friend how he visualizes the words in his head if he doesn’t know how they’re written. He said he doesn’t. How could this be? I can hardly imagine what must be happening in his mind when he’s speaking Japanese.

Have I been “abducted by script”? Would I actually learn faster if I didn’t have to translate everything in my mind into writing? Or does this just mean I’m more of a visual learner than my friend? To find out, for the next language I study I want to choose one with a non-alphabetic writing system, and try to learn it without learning the script. Ideally, it should be one where the phonetics are different enough from English that it’s also not too easy for me to create a Romanized representation in my mind. Though it might turn out to be unavoidable. During the first year I spent learning Chinese, before I had learned any characters, I remember visualizing letters in my mind to represent the sounds I was hearing. Is this any better than just learning the real script from the beginning?

French Day 2 (5?)

I forgot to mention last time, I came up with a new invention: weekends. The first two weeks of studying German last month I managed to study pretty much every day, seven days a week, but by the end of the month I could tell this was getting tiring. It’s not so much the contact with German that was tiring, but more the devoting several hours every day to the exact same routine.

This month I’ll try something different. Monday through Friday I’ll still spend several hours a day in the office working on my language practice and musing relentlessly on this blog about language acquisition. Saturday and Sunday I’ll just content myself with doing some shadowing and Anki repetitions in each of my languages, fitting them in wherever I am.

This is really just a convoluted way of justifying my trip to Hualian this weekend to go river rafting. I managed to almost do all my Anki repetitions in the car on both days, but that was about the extent of my German practice. I’ll try to be a little more thorough next weekend.


Last Friday I signed up for a seven-day introductory trial with Français Authentique. I just watched the first video, which I think anyone can watch without actually signing up:

This is interesting because it’s entirely in French. Since I did study some French before, I felt like it was the perfect difficulty for me. It was hard, but I think I understood most of what he was communicating. Interestingly, the basic idea he’s purveying is the same language acquisition theory. He says you don’t have to study grammar or memorize vocabulary lists. If you listen to a lot of authentic French, at least 30 minutes per day, you’ll be able to communicate imperfectly but fluently in about six months.

The video is only 15 minutes, but I started getting tired and wondering when it would be over around the eight-minute mark. Still, I feel encouraged that I could watch and understand a 15-minute video completely in French.

But I wonder what this would be like for someone who was really just starting out. They would probably understand none of what he’s saying, right? Probably less encouraging. Though there is a transcript PDF that one could use to figure out the meaning first, like what I’ve been doing with Slow German.

Anyway, this seems like a useful learning device. I’ll hold off on deciding whether to buy until I’ve watched all seven trial lessons, maybe a few times each.


Talk in French has an all-French podcast that appears to be free. I’m listening to the first episode now. It says it’s for advanced learners, and indeed I’m not sure what they’re talking about. The episode is an hour long. But it’s naturally spoken French, so maybe useful for passive listening. Am I missing something, or is there only one episode?


There’s also French Voices, which as I mentioned last time has lots of long conversations in French with transcripts. This seems great. The only real challenge is the length, which makes listening to it more of a time commitment. Maybe I should take one episode and chop it up with Audacity.


I just learned about the French from Beginners to Advanced YouTube channel. I need time to check it out.

French Day 1 – Resources

Today I’m collecting resources for this month’s French acquisition practice. For now I’ll just take anything that seems promising, and later on I’ll go through and separate the blé from the paille.

Français Authentique – Seems to have a lot of content. Not free, but there’s a free one-week trial.

Talk in French – Another site with paid content and a free trial by email.

French Voices – Interviews with French speakers, including incredibly long and detailed transcripts. I think it’s all free. I listened to one episode — it started with a preamble in English and some explanation of relevant vocabulary. The transcript is an 8-page PDF. I don’t know how they can afford to offer all this for free, there must be a catch…

IE Languages – This site has some recordings of everyday French conversations (I think) with transcripts. There are even cloze deletion exercises. The site itself is pretty funky and has lots of ads. But I think the content is free.

Le Talisman brisé – A podcast story series narrated in English, intended to teach French. Sort of analogous to Mission Berlin for German, I think.

RFI Savoirs – The company that produces the Le Talisman brisé podcast. Lots of news and audio, but I’m not sure if there are transcripts.

Thanks, Benny!Fluent in Three Months has a post with lots and lots and lots of French audio resources. This might take some time to sift through.

Anki 10,000 sentences – This seems analogous to the German one.