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.

Typing in Korean

I’ve been putting this off way too long. It’s time to learn how to type in Korean. I’m using a U.S. English MacBook, which comes with no fewer than five different Korean input methods: 2-Set Korean, 3-Set Korean, 390 Sebulshik, GongjinCheong Romaja, and HNC Romaja. Where to begin?

MacInfo says “Romaja” is another word for “not really typing in Korean.” It just uses the Latin alphabet sounds to try to approximate Korean sounds. It’s very approximate. So, for instance to type:

이름 뭐여요?

I have to actually type:

x-i-r-w-m     m-u-e-x-y-e-x-y-o-?

ㅇ ㅣ ㄹ ㅡ ㅁ    ㅁ ㅜ ㅓ ㅇ ㅣ ㅓ ㅇ ㅣ ㅗ ?

The “proper” way is using 2-Set, which maps each key to a particular component of Hangul characters. The hard part is that unlike the Romaja systems, there is no correspondence at all between the Latin alphabet letters on the U.S. English keyboard and the Hangul components they map to.

What about 3-Set? According to this Quora answer, it’s similar to 2-Set but with a newfangled mapping. In other words, skip it.

How do I type 이름 뭐여요? in 2-Set? Try this:

d-l-f-m-a     a-n-j-d-u-d-y?

ㅇ ㅣ ㄹ ㅡ ㅁ     ㅁ ㅜ ㅓ ㅇ ㅕ ㅇ ㅛ ?

Notice how it takes fewer characters with 2-Set, because there are keys that map directly to ㅕ and ㅛ.

Is the 2-Set mapping the same layout that standard keyboards use in Korea?

You can’t learn a language

Yesterday we had a practice session for the language learning forum, and the topic of goal setting came up. David Zen, a polyglot who has reached amazingly close-to-native fluency in four languages (in addition to his two native languages), said he has never set language goals. His path to fluency was an unselfconscious series of steps, each one involving some sort of immediate fascination: fascination with accents, with expressions, and with different ways of speaking and thinking, etc.

This took a while to sink in, but it finally got me thinking about how my own language goals might be holding me back. And oh! I do have language goals, whether or not I like to admit it.

People don’t learn languages. Learning a language isn’t actually an action you can take. There is no moment when you go from not knowing a language to knowing it, so it’s meaningless to think about it as actually trying to learn a language. All this will accomplish is to constantly make you dissatisfied with your current ability (or lack thereof).

So is language learning just a hopeless endeavor? Obviously not. If I understand the lesson in David’s example, it’s summed up in this paradoxical statement: To learn a language, stop trying to learn a language.

Ok, I’ve stopped. Now what do I do? Here’s my best attempt:

Step 1: Find something that fascinates you about the language.

Step 2: When it stops being fascinating, go back to step 1.

Spring break

A couple of my friends here in Taipei are highly talented polyglots, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to pick their brains (gently, without them noticing) over the weeks and months. I think this has given me lots of inspiration and helped me improve my language practice quite a bit.

It would be great if everybody with such an interest had access to people like my polyglot friends. With this in mind, my friends and I are putting on an event at the end of the month where they’ll talk about their language learning methods, philosophies, and also share some cool improv games and other ways of getting more fluent. (This whole thing actually started as our mutual friend D’s idea). Hopefully other attendees will be as inspired as I’ve been by my friends’ passion and accumulated wisdom.

When we started preparing for this event back in January, I held on to the naive hope that I could keep up my own language practice — and keep adding a new language every month — even while doing all the planning, promotion, and practicing required for this event. Now, less than a month before the planned date of the event, I’m ready to concede that this hope was unrealistic.

This has been hard for me to admit to myself. A big part of me wants to drop everything so I can dive back into another language and actually do it justice. But I realize now that there’s really no need to agonize over this conflict — and anyway, with the date getting closer I can’t afford to agonize. The event is a one-time thing (unless I want it to be a recurring thing), after all, and skipping a month of my own language project is, on the whole, inconsequential. When the event is over I can pick it up where I left off.

And if by some chance you’re in Taipei, you can find more info about the event on the 多國語言課程王 Facebook page (once we post it).


I admit it. I didn’t learn much Persian this month.

I could make all sorts of excuses or *ahem* reasons. I only started a full week into February, already a short month. I got sick *twice* this month, and traveled twice, which made my effective learning days very few indeed.

But I reject the premise of these rationalizations. They’re based on the assumption that I didn’t reach some sort of goal, ostensibly learning a certain amount of Persian or spending a certain amount of time learning Persian.

True, several months ago I did say my revised goal for the year would be to spend each month setting up a new language practice (and later expressed doubts about this goal). But it has become more and more clear to me that this goal might still be too ambitious. At least, if I want to preserve my sanity through the end of the year.

I could just throw up my hands at the whole “one language a month” idea and focus on one, two, or three languages for a while. But I’m not ready to give up yet.

Who says a month with a new language has to be stressful, or has to result in some kind of “practice” being set up? What if a month were just a chance to explore a new language, learn enough to get a feel for it, find some cool resources, and remember to come back later if I ever feel inspired? Is that a waste of time?

Of course not. Again, as with most things, the difference between doing nothing and doing a tiny bit is vastly greater than the difference between doing a tiny bit and doing a lot.

I realize I’ve become a broken record on this topic.

In the last post I talked about the idea of reducing decision fatigue by putting all my language learning links in an easily accessible place. Today I downloaded a Chrome extension imaginatively titled Home – New Tab Page. I deleted all the other stuff on there by default and just added links to my top seven German, Korean, and Persian learning resources (mostly podcasts, and a couple fake links — reminders to myself about audio that’s in my iTunes library).

I suspect this app isn’t the best fit for what I’m doing, but it seems good enough to start with. I’ll report back about how well it’s working in a future post.

Decision fatigue & another crazy language learner

Decision fatigue

Yesterday when I was finding more resources for Persian, I also spent some time reviewing and cleaning up my list of resources for other languages. I proceeded to do more German and Korean shadowing than I’ve done in a while, try out Mango Languages (on my todo list for a long time), and even watched an Iranian movie. I haven’t done this much in one evening since last summer when I was first getting into German and restarting my French.

Could it be that one obstacle to my keeping up with a regular practice is just having to remember what to do, and all I need to stay more productive is an occasional reminder about what to do? It’s true that when I most often waste time is when I feel too tired to think about starting a new project, and doing anything that’s not right in front of my feels like hard work. Too often I look at my phone, see I’ve already done all my Anki reps, note that I’ve forgotten to transfer any new podcasts to my phone, and then give up on language learning. It’s a sad, sad scene.

Aside from the obvious of remembering to transfer more podcasts, is there anything I can do to make it easier to keep going, even when I’m tired? I’ve been meaning to spend more time watching YouTube videos in the languages I’m learning, but usually this involves trawling through stale note files on my computer where I’ve pasted links and sifting through bookmarks tabs. What if I had one place where I always went for links to videos, convenient enough that opening it became almost a reflex, the way typing “f-a-[return]” in Chrome has become? For that matter, it could be a repository for all my videos, lessons, and podcasts — anything that’s on the web and doesn’t require a lot of effort to interact with.

Where should I put it, though? The best place I can think of is just the bookmarks tab in Chrome. I’ll keep thinking.

One year? Why not EIGHT years?

Yesterday I found an amazing blog by a New Yorker named Ellen Jovin, who has been doing this language thing for the past eight years and studied 21 different languages. She started out spending two months on each language, but seems to be staying with each one a little longer more recently. She studied Persian from May to November 2014.

One thing I like about Jovin’s blog is the personal diary-like format. Each short entry honestly conveys the joys and struggles she encounters along the way. Jovin makes it clear how closely connected her language journey is to her life and identity as a New Yorker, which makes it all the more meaningful.

Reading the first month of the first language — Russian — was like encountering myself back in August having just started German. Well, as much as it could be like that, given that Jovin is another individual with a different personality, probably different motivations, and her own approach to learning. Anyway, I can’t wait to read on and see how things progress for Jovin over the next eight (8!) years.

“learn Persian”

I’ve been thinking about how, despite how much I like the Assimil Persian lessons so far, I don’t think I want to rely on it solely to teach me Persian this month. It’s not just that I can’t imagine a lot of situations where I’ll say or be told that the boy likes the hot bread, or the father went to the bazaar. It’s also that a diversity of sources makes learning more interesting, and that, well, exploration is kind of the whole point, isn’t it?

I thought a pre-built Anki deck might be a good way to get a head start on some simple sentences and/or vocab, but I didn’t see anything that looked great on Ankiweb. Making my own cards using Google Image Search and Forvo is still probably better anyway. Though since I’ve been memorizing vocabulary for both German and Korean, maybe with Persian I should try just focusing on lessons and dialogues and not doing any memorization to see how that compares.

I Googled “learn Persian” and found this helpful post on Benny the Irish Polyglot’s site. My favorite part is the resources section at the bottom, where there’s a link to a podcast called Chai and Conversation. Each episode is about 15 minutes long, and introduces colloquial conversation at a relaxed pace. Not bad!

I also tried Mango Languages, conveniently available through Seattle Public Library’s website.

The first lesson introduces the formal way to say some common greetings, and quizzes you about each word along the way. I wonder if the content gets more interesting as the lessons progress.

نان گرم است

In the last couple days I’ve followed the first five Assimil Persian lessons, spending about 30 minutes each day. Each lesson consists of about four sentences about some related topic. My favorite so far is lesson four:

  1. Pédar bé pesar nân dâd.
  2. Nân garm ast.
  3. Pésar nân-é garm doust dârad.
  4. Pédar raft.

Which means:

  1. The father gives bread to the boy (“Father to boy bread gives”).
  2. The bread is hot (“Bread hot is”).
  3. The boy likes the hot bread (“Boy bread-that’s-hot liking has”).
  4. The man leaves.

I didn’t expect this putting the verb at the end business, like Japanese and Korean. I’ve heard people compare Turkish and Japanese grammar, but I’ve never heard Persian compared in this way.

So far I’m relying on the Latin transliterations. If I had more time to dedicate to learning Persian I would want to learn the Arabic script, but it’s been challenging enough for me to just spend the minimum thirty minutes a day working through these lessons.

Motivation and time management

I still feel like I’m spread too thin. Probably because I’m still reluctant to set aside German and Korean. I’ve been getting more inspired to work on these languages the last few weeks.

I sat at the Korean table for an hour — my longest so far — at the polyglot cafe this past Wednesday. I still fumbled just trying to make the simplest statements. The only phrase that came readily to mind was 정말요? (really?). But due in large part to the table leader’s patience, I was able to actually communicate quite a bit despite my speech impediment.

But I also know that I can do better. I have the means to expand my vocabulary, get more fluent, and practice more material. It’s just a matter of allocating the time.

My German is still better than my Korean, but it’s in a similar state: I believe I know how to get better, if I could just spend more time with it.

I have set aside enough time on my calendar, that if I actually stuck to my calendar I probably would be getting better a lot faster. But I still haven’t been taking it seriously, even after reducing each learning entry to 30 minutes or less.

Avoiding doing something either means you’re not motivated to do it, or you’re intimidated by the amount of work it seems to require.

In other words, at least one of two things is happening:

  1. I’m not really as interested in learning German, Korean, and/or Persian as I thought.
  2. I’m trying to do too many things at once.

I think at least the second one is certainly true.

Update 2/11: Today I came down with a cold and canceled all my plans. In the afternoon I finished my German and Korean Anki reviews, did a bit of German shadowing, made a few new Korean Anki cards, then went to the park and did some Korean and Persian shadowing. After I got home, I learned another Assimil Persian lesson.

This seems to suggest that I am motivated to learn these languages, if only I have enough time to work on them. Maybe the tasks I’ve been setting myself just take more time than I think, and I’m still trying to do too much every day, with the result that sometimes I do nothing instead.


Question about starting a new language using transcripts

Incidentally, here’s Steve Kaufmann talking about how he starts a new language from scratch:

He stresses starting out with short audio for which there is a transcript. My experience so far with German and Korean have also shown me how useful audio + transcript material can be. But there’s a question that keeps nagging at me.

Sure, a written transcript isn’t a necessary part of natural language acquisition, in theory.

But that doesn’t mean it’s bad to use a transcript, as long as it’s used as a visual aid for remembering the audio, and not as a replacement for the audio material itself. Used this way, it can accelerate the learning process, particularly in the beginning.

Now my question is this. Sure, learning without a transcript, especially in the beginning, can be painfully slow. Using transcripts accelerates things and gives a gratifying sense of tangible improvement. But does it really pay off over time? I’m thinking of the graph from Thierry Hsieh’s class, which shows the learning curves of traditional learning compared to natural language acquisition (NLA). The first starts in a linear way and then I think levels off at some point. The NLA curve starts much slower, but increases exponentially.

In other words, if I choose to learn the NLA way, is a transcript just an unnecessary crutch that only gives the illusion of accelerating in the beginning? Could this crutch even prevent me from doing true NLA? I don’t know if I’ve ever tried “true NLA,” so maybe I need to ask some people who have and see if they can give some insight.

Persian, Assimil, and the Full Circle Method

I keep hearing from various polyglots that Assimil is a good way to learn languages, but until this month I hadn’t gotten around to trying it. For February I managed to get my hands on the French Assimil learning material for Persian, Le Persan sans Peine.

There’s a book, plus 86 audio tracks, each around two minutes long. Glancing through the French book and listening to the first few audio tracks, which are completely in Persian, didn’t give me any clues as to the intended use of the material, so I asked Uncle G.

Official Assimil method

According to, the official Assimil steps are as follows:

  1. Listen to the sounds (passive).
  2. Listen again while looking at the French translation in the book (active).
  3. Read the Persian text aloud, following along with the French.
  4. Read the Persian text again, but don’t look at the French translation.
  5. Listen to the Persian sounds twice, once looking at the French text, once looking at the Persian text.
  6. Listen to the Persian without any text. It should be comprehensible at this point.
  7. Listen again and repeat each sentence (shadowing).
  8. Study the notes and sentence structure of the text.
Full Circle Method

Then there’s also Luca Lampariello’s Full Circle Method, summarized by as:

  1. Listen to the sounds (passive).
  2. Repeat the dialogues (shadowing).
  3. Read the dialogues while listening.
  4. Read the dialogues without listening.
  5. Translate the Persian dialogue into your native language.
  6. Translate your translation back into Persian.

I was confused about the purpose of the last two translation steps when I first saw this. I still haven’t found a thorough explanation of the theory behind them, but the “full circle” translation seems to be the cornerstone of Lampariello’s learning method. I can only surmise that translating from L2 into L1 forces your brain to engage with the material on a deeper level, and then translating back from L1 into L2 forces you to think about how to express the very things you’re learning in your own words in L2, which is probably good practice for output and maybe simultaneously strengthens the connections between those concepts in your brain.

Is there any downside that comes from making these connections between L2 and L1? If there were a version that involved doing something analogous but without using L1, would it be even better (like using pictures instead of L1 text)? Or maybe it doesn’t make a difference.

Common method

In any case, on a high level the two methods seem to share three main phases:

  1. Absorb – Passive listening and repeating.
  2. Understand – Use the text and repeat until you can understand the dialogue.
  3. Analyze – Either study the grammar notes or translate from one language to another. In both cases, the result is to get a deeper understanding of and connection to the material.

Starting Persian

Yesterday (day 1) I put the first ten Persian audio tracks on my phone and listened to them while walking and shadowing. Today I listened to them again while eating lunch.

Whichever method I choose to follow, my next task is to match up the text in the book with the audio I’ve been listening to, and then figure out what they’re actually saying.

Why Persian?

I don’t have a great answer to this question. Here are some un-great answers:

  • I have a good friend who is Persian.
  • For a while in college I entertained hopes to traveling to Iran, around the time of Rick Steves’ visit.
  • I’ve long wanted to learn the Arabic script, and as an Indo-European language Persian seems like a slightly easier way to get introduced to the script compared to learning Arabic
  • (Also, I’ve never been able to figure out which Arabic to learn. From what I’ve heard, every region has its own dialect that isn’t necessarily mutually intelligible. There’s a common version, but unlike with Chinese and Putonghua, not everyone speaks it.)
  • So far I’ve only learned European and Asian languages, and I would like to explore another part of the world. The Middle East is a fascinating place, and Iran seems to me like one of the most cosmopolitan and open-minded places in that part of the world. Granted, I’m still pretty ignorant.

How to (not) learn a language in 12 hours


My friend D asked me a good question today. Why would someone want to spend 12 hours straight studying a new language?

That’s what two other language enthusiasts and I did on Saturday, studying Bahasa Indonesia from 9am until 7pm, and then speaking it with each other for two more hours. The precondition for the “12-hour challenge” is that none of us could know or learn a single word of the language ahead of time; another was that we choose a language we were all actually interested in learning. Bahasa Indonesia was one of two languages that fit both criteria.

The challenge was inspired by a video showing four polyglots picking up Romanian in just one hour. The results are pretty amazing. After just an hour with a Romanian tutor, they are able to hold a somewhat fluent conversation. My language friends and I weren’t confident we would fare as well in only an hour, but we thought we could get close if we were given ten times that allotment.

Sportingly, I didn’t think much ahead of time about how I was going to spend my 12 hours studying, let alone learn anything about Bahasa Indonesia beforehand or look up any resources. Unsurprisingly, I spent the first few hours stuck somewhere between confusion and panic.

How would you start learning a new language, if your goal was to maximize your conversational ability in 12 hours? Here’s what I did, with hindsight enabling me to give a concise description that belies the chaos I was surrounded by.

Method #1: the scattershot

I started with a scattershot approach, watching some of the IndonesianPod101 3-minute lessons, trying and quickly dropping a Memrise deck, downloading some pre-made Anki decks (there is actually a pre-sorted sentence deck with audio for Bahasa Indonesia in the same vein as the ones I used for a while to learn French and German), and browsing the audio lesson library at IndonesianPod101. I watched videos and shadowed podcast lesson dialogues for a couple hours before realizing this was a hopeless strategy. There simply wasn’t enough time to learn the kind of volume of material I would need to develop a natural, acquisition-like sense of the language.

I grudgingly realized this kind of language learning necessarily resembled cramming for a test much more than it resembled acquiring a language. Clearly I needed to memorize some more useful phrases, the kind of thing I would be using that very night at our Indonesian table.

Method #2: the dialogue

I figured a dialogue would be the easiest package to consume these phrases in, since stories are more easily memorized than individual sentences. I wrote a dialogue of 13 lines in English, and then used Google Translate to turn it into Indonesian, cross-checking the Indonesian-to-English translation to make sure I wasn’t way off. I knew this would probably result in some unnatural phrases, but I decided to lower my standards for the sake of expediency.

How to memorize the dialogue? I turned it into an MCD-style Anki deck, but then found I had another problem: I didn’t know how to pronounce the words I was trying to learn. Bahasa Indonesia is written with the Latin alphabet, but of course the phonetics are completely different from English. I had thought I would get around this by picking up the sounds from my shadowing exercises, but since I wasn’t shadowing anymore I needed to find another workaround.

I used Google Translate’s text-to-speech feature to get an idea of the pronunciation, and then recorded myself doing an imitation of the Google Translate voice, and put the audio from my own imitation on the Anki cards, to accompany the text.

It probably should have been obvious before, but it was only around this point that it started to sink in that this method wasn’t going to be a winner either. Not least because, even if at great effort I did memorize this dialogue perfectly, I wasn’t going to get any closer to fluency in Indonesian than I got in German after memorizing my very first Slow German dialogue. Which is to say still far, far away.

Method #3: the combinatoric

In a last-ditch effort, I decided to try and enumerate all the words I would need to hold a basic conversation, covering all the parts of speech, and just memorize as many as I could. This was an even further departure from what I’m used to with language acquisition.

I made a list of personal pronouns and a list of verbs, and used a few online dictionaries to get the Indonesian words. The verbs included: to eat, to drink, to go, to want, to like, to live, to speak, to think, to know, to have, to buy, to be able, to give, to make, to tell, and to be. I tried making a list of nouns but couldn’t get inspired. I forgot all about adjectives.

Then I got cold feet and instead of persevering with individual vocabulary words I made up sentences using each of the above verbs, thinking this would be 1) easier to memorize than individual words, and 2) would help me incorporate some other parts of speech without having to come up with any more long lists. Did I think to look up frequency lists for individual parts of speech? No, for some reason I did not.

I also forgot until much later useful things like prepositions, impersonal pronouns (this, that, who, what, enough), common adverbs (how, when, where, why, also, too), super common time-related adjectives and nouns (next, last, yesterday, today, tomorrow, day, month, week). There were plenty that it never occurred to me to look up at all, and it was actually kind of fun figuring these out from context later on, during our Indonesian conversation.

Incomplete list of words and phrases in hand, I set about making Anki cards for them all. Unfortunately, at that point I didn’t have enough time to make any meaningful headway memorizing the cards (digression, but I should mention that this isn’t even how Anki is supposed to work. The whole point of an SRS is for memories to build up bit by bit, strengthening over a period of days, weeks, and months. I just don’t know a better way to memorize a lot of information quickly).

The showdown

I showed up for our conversation at the cafe feeling embarrassingly unprepared. Luckily, though I may not have memorized many words, I had all my notes, and I spent the two hours referring to them obsessively and fleshing them out when I encountered a new word from one of the other two.

This part, where we conversed using the words we had learned, was the most fun part of the day for me. We were originally supposed to have a native Indonesian speaker at the table with us, but we were informed that morning that he was out of town. As a result, there was no one at the table but the three of us stumbling through our astonishingly rudimentary conversation with abundant hand gestures and occasional pointing at our notes or showing pictures from Google search results.

It’s certain we were speaking something a bit different from what a real Bahasa Indonesia speaker would recognize as his or her own language, but I think it’s cool that we were still able to communicate. We talked about what we had done during our respective study time, we talked about our ages, what time we went to sleep, and whether we would keep studying Indonesian, and nobody spoke a word of English or any other language that we all knew.

The point of it all

What did I learn from all this? First of all, it’s pretty cool to know that I’m only one long plane ride’s length of time away from basic competency in a new language. In that sense the activity was useful as a proof of concept.

There’s one glaring omission from my day of learning Bahasa Indonesia: I never practiced with any native speakers. I could have gone on Italki or any number of other websites and found friends or tutors willing to speak to me — for money if necessary, but even then probably not a lot. Why didn’t I? At first I used the excuse that I wasn’t quite ready, that it would be more effective to learn some basics before I started speaking. And then I just got carried away with what I was doing and didn’t think about it again.

I may do this type of language marathon again someday (the other candidate we considered was Thai), and if I do, it would be interesting to try the opposite strategy: only speaking, for the whole ten hours of preparation. Now that I’ve been through a two-hour Indonesian conversation with practically no preparation (ten hours of ineffectual stressing out doesn’t actually count, does it?), the idea of jumping into the deep end again isn’t quite as scary. I would probably want to have some paid tutors lined up for the first few hours to teach me the basics, and then I could try to inflict my poor language ability on some hapless conversation partners. This approach would have an extra advantage with a language like Thai, where I wouldn’t need to worry about learning the writing system to decipher written teaching material (though taking notes might involve some ad-hoc transliteration, which could be tricky).

What else? Getting a sense of the set of words and phrases that I actually used in my first Bahasa Indonesia conversation actually gave me a better sense of what’s missing from my Korean vocabulary (and German too, for that matter). It’s inspired me to make more flashcards for Korean with things like the numbers, times, basic verbs, prepositions, etc., which might make me able to start having more fun conversations in Korean soon. This is actually what I was about to do tonight before I got sidetracked into writing this long blog post.