Less boredom

Skype recordings revisited

I mentioned that I recorded the conversation I had with a German conversation partner about a week ago. An unintended consequence of the way I recorded it was that my voice wasn’t in the recording. What I had then was my partner’s voice, speaking mostly German — sometimes switching to English to explain things to me — with long pauses in the middle (was I really that long-winded?). I took this and used Audacity to cut out the silences and the English portions as much as I could. The result, from the original hour-long recording, were six, three-minute-long monologues in German.

I’ve listened to a few of them pretty much every day for the past week or so. But what am I actually learning? The recordings are full of repetitions, interruptions, and English words. There are points where they jump incoherently from one topic to another. Unsurprisingly, it’s like listening to a one-sided phone conversation: distracting, but not always interesting.

Part of learning to study independently has been learning to gauge my own motivation to do certain things. Forcing myself to study something I don’t want to study saps my energy a lot faster than letting myself learn what I’m most interested in or curious about. This sounds like common sense, but when I first started studying I didn’t think this way. One reason I made so little progress in Chinese and Japanese for such a long time is that I kept trying to force myself to study boring material or study in boring ways.

I’ve noticed over the past week that my motivation to listen to these Skype recordings I’ve made has been wearing out along with their novelty.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re useless. Maybe I’m just using them for the wrong thing. Maybe they’re better suited to passive listening, playing in the background. It could also turn out that they’re more interesting if I leave my side of the conversation intact.

German acquisition routine 3.0

I’ve been adjusting my German studying even more recently. This is what my routine has become these past few days:

Warm up ~ 30 minutes

Bilingual programs by Deutsche Welle (Harry, Mission Berlin) while eating breakfast.

Anki maintenance ~ 20 minutes

Create MCD-style Anki cards from the transcript of whatever Slow German episode I’m working on (see below).

Semi-active listening ~ 30 minutes

Listen to the Slow German episodes that I’m recently working on while doing other things like washing dishes, folding clothes, or stretching — anything to keep my mind from wandering, since I’ve found this listening alone isn’t enough to hold my attention. If I feel like it, I might try to mirror the German, but I don’t force myself to pay close attention the whole time. I do this with Sesame Street sometimes too. My Cookie Monster impression is gradually getting more convincing.

Anki listening support ~ 20 minutes

Do the reviews of MCD-style Anki cards I’ve made from the Slow German transcripts. This is just an experiment, but it seems like doing these helps the Slow German get more firmly rooted in my brain.

Anki 10,000 sentences ~ 30 minutes

The goal is to learn grammar through inference and to improve direct comprehension (i.e. comprehension that doesn’t require translation to English first). I try to visualize the meaning in each sentence without resorting to mental translation to English, and only compare to the English if I’m not sure or don’t understand something. I find this gradually getting easier with more repetition, especially as my brain starts to discover that it takes less effort to skip the translation step.

Shadowing Slow German dialogue ~ 10 minutes

I started out trying to shadow both sides of the conversation (the natural speed version) and found that I was actually getting exhausted and running out of breath. Then I had the brilliant idea of just shadowing one side, so that’s what I’ve been doing. I shadow while walking or pacing on the balcony, scaring my neighbors and their cats.

Slow German + MCD-style Anki cards

I’ve been deleting all the other cards in my Anki deck and just using it for this purpose. The effect is that over the last few days I’ve actually been doing the Anki reps instead of finding clever ways to avoid them. In other words, these cards are more fun than the other types I’ve tried.

This is how I’ve been making these cards. I take a transcript from Slow German and copy it into Google Translate. Then I open Anki and choose “Add MCD cards” (to add this option to Anki, download the Anki MCD extension). For the front of a card, I put just one sentence in German, and right below it I put its English translation. The translation goes right on the front since the point isn’t to guess the meaning of the sentence, but just to guess a particular word that’s missing. It’s not important if the Google Translate English version isn’t perfect, since it’s just there to give me a hint about the meaning of the missing word.

On the back, I put definitions of particular words I don’t know. If there aren’t any, the back is just blank.

Then for the cloze deletions themselves, I choose somewhere between one and ten words. I don’t yet have a good strategy for which words to choose — so far I’ve just been guessing which words I think will be most useful to know. I tend to choose common words and prepositions, things like sich, gar, ein, der, das, auf, aus, im, gibt, haben, etc. over less common vocabulary words.

I hope this will do two things. First, it will help me learn the sentences in the Slow German episodes more thoroughly, making it easier to shadow them. Second, it will start to give me a sense for how these words are used, and in what situations. I’m less sure about this latter use, especially given that I don’t see how it fits into the language acquisition theory. More later.

German movies

Did I mention I found a site with links to lots of movies dubbed in German? Yes. Unfortunately, the only mirror for Harold and Maude seems to be broken. What other movies are there again?

Natural dialogue

Deutsch Tag 24 – Mittwoch

Slow German is one of the more useful resources I’ve found so far. The clearly spoken audio and transcripts — with the aid of Google Translate — have made it possible for a newb like me to make sense of interesting, intermediate-level material with little effort.

There are probably other German podcasts out there that publish transcripts and could be used this way, but I haven’t found them yet.

The only major critique I have had of Slow German as a language acquisition tool is the content itself. It’s perfect if the first thing I want to learn how to do in German is tell my new German friends how to effectively utilize Munich’s public transit system, or explain that Biergärten are about making friends, not just getting drunk. Less useful for holding a realistic, multi-sided conversation.

So I’ve been trying to find something presented in the same format as Slow German, but whose contents are more like dialogues that one might encounter in everyday life. Something like one of those audio companions to language textbooks, but not as lame or as expensive. The closest thing I’d found so far was the audio material from Hippo / LEX. Check out the samples from LEX America, for example. The only problem is it’s also not cheap. To be fair, $200 for material in seven languages is a pretty good deal. But let’s say we were saving that money for Italki lessons or office rent (i.e. coffee).

It turns out that there is such a free resource — for German at least — and it’s been right under my nose the whole time. None other than Slow German itself has natural dialogues in addition to the other stuff about Obazda and Verkehrsmittel (come on, Verkehrsmittel? Seriously?). Even better, the dialogues are presented first slowly, and then at a normal speed. And even mo betta, they’re relatively free of the exaggerated enunciation and tone that most people use when they know they’re being recorded (maybe appropriate for the stage, not so much for natural language acquisition material. Our people will contact your people). There are only six dialogue episodes at the time of this writing, but it’ll probably take a complete beginner like me several months to master shadowing all of them.

If I’d only browsed the site a little more thoroughly in the beginning, I would have found this out a long time ago. From today I’m going to start shadowing these with higher priority than the monologues, Oscar the Griesgram, or my conversation partner recordings (more about my problems with those later).

How to learn Quechua in two months

Deutsch Tag 23 – Dienstag

I just read an article about Thierry Hsieh, the founder of the polyglot cafe I’ve started attending, and how he learned 25 languages in ten years.

The story of his acquiring Quechua, once the main language of the Incan Empire and now still spoken by many people in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, is especially remarkable.

In 2012 he went to Ecuador with a group of linguistics graduate students to do some research. Since none of them could speak Quechua yet, they spent three hours every day in language class.

While everyone was attending language classes, Hsieh created his own immersion program. He made friends with some local people. He used Spanish at first to express his desire to become friends, but from then on only spoke Quechua.

At first he couldn’t speak or understand a single word, but after a few days of listening and mimicking he started to learn basics like eat, drink, and sleep. Progress was fast after that point. In about a month, he could already talk to strangers from other tribes; after two months, he could speak and listen fluently enough to attend church with his friends and understand what was being said.

Meanwhile, in those two short months, none of the other grad students who had been attending class for three hours a day learned much Quechua at all. When they all went back to the US, most of them probably forgot the little Quechua they had learned; Hsieh presumably still speaks it.

The article summarizes Hsieh’s method into four points:

  1. Create a learning environment; use all your senses to create memories. Listen to natural dialogues, music, or audiobooks. If you don’t understand, don’t worry. Whatever you do, do not use a dictionary.
  2. Follow along. Choose a dialogue or speech, and follow along. Listen to one sentence, copy it, repeat. Do this every day for 15 minutes. Treat it just like learning to sing a new song.
  3. Speak. Start to speak and communicate. Don’t worry about making mistakes. If you can’t get your meaning across, use body language.
  4. Don’t be “abducted by script.” First focus on listening, then focus on speaking. Only start to read and write once you’ve acquired the spoken language.

To some extent I’ve already been “abducted by script” in my German practice, since a lot of what I do, especially Anki, involves reading. That, plus I already have a mental model of German as a written language; when I hear a sentence in the German, the first thing I do is visualize the words written out in my head.

And I have been looking up words in the dictionary when I don’t know them. This feels like it makes it easier to follow along and learn new material, but am I actually hindering my progress by doing this?

Deutsch Tag 22 – Montag
Polyglot event

On Friday I went to another polyglot event (distinct from the polyglot cafe). The location was on a major street in Taipei, but when I got to the address there was just a gap between the buildings on either side. In the gap there was a patch of grass with some small, nondescript concrete structures, and a walkway with a gradual downward slope that seemed to come to a dead end near the back of the lot. I walked around the perimeter of the lot, thinking the entrance might be on the side of one of the surrounding buildings, but I couldn’t find any doorways. Finally I walked down the sloping path. At the bottom the path turned at a right angle and opened to a big complex of classrooms and auditoriums. Where the ceiling of the hallway between the rooms might have been, it was open to the night sky. You couldn’t see any of this from above because the little concrete structures were in the way.

The rooms all seemed to have some lesson or talk going on, and most of them were packed. At the end was a room smaller than all the others, with just eight people sitting in chairs in a circle. This was the polyglot event.

When I got there, they were discussing some conversations they’d just had. Each person was assigned a stock phrase in Chinese, stuff like “nice weather today” or “there’s a hole in your clothing.” They had said this phrase to each other one by one, and their job was to collect as many different reactions as they could. Now we were translating the phrases and reactions into other languages. I happened to be the only native English speaker there, so the activity leader asked me several times to translate some phrase into English or think of an English equivalent. Then everyone else copied my phrase, mimicking the pace and tone. Another person did the same for Tai-yu (the Taiwanese dialect of Chinese).

One thing I found interesting about this activity is that it assumes that everyone is basically open to learning some of any language; participants bring the languages they already speak or have studied and share them with the group as a whole. I reckon it’s useful in several ways aside from just getting better at particular languages. For one, it seems to be good practice switching from one language to another quickly.

Study progress

Lately I’ve been only spending about two hours a day actually studying German. This has meant doing the following:

  • Anki 10,000 sentences: About 250 cards per day (including 60 new cards). Around 30 minutes.
  • Harry gefangen in der Zeit: One or two episodes, around 15 minutes.
  • Mission Berlin, Deutsch Plus, Mission Berlin: Around 30 minutes in the morning.
  • Shadowing Sesame Street and about 10 minutes of recording from last week’s conversation, usually while walking: about 30 minutes.
  • Slow German, listening to the same two episodes: about 20 minutes.

Things I’ve been meaning to do but haven’t:

  • Make more 2- or 3-minute mp3s from my recording conversation.
  • Make more Anki cards from the Slow German transcripts and actually do the reps regularly (I’ve been doing them once every three days or so).
  • Label things in my room with relevant sentences.
  • Schedule more conversations, record them, make mp3s, listen, repeat.

I think I’m getting the most immediate benefit from the Anki 10,000 sentences and from Slow German.

With the Anki deck, I think I’m slowly starting to get a natural sense for the meaning. With most of the cards, I have to think for a few moments about each word, visualize them all in my mind, and maybe listen a few times before I can figure out what the sentence is saying. But with a few, I get an idea of the meaning right away, without even having to visualize the words. I think this latter group is gradually getting bigger.

Some grammatical things still trip me up a lot, like distinguishing between ‘Sie/sie’ and ‘ihr/ihn/ihne/ihnen’. For instance, my mind is still convinced that ‘sie’ almost always means ‘she’ even when it appears as the subject, in which case it can actually mean ‘they’ or ‘you’. I think. I hope this will get better with time. I think it will — my current understanding of the above comes almost completely from extrapolation from the sentences I’ve been memorizing. It might not be complete yet, but it proves I’m learning something.

With Slow German, I still often find the words and phrases from the two dialogues that I’ve been repeating popping into my head, especially in the morning. I think I even had a (completely incoherent) dream in last night in German. It sounded something like Ihre arbeitet nicht zu treffen Frenden Leuten Fahrt haben… basically gibberish.

I’ve also noticed it getting easier for me to keep up with the audio when I’m shadowing it, which I couldn’t do at all at first.

I still can’t construct a reasonable German sentence on my own for the life of me, but according to the acquisition theory, that’s normal at this point.

Japanese autopilot

I’ve basically been neglecting Japanese completely these past couple weeks, aside from the occasional conversation. I had an hour-long Skype lesson today, and it felt like I’d regressed.

The current plan with this project is to get German learning stable, and then start another language while I continue German part-time (one or two hours a day). Then a month after that, I put this second language on autopilot and start a third.

I might as well keep up my Japanese while I’m at it, right? I can now sort of see ways that I’d been making Japanese harder for myself: giving myself pressure to improve, clogging my Anki deck with boring material, etc. I’d like to try paring down the Anki to the most interesting and useful cards, and finding some other material to shadow for a few minutes a day.

This will take some investment of time at first, but it will probably pay off.

The benefits of giving up

Deutsch Tag 18 – Donnerstag

On the way to the cafe this afternoon I tried mirroring the recording I made of my Skype partner. I spoke the German out loud as I walked, holding the headset microphone up to my mouth so it looked like I was simply talking on the phone in German like a normal, non-crazy person who speaks German. Though if any real German speakers happened to overhear me they would probably still think I was crazy.

Last night I went back to the Polyglot Cafe. Again, there was no German table. Es gab keine Deutschen Tisch. So I did Japanese again, and then for the last ten minutes went to the French table. I was surprised that I could actually have a simple but meaningful exchange in French, since I’ve practiced French maybe three times in the last eight years.

Yes, this post, which I’m making in the thick of German Month, is not about German — it’s about French. Believe me, it’s the least I could do.

Talking with some polyglots at a nearby noodle joint afterward, I asked about the difference between mimicking and just pure listening. The Taiwanese polyglot, M, said different people do learn better with different methods, but the difference is basically one of timing. If you just listen to enough comprehensible input, you’ll progress like a normal child learning his or her first language. You’ll start speaking naturally after some months, but you’ll still make lots of mistakes. This gets better, but it takes a lot of patience with oneself. Mimicking is one way to speed this up, to make your speech get fluent faster. When M was mimicking French, for the first several months she still couldn’t keep up with what she was listening to. But at some point things clicked, and suddenly she was able to not only make sense of the input, but also to speak it pretty faithfully.

She experienced another interesting phenomenon during her studies of Japanese, French, and Spanish: her English got better. She used to study English intensively using a textbook. She passed all her exams and got top level certification as an English speaker. But when it came time to actually hold a conversation, she still wasn’t fluent enough. She had an impressive vocabulary, but she’d often use words in the wrong situations, or not be able to remember the right word when she needed it.

After a few years of “studying until she wanted to vomit” (her words) she gave up and started learning these other languages: French, Spanish, and Japanese. This time she studied them in the way mentioned above: simply listening and shadowing.

Naturally, M started to speak these three languages. But there was one other surprising effect on her language abilities. After spending a few years on three other languages, M found that her English had gotten more fluent as well.

Could it be that this “giving up” had lifted some mental block that was keeping her from speaking in a natural way? Or is it the similarity between French, Spanish, and English that helped? Maybe both?

I always studied French the traditional way, taking classes in high school and college that used textbooks, emphasized grammar and vocabulary, and didn’t include a lot of real life material. I enjoyed the classes sometimes (especially the field trips to Starbucks and endlessly repeated viewings of Titanic), but I also ended up with an impression of French as a strict language whose grammar served no purpose other than to give native speakers an excuse to look down on you.

At a family reunion a few years ago in New York, I had the chance to speak French with my cousin who grew up in Paris. It had already been several years at that point since I’d studied any French, so I assumed my French was a lost cause. So I was surprised to find how fun it was to communicate with my cousin in broken French. Probably in part thanks to my cousin’s easygoing personality, I stopped worrying about whether I sounded like a jackass. Suddenly French was a way to communicate, not just a thing you do to make people think you’re smart.

I had the same kind of experience last night at the French table, several years after this New York buffoonery. I made tons of mistakes, but I got my meaning across and more or less understood what others were saying.

Maybe all that’s required to learn French, after all, is a willingness to make mistakes. Well, that and regular exposure. A nice red uniform wouldn’t hurt either.

So how can I apply this to my German? Obviously the principles are the same, though I’m coming to it from a different place since I’ve never studied German before. I’d been getting a little frustrated these last few days listening to my Sesamstraße recordings. I’m probably the first person in the world to ever do this. Get frustrated listening to Sesame Street, that is. Even after ten or more repetitions of the same three-minute skit, I wasn’t understanding big portions of it. I’d been starting to wonder if it was maybe just a waste of time, too difficult and not comprehensible enough.

I mentioned my impatience and doubts about Ernie and Bert to M. She allayed my worries. How long have I been studying German? she asked. Two weeks, I told her. Then you’re like a two-week-old German infant, she said. Do you really expect to understand everything this early?

Which isn’t to say I have to wait as long as most people wait to speak their first language. Babies, as we all know, are, after all, dumb. But hearing this helped me get over yet one more psychological block (or affective filter) that had been in my way. Listening to dubbed Sesame Street can be useful, but only if I’m able to focus on the fun of watching it, the meaning it’s conveying, without constantly worrying about how little progress I seem to be making.

M also told me about another highly accomplished polyglot, David Zen, who has some cool things to say about mimicking and learning languages in general.

Amazing! I especially like his advice about turning imitation into a habit or even a game. Recording a friend speaking a set of phrases I want to learn also seems like a great idea.

Deutsch Tag 16 – Dienstag

Recording a Skype Conversation

Following up on Sunday’s exploration of recording audio from YouTube using Soundflower. Here’s another use of Soundflower I’m experimenting with: recording Skype. The goal of course is making recordings of my German conversations. I hope this turns out to be a good source of comprehensible input.

This was slightly trickier than just recording YouTube, because I needed to find a way to record while still being able to hear what was being recorded. It turns out this is easy to do with Audacity: there’s a setting under Preferences > Recording called “Software Playthrough” that, if checked, will pipe whatever’s being recorded to the standard audio out. Then, in System Preferences > Sound, I set Output to be Soundflower, and Input to Internal Microphone. In Audacity, Input becomes Soundflower. Once I hit record, Audacity starts to record my computer’s internal sound, and I can still hear it as well.

I tried this today during an hour-long session with a conversation partner in Germany. For most of it, we tried having her talk in German, and I spoke English. The idea being that I get German input, she gets English input, and neither of us has to fumble for words. Win-win-win. Sure, I probably understood less than half of what she said, so she did end up repeating a lot in English. But I think that’s fine, I still got to try understanding the German first, and we had a relatively fluent, interesting conversation compared to what would have happened if I’d tried speaking in German.

I recorded the conversation using the method above, and tomorrow I plan to edit out all the pauses and most of the English and make an mp3 out of it. The only other thing worth mentioning is that the recording doesn’t include my own voice. In a way this is good, since there’s no reason to review my (English) side of the conversation. But it could also be a little harder to understand the resulting one-sided conversation. I don’t have much experience listening to one-sided conversations in German, so we’ll see.

Deutsch Tag 15 – Montag

The New Curriculum

I think now is a good time to lay out a new study curriculum. It’s halfway through the month, a lot of my thinking has changed in the past several days, and my studying has become a little disorganized.

First, here are my thoughts now about each method I’ve tried or come across:

Educational videos & podcasts narrated in English (e.g. Harry gefangen in der Zeit, Radio D, Mission Berlin)

Fun, easy to stay motivated, but sparse material. Not an efficient use of time, but better than nothing and maybe worthwhile if it also helps to keep morale high.

Podcasts in German with available transcripts (e.g. Slow German)

Very useful if done right. I went through episode 8 about Biergarten using Google Translate and making Anki cards, then I listened to it several more times on repeat one day. Now I find some of the sentences and words pop spontaneously into my mind even when I’m not thinking about it. The sentences seem to be the ones that I did a few Anki repetitions on, even though I haven’t kept up this deck with any regularity.

Dialogues in German or podcasts without transcripts (e.g. Sesamstrasse, German Plus, Culinarcast)

Good for passive listening or slightly uninteresting (because not very comprehensible) active listening, depending on difficulty. If I can increase my comprehension, either by watching the video first or by asking a German speaker to help me decipher it, this could get even more useful.

Anki 10,000 sentences deck

I’ve done about 70 new cards per day on average over the last week, and I think I’m learning quite a bit. I’ve found myself understanding more and more of the sentences that I haven’t even heard before, and I think my ear is getting a little better at telling the difference between, noch and nicht or ich and dich, which can sound really similar when spoken quickly.

Anki – DIY cards

Good if used with discretion. This is a memorization tool, not a language learning tool. I’ve always taken a scattershot approach to Anki, adding anything I think would be interesting or potentially useful, but now I see this has led to a lot of wasted effort. Instead, why not make the deck serve memorization target specifically at transcripts of audio material?

Skype / conversation exchange

Hard to schedule. I haven’t had much luck so far finding willing conversation partners. I sort of dread the idea of trying to have another conversation in German. I like Krashen’s idea that production isn’t necessary at first because it lets me off the hook, but I’m not totally convinced that it’s true. Still, next time I’d like to think of ways to get my partner to do more of the talking. Maybe I can just think of some more interesting questions to ask them.

If I can find a way to record these sessions, they might get even more useful.

Written exchange / texting (e.g. on HelloTalk)

Even though it doesn’t have any listening practice, this has been a great way to learn new, commonly used vocabulary in a meaningful context. It also has the addictiveness of texting going for it. I should build this into my studying, or just keep logging onto HelloTalk.

Reading w/ Ilya Frank method

Potentially useful, but it depends on the contents. The book I’ve been reading, Immensee, seems pretty advanced and full of words I’ll never, ever use. I’m sure if I kept reading I would eventually get the hang of it and be able to read other, similar books, but is that really what I want to learn?

Favorite movies dubbed in German

Good, if I can find them.

So here’s a new study plan for the rest of the month:

10:00 – 10:30 Fun & easy

Start easy. Watch/listen to educational podcasts narrated in English.

10:30 – 11:00 Comprehensible input review

Listen to or review podcasts or videos that I’ve studied before. Slow German, Sesamstraße. Again, the key is comprehensible input.

11:30 – 12:00 Shadowing

Listen to and shadow (see below) a 2- to 4-minute comprehensible monologue or dialogue. Do this for about 15 minutes, and then maybe listen to some new material for 15 minutes.

1:00 – 1:30 Anki listening 1

Anki 10,000 sentences.

1:30 – 2:00 Make more comprehensible input

Decipher and make Anki cards from the transcript of some podcast like Slow German (this doesn’t have to be every day). Do reviews of said cards (every day).

2:00 – 2:30 Anki listening 2

Anki 10,000 sentences

3:00 – 4:00 Conversation

Talking (e.g. Skype) or texting (e.g. HelloTalk)

Later in the day / any time:

  • Find more conversation partners
  • Scour the internet for German movies or movies dubbed in German
  • Watch movies
  • Repeat shadowing exercise
  • Text with people in German
  • Passive listening

This is still four hours total of structured study time, with more breaks built in to reflect the reality that I don’t sit still for that long, and I need to do things like cooking and showering and throwing cockroaches out the window that it’s hard to do while studying.

The Walking Shadow

Shadowing is a language-learning method pioneered and explained by this fellow, Alexander Arguelles:

Basically, from what I can tell, the idea is to learn to speak the sounds of the language while also thoroughly imprinting the contents onto your brain.

He claims that this is most effective if done while briskly walking. It may sound strange, but I liked this idea as soon as I heard it. One key to building strong memories is to connect them to different senses. One way to get lots of multi-sensory input, and wake up your brain and tell it to remember something is to go for a walk.

I had this point illustrated for me just yesterday when I was listening to a podcast (in English) for a second time. The first time I’d listened to it, a week ago, I’d been walking around. Numerous times, during this second listen, the host would say something and then a memory of exactly where I’d been and what I’d been thinking or feeling when I first heard it would pop vividly and involuntarily into my mind.

I’m not sure what part the shadowing itself plays, but I’m willing to give it a try. Also I don’t know why Arguelles suggests the studying material he does, with the facing translations, except that it’s a convenient way to get comprehensible input.

Deutsch Tag 14 – Sonntag

The Pivot

Today is a shorter day, because I slept in. Hey, it’s Sunday, alright? More to the point, I’m no longer so convinced that the “four hours per day of German study for a month” experiment is the right one. As I discussed on Wednesday, current theory (supported by Stephen Krashen, other polyglots like Benny and Chris Lonsdale, and groups like Hippo/LEX) says that the fastest way to acquire a language is through regular doses of the right kinds of input, and in the best case takes about six months to get to some kind of fluency.

No one I’ve encountered so far has supported the idea that it’s possible to cram for a month and get anything like language acquisition. Sure, it’s definitely possible to learn a lot about a language in a month, but if Krashen and others are to be believed, this is an entirely different mechanism from the one in the brain that acquires languages naturally and automatically, and requires a certain amount of time and input to do so.

By now I’m convinced that this is generally the case. If I want to speak German, it’s going to take at least six months of daily input that simply can’t be condensed into just a month.

But that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, like:

  • What kind of input is best / how should one interpret the concept of comprehensible input?
  • What’s the ideal amount of daily input, or what’s the minimum input (assuming good quality) to get fluent-ish in six months?
  • How much should input be repeated, and how frequently?
  • How much active listening vs. how much passive listening?
  • Is it really true that speaking practice is irrelevant to acquisition? If I reach a critical mass of comprehensible input, will I just start being able to speak one day, almost like magic?

The point is, I’m not so interested in spending this month trying to learn German anymore, given what I’ve learned so far. Instead, I would like to devote this month to setting up the conditions under which I can acquire German.

Since the month is about half over, it makes sense to review what I’ve been up to:

  • August 1 – 4 I spent looking for resources and trying in vain to establish a studying routine while traveling behind the Great Firewall.
  • August 5 – 9 I spent digging into the best material I could find according to my naive understanding of how to learn a language.
  • August 10 – 14 I’ve spent trying to learn more about language acquisition as it’s been practiced successfully by real polyglots, and to adjust my studying material and schedule accordingly.

I expect to keep learning about language acquisition and keep adjusting and trying new material over the next two weeks. My hope is that by the end of the month, I’ll have a study practice that I’ll by then be reasonably confident will work.

So that’s my new goal: To spend August building a language acquisition practice which, once September starts, I can put on autopilot — in the sense that I no longer need to make any big changes to the way I’m learning. I won’t really know if it’s going to work until I’ve done it for a while, but what’s the worst that can happen? I waste some hours of my life watching German Sesame Street instead of wasting them playing Pokemon Go.

Anyway, what this means for now is that by the end of the month, I want to have at least some tentative answers to the questions above about how much input, what kind, how frequent, etc. I hope the answer to “how much?” will be little enough that it leaves me enough time to start a new language in September. Seeing the way other polyglots seem to be able to pick up multiple languages at the same time gives me cause for optimism. Now, can I do these things while still having a life? Doubtful.

Resource: YouTube audio on mp3

Yesterday I mentioned that I’d seen the light with Sesamstraße on YouTube. The one problem that I didn’t reckon on is that the dialogue is actually pretty hard. It’s not comprehensible. The characters speak quickly, and even with the visual cues I’m not always sure what they’re talking about. Or I get the gist or topic (Oscar the Griesgram also has a Griesgram family, including a Griesgram grandmother who likes to kiss him in public), but most of the sentences are still over my head.

Today I found a way to record the audio as an mp3. Now I can listen to the dialogue on repeat until it starts to make some sense.

First I got a couple applications (I’m using a Mac) called Audacity and Loopjack. Audacity is a simple audio recording program, and Loopjack lets you route audio from one application to another. I also had to get the mp3 codec for Audacity to convert from .wav to .mp3, but there was a helpful link to where to download this on the mp3 conversion dialogue window in Audacity itself.

Then I created a Loopjack input connected to Chrome. I set this as the sound input in System Preferences > Sound, opened Audacity, hit record, and started Sesamstraße playback.

The only problem is Loopjack isn’t free. After using it once, I need to buy a license key for $99. It might be worth it, but I think I’ll spend a little time digging around for a free or cheaper alternative first. Still cheaper than university tuition.

Another way I imagine I could use this Loopjack & Audacity combination: recording my Skype conversation sessions. This seems like an obvious way to get relevant, comprehensible study material, assuming it’s not too painful to listen to myself speaking heinous German over and over again.

Update Aug 14 p.m.: There’s an open source program that has similar capability called Jack. The only problem is after spending an hour on it I still couldn’t get it to work. It doesn’t seem to detect or route to any other apps.

If all else fails, I can always record the audio with my laptop speakers and mic. I’ll report back on how much worse the audio quality gets (given how grainy the 70s and 80s TV recorded audio already is, the difference may be negligible). If it is a problem, it seems like I should be able to patch an audio cable between my microphone and headphone jacks. But I don’t know, it also kind of seems like this will make my laptop explode.

Update Aug 15 – Problem solved: I tried recording with my laptop microphone, but sadly the tin can effect got much worse, making the dialogue even more incomprehensible. But then I found something that worked:

There’s an old, free app called Soundflower that does pretty much the same thing as Loopjack. I skipped it yesterday because the developer doesn’t support it anymore. Well, I just tried it anyway and it worked. After installing, I set my laptop’s default sound input and output both as Soundflower, and then in Audacity set the input as Soundflower as well. Now the audio from Chrome is getting routed to Audacity.

Deutsch Tag 13 – Samstag

Today I’m focusing on how to interpret this idea of comprehensible input, and then figuring out how to apply it.


I spent the first hour in the morning listening to podcasts, like I usually do, but this time I found it harder to concentrate on them. It was especially hard with the Learn German by Podcast one. When they started to explain the grammar and vocabulary from the dialogue, I kept having to rewind because my mind kept wandering and tuning it out. Clearly something isn’t working. Either this podcast is too boring (easy to believe), or I’m distracted by thinking about this comprehensible input idea. Probably both.

After that I played that first episode of Slow German five or six times in a row while I was washing the dishes. Despite the repetition, this was actually easier to pay attention to, maybe because A) I was doing something instead of trying to sit still, and B) it wasn’t discussing grammar.

I also logged onto Skype but the four or five people I’ve connected with so far weren’t online (not surprising, since it was 6am in Germany). Then I sent a bunch of messages to more people on Conversation Exchange.

Comprehensible input

Comprehensible input is all about finding input that’s just above your current level, and/or that has enough visual cues that you can get the gist of what it’s saying. Some also claim [citation needed] that it’s not enough to merely understand the message being conveyed, but for it to really be effective you should also understand how the individual words are functioning or what idioms are being used. I’d rather not believe this part though, because it’s annoying.

Here are a few ideas I came across today:

Narrow reading & listening – A problem with comprehensible input, especially at first, is finding content that’s interesting enough to keep you engaged. I would love to find a nice German friend who’s willing to talk to me in extremely slow, simple sentences, use exaggerated body language, repeat everything and making sure I’m following along, and also cook breakfast for me. Until I find that person I’m probably going to be relying on the internet a lot (except for the breakfast part). One way to make interesting input become comprehensible faster is to narrow down the subject matter. This decreases the amount of vocabulary you need to learn before things start to make some sense. In trying to narrow things down, I asked myself a couple questions:

  • Why, after all, am I learning German? What do I like about Germany or the German language?
  • What can I learn about or accomplish in German?

The only answer I’ve come up with so far to either question is bread.

Children’s shows – One obvious place to get simple input that’s designed to be comprehensible and that does almost everything the ideal German babysitter I described above would do is children’s shows. I was very pleased to learn about the existence of Sesamestraße, whose omission from my German curriculum has now been rectified.

For some reason listening to Ernie and Bert speak German about a missing piece of cake makes me want to give them both a hug.

Dubbed movies – Watching your favorite movies dubbed in German seems like a good way to get comprehensible input that’s also interesting. What isn’t clear to me yet is where to find them outside of video stores in Germany.

Labeling – Take the tried-and-true method of putting sticky notes on everything and everyone in your life, and make it even better by labeling with complete phrases and sentences instead of just boring vocabulary words. So, for example, I can put a sticky on the door to my room with something like “Ich habe die Tür geöffnet” or put one on my roommate Laurent that says “Laurent wischt den Boden”.

Thinking about finding some narrow listening material, I searched for “brot” in the German podcast iTunes store. I came up with a couple culinary podcasts with episodes about bread. And for some reason there were also a couple educational podcasts about learning German targeted at Chinese speakers. Why not, I guess?

German Day 12 – Freitag, meta-learning day

Today I’m putting my German learning on the back burner and focusing on meta-learning instead, or learning about language acquisition.

The polyglot I mentioned in the last post sent me some videos about language acquisition. The following two are talks from the 80s by Stephen Krashen:

I love how awkward it is when he makes an off-color joke and there’s just silence. Laugh tracks weren’t invented yet I guess.

These talks make a distinction between language learning and language acquisition. Language learning is learning about a language, and it’s something we do consciously. Language acquisition, on the other hand, is something the brain does automatically under the right conditions. Language acquisition is, as the name implies, the only way to acquire a language.

A few key points:

  • Language acquisition happens only one way: it happens involuntarily when one is exposed to enough comprehensible input in the target language.
  • Caveat: Anxiety, low confidence, and low motivation can prevent acquisition even in the presence of said input. This is called the affective filter.
  • Second languages are acquired the same way that first languages are acquired, by the same part of the brain, which doesn’t degenerate as one gets older. It never gets any harder to acquire another language (barring dementia I guess).
  • Surprising corollary: Practicing speaking doesn’t directly help with acquiring a language; speaking is a result of acquiring a language. It may help with the acquisition indirectly if it elicits more comprehensible input (as in, say, a conversation), but talking to yourself doesn’t help.

(I have one question about this point that speaking doesn’t actually help with language acquisition: what about pronunciation? Doesn’t it take practice to learn how to pronounce things correctly? Or is this pronunciation seen as not being part of language acquisition in this context?)

What does this mean? In theory, if I spend enough time exposing myself to comprehensible input in German, I’ll eventually reach fluency even if I never speak a single word until that point. Though it doesn’t usually work like that; in normal life, one tends to start speaking in the new language as one is acquiring it. It’s hard to have an interesting conversation if you don’t talk.

What is comprehensible input? From what I can tell, it means speech where you understand the content of what’s being said. You might not get every single word, but you get the general message. Supposedly, that’s enough.

How long does it take? I don’t know, and it depends on the amount of input of course, but it sounds like somewhat fluent speech starts to happen after about six months of high exposure.

Another, more recent video that’s more applied:

The video lists some actions, that I’ll paraphrase as I understand them:

  1. “Brain soaking” – i.e. passive input. This is almost a type of physiological training. It signals your brain that the sounds of the target language are important, and tells it to stop filtering out those sounds as noise.
  2. Pay attention to meaning first. When you’re watching or listening to something, use things like body language and tone to get the message that’s being expressed. This is more important than the words per se.
  3. Focus on the most common words and phrases. Especially phrases that you’ll actually need to say in situations where you’re learning the language.
  4. Find a language parent. This is someone who fills the role a parent does with a child acquiring their first language — communicating in simple language they know the child understands. A good language parent:
    1. Works hard to understand what you’re saying.
    2. Never corrects your mistakes.
    3. Confirms understanding by using correct language (different from correcting).
    4. Uses words you know.
  5. Copy the face / mouth muscle movements of native speakers.
  6. Connect concepts to images in your mind.

According to Lonsdale, if you follow all of these actions, you can get “fluent” in any language in about six months.

Finally, one more humbling lesson: Google and YouTube can be really useful. I could have found any of these videos myself during the last seven years of independent language study, but I didn’t.

How can I apply this to my own learning?

I want to look at the materials and methods I’ve been using so far in this new light.

  1. Podcasts. These seem super useful. Especially dialogues and monologues in German where I know what’s being said, either because the podcast explains it, or I look it up, or because of other cues.                           Question: Where does the 15-minutes-per-day limit that the polyglot from the cafe mentioned come from? The message I get from the above videos is an unqualified “more is better.”
  2. Videos. Things like “Harry lost in time” seem very well designed from this point of view, since they show people speaking German with enough visual hints and context to be understandable. The only really problem is that they actually have quite a lot of English content with just a little German mixed in. Hopefully the German-to-English ratio increases over time?
  3. Anki 10,000 sentences. This is problematic since each sentence is out of context. It’s far from ideal, anyway. But maybe if I can understand what’s being said just from the language, it’s good practice — just less efficient.
  4. Reading (Ilya Frank). I don’t really know how all this applies to reading comprehension, but my initial guess is that this is a good way to acquire reading since it seems to analogously provide comprehensible input in the target language.
  5. Written production (Lang-8). Probably not very useful from the point of view of acquisition, since it’s just production practice.
  6. Conversation. This is interesting. I had thought that the most value from conversation practice was the practice I would get from speaking the language, i.e. getting used to recalling and using the words I’d been learning from other sources. But now it sounds like the most value comes from hearing the other person speak — about things and in terms that I can understand. I think I need to spend more time thinking about how to arrange this in the most effective way.
  7. DuoLingo. Most of the exercises seem pretty useless.