Special Edition – A meeting with a real polyglot

Tonight (still Wednesday, August 10th) I went to a language cafe meet-up in Taipei for the first time.

The way it works: Each table in the cafe is assigned a particular language. The people at that table converse in just that language for two hours. There’s one native speaker or “teacher” at each table whose job it is to correct mistakes or fill in blanks if needed or desired, and to lead the conversation. According to the website, Wednesday features a German table. Solid.

Tonight’s cafe was from 7 to 9. I got there around 7:30. The cafe was on a dimly lit backstreet where everything else was closed. There was no sandwich board or awning telling people any distance away that there was something worth checking out on this street. When I approached the cafe and looked through the window, I was surprised to see the place full of people crowded around the seven or eight little tables.

I went inside and a woman jumped up from one of these tables, took my 100 NT and gave me a drink slip. When I told her I was there to practice German, she laughed ruefully and told me they had just lost their German native speaker. So much for that.

I looked around. There were two tables with Japanese conversations in full swing, another one with English, a crowded French table, one with Thai, and set off further into one corner was one with a few foreigners practicing their Chinese. At one last table a lone man was sitting, looking solemnly at a big, open notebook. The sign at his table read “Italian”.

I got a jasmine tea and sat down at the one Japanese table with an empty seat. The teacher was a young exchange student. He was going to college in Thailand, actually, and proudly showed us his Thai student ID cards and international driver’s license.

I’m not sure why I’m including this much detail about the cafe. I guess I just thought it was kind of funny.

Around half past eight a woman came over from the French table and pulled up a chair. Her Japanese was easily more fluent than anyone else at the table aside from our teacher, the exchange student. When someone asked how her long she had been studying Japanese, she said it had been a year and half since she started learning by coming to this very cafe. In the meantime she had also been working on her French, German, and two or three other languages (I didn’t get to listen to the others, but her French sounded quite good to my well trained American ear).

She couldn’t have possibly learned this much just by practicing speaking a few times a week. What else did she do? I asked her. She said there was also a study component. She’d listen to the same audio material for ten to fifteen minutes a day and tried to imitate it. Once she was able to mimic this — after about a week, say — she would move on to another one. Each audio piece was only a minute or two long, so this meant repeating it several times in that short time span. She said it’s this combination of short repetition and imitation that makes it so effective. Apart from this short daily active listening, she spent a lot of time on passive listening to other material as well.

Given her apparent but slightly incredible success learning languages, I told her about my project, to study a different language intensively every month, and I asked her what she thought. She shook her head and told me this wasn’t the way language learning worked. Something about scientific studies.

There is something elegant about the idea that languages are best learned in parallel and not in series. Since I conceived of this harebrained project I’d been wondering what would become of my German, French, etc. after their months had passed and they’d been relegated to the “done” pile. Would I just forget them? Would I keeping having to find more and more time to pack their Anki reviews into my already taxing study schedule?

Languages aren’t things you just learn and then stash forever in your trophy room. At the risk of sounding cliché: languages in the mind are just like languages outside the mind — they are living, constantly changing entities that grow through usage. And the way you use them is by communicating with people or paying attention to your TV, radio, or other propaganda devices. So learning languages over time, bit by bit, even if several at a time, seems much more natural and sustainable than trying to shoehorn them one by one into different pockets in one’s increasingly besieged brain. #mixingmetaphorsisfun

I know it’s impulsive and maybe even treasonous to suddenly change strategies so thoroughly after one has already embarked on an ambitious project like this. Especially given that this is an experiment, and so although I would prefer it to be a success and have mastered German by the end of the month, it’s also acceptable — and much more likely — that I’ll only have succeeded in learning a little bit of German, and most of the gains will be of a different kind. That is, I’ve always expected the bigger rewards to be lessons learned about the process of language learning, and being able to do better next time — on the next language, the next month.

Let me cut to the chase, since I could ramble on but I sort of already know where this is going. I have a choice to make. Either I can stubbornly continue spending four or more hours a day the way I’ve been doing until my month-long sentence is up, or I can jump ship.

On the one hand we have a studying method that, while ambitious, was maybe just slightly doomed from the get-go. On the other hand we have a newer method that, while sounding a little too good to be true, seems to be based on better principles.

What if this is a false dichotomy. Maybe I accept that it’s impossible to learn a language well in a month no matter how many hours one spends per day (impossible for most people, anyway). On the other hand, just suddenly starting several languages all at once, giving fifteen minutes a day of active listening to each one, filling up the rest of my time with a multilingual hodgepodge of passive listening and conversation practice in all these equally unfamiliar tongues sounds like a perfect recipe for brain implosion.

It takes time to set up and start learning a new language. It also takes time to maintain it. What if the best way is to do both? To start languages in serial, and then continue them in parallel. It sounds so obvious when I put it like that. I probably could have asked any even semi-accomplished, yeoman polyglot and gotten the same answer, and saved myself all this trouble. But that’s why it’s a trial-and-error blog, isn’t it? It’s more fun to figure things out for yourself sometimes. And I’m putting yeoman polyglot on my new name cards.

How is this different from the way I was studying Chinese and Japanese before? The relentless listen-on-repeat-and-imitate-until-(this is what happens when I get sleepy and even English starts to fail me)-you-can-faithfully-mimic method isn’t exactly new to me, but I’ve never tried it before to this extent and with these specific parameters. A couple years ago I listened to an audiobook in Chinese, repeating a particular chapter every day for two or three weeks before continuing on to the next one. There are a few differences, clearly. Even with these differences, though, I think it did help my Chinese.

Another difference: if I really emulate the woman from the cafe, I should put a much bigger emphasis than I have been on getting regular speaking practice. I’m embarrassed to admit it, since I knew this was the most important part, but it’s clear from looking over the past several days of studying that I made this a low priority. Understandable, given that it’s the hardest part to control because it depends on others’ availability. But excuses don’t really work in language learning.

I don’t think this active listening should necessarily replace all the other ways I’ve been learning. It’s all good, it’s all helpful to various extents. The important point is prioritizing more effective tools, even if they’re the most difficult or least convenient. DuoLingo is easy, but I should maybe stop kidding myself that it’s actually teaching me German.

Tentatively, then, I could try reprioritizing as follows:

  1. Active listening. Find a one-to-two-minute clip of spoken German to repeat for 15 minutes a day, and repeat until it becomes easy.
  2. Conversation. Make this the first or second thing I do in a day, not the last. Continue until I have scheduled sessions every day or almost every day.
  3. Passive listening. Find material to listen to whenever I’m not studying and have the attention available to listen.
  4. Everything else: Anki, reading, fun educational podcasts (other than the one I’m repeating actively, if this is what I’m using for that), writing, etc.

Looking at it this way, this seems to be a complete reversal of what I had been doing until now.

Do I still need to spend four hours a day? More to the point, it’s really not important how much time I spend “studying”. The time limit is really just a way for me to hold myself accountable. If I do the 15 minutes of active listening every day and also have a conversation of really any length (I met another polyglot tonight who speaks to himself whenever he can’t find a conversation partner. I figure I already have an advantage since I can speak to my imaginary sock puppet.) — if I can do that plus a few hours of passive listening, I daresay that could already be more effective than the four hours of podcasts, Anki, reading, writing, and DuoLingo that I’ve been doing (in terms of learning to speak fluently, at least).

I would hate for someone to say all this was just an elaborate way of rationalizing my way out of four hours of work per day. To prevent any such attacks, I think I’m going to maintain my commitment of four hours per day of German this month, but just change the way I’m spending the time. Instead of filling it up with the aforementioned miscellany, I’m going to use it to guarantee I’m making an honest effort to get conversation practice. If I spend four full hours looking for a conversation partner and still haven’t found one, at least I can say I tried. More likely, I’ll soon find enough conversation partners, and then I can spend the rest of the time watching Harry Walcott try to get himself struck by lighting again or washing the dishes and memorizing Rammstein lyrics.

German Day 10 – Mittwoch

Yesterday I made plans with a nice German person from conversationexchange.com to Skype today at 3pm (ten minutes from now).

This time I’ve prepared a list of questions and phrases to refer to if I run out of things to say (which is likely to happen within the first 10 seconds):

Schön sie kennenzulernen.
Was bedeutet das?
Wie bitte?
Könnten Sie das noch einmal sagen, bitte?
Wie sagt man…
Vielen Dank für treffen mit mir!
Woher kommen Sie?
Wie geht es Ihnen?
Wie spät ist es dort?
Es ist drei Uhr.
Was sind Ihre Hobbys?
Ich koche gern.
Ich mag radfahren.
Ich reise gerne.
Was ist Ihr Lieblingsessen?
Ich mag Kaffee.
In welchen Ländern bist du gewesen?
Ich habe in Japan gewesen.
Ich habe schon in China.
Ich mag Sprachen lernen.
Ich kann Chinesisch.
Ich habe seit sieben Jahren gelernt.
Was haben Sie am Wochenende vor?
Ich werde ein Jazz-Konzert.
Im Park.
Warum lernen Sie Spanisch?
Waren Sie schon in Spanien?
Haben Sie Kinder?
Wie alt sind Ihre Kinder?

Some of them might be wrong — they’re just from Google Translate — and that’s OK. This time I want to look up words as little as possible during the conversation. I’ll try to go at least 20 minutes or until I’ve exhausted this list, whichever happens first.

Here’s another idea: maybe I’ll try making an audio recording of my next conversation so I can review it later.

German Day 9 – Tuesday

TADPHAT: 4 hours

  • Active listening: 60 minutes
  • Listening comprehension (Anki): 60 minutes.
  • DuoLingo: 10 minutes.
  • Reading (Ilya Frank method): 25 minutes.
  • Written comprehension and production (texting + Anki): 45 minutes.
  • Written production (Lang-8): 40 minutes.
  • Speaking: None.

I was more efficient with my time today. But even still, I didn’t find anyone to practice speaking with, even though I see this as the most important (and scariest) part of starting a new language.

It didn’t help that I left it until I’d finished everything else and didn’t have much time. Though on the other hand, when it’s morning in Taiwan it’s the middle of the night in Germany, so it does make sense from that point of view to wait until late afternoon.

I connected with a few people on HelloTalk and sent messages to two contacts on Skype who happened to be online, but somehow or other it didn’t turn into an audio or video chat session. I think it’s at least partly that I was unprepared. I could imagine things going more smoothly if I plan chat sessions ahead of time, and before they start prepare some notes or questions to ask in German.

German Day 8 – Monday, Aug 8

TADPHAT: 2 hours, 55 minutes.

  • Active listening: 60 minutes
  • Listening comprehension (Anki): 60 minutes.
  • DuoLingo: 20 minutes.
  • Reading (Ilya Frank method): 15 minutes.
  • Written comprehension and production (texting): 20 minutes.
  • Written production (Lang-8): None.
  • Speaking: None.

I got thrown off a bit today. I spent the first hour on podcasts like I’ve been doing, but when the hour was up I spent another 15 minutes “off the clock” — not using a timer — searching for other podcasts. Then I spent about an hour doing Anki, but still had a lot of reps left over. And by the time that was over, it had actually been three hours since I started studying — somehow I’d lost an hour between the extra podcast searches, walking to the cafe — only to find it’s closed on Mondays — and then walking back, and brewing a pot of tea. At that point I was sleepy and took a 20-minute nap.

After my nap I chatted in German on this app I found yesterday called HelloTalk. This wasn’t as ideal as using Skype and actually speaking, but it’s still good production practice, since I have to figure out how to say things I would actually say, rather than just learning variations of le singe est sur la branche (I’m looking at you, DuoLingo).

I don’t have any time left today, but maybe later I can find time to add those sentences (which I typed into a Google Translate tab that I’ve left open) to my Anki deck. I’m also a little disappointed that I didn’t do any reading of the annotated Immensee. Maybe I’ll make that my bedtime reading tonight.

I think one lesson to be (re)learned here is that things take longer than you expect. When I set my ideal study schedule as two solid two-hour blocks of concentrated study, it didn’t occur to me that interruptions might happen.

I guess there are two ways I can choose to deal with this. Either I can just accept that my four hours a day won’t actually mean four hours of actually practicing, or I can try to dedicate even more time every day to studying.

German Day 7

TADPHAT: 3 hours, 20 minutes.

  • Active listening: 60 minutes
  • Listening comprehension (Anki): 60 minutes.
  • DuoLingo AKA German class: 20 minutes.
  • Reading (Ilya Frank method): 30 minutes.
  • Written comprehension, some production (Anki): 20 minutes.
  • Written production (Lang-8): 10 minutes.
  • Speaking & Listening (Skype): None.

10:00 – 11:00

Listened to Radio D, Learn German by Podcast, the two Deutsche Welle shows, and a bit of Slow German.

11:30 – 12:30

Spent 20 minutes on DuoLingo, then 40 minutes on the 10,000-sentence Anki deck. I’ve set the deck to give me 75 new cards a day. Today it took me a little over an hour to finish all the due reps, and this will probably increase over the next few days, so I might have to dial it back if I can’t keep up.

1:00 – 1:30

Read an Ilya Frank reading method annotated version of Immensee by Theodor Storm.

2:00 – 2:30

Wrote a short entry on Lang-8 and corrected a couple other people’s English entries.

3:00 – 5:00

Since no one was on Skype, I searched for new language exchange sites, and looked at the three German-related Taiwan-based Facebook groups I recently joined. There are also a couple language exchange apps that I have yet to try. It’s too bad that I didn’t actually do any conversation practice today. Instead I’m going to read my corrected Lang-8 journal entry from yesterday. That’ll have to do.

Starting tomorrow I’ll try to do some speaking without the visual cues.

German Day 6

Total actual Deutsch practice-having-applied-time (TADPHAT):

2 hours, 25 minutes.

  • Active listening: 60 minutes
  • Listening comprehension (Anki): 40 minutes.
  • Written comprehension, some production (Anki): 20 minutes.
  • Written production (Lang-8): 15 minutes.
  • Speaking & Listening (Skype): 10 minutes.

Hour 1

Listening to podcasts: Lesson 4 from Radio D, lesson 5 from Learn German by Podcast, and repeated lesson 1 of Slow German. Then I watched/listened to the first episode of Harry Lost in Time and Mission Berlin, both really cool shows from Deutsche Welle.

Hour 2

DuoLingo and Anki. For Anki, I only did the 10,000-sentence deck (see video below) and the MCD (massive cloze deletion) deck I made myself from a Slow German transcript. I’m thinking about deleting the 2,000-word deck. It’s just not very fun to learn vocabulary words completely out of context like that.

Hour 3

I wrote a short introduction in German on Lang-8 (and spent a bit longer correcting other people’s English entries), sent friend requests to a bunch of German speakers on the site, and finished turning the Slow German lesson about Biergartens into Anki flashcards. I also found out about a language meetup in Taiwan that has German speakers on Wednesdays.

Hour 4

I had a 40-minute conversation on Skype with somebody I contacted on Conversation Exchange. We didn’t plan it, just happened to be online at the same time. Only ten of those minutes were spent speaking German, unfortunately.

Calling these time periods hours is a little bit of an exaggeration. They probably add up to more like three hours of actually studying. I’m trying to be easy on myself about that though.

German Day 5

Today is the first day I’ll actually spend four solid hours learning German. In the last few days I’ve collected some resources:


1. Free audio / podcasts

     Slow German by Annik Rubens (http://slowgerman.com/)

     Text read in a slow, precise accent. Transcripts available on the website.

     Radio D / Goethe Institute (http://www.goethe.de/lrn/prj/rod/enindex.htm)

     Ten- to 15-minute audio lessons. The first two lessons focus on inferring meaning without actually knowing the vocabulary.

– The content so far has very little dialogue and is a little boring (not surprising given the simplicity constraint), but the British narrator has an amusing sarcasm that makes it more bearable.

– In lesson 3 they actually go back and explain the dialogue from lessons 1 and 2.

     Learn German by Podcast / Plus Publications (http://www.learngermanbypodcast.com/)

     Five to 15-minute audio lessons with lots of repetition and explanation of the dialogue.

– In lesson 3 there was one chance to practice production, of the form “How would you say …?”

– I was glad to find that I got the verb conjugation of “heißen” right based on memory of sentences I’d heard before, without actually having learned how to conjugate the verb.

     Video: Yabla

     I think this is video content of German classes, with subtitles in German and English.

Two lessons were about grammar, so they’re a bit dry and not my favored style right now.

One was a person introducing a city. Also not very gripping.

To keep in mind: if content would be boring in English, it’s probably not going to be better in another language.

2. Flashcards / Anki

     Common words taken from movie subtitles. My main criticism is that they are out of context, which makes them harder to learn — especially the abstract ones. The audio quality isn’t great.

     Huge trove of sentences, fair audio quality. Lots of repetition of very similar sentences. Ideally this will help me infer the grammatical nuances more quickly.

– Another benefit of having so much repetition: it’s harder to guess the meaning of a sentence based on memory since it could be one of many similar sentences, so it really forces me to pay attention to the entire content of each sentence.

– The massive repetition also makes it easier to infer grammar rules.


     I’ve started making a deck using sentences from the Slow German podcast transcript (I barely understand the podcast otherwise, since it doesn’t contain explanations). I’m using the MCD style, turning words I want to learn into cloze deletions.


     Pros: Gamified and therefore addictive, easy to do. Easy to learn new vocab.

     Cons: Groups by concept instead of clustering, so, e.g. you learn all the animals at the same time. The questions are mostly presented like a multiple choice test, which makes it easy to guess the right answer and feel like you’re making progress, but makes retention and recall much harder.

– I’ll try to make up for the topic clustering a little by only doing one lesson per topic each time.

3. Conversation

     Conversation Exchange (http://www.conversationexchange.com/)

     Find a conversation exchange partner. I’m still struggling with this. I’ve added a couple potential conversation partners on Skype, but haven’t set up any sessions with them yet.

     Italki (https://www.italki.com/)

     I’m looking for someone who is open to informal conversation practice and isn’t too expensive. So far the cheapest native fluency German teachers I’ve found are around $15 an hour or more.

4. Writing

     Lang8 (http://lang-8.com/)

     Get writing practice, get corrections, and meet people. I’ve actually met a few conversation exchange partners on this site when I was studying Japanese before.

—– —– —–

Today I think I am prepared for a decent audio practice and flashcard practice. Both of these things strengthen comprehension and vocab. But I don’t have any resources set up for conversation (spoken production) yet. I’ll spend the time I would have spent on practicing conversation on finding a way to practice conversation.

German Day 3


Maybe it was silly to think that I could hit the ground running on the first day of a new language while traveling in China. Being in an elaborately traditional Chinese wedding ceremony the few days before the start date — when I should have been collecting study material and arranging Skype sessions — didn’t make it any easier.


Now it’s the third day after I was ostensibly going to start studying German for four hours a day, but the only studying I’ve managed to accomplish so far is an hour of DuoLingo on the bus ride back from Kaiyuan to Kunming. And that was only possible because I’d installed it on my phone last year on a whim.


I did contact a few potential conversation partners on conversationexchange.com, but haven’t arranged any sessions yet. I also found a few potential Anki decks of common German words and phrases, but gave up on downloading them after the internet connection in Kaiyuan proved too slow.

#noexcuses #staypositive

This isn’t an excuse or a complaint. Neither of those attitudes would be productive. This is just a description of the current situation of this experiment. Now I can decide how to continue.

#premise #stayfocused

To reiterate, the premise of this experiment isn’t to become especially good at German, or to spend a month studying as effectively as possible. Considering my minimal experience, that would be presumptuous. The goals of this exercise are simply to discover what techniques work best and what challenges I haven’t anticipated, and to uncover what questions I haven’t thought to ask yet. In other words, I hope to get better at starting a new language effectively.


I liked the idea of starting on the first of the month, but clearly that’s arbitrary. Since it’s already the third and I haven’t really started, I could decide to make the month of studying start tomorrow or the next day, once I’m back in Taiwan, and just go into September. Or I could be even less of a perfectionist, and just chalk up these days of not studying as part of the learning process. It actually doesn’t matter right now which one I choose. These are just the neuroses of someone who is too obsessed with doing things the “right way” — when in fact there is no right way. All that really matters is that I start studying as soon as I can.

I was thinking of using the last week in July to prepare all my studying material beforehand, and then start full steam ahead on August 1st. But now I think it’s more realistic to just start as best I can with what I have, and continue to look for more resources as I go. The only constant is that once I get back to Taiwan, I will spend four hours a day working on this. As much as possible, these will be the same four hours, from 10am to 12pm, and from 1pm to 3pm.

I have an outline for an ideal day of studying. I doubt I’ll be able to conform to this perfectly from the get-go, but it’s something to aim for over time. I can periodically refer to it as a reminder of how else I can improve my studying regimen:


10:00 – 11:00

Active listening & watching practice: Pre-made lessons, podcasts, educational videos, simple entertainment videos, Pimsleur and other audio.

11:00 – 12:00

Flashcard reviews. Anki. DuoLingo.

12:00 – 1:00

Lunch. Rest or passive listening (news, podcasts, TV shows & movies without English subtitles)

1:00 – 1:30

Writing (Lang8). Prepare questions and topics for conversation practice.

1:30 – 2:30

Conversation practice / Skype (clearly this might be hard to schedule at the same time every day)

2:30 – 3:00

Create new flashcards from conversation topics and other items that came up earlier.


If I don’t have enough good material for any of these sections, I can spend part of that time looking for material instead of studying.