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.

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