Hybrid flashcards and the YouTube spirit

Lately I’ve been putting my faith in YouTube. A language practice session has become a YouTube browsing session. The target is comprehensible input. The ideal video is one that is so interesting it makes me forget I’m watching it in a foreign language. This immediately rules out all educational material.

It’s a leap of faith because, I can’t tell if it’s working. When I make vocabulary flashcards or work through podcasts with transcripts, I can point at what I’ve learned each time. But with this method, where the goal isn’t “learning” per se but language acquisition, I can’t tell. I probably won’t know whether it’s effective for some time.

It’s been easier in French, where my comprehension is so-so and I can rely on the abundant cognates to give me clues. I’ve been watching TED talks and other motivational, edutainment style videos. I don’t think I catch more than 50%, but that’s usually been enough to keep me edutained.

With German it’s more difficult. My language comprehension has been closer to 0%. What I do understand of the content I get from the visual and tonal cues. Because of this, it’s been harder to find videos that hold my attention for more than ten seconds.

The good thing is that I see that if I can just get my German comprehension to the same level as my French, I’ll be able to start really watching. Now the trick is just how to get there.


I haven’t given up on flashcards completely yet. I’ve still been making vocabulary cards from frequency lists, using the Fluent Forever card template. I’ve done this more with German than French, since I can see my German vocabulary is seriously porous. I’m starting with these nouns, because they’re easy, and just because. I can make about two cards a minute, or 120 cards in an hour. It’s kind of fun putting these together, looking on Google Image Search for funny, artistic, or bizarre pictures representing this basic vocabulary. And again, I get the constant reassurance that I’m really learning useful things. Now I know how to say thought (der Gedanke), point (der Punkt), and death (der Tod) in Deutsch!

And I’ve had a few experiences recently that have made me more confident that these work. A few times at the Polyglot Cafe, I’ve been able to recall words from these cards immediately and use them with pretty much no hesitation. Say what you like about vocabulary lists, but building connections between images, sounds, and word concepts — with no English — seems effective.

I’ve also been doing a small deck I made of cloze deletions of sentences from one Slow German dialog. Again, it’s just a relatively painless way to learn the sentences in the dialog so that I can understand them when I’m shadowing them. Then I can more or less keep up with the dialog after, say, 10 repetitions instead of, say, 70. Is that cheating?

When I do this shadowing, however, I’ve noticed that there are a few sentences that I still have problems with. The way I read the sentence to myself when I do the flashcards (i.e., slowly) doesn’t quite correlate in my mind with the sentence I hear spoken when I do the shadowing (tends to be very fast).

New cards

What can I do? Finding how easy it was to drag and drop audio from Forvo into an Anki card gave me an idea. Why not add the audio from the shadowing material directly onto the flashcards? I can make a card where the front is a piece of audio, the back is the German text and, if needed, some translation.

Then I’ll get the shadowing practice and the transcript memorization at the same time. I won’t have to worry about not correlating the two, and it’s just more efficient.

The card creation process

I take an episode from Der Explikator, in this case one about quantum computers. I know, that’s sounds insane as a first choice. I load the mp3 into Audacity. Then I take a snippet of audio, export it, and drag it onto the front of a new card. Finally, I find the corresponding sentence in the transcript, paste it into Google Translate, and copy both the German and the French translation (why not get some French practice, right?) onto the back of the card.

It’s like a combination of the 10,000 sentences Anki deck — good for very basic listening comprehension, I’ve decided, but bad for anything else — and the erstwhile audio-less podcast-shadowing-cheating cards I’ve been making.

The downside is it just took me about 20 minutes to make 15 cards. It’s kind of tedious. If the cards ramp up my listening comprehension as much and as fast as I’m hoping, maybe it’s worth it. If not…

Actually, what I really wanted to do was use this technique to make cards based on a YouTube video. It would be just great if I could do this with some natural, everyday German dialog, since what I really want to get better at is conversation. But I so far haven’t found any such videos that also have (non-auto-generated) closed captions. Oh well. At least this way I get to learn about quantum computers.

France trip recap, YouTube videos


It’s been a few weeks since I’ve made a post — a first since I started this journal. The pause neatly coincided with a two-week trip to France to see my family.

For a while I told myself I should still post while in France. When I didn’t, I started feeling guilty about it. The fact of traveling was only a little satisfying as an excuse.

It’s not as if I was too busy practicing French to write a blog post. I hopefully expected that I would be spending most of my time speaking French, but this was deluded. After all, my family members and I speak English with each other. We had a few gratifying moments of speaking French together for fun, but that was all. The most French I spoke was on the few times we went to my aunt and uncle’s house.

Speaking French with French people, when it did happen, had a few common characteristics. If I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say, I would try “talking around” the word, i.e. saying it in a different way. But, once in unfamiliar territory, I would get hung up on some conjugation or inflection and start stuttering. Seeing the impatience in my interlocutor’s eyes only made it worse. Once, at a bakery, the baker cut me off and said “just say it in English.” Ouch. Sure, I was embarrassed, but in hindsight I’m a little proud of this minor incident.

On the whole, I think my French was improved by my month of semi-negligent practice. A few times I had occasion to use one of the words I’d made a Fluent Forever-style flashcard for; when I did, I found I was able to recall these words with little effort.

I frequently got hung up on the gender of a noun I wanted to say. Is it “encore un fois” or “encore une fois“? I was met with confusion when I said “Je voudrais un tart”. “Je voudrais une tarte?” I tried again, this time getting the desired response. Lately, when making the vocabulary cards, I’ve started making gender a part of the answer and not just showing it on the front of the card.

Now I think the break from writing was in a certain way a blessing in disguise. Again, the regularity of my posting had started turning it into an obligation. Having not posted for three weeks and seeing that the world didn’t end, I feel a bit freer again.

Miscellaneous YouTube

The other night I got some advice from another eminent polyglot. I was telling him that my main method for studying was shadowing, repeating the same podcast over and over. This is a good method, he said, but personally he doesn’t repeat the same material twice, since variety is more realistic and common expressions or phrases occur frequently anyway.

I said I also watch TV, namely Breaking Bad in French, but wasn’t sure if it was really helping. Though I can usually get the sense of what’s being said, even if I sometimes have to pause and re-read the subtitles, I don’t recall any words or phrases actually sticking so I can use them later. And sometimes I get stressed trying to follow the story and worrying about whether I’m actually improving my French this way (I know, I’m not supposed to think this way). The polyglot said the material might be the issue. Maybe I should try something less intense. He tends to watch YouTube videos of people talking about this or that topic. The stakes are much lower and people tend to use more everyday language in this context compared to the way people speak on TV shows.

New thing to try: search YouTube for miscellaneous videos in the target language(s), particularly those related to my interests.

Anki 10,000 sentences

I’m going to stop doing these. Especially during the trip, it felt more and more like an obligation and less and less fun. I also didn’t notice it helping much with my French. Sometimes, when I wanted to say something, I would remember having a card for that exact expression, but I couldn’t recall it. This is unsurprising, given the directionality of the cards; they’re for comprehension, not production. And I think they have helped my comprehension, especially in the case of German. But at this point I think they’ve served their purpose, and the value in continuing doesn’t outweigh the cost of time and stress. I’m much better off spending the time and energy on shadowing and listening practice, I think.

Accountability calendar

I started using a planner to keep track of how much I’m actually practicing every day. I keep it next to my bed, and every night record approximately how much time I spent practicing what languages by what method. I hope this will do two things. First, it will give me some feedback and keep me honest: I’ll see which days I was more or less effective, and be able to consciously adjust accordingly. Second, it will give me a record that I can look back on to explain improvements or lack thereof. Oh, no wonder my German hasn’t gotten better this week. I never practiced!

Sourdough oatmeal pancakes and context

This has nothing to do with languages (or does it?). I’ve struggled for a while to make good, fluffy sourdough pancakes. Sometimes they taste good but don’t rise enough. Sometimes they rise but don’t taste good (usually because I added too much baking soda).

Last night I mixed one part high-gluten flour, one part oats, one part water, and about half-part sourdough starter — where one part is about half a cup — and added an egg. I mixed it all together and went off to have nightmares about food poisoning from raw eggs left to sit at room temperature overnight.

This morning the batter was full of bubbles, and made a fluffy and intensely sour pancake. No baking soda necessary. What was the difference? The oats? The fact that I let the egg ferment with all the other ingredients instead of adding it right before cooking like I usually do? The only thing is the edge of the pancake, instead of being a smooth curve, is lumpy, kind of like the edge of some oatmeal cookies.

These pancakes are the perfect thing to eat while watching Breaking Bad dubbed in French with French subtitles. I tried watching for a while without subtitles but got frustrated that I was missing so much. Then I turned on Chinese subtitles. This made the story comprehensible if I paid attention to the subtitles, but then I started tuning out the French audio. Now, the French subtitles don’t match the audio very well it seems. But I think this is still the best compromise. It’s enough that I can understand the story, and hey, everything is French, so I must be learning something, right? Doesn’t that satisfy all the criteria of comprehensible input?

Anki sentences: creating context

When I’m doing reps on my Anki deck of sentences, I still find myself translating mentally into English for most of the cards. It’s understandable. Without any context to help me create a mental picture of what’s happening, it’s not surprising that it often takes less mental effort to just translate into English.

I have also caught myself using memory on some of the cards. Some of the sentences do appear too frequently in slightly varying forms for me to do this, things like “he didn’t tell me everything”/”she didn’t tell me everything”/”that’s all he told me”, etc. are so similar that I really do need to understand the whole sentence to get it right. But some cards, like “I simply kept my mouth shut”, only appear once. All I have to do is recognize one unique word in the sentence, and then my brain stops working because it knows the answer.

Here’s one idea. What if I add context by making up a story around some of these sentences? We used to have an illustrated version of the Elements of Style. The pictures are often humorous, sometimes loosely associated illustrations of example sentences used in the book. By supplying imagery to go with the text, they make it both more entertaining and easier to remember (for me, at least).

Maybe I can try something similar, like drawing pictures to illustrate things being described in the sentences I’m learning. If there’s a readymade mental image at hand, maybe my brain will be less tempted to go down the English-translation route.

Of course, it would be time-consuming to draw pictures for every single sentence. Maybe at first I can focus on a few sentences that I find myself most clearly having trouble visualizing. Or maybe I can find some way to draw a picture that applies to multiple sentences with just a little adjustment (“I gave her a book”/”He gave me the book”). Even better if these images could somehow be broad enough to cover most or all of the sentences in the deck.

What makes good shadowing material?

I found this database of educational materials called MERLOT, which is where IE Languages says its audio comes from. Browsing all the French language material, there’s a lot of irrelevant stuff, but I haven’t given up hope of finding hidden gems.

Status update

Here’s what I’ve been up to these past few days. I’m still doing the 10,000-sentence Anki decks for French and German, with 60 new French cards a day and 30 new German cards, which takes me around 30 minutes total. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s 30 minutes of pretty intense concentration. It’s around 600 repetitions total, which is like three seconds per card.

I bought a few more natural-speed dialogues from Slow German (for €0.84 each), and I’ve been shadowing just one, about the weather, the last three or four days. It’s just under 2 minutes, and I shadow each of the two speakers four times, so that takes 15 minutes. I remember the gist of what they’re saying, but some of the pronunciation (especially consonants) and some words still mystify me.

What makes for good shadowing?

I tried shadowing a story from Français Authentique, but my brain kept revolting and refusing to pay attention to such a boring story. I’m surprised and a little amazed that this story, which is five minutes long and about a woman visiting her grandmother for tea, is so much more boring than the two-minute Slow German dialogue, which is just two people chatting about the weather. I can get through the Slow German dialogue eight times with only a little impatience, but I couldn’t even make it through this French story once before I started to think about what to make for dinner or how I still have to make that dentist appointment.

Sure, a pleasant trip to grandma’s house isn’t going to keep anyone on the edge of his or her seat. But I would have thought that some guy complaining about the weather wouldn’t be much of an improvement, right? So why is there such a big difference? Is it that the Slow German one features two people speaking in the first person in pretty realistic-sounding voices, while the French story is told in the third person in a single, rather indifferent-sounding voice? Or is it that I can imagine myself having such a conversation about the weather, however banal, more easily than I can imagine myself asking my gardener for advice about traffic before setting off on an expedition to help my grandma move her big flower pot? Or maybe it’s just that two minutes is short enough that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even though I know I have to go back in the tunnel seven more times?

Whatever it is, the important thing is that I know I need to find some new shadowing material for French. I just checked out IE Languages again. Most of the audio is spoken by one male voice, talking about certain aspects of his life. It sounds like he’s talking to an interviewer, probably someone who also speaks French, because although he speaks slowly and clearly, he doesn’t over-enunciate, and it sounds like most of this slowness is caused by his pausing for thought. Each file is between one and three minutes.

Using the IE Languages material for shadowing will be an interesting experiment, since it has some things in common with the Slow German material (natural sounding voice, relatively short files), but there’s only one speaker.

The above shadowing and Anki is what I’m currently looking at as the core of my French and German practice. That said, I’m not completely confident it’s working. Of course, if the idea is to do the natural acquisition thing, I might not necessarily see my own improvement over such a short period. It’s not like memorizing vocab lists or grammar rules, where you can point to the things you learn each day as clear proof of progress.

I would still like to find a way to add daily conversation practice, though. To do that, I need to reorganize my time. It was more feasible to have daily conversations back when I was spending four solid hours — which was really between six and eight hours — every day on language. And even then I failed to do it. It’s even harder now, when it seems like just the Anki reps and shadowing in two languages are tough to fit into my schedule on some days.

What TV shows should I watch?

The last couple days I have also been browsing for more entertaining comprehensible input. I’ve been mainly looking for French, since my hope of finding something at least a little bit comprehensible that I also like to watch is a little bit higher than for German. I limited myself to TV series, hoping that if I find the right one I’ll get addicted.

I exposed myself to the Netflix Daredevil series, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (also on Netflix), Spongebob Squarepants, and Adventure Time. So far none have pressed charges. Unlike the nice, slow, repetitive lessons on Français Authentique with Johan, where I understood close to 80%, with these shows I understood closer to 10%. A lot of the scenes in Daredevil, unless there was fighting, meant nothing to me, and all of the non-visual jokes in Kimmy Schmidt went over my head. The best so far was Adventure Time, where there were enough visual clues to help me follow the story, and the language was a little bit slower and easier (even if full of bizarre vocabulary).

More generally, I’m interested in continuing this experiment of watching shows in French without any subtitles. I’ve never really done this experiment before (at least, not since I was three), but it seems to me now like a more natural and interesting way to learn compared to watching once with subtitles and then repeating over and over without.

Le sommeil, la répétition, et la représentation mentale


I intend to start going to bed and waking up earlier. Does this have anything to do with learning languages? Yes, of course it does. Learning a language requires repetition, which takes persistence, which relies on motivation, which is closely related to time management.

Simply “deciding” to change my schedule often has no effect, I’ve noticed. I just downloaded an app called Fabulous (the Fabulous?), which is supposed to help one build new routines. I hope this will also help me change my sleeping schedule, though I haven’t spent any time yet thinking about how this would work. My only goal so far is to drink a cup of water tomorrow morning when I first wake up, optimistically at 9am.

Often the reason I fail to change my schedule is something like this: I wake up late, and give myself too many things to do in a shortened day. Because I have too much to do, I stay up late trying to finish it all. Then I reluctantly unset my alarm for the next morning, since I’d rather have a short day and be well rested than a long day where I’m too tired to do anything. But maybe waking up early and being tired is better. I suppose I could take a nap.

La répétition

I watched the second video from Français Authentique. It’s about… repetition! In it, Johan says that he recommends listening to any given learning material at least 30 times. To get the most out of it, you should make sure you understand about 80 percent of it. It’s not important to understand it all perfectly, but you should have some idea what the message is, and what most of the phrases are conveying. Hey, this sounds a lot like comprehensible input.

Johan also emphasizes that it’s important to use “authentic” material, i.e. speech the way it’s actually spoken, not something with poor voice actors speaking boring, unrealistic pedagogical dialogues in monotone voices. If you don’t understand 80 percent of something, then it’s OK to study. You can use the transcript, a dictionary, grammar guides, or whatever, to get to where it’s comprehensible. Then put all that material aside and just listen over and over and over. The actual acquisition happens unconsciously during this phase.

Escaping the script

I have a friend who has been learning Japanese for about five months, using the acquisition method. He watches a lot of Japanese TV shows: first he watches an episode with Chinese subtitles (his first language is Chinese) and then he turns the audio into an mp3 and listens to it on repeat.

Yesterday he mentioned offhand that he can’t really read or write Japanese. Sure, of course he knows a lot of kanji, but he barely knows the kana. His Japanese is exceptional for someone who has only learned it for five months, so I thought surely he would at least know some basic reading and writing. Well, this is actually just like the example of Thierry Hsieh learning Quechua.

When I hear a Japanese word or phrase (or a word in any language I’ve studied, for that matter), I usually see it written out in my mind’s eye, in some mix of Romaji, kana, and kanji. I asked my friend how he visualizes the words in his head if he doesn’t know how they’re written. He said he doesn’t. How could this be? I can hardly imagine what must be happening in his mind when he’s speaking Japanese.

Have I been “abducted by script”? Would I actually learn faster if I didn’t have to translate everything in my mind into writing? Or does this just mean I’m more of a visual learner than my friend? To find out, for the next language I study I want to choose one with a non-alphabetic writing system, and try to learn it without learning the script. Ideally, it should be one where the phonetics are different enough from English that it’s also not too easy for me to create a Romanized representation in my mind. Though it might turn out to be unavoidable. During the first year I spent learning Chinese, before I had learned any characters, I remember visualizing letters in my mind to represent the sounds I was hearing. Is this any better than just learning the real script from the beginning?

French Day 2 (5?)

I forgot to mention last time, I came up with a new invention: weekends. The first two weeks of studying German last month I managed to study pretty much every day, seven days a week, but by the end of the month I could tell this was getting tiring. It’s not so much the contact with German that was tiring, but more the devoting several hours every day to the exact same routine.

This month I’ll try something different. Monday through Friday I’ll still spend several hours a day in the office working on my language practice and musing relentlessly on this blog about language acquisition. Saturday and Sunday I’ll just content myself with doing some shadowing and Anki repetitions in each of my languages, fitting them in wherever I am.

This is really just a convoluted way of justifying my trip to Hualian this weekend to go river rafting. I managed to almost do all my Anki repetitions in the car on both days, but that was about the extent of my German practice. I’ll try to be a little more thorough next weekend.

Last Friday I signed up for a seven-day introductory trial with Français Authentique. I just watched the first video, which I think anyone can watch without actually signing up:

This is interesting because it’s entirely in French. Since I did study some French before, I felt like it was the perfect difficulty for me. It was hard, but I think I understood most of what he was communicating. Interestingly, the basic idea he’s purveying is the same language acquisition theory. He says you don’t have to study grammar or memorize vocabulary lists. If you listen to a lot of authentic French, at least 30 minutes per day, you’ll be able to communicate imperfectly but fluently in about six months.

The video is only 15 minutes, but I started getting tired and wondering when it would be over around the eight-minute mark. Still, I feel encouraged that I could watch and understand a 15-minute video completely in French.

But I wonder what this would be like for someone who was really just starting out. They would probably understand none of what he’s saying, right? Probably less encouraging. Though there is a transcript PDF that one could use to figure out the meaning first, like what I’ve been doing with Slow German.

Anyway, this seems like a useful learning device. I’ll hold off on deciding whether to buy until I’ve watched all seven trial lessons, maybe a few times each.

Talk in French has an all-French podcast that appears to be free. I’m listening to the first episode now. It says it’s for advanced learners, and indeed I’m not sure what they’re talking about. The episode is an hour long. But it’s naturally spoken French, so maybe useful for passive listening. Am I missing something, or is there only one episode?

There’s also French Voices, which as I mentioned last time has lots of long conversations in French with transcripts. This seems great. The only real challenge is the length, which makes listening to it more of a time commitment. Maybe I should take one episode and chop it up with Audacity.

I just learned about the French from Beginners to Advanced YouTube channel. I need time to check it out.

French Day 1 – Resources

Today I’m collecting resources for this month’s French acquisition practice. For now I’ll just take anything that seems promising, and later on I’ll go through and separate the blé from the paille.

Français Authentique – Seems to have a lot of content. Not free, but there’s a free one-week trial.

Talk in French – Another site with paid content and a free trial by email.

French Voices – Interviews with French speakers, including incredibly long and detailed transcripts. I think it’s all free. I listened to one episode — it started with a preamble in English and some explanation of relevant vocabulary. The transcript is an 8-page PDF. I don’t know how they can afford to offer all this for free, there must be a catch…

IE Languages – This site has some recordings of everyday French conversations (I think) with transcripts. There are even cloze deletion exercises. The site itself is pretty funky and has lots of ads. But I think the content is free.

Le Talisman brisé – A podcast story series narrated in English, intended to teach French. Sort of analogous to Mission Berlin for German, I think.

RFI Savoirs – The company that produces the Le Talisman brisé podcast. Lots of news and audio, but I’m not sure if there are transcripts.

Thanks, Benny!Fluent in Three Months has a post with lots and lots and lots of French audio resources. This might take some time to sift through.

Anki 10,000 sentences – This seems analogous to the German one.