Thierry’s class and finding the right audio

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to sit in on a class taught by Thierry Hsieh, the man who speaks 25 languages and founded the polyglot cafe. It’s essentially a language class, but students are learning one or more of French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Thai, or English all in the same class. During practice time they divide into language-based groups. For some of the languages there is a native speaker teaching assistant to help answer questions, for the others Thierry himself fills that role.

The activities in the class are centered around an audio recording from Hippo Family Club in Japan. When I attended, students had already been listening to the first recording for about a month. The recording is a minute-long message from Janet Brown, a young girl in Middle America who is writing to Sonoko, a Japanese exchange student who is coming to stay with her family. Versions are available in every language represented in the class, and students’ job is to listen to it many times a day and try to shadow the sounds as faithfully as possible (so they could understand the contents of the message, at first they were allowed to listen to a version in their native language).

The day I visited, students were finally being given the written transcripts of the message. Their job was then to study the transcript in their target language and try to deduce the meaning of the words and symbols based on their month-long memorization of the audio. Note, then, that in the case of Korean, until that point students had had no instruction in Hangul. They didn’t know which part of each character denoted a consonant, and which part a vowel, for instance. The idea, in other words, is to rely on the brain’s natural pattern matching to learn how to read.

We spent some time transforming the details of Janet’s life into those of our own — translating birthdays, names and numbers of siblings, and hobbies. Then we went around in a circle and practiced speaking these personalized messages.

One student had poor pronunciation, and it was soon revealed that she had been learning Hangul on her own.

“Don’t rely too much on the written words!” the TA reminded us sternly.

Incidentally, this way of memorizing reminds me of how my siblings and I learned our Torah portions when we were preparing for our b’nai mitzvot. Our instructor would first record herself chanting the passages, and our job was just to listen and repeat until we had them memorized. The text of the Torah itself was just an aid in case memory failed.

Does it work? At the end of class, Thierry showed us a graph with two lines: one line increased linearly before plateauing, and another started off slow but increased exponentially and soon overtook the first line.

The first line represents someone learning the normal, “textbook” way, Thierry said. This would mean, for instance, learning the rules of the Hangul writing system first, plus some vocab and grammar, and then tackling listening and speaking using that material.

The second line is the “natural” method, practiced in this class. At first, there is intensive listening, but no explanation of writing, vocabulary, or grammar. The writing system can be confusing. But, Thierry claimed, once one starts to get the hang of it, progress happens much faster than in the traditional method.

This sounds like a way of approximating first-language acquisition. We don’t start to learn to read and write our first language until the words and phrases are already embedded in our minds, right?

I just had one problem with this class. The message from Janet Brown to Sonoko is incredibly boring. It almost seems like the authors were trying to make it boring (come on, Janet Brown?!). Listening to and shadowing it a few days before the class, I actually found myself getting angry at the authors for forcing such insipid material on all of us earnest young language students. What’s the point of designing a revolutionary language course if the material at the heart of it is so repugnantly bland?

When I complained about this to the teaching assistant, she took it in stride. Maybe this material isn’t for you, she said. That’s fine: you can apply the same learning method to material that you enjoy. That’s actually why we spent the time that day in class personalizing the messages, after all.

Recently I’ve been shadowing a dialogue from Talk to Me in Korean, the one meant to test one’s comprehension of the level-1 lessons. It’s about three young people who go out for pizza to celebrate one of their birthdays. On the face of it, it sounds almost as dull as the letter from Janet Brown, but in practice it’s a hundred times better.

It’s full of misunderstandings, questions, doubts, and surprises, like:

“Thanks! Wait what? The present isn’t for me?”


“Happy birthday! I don’t have a present for you. I didn’t know it was your birthday.”


“Huh? Who drinks beer with pizza?”

“Is it weird?”

“Well, no…”

Actually, the communication sometimes sounds stilted, to the point where I keep wondering whether it’s intentionally so. Is this a lesson about Korean culture? In any case, it’s more thought provoking than the sentence “I have a mother, a father, an older brother, an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother named Terry.”

Maybe even more important than the content is the tone of voice of the actors. The Janet Brown speech is delivered in a “properly” enunciated monotone, with a classical music background that inspires one to start drifting into slumber as soon as it starts. In the pizza dialogue, on the other hand, the moods are if anything exaggerated. Minsu sounds positively distressed when Mina asks for a beer in the pizza parlor. I don’t know why, but this seems to make the difference between material that I get tired of listening to just once, and material that I can shadow a hundred times without losing my temper.

What about you? What makes the difference between learning material that’s entertaining and usable, and material that’s painful to listen to?

Korean midterm status report

When I started German in August, the month stretched out in front of me, a big, empty space, waiting for me to fill it with anything at all. It was scary. But it was also easy, once I decided to learn German, to fill each day with as much German as I could handle. By the middle of August, I already felt like I’d gone a fair distance.

The days in November were already occupied when I got to them. Yoga, polyglot cafe, making 包子, doing a bit of translating work, and trying to find time to play ultimate and even go out once in a while have meant that I’ve had to kick out the original inhabitants of those hours to make some room for Korean. Or just pack things in more tightly, to the detriment of my health, which is maybe why I’m at home battling a cold right now instead of eating teppanyaki and getting ready to lead the English table.

November is going by fast. What Korean have I managed to learn so far? I spent a few days reading about Hangul, the writing system. In principle, yes, it’s simple as many people claim. But I’ve been finding it pretty difficult to actually memorize the symbols and read Korean. This is partly because I haven’t completely grasped the phonetics. There are about four vowels that all sound like very close variations of “uh” or “oh”, and they don’t look remarkably different either. The basic ingredients of vowels seem to be vertical or horizontal lines with or without certain numbers of lines or dots on either side.

Maybe I just need to spend a couple hours coming up with my own mnemonics and making my own cards to really learn these symbols. On the other hand, so far I feel like I’ve had the most fun and most “success” with learning material that doesn’t include any writing.

Talk to me in Korean (TTMIK) has been useful; the blog itself is entertaining; the hosts are charming and flirt with each other shamelessly, but lessons advance at a crawl. Entire 20-minute lessons are devoted to teaching one or two words. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been listening to the first lessons of the first level. There are a very impressive number of episodes and levels, and it may be worth browsing the later ones.

Luckily, TTMIK also has a dialogue — seemingly one for each level — that’s entirely in Korean. Today I opened this in Audacity, downloaded the transcript, and made Anki cards the same way I did with the Batman story from Der Explikator a couple days ago. Actually, this time I also made reversed cards with the Korean text on the front and the audio on the back, hoping to improve my reading that way.

I also went back to tried-and-true Pimsleur audio lessons, which I used when I first started with Chinese and Japanese. The nice thing is they’re packaged in nonthreatening, 30-minute lessons, no reading is required, and they progress at a good pace and are ordered in such a way as to make memorization easy. The downside is that the content itself is uninspiring, and usually just includes the most formal type of language.

I’ve tried three Anki decks.

The first one, minimal pairs, has been confusing at first. My brain is still frantically looking for any kind of pattern in all these crazy variations of the “t”, “p”, and “k” sounds. But it seems like maybe one is starting to emerge.

The second, about Hangul, has been confusing me even more. Which is surprising to me, since, again, I thought Hangul was supposed to be really simple. I could be wrong, but it seems like the “answers” to the “questions” are actually the names of the symbols, not the sounds they make. Which I feel isn’t very important.

The third one is a deck with lots of example sentences, audio on the front, text and translation on the back. In theory this is fine, but it’s also been a very, very steep uphill battle, since at this point I still have almost no vocabulary with which to make sense of what I’m hearing. I reckon this deck would be more approachable once I’d finished listening to all the TTMIK and Pimsleur lessons.

So that’s it. The good news is I get some satisfaction from the little bits of conversational Korean I’ve been picking up from the audio lessons. So maybe that’s what I’ll do for a while.

Batman’s problem and a solution to quantum computers

How many times is it going to take for me to learn this lesson? In the previous post I was lamenting how I couldn’t find a German podcast featuring natural dialogue and a transcript, which I could use to make my newfangled DIY audio flashcards.

I’d tested the technique on an episode of Der Explikator about quantum computers. It worked pretty well: the portion of the podcast that I cut up and made into cards quickly turned comprehensible. But then I started complaining that the content was pretty irrelevant to my everyday German conversational needs.

Mr. Wunderlich, Der Explikator himself, pointed out to me recently that there’s a page on his site dedicated to short radio plays. They also include transcripts. Heilige Makrele, Batman!

(And don’t get me wrong, Mr. Wunderlich. I may have exaggerated a bit in that last post — I am interested in quantum computers. I wouldn’t have picked that episode to begin with if I weren’t. But yes, it was my mistake to try using it for my A1-level German studies. These radio plays with dialogue, on the other hand, seem like just the ticket. So, thank you!)

I just spent 20 minutes on a Batman and Robin story in which it seems like Batman is more interested in visiting bars than actually finding the Riddler. I only managed to make 20 cards in those 20 minutes. Actually, that’s not so bad. I had been thinking about this card creation as a waste of time, but I realize now that it has value. Those 20 minutes I spent creating the cards, listening to the audio in chunks, and copying the text into Google Translate, I was also understanding the content. This will help the reviews go more smoothly later. And I feel motivated to keep making more cards now, because I want to see how the story continues. Funny how stories work like that, isn’t it?

So what’s the lesson that I alluded to above? Don’t underestimate what you can find on the internet! In this case, if I’d only done a slightly more thorough job of checking every page on Der Explikator, I would have found these radio plays a long time ago.

Agonizing and starting Korean


I’ve been agonizing these last few days over whether I really have the time to start learning Korean this month. I feel like I barely have enough time for German and French.

It’s partly that I really don’t have as much time as I did before. I started a part-time apprenticeship at a bakery and I’m starting to help organize some polyglot events.

It’s also that I still haven’t “figured out” exactly how I’m working on these languages. This afternoon was language time. I started by listening to a bunch of French videos on YouTube while I cleaned my apartment. Then I did 15 minutes of German vocabulary flashcards, took a nap, and then had a 30-minute trial German lesson on Verbling (I got a free lesson when I made an account). I meant to make some more audio cards from a YouTube video I found that had subtitles, or do some shadowing, but somehow six hours had already passed. Hmm.

Struggling to do all these things I feel like I “should” be doing to keep my language practice working is stressful. It’s even more stressful to think about trying to make all these things happen with one more language on my plate.

It’s not going to work unless I can change my mentality. I do see another option. Instead of telling myself I’m obligated to do X, Y, and Z every day for languages α, ß, and γ, I could just sort of “embrace” that I’m trying to learn α, ß, and γ, and just sort of “trust” that by following whatever learning method and whatever language seems most interesting at any given moment, I’ll continue to gradually get better at all of them to varying degrees. I’m not used to this style of learning, but it seems closer to what a lot of the successful language enthusiasts I’ve met have done.

For instance, for the guy who speaks six languages fluently, it sounds like learning them was more of an obsession than a set of chores that required a lot of discipline. And that’s the way it should be. But I’m starting to understand that it actually takes a bit of faith in myself for me to learn this way.

That sounds like good practice in its own right. So maybe I spend three hours a day on languages, but it doesn’t need to be every single language every single day. I go to Polyglot cafe three days a week, but I can decide what languages I feel like practicing once I get there (they’re starting a German table next week!). I look for conversation partners in all my languages, but just sort of go with the flow when it comes down to who/what/when/how often.


So, Korean. Actually, starting to learn Korean does seem more interesting to me right now than “making” myself study more German and French. That’s what it really comes down to.

And I know I said I’d try a completely phonetics-based approach when I started the next language, but learning Hangul seems fun, and then I’ll be able to read, and, hey, I don’t really believe it’ll make or break my ability to learn Korean phonetics.

Here are the first few resources I’m looking at:

  1. – Second entry in Google search results for learn korean. It claims to have everything I need to learn Korean, including lessons, tests, example sentences, and audio recordings. Yep, what more could I want?
  2. Talk to me in Korean – Recommended by a friend who’s a Korean teacher. They’ve got textbooks and a podcast, and possibly other things.
  3. Anki – Of course. There’s a whole section just for Korean stuff, including a Hangul deck, a phonetic minimal pairs deck, and an audio-containing grammar deck sorted by difficulty.

If these are as good as they sound, they should keep me busy (entertained?) for a while.