Quantum computers, time management & Korean

In the last post I talked about making audio flashcards by chopping up a podcast episode from Der Explikator about… quantum computers. I’m happy to report that after only a few days of reviews, what was previously totally incomprehensible to me has become pretty comprehensible. It’s only the first few paragraphs — the card-making was time-consuming enough that I only got that far — but I think it’s enough to prove the concept.

The problem that’s hurting my motivation is the subject matter. I can barely talk about quantum computers in English. I don’t know when I’ll ever want or need to talk about them in German. In fact, if I go my whole life without ever talking about quantum computers in German, I won’t regret it. Yes, you can quote me on that.

So I think the next logical step is to find some audio material that’s closer to the German I actually want to learn to understand and speak. The catch is it has to have a transcript. Why? Why can’t I just make cards with pieces of audio and no transcript on the back? This might have its own benefits, but as far as I can tell it’s the transcript that allows me to decipher the audio in just a few repetitions so that it actually turns comprehensible.

Usually, it goes like this: I listen to the audio, uncomprehending. Then I stare blankly at the indecipherable German transcript. Then I read the French translation, and get a sense of the meaning of the sentence. Then I look at the German transcript again, and I can more or less figure out what the words mean. Then I listen to the audio again a few times, matching sounds to text, and by this point the sentence sort of makes sense when I hear it again.

I want to learn natural German dialogue, the kind of German people speak on the streets of Kreuzberg. So where am I likely to find natural dialogue with transcripts? I can think of two places: YouTube and movies. There’s actually also the Slow German dialogues, but there are still only six of those.

With YouTube, the tricky thing is that most videos don’t have captions, and the ones that do tend to be something other than what I want to learn. Maybe I’m being too picky. The other annoyance is that the captions are hardcoded into the video, not given as a text file, so that will add an extra step of typing them out when I create the cards. I’ve got to be pretty motivated to make making these cards worth it. Maybe it’s not bad to be picky about the material.

For movies, or TV shows for that matter, the trick is still going to be finding material I want to learn, that hopefully isn’t too much more dramatic than real life, and then finding a corresponding subtitle file that actually matches the audio closely. It sounds doable. It’s just a matter of spending the time to do it.

Speaking of time, recently I’ve noticed that I’ve been repurposing “language time” for other things. I marked out a three-hour language section on my calendar every day this month except Sundays. There are other sections too, like yoga and language cafe. Those are less negotiable, since they either happen when they’re supposed to happen, or they don’t happen at all. But with “language time” it’s too tempting to try to move it around, break it into pieces, fit it into a break or a subway ride, in order to make room for other things I want to do. The result is that “language time” often doesn’t happen, or else it gets seriously curtailed.

On top of this, I’m “supposed” to start learning a new language tomorrow. (Happy Halloween!) I’ve been thinking about Korean, since 1) I can theoretically do a working holiday in Korea while I’m still not quite 30, and 2) there’s a Korean table at the language cafe, so I’ll get conversation practice for free. Might as well take advantage of it. Also, 3) Korean has a different writing system and super different phonetics from other languages I’ve studied.

But how am I supposed to start Korean when I can barely keep up with German and French?

This gets to the other, deeper problem. When I conceived of this mad scheme a couple months ago, of starting a new “language acquisition practice” every month, I imagined that after spending several hours a day for one month, I would be off the hook. I would have a sturdy language acquisition machine that was all set up to carry me to fluency in six, nine, or twelve months. All I’d have to do is turn the crank for thirty minutes a day.

What I’m realizing is that it isn’t so simple. Maintenance isn’t something you just do once and then forget about. For one thing, I’ve been spending more time recently looking for new material and thinking about how to study it than I have on actual studying. Sure, I put on my podcasts or YouTube videos for ten, twenty, thirty minutes a day. I listen to an odd mp3 rip of a YouTube video on the subway. But this always seems inadequate.

Well, let me be more precise. In the case of French, where I already had some background, it may be enough. I believe that my French is slowly but surely improving just by browsing YouTube videos every day, and this is something I have been able to do almost every day. But with German it’s not so clear. I understand almost nothing of the realistic, everyday-style videos I’ve encountered. It’s not comprehensible input yet. Hence the vocabulary cards and hoops I’ve been jumping through to improve my comprehension using those cards.

OK, so what does this mean? This suggests to me that it takes more than a month to get to a point where the language “takes off” and you’re able to get better just by doing things that don’t resemble studying.

So then, what? Do I soldier on anyway, trying to start a new language every month until I collapse from exhaustion? Or do I modify my original goal yet again, maybe from 12 languages in a year to a more modest 4, 5, or 6 languages. Or, maybe I say to hell with fluency, I never said my goal was to get fluent anyway, and just cut back on French and German now to make room for Korean and whatever comes after.

The problem with the last option is that I still want to get better at French and German (and Japanese, for that matter). I’m getting a sense of achievement from this, and it would feel like a waste to stop now, so soon after having started.

On the other hand, I think it’s important for me to start a new language in November. This project was and is about starting new languages, and so far I’ve really only done that once, with German.

Here’s the most optimistic plan I can come up with: I put French with Japanese, on autopilot. I watch videos for fun, converse in it when I have the opportunity, but don’t spend any time making new study material. With German, I narrow down and focus on just vocabulary cards and audio cards, and shadowing (especially shadowing whatever I’m making the audio cards out of). With the rest of the (theoretical) time I get from removing my (theoretical) French obligations and paring down my German routine, I tackle Korean.

Hybrid flashcards and the YouTube spirit

Lately I’ve been putting my faith in YouTube. A language practice session has become a YouTube browsing session. The target is comprehensible input. The ideal video is one that is so interesting it makes me forget I’m watching it in a foreign language. This immediately rules out all educational material.

It’s a leap of faith because, I can’t tell if it’s working. When I make vocabulary flashcards or work through podcasts with transcripts, I can point at what I’ve learned each time. But with this method, where the goal isn’t “learning” per se but language acquisition, I can’t tell. I probably won’t know whether it’s effective for some time.

It’s been easier in French, where my comprehension is so-so and I can rely on the abundant cognates to give me clues. I’ve been watching TED talks and other motivational, edutainment style videos. I don’t think I catch more than 50%, but that’s usually been enough to keep me edutained.

With German it’s more difficult. My language comprehension has been closer to 0%. What I do understand of the content I get from the visual and tonal cues. Because of this, it’s been harder to find videos that hold my attention for more than ten seconds.

The good thing is that I see that if I can just get my German comprehension to the same level as my French, I’ll be able to start really watching. Now the trick is just how to get there.


I haven’t given up on flashcards completely yet. I’ve still been making vocabulary cards from frequency lists, using the Fluent Forever card template. I’ve done this more with German than French, since I can see my German vocabulary is seriously porous. I’m starting with these nouns, because they’re easy, and just because. I can make about two cards a minute, or 120 cards in an hour. It’s kind of fun putting these together, looking on Google Image Search for funny, artistic, or bizarre pictures representing this basic vocabulary. And again, I get the constant reassurance that I’m really learning useful things. Now I know how to say thought (der Gedanke), point (der Punkt), and death (der Tod) in Deutsch!

And I’ve had a few experiences recently that have made me more confident that these work. A few times at the Polyglot Cafe, I’ve been able to recall words from these cards immediately and use them with pretty much no hesitation. Say what you like about vocabulary lists, but building connections between images, sounds, and word concepts — with no English — seems effective.

I’ve also been doing a small deck I made of cloze deletions of sentences from one Slow German dialog. Again, it’s just a relatively painless way to learn the sentences in the dialog so that I can understand them when I’m shadowing them. Then I can more or less keep up with the dialog after, say, 10 repetitions instead of, say, 70. Is that cheating?

When I do this shadowing, however, I’ve noticed that there are a few sentences that I still have problems with. The way I read the sentence to myself when I do the flashcards (i.e., slowly) doesn’t quite correlate in my mind with the sentence I hear spoken when I do the shadowing (tends to be very fast).

New cards

What can I do? Finding how easy it was to drag and drop audio from Forvo into an Anki card gave me an idea. Why not add the audio from the shadowing material directly onto the flashcards? I can make a card where the front is a piece of audio, the back is the German text and, if needed, some translation.

Then I’ll get the shadowing practice and the transcript memorization at the same time. I won’t have to worry about not correlating the two, and it’s just more efficient.

The card creation process

I take an episode from Der Explikator, in this case one about quantum computers. I know, that’s sounds insane as a first choice. I load the mp3 into Audacity. Then I take a snippet of audio, export it, and drag it onto the front of a new card. Finally, I find the corresponding sentence in the transcript, paste it into Google Translate, and copy both the German and the French translation (why not get some French practice, right?) onto the back of the card.

It’s like a combination of the 10,000 sentences Anki deck — good for very basic listening comprehension, I’ve decided, but bad for anything else — and the erstwhile audio-less podcast-shadowing-cheating cards I’ve been making.

The downside is it just took me about 20 minutes to make 15 cards. It’s kind of tedious. If the cards ramp up my listening comprehension as much and as fast as I’m hoping, maybe it’s worth it. If not…

Actually, what I really wanted to do was use this technique to make cards based on a YouTube video. It would be just great if I could do this with some natural, everyday German dialog, since what I really want to get better at is conversation. But I so far haven’t found any such videos that also have (non-auto-generated) closed captions. Oh well. At least this way I get to learn about quantum computers.

How to watch TV

Fluent Forever continues to pay dividends (investing is a great metaphor for reading, what are you talking about).

TV, subtitles, and listening practice

As Wyner points out, all the vocabulary flashcards in the world won’t help when you encounter a person in real life who strings their words together into monolithic blocks of incomprehensible slang. Few people are considerate enough to clearly enunciate like a voice on Forvo, and those who do are constantly getting into fistfights.

The only way to adapt is to practice listening to realistic speech. So far nothing new. Wyner claims that TV and film are the easiest places to start since they have visual cues. Well, that makes sense. And TV series are the easiest of all, since you only have to figure out the characters and general plot once, and then the following episodes get easier and easier.

What about subtitles? Clearly we don’t want English subtitles, but I’ve been on the fence about subs in the target language. Watching Breaking Bad in French without subtitles, I feel like I’m missing almost everything. With subs, I can at least pick out the key words (cognates help a lot) or pause and look something up if I feel like I’m really missing something important.

Here’s the problem with using subs in French, according to Wyner. When you’re reading subtitles, you stop listening to the voices. In effect, instead of watching TV, you’re reading an animated storybook. This is still good practice, but it won’t help your listening.

So no subtitles is the way to go. But what about the plot? I can’t stand the thought of missing all those nuances. Again, like I mentioned in the last post, when I told this problem to a friendly local polyglot, he suggested watching YouTube instead. Random YouTube videos have a way of taking the pressure off of listening practice. Now I feel like I understand this point a little better.

I tried this today. I found some videos of a German guy going around in Berlin asking people what they like about Berlin. Most of the language was way over my head, but I still got the gist of a lot of it. Hey, comprehensible input! When my interested started to flag after a couple minutes, I took the polyglot’s advice and changed to another video. And another, and another. I did this for thirty minutes in German, and then another forty in French.


With the videos that I found particularly interesting, downloaded the mp3s. Maybe I’ll listen to them later. Speaking of which, all that time I spent figuring out how to record mp3s on my laptop? It turns out there’s a site, peggo.tv, that does it for you. Duh.

More TV: a compromise?

But what about the addictiveness of TV? I still don’t fully believe I’m going to get as motivated watching some bearded guy narrate his bread baking capers to his camera every day as I will when I care so much when Walt is finally going to tell Skyler what he’s been up to. That idiot. Maybe I’m not ready for Breaking Bad though. Maybe I can find some middle ground, where I care enough about the plot to want to keep watching the series, but not enough that I mind missing something here or there. Wyner suggests the sexist, racist action thriller 24. That sounds about right.

France trip recap, YouTube videos


It’s been a few weeks since I’ve made a post — a first since I started this journal. The pause neatly coincided with a two-week trip to France to see my family.

For a while I told myself I should still post while in France. When I didn’t, I started feeling guilty about it. The fact of traveling was only a little satisfying as an excuse.

It’s not as if I was too busy practicing French to write a blog post. I hopefully expected that I would be spending most of my time speaking French, but this was deluded. After all, my family members and I speak English with each other. We had a few gratifying moments of speaking French together for fun, but that was all. The most French I spoke was on the few times we went to my aunt and uncle’s house.

Speaking French with French people, when it did happen, had a few common characteristics. If I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say, I would try “talking around” the word, i.e. saying it in a different way. But, once in unfamiliar territory, I would get hung up on some conjugation or inflection and start stuttering. Seeing the impatience in my interlocutor’s eyes only made it worse. Once, at a bakery, the baker cut me off and said “just say it in English.” Ouch. Sure, I was embarrassed, but in hindsight I’m a little proud of this minor incident.

On the whole, I think my French was improved by my month of semi-negligent practice. A few times I had occasion to use one of the words I’d made a Fluent Forever-style flashcard for; when I did, I found I was able to recall these words with little effort.

I frequently got hung up on the gender of a noun I wanted to say. Is it “encore un fois” or “encore une fois“? I was met with confusion when I said “Je voudrais un tart”. “Je voudrais une tarte?” I tried again, this time getting the desired response. Lately, when making the vocabulary cards, I’ve started making gender a part of the answer and not just showing it on the front of the card.

Now I think the break from writing was in a certain way a blessing in disguise. Again, the regularity of my posting had started turning it into an obligation. Having not posted for three weeks and seeing that the world didn’t end, I feel a bit freer again.

Miscellaneous YouTube

The other night I got some advice from another eminent polyglot. I was telling him that my main method for studying was shadowing, repeating the same podcast over and over. This is a good method, he said, but personally he doesn’t repeat the same material twice, since variety is more realistic and common expressions or phrases occur frequently anyway.

I said I also watch TV, namely Breaking Bad in French, but wasn’t sure if it was really helping. Though I can usually get the sense of what’s being said, even if I sometimes have to pause and re-read the subtitles, I don’t recall any words or phrases actually sticking so I can use them later. And sometimes I get stressed trying to follow the story and worrying about whether I’m actually improving my French this way (I know, I’m not supposed to think this way). The polyglot said the material might be the issue. Maybe I should try something less intense. He tends to watch YouTube videos of people talking about this or that topic. The stakes are much lower and people tend to use more everyday language in this context compared to the way people speak on TV shows.

New thing to try: search YouTube for miscellaneous videos in the target language(s), particularly those related to my interests.

Anki 10,000 sentences

I’m going to stop doing these. Especially during the trip, it felt more and more like an obligation and less and less fun. I also didn’t notice it helping much with my French. Sometimes, when I wanted to say something, I would remember having a card for that exact expression, but I couldn’t recall it. This is unsurprising, given the directionality of the cards; they’re for comprehension, not production. And I think they have helped my comprehension, especially in the case of German. But at this point I think they’ve served their purpose, and the value in continuing doesn’t outweigh the cost of time and stress. I’m much better off spending the time and energy on shadowing and listening practice, I think.

Accountability calendar

I started using a planner to keep track of how much I’m actually practicing every day. I keep it next to my bed, and every night record approximately how much time I spent practicing what languages by what method. I hope this will do two things. First, it will give me some feedback and keep me honest: I’ll see which days I was more or less effective, and be able to consciously adjust accordingly. Second, it will give me a record that I can look back on to explain improvements or lack thereof. Oh, no wonder my German hasn’t gotten better this week. I never practiced!