New blog, new classes, new languages, time management

Last fall I started a new project, along with my fellow language-learning enthusiast friend Deliah, called Say What! Language Studio (語言健身房).

The idea is to take all the stuff we’ve been learning about learning, and try to design the ideal class based on all these ideas. Hmm.

As I’ve complained about before, one of the hardest things about learning a new language is finding stuff that is both interesting enough and actually intuitively comprehensible to a beginner, at least to a certain degree.

Unfortunately, the interesting stuff is usually incomprehensible (podcasts, movies, TV shows, and other media designed for native speakers), and the comprehensible stuff (material designed specifically for language learners) is usually not very interesting (with a few exceptions).

The same has been true, in my experience, in real-life language classes. Classes intended to teach language are typically pretty boring (again, with notable exceptions!), while most other types of classes and activities (art, cooking, games, acting, sports, making things — everything, in other words) taught in the same language are too difficult for language beginners to follow.

This doesn’t have to be the case. So that’s our goal with Say What!: to make language classes that are so fun you forget you’re learning a language.

We also have a new blog, er… Facebook page, for sharing some of our material, thoughts about language learning, and videos from our classes. Posts are happening much more regularly there than they are here.

Personal language learning stuff

I’m still learning languages on my own of course, though it’s been six months since I’ve written anything about it.

Bullet Journal

With time management an even bigger problem than before, my most vital language learning tool has become my Bullet Journal. Seriously, I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t found the perfect way of keeping track of things yet. I’ve tried lots of apps, but inevitably gave them up when they couldn’t do everything I wanted them to do. I’ve been using the Bullet Journal for almost a year now. The genius of the Bullet Journal is that it’s just a loose system based on blank paper. You can change it however you want. You don’t have to download anything or buy anything special — if you have a blank notebook lying around, you have everything you need to start a Bullet Journal.

The most important part for me in terms of language learning is the “month tracker.” Every month I define a list of daily tasks, and every day I check off each thing as I do it. I usually don’t get anywhere close to finishing all the tasks in a day, but seeing at a glance which ones I’m consistently doing and which ones I’m not helps me decide which tasks are useful and which ones need some rethinking.

The fact that the month tracker lasts only a month gives me a natural point at which to reevaluate my language learning and try to set better goals for the next month, while also giving me permission to not endlessly second-guess the tasks I’ve set for the current month when it’s in progress.

It’s ugly, but it gets the job done.

Here’s my month tracker for this past month, February 2018. I’ve been pretty consistent with Glossika for German and Hokkien (台語), and Anki for German and Japanese (日本語). Since I started learning Vietnamese in the middle of the month, I’ve also been doing a good job with Anki for Vietnamese. Whether these things are actually helping is of course another question, but I think they are in this case. I’ll talk more about my recent thoughts about Glossika, and where the material for Anki comes from, another time.

I started the month using Mango Languages for Vietnamese, but for some reason gave it up half way through the month, around the same time I started using Anki for Vietnamese instead. I’ve also been listening more frequently to the amazing podcast Der Explikator. I have more to say about that some other time too.

I haven’t read a single page of Chinese or watched a single show in Hokkien, which tells me I probably don’t have anything interesting to read and don’t know what to watch. I should make it a goal in March to find interesting reading and watching material.

It’s too bad that I haven’t been speaking much this month. Last month I was more consistent in finding language exchanges for German and Hokkien, which is where I’ve been putting my focus.

It’s an interesting problem, because it seems like it should be easy. Earlier this month I downloaded a new conversation exchange app called Tandem, and I’ve started texting with tons of potential language exchange partners. So far none of them has resulted in an actual, live voice- or video-chat language exchange.

I think I have a tendency to send messages to too many potential conversation partners at once. When a good portion of them actually reply in the ensuing five or ten minutes, I then get overwhelmed, close the app, and avoid opening it for the next few days. Hmm…that might have something to do with it.

It’s also a challenge sometimes finding the time and space to chat during the day. It requires being somewhere with WiFi, and where it’s not too noisy, but where you can talk without disturbing other people. I find I also have to be in the right mindset. If I just finished teaching a class or ended a long meeting, then it can be hard to get psyched up about having an hour-long language exchange. Also, amazing recent technological advances notwithstanding, it’s still a bit more difficult and tiring to communicate via video chat over the internet than it is to communicate in person.

Thinking about what to change in March, I want to try building language exchange into a routine. I think maybe having a designated time and place might reduce the decision fatigue and make it become a more regular thing. If I just set aside an hour a day, then even if I don’t have anyone to chat with on a given day, I can spend that time scheduling chats at that same time on future days, and it won’t be the juggling act it usually is trying to fit language exchanges in between all my other activities throughout the day.

Thai in July

No new language

I’ve been fretting about this non-problem for many days now, and I’ve finally decided not to start a new language in July.

Having started Thai lessons on Skype only a week or so ago, I’m just beginning to get into the Thai language. I have a four-day trip to Thailand coming up in a week. At this point, the last thing I want to do is divert to starting a new project the time I could be spending preparing for the trip.

I would like to spend more time getting trying new things and finding more material for my German and Taiwanese Hokkien, and to a lesser extent Japanese. I feel like these languages could start to take off soon if I actually devote enough time to them.

As I mentioned last time, I didn’t really give Glossika a good try last month with Portuguese (or I didn’t give Portuguese a good try with Glossika?). It may be fun to continue, and maybe try the more intensive version of Glossika, combined with some conversation practice at a Portuguese group in Taipei. Speaking of which, according to a polyglot I talked to at the language cafe yesterday who speaks Portuguese, Glossika was never meant to be a standalone method. It’s supposed to supplement other language learning methods. It all makes a little more sense to me now.

For all these reasons I’ve managed to convince myself that not starting a new language this month is still in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of the challenge I set for myself when I started writing this blog. Sure, it’s not as cool as 12 languages in 12 months. But those other languages will still be there, at least until 2100.

Naming the problem in Language Acquisition

Several months ago I learned about Language Acquisition Theory through one of its major proponents, Stephen Krashen. The one-line summary is this: we learn languages through comprehensible input.

One of the key ideas beyond that is the concept of N+1 input. This means you’re getting input that’s a little above your level, so that it’s mostly comprehensible but you’re still being challenged. It makes intuitive sense to me that this should be the difficulty level that results in the fastest improvement. In addition, the input should be interesting, fascinating, even compelling, so that your brain actually gets engaged.

Language Acquisition has been relatively “known about” for decades now, and so I assumed (naively) that it would be easy to find good resources designed for Acquisition Learning, especially at lower levels where comprehensible input is hardest to find. It hasn’t. Finding low-level comprehensible input that’s also interesting has been one of the major ongoing challenges in my language learning for the last several months.

As recently as 2013, in an interview with Stephen Krashen, Steve Kaufmann of Lingq brings up this very problem. Namely, when you’re in the early days of learning a language, input tends to either be A) too boring, e.g. textbooks, miscellaneous lists of sentences, guided readers, mundane stories designed for bored children, or B) too incomprehensible, e.g. anything designed for native speakers. What is one to do, Kaufmann asks, during those first few months (or years)?

Kaufmann deals with the problem by slogging through those boring guided readers for the first two or three months, and then taking the leap into interesting but difficult material as soon he possibly can. He says that using Lingq to track progress and save words helps him manage the difficulty level when he’s still at low comprehension with the interesting stuff.

Krashen’s answer to Kaufmann’s question is vindicating, if not quite as helpful as one might wish. That is the problem of Language Acquisition, he says. The big challenge facing language learners and would-be educators today, assuming they acknowledge the efficacy of Language Acquisition, is to create the kind of material that is both comprehensible and compelling for beginning language learners. He does mention TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and Jason Fritze as good examples of the latest progress in this area, but says we still have a long way to go before we can expect to see anything close to ideal.

It’s at least a little encouraging to hear that I haven’t just been fumbling around in the dark for no reason — that some of the greatest acquisition proponents are still fumbling as well. In the meantime, I should probably check out Lingq and TPRS.

Progress update: June, July, Thai, Italki’s challenge

Thai, Hippo, pivot

Thai month is over already?! But wait, I haven’t even learned any words yet!

Last month I took a class with Terry Hsieh, the polyglot who speaks 25 languages and founded the polyglot cafe here in Taipei. I decided to take it as an opportunity to start learning Thai.

I could probably get several posts just from what he talked about during those three two-hour lessons, but I left my notes at home today.

The homework for the class consisted of shadowing a track from Hippo Japan for at least 15 minutes a day. In the first week we were told not to listen to the translated version. This would help us focus on the music of the language instead of trying to convert it into words in our head.

Then we were asked to listen to the translation, and then listen again and try to figure out specific words. Somehow I missed this part. I listened to the Chinese version once and then decided I preferred not understanding what they were saying (Sonoko and I don’t always see eye to eye). Still, for the last month I’ve been dutifully listening and shadowing for 15 minutes a day, training my ear on the sounds of the Thai language.

This isn’t a good long-term strategy for learning Thai. In theory, I should be slowly picking out new words on each listen, my mind automatically associating sounds with meanings the way a child does with its first language. Again, I think the problem is that my mind doesn’t care about the mundane adventures of Sonoko and her white-bread hosts, the Browns.

Should I try to find a better story, or should I just give in and actually spend a little time studying? What would Terry do?


I think I can do better than just continuing what I’m doing. Is there some way I can stay true to Terry’s method (since that’s the exercise), but find better material? For a start, my friend sent me links to some hilarious TV commercials:

Maybe instead of spending 15 minutes shadowing Hippo, I spend 15-20 minutes on YouTube. If I do this, will I be able to pick up words from context? Maybe. We’ll see.

Another ingredient in Terry’s method — in pretty much any method, probably — is conversation. A similar question to the one posed above: can I learn words and phrases from conversation in Thai, starting from zero? There are a few community tutors on Italki with affordable prices. Hopefully I will soon know the answer.

Diversity Language Challenge

Italki is having a diversity language challenge next month, in July. They’re promoting learning languages that are in danger of disappearing by 2100. It’s a long list, and impressive if it means they have teachers or tutors for all those languages. Some attractive candidates:

  • Lithuanian
  • Icelandic
  • Burmese
  • Basque
  • Nahuatl
  • Gujarati
  • Xhosa
  • Blackfoot
  • Taiwanese Hokken is on the list too. One down, 2,999 to go!

If you count June, I have two more languages to go in my year-long language challenge (I skipped three months, though, so I guess I really have five languages left before I make it to 12).

Other, more common languages I’ve been considering:

  • Vietnamese
  • Portuguese
  • Italian
  • Polish
  • Quechua
  • Hindi
  • Hungarian
So many languages, so little time

The problem is I’m reluctant to give up my momentum in German, Japanese, and Taiwanese Hokkien. If this year has taught me nothing else, it’s that learning a language takes time, and while it’s plenty easy to waste time, there aren’t any shortcuts (Subs2srs notwithstanding).

I also have to admit something that seems obvious, but that I’ve been reluctant to admit for a long time: some languages are harder than others. I think the distinction one has to make is what level you’re at.

Once you get to a high enough level, say C1 or higher, one language really might be just as hard as any other — it’s just a matter of practice. But if you’re going from nothing to A1 or A2, having a lot of cognates, a recognizable script, familiar sounds, and/or intuitive grammar can give you a big head start.

So the language makes a big difference in the context of my language challenge, which is all about starting from scratch.

Suppose I want to learn a little bit of Portuguese this month. Enough to converse with my polyglot friend Alexander, for instance. That shouldn’t take too much time, right?

Then I’ll choose one of the above endangered languages and schedule a bunch of Skype lessons for July.

Solving the TV problem, part 2

AKA, Subs2srs

In the last post I talked about a way of cutting up podcast episodes or other target language audio, turning them into Anki flashcards, and efficiently transferring the audio into your brain.

This time I want to talk about a way of automating the same process and applying it to TV shows or movies.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to come up with this idea. Someone wrote a program just for turning video files and subtitles into Anki flashcards. It’s called Subs2srs.

I won’t spend much time explaining how it works, because the sourceforge site does a good job of that already. I’ll just talk about my experience using it.

[Note: My only complaint about Subs2srs is that it only works for Windows. For a while I tried setting up a Windows emulator on my Mac, but this turned out to be too much trouble. This kept me from trying Subs2srs for a while, until a friend graciously lent me her PC.]

Finding material

The hard part with Subs2srs is just finding the files to work with. You need to find a video file and a matching subtitles file in the same language. I haven’t found any strategies that I’m confident enough in to recommend, and in general this can take some trial and error and some adjusting depending on your comfort with downloading things.

Perhaps the safest method for getting a video file would be borrowing a DVD from the library and ripping it onto your computer with a program like Handbrake.

For subtitles, there are several websites that share free subtitle files in various languages. It may take more or less time to find this, depending on the specific movie or show, and depending on the language. There’s a site called Kitsunekko that’s dedicated to subtitles for shows (and some movies) in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean.

So far I’ve only tried Subs2srs with Japanese, as resources are relatively plentiful. I’ve tried various anime as well as the TV show 深夜食堂 (Midnight Diner). After some time, which depends on my number of new cards per day and the length of the show, I can watch the original show/movie with pretty much total comprehension.

There are tradeoffs when it comes to choosing the content. In general, it’s good to choose content that you’re interested in, but some consideration should also be given to usability. I enjoyed doing the reps for Fullmetal Alchemist and Attack on Titan, but most of the language in those shows I have rarely had the chance to use in daily life. Midnight Diner is a little better, though some accents are hard to understand, and there’s a lot of slang that I still don’t have enough experience or context to get the hang of. This probably just means I need more practice or some exposure to this kind of speech in real conversation.

Shortcut: use a pre-made deck

Maybe you don’t have access to a Windows PC. Maybe you can’t be bothered to make your own Subs2srs deck. Or maybe you just don’t know where to start. Luckily, some deck makers have been thoughtful enough to share what they’ve made. The biggest repository of Subs2srs decks I’ve found is It’s unfortunate that it’s limited to Japanese, but if you’re learning Japanese, there’s a lot here to start with. Anki Web sometimes has some subs2srs decks as well, but these tend to get taken down.

Another option is to find someone who has already created their own decks and reach out to them (I know at least one such person…). They may be willing to share their decks with you. It stands to reason that someone who is passionate and nerdy enough about language learning to make their own decks would also be excited to find someone else who might benefit from their work.

Case study: Tampopo (1985) – extracting subtitles from a .mkv

One movie I fell in love with recently is Tampopo, a “Ramen Western” bizarre comedy about two truck drivers, a single mother, and a motley gang of other characters on a quest to make the perfect bowl of ramen. I don’t know how everyday or usable the language is in this movie either, but I decided that I wanted to learn the lines anyway, just for fun.

The only hitch was I couldn’t find the subtitles file anywhere. The movie itself was an .mkv, which came with hard-coded subtitles. But Subs2srs needs a separate subtitles file to make the cards.

This is where another program came in handy, the descriptively titled MKVExtractGUI-2, also Windows-specific. I was able to use this to get a separate subtitles file out of the Tampopo .mkv. I believe this uses optical character recognition. As a result, the subtitles are tiny images instead of text. This comes with the downside that I can’t copy and paste the subtitles into a dictionary or Google Translate when there’s something I don’t understand. But it’s not a big deal: Subs2srs also lets you add a native language subtitles file, which can go on the back of the card alongside the target language subtitles.

Here’s an example of what one of my cards looks like. For the front of the card I see the still image an hear the audio, and for the back I see the subtitle.

I’ve only been reviewing these cards for about a week, at only five cards a day (I’m also doing Midnight Diner, and trying not to get overwhelmed). I’ll add more news here once I’ve made more progress.

More languages

As I said, I’ve only tried Subs2srs so far with Japanese. I’m curious to see what it’s like in other languages, like German, Chinese, and Korean, and someday maybe even Thai or Taiwanese Hokkien. I’m also interested in starting to compile a list of movies or shows particularly suited to Subs2srs, or for which it’s easy to find video and subtitle files. If you do give Subs2srs a try, I would love to hear about your experience.

Update June 9, 2017: I’ve been doing the Midnight Diner and Tampopo decks for a couple weeks now. I also created a German deck from the TV show Deutschland ’83 a couple days ago. Here are my impressions:

Midnight Diner – There’s quite a lot of slang and domain-specific vocabulary, e.g. stuff related to the occupation of the main characters of the episode. Most characters speak pretty fast, and some seem to have strong accents, but the subtitles are pretty precise and the audio quality is clear, which makes up for this.

Tampopo – There’s an even more diverse array of accents, slang, and silly, exaggeratedly pompous language (like when the “ramen master” is explaining how to properly show respect for the different ramen components). The audio quality isn’t always very clear, and the subtitles sometimes elide parts of the speech. In some cases this makes it impossible for me to really learn the line. I think this is fine, though. I can toss the cards that are too much of a pain to use. The theatricality of the speech has made it fun to learn so far.

Deutschland ’83 – This is a recent thriller about an East German youth who gets blackmailed by his aunt into working as a spy in West Germany during a nuclear crisis. As such the language is a little bit advanced, but the entertainment factor helps make up for the difficulty. It’s been tough to find German subtitles for German movies and TV. I found one website with lots of German subtitles, but I haven’t yet figured out if it has subs for German shows or if it’s all aimed at foreign-language material.


Nihongo Shark is another site that has a thorough discussion of Subs2srs and how to use it to learn anime (interesting that the majority of Subs2srs users seem to be focused on Japanese. Then again, Anki itself, which isn’t tied to any particular language, gets its name from Japanese (暗記). Coincidence?). The creator at one point uploaded some of his own anime decks to Anki Web, but they’ve since disappeared.

Learn Any Language has a page that explains how to use Subs2srs, and contains some links to other users who have tried it with various language.

Solving the TV problem, part 1

Two months is the longest time I’ve gone without posting since I started this blog last August. This is a major milestone, folks.

Not a bad time to take a step back and recap what I’ve done so far. Here’s a timeline:

Aug '16 - German, 4 hours a day. 
          Learn about language acquisition theory.

Sep '16 - French, < 4 hours a day. 
          [current languages: German, French]

Oct '16 - Travel to France. 
          [German, French]

Nov '16 - Korean. 
          [German, French, Korean]

Dec '16 - Travel to US. Stop actively learning French.
          [German, Korean]

Jan '17 - Indonesian 12-hour challenge. 
          [German, Korean]

Feb '17 - Persian lite. 
          [German, Korean, Persian]

Mar '17 - Event planning 101. 
          [German, Korean]

Apr '17 - Taiwanese Hokkien. Revive Japanese. Stop Korean.
          [German, Japanese, Taiwanese Hokkien]

May '17 - Thai (Terry Hsieh's class). 
          [German, Japanese, Taiwanese, Thai]

There’s a lot to record about my adventures with Taiwanese and Thai, but right now I want to talk about something else.

Space repetition systems + TV programmes


The problem

The best way to learn a language is to surround yourself and constantly interact with people who speak it. That’s how Terry Hsieh learned Quechua in two months (without taking any classes). If you can’t achieve this level of immersion, having a few good friends or a significant other who speaks the language with you on a daily basis is a close second.

If this doesn’t work out either, the next best thing is inundating your eyes and ears with movies, TV, videos, radio — and, yes, other people speaking to you — in the target language. Using this technique, Khatzumoto from AJATT, for instance, got fluent in Japanese in about 18 months.

In this day ‘n age, anyone with a good enough internet connection has this method available to her, in theory. But this is where it gets tricky. With so many options out there, what should I watch? And how? And how much? 

Such a plethora of choices can easily lead to paralysis. Furthermore, the field is fraught with danger. What if I turn on the TV or the YouTube to a German channel, but then I get bored after five or so minutes because my German isn’t good enough and I have no idea what they’re talking about? Or what if I do find something that I like, but there are still parts I don’t understand and I miss important plot points?

This has become a big problem for me. I find a TV series or movie that I really like, and then I have to choose between:

  1. Watching it without subtitles. Soon I’m Googling the plot (in English) or turning on subtitles to find out what I missed.
  2. Watching with subtitles once, then watching a second (and third, fourth, and fifth) time without. (These latter times never actually happen.)
  3. Finding a series I care little enough about that it doesn’t bother me to miss a lot. But then, what’s the point? If it’s a TV show, I usually don’t make it past two or three episodes.
  4. Watching something I’ve seen before in English, dubbed into my target language. Again, there’s almost no point. I rarely watch movies a second time, and usually get bored when I do.

I just can’t win. There is seemingly no right way for me to learn languages with movies and TV.

DIY pilot program for a V-212 helicopter

What I really need is a pilot program for a V-212 helicopter. Except, you know, replacing the helicopter flying part with “Japanese comprehension for a specific movie or TV show.” I plug it into my brain, and then when I watch the movie I miraculously understand everything!

That’s impossible, right?

Nope. Totally doable. The key is a combination of an SRS like Anki, and a way to chop up the TV show, movie, or other media into bite-sized pieces your mind can absorb. Sure, it might take a few weeks instead of a few seconds, but the result is just as rewarding.

Making the cards

This is what I’ve been doing with the podcast Der Explikator, for instance. I take a story that seems interesting, but that I can understand only about 20-30% of on a first listen. I download the mp3, open it with Audacity (any audio editing software will do), and start the card creation process, which looks like this:

1. In Anki, add a new basic card. 
2. Select a bite-size portion of audio, usually around 6-7 seconds.
3. Export the audio portion as an mp3 and drag-and-drop into the 'front' field of the Anki card.
4. Select the corresponding text in the transcript on, copy it into the 'back' field of the Anki card.
5. If there are any parts of the transcript I can't understand, use Google Translate to get the meaning, and maybe copy a few definitions onto the back of the card as well. 
6. Go back to step 1 until the whole podcast has been made into cards.

It took me about a minute per card when I first started, but now that I’m used to it I think it’s closer to 20-30 seconds per card. I’ve realized that this card creation process isn’t wasted, either, because it saves me from having to look up definitions later.

Using the cards

So I’ve made all my cards. Now what? Now I just start reviewing them with the Anki app on my phone. 10 new cards a day is more than manageable — depending on the difficulty, it might take 10-20 minutes a day to get through 10 new cards plus whatever reviews of older cards come due. At this rate, if the average length of audio is 6 seconds, I can do 7 minutes of material a week. A typical podcast is about 15 minutes, so in about two weeks I’ve encountered all the cards, and mastered most of them.

What does an Anki ‘rep’ actually look like with these cards? I listen to the audio and shadow it, and try to understand it. I repeat the audio several times if need be, without looking at the transcript. If I can accurately shadow and understand the whole thing without looking at the transcript, then I count that as a correct answer. If I can’t, I practice a few times while looking at the transcript, and then mark the answer incorrect.

The payoff

A couple weeks have passed. I’ve seen all my cards, and reviewed them until I can not only understand but pretty accurately shadow them all. Ok, now what was the point of all that?

This is where I listen to the complete podcast again. Remember how I only understood 20-30% last time? Oh wait, this time I can understand all of it! Not only that, I can shadow right along with it at normal speed with no difficulty. And because I learned it all in context, it’s easy to recall and use any of the phrases in conversation when I need them.

Was it worth the time I put into it? Let’s do the math. This is after 15 days at about 15 minutes at day, so a little under four hours total. How much time would it take to get to this level of familiarity with 15 minutes of foreign language audio using other methods? I’m not sure, actually, because I’ve never gotten this familiar with such a long segment of non-English audio using other methods. I usually get too bored or give up before it happens.

I can also say that the Anki reps are pretty painless. Thanks to the slight gamification of trying to answer cards correctly, the reps are even somewhat fun.

The next level

For a long time I’ve only applied this method to a few podcasts, and no TV shows or movies. Many podcasts don’t publish transcripts. It takes time to extract the audio from a TV show or movie, find a subtitle file if there is one, and even more time making the cards. Compared to podcasts, a lot of shows aren’t as nice to listen to without any visuals. Plus, hand-making every card does take time.

Well, it turns out there’s an easier way. In the next post I’ll talk about Subs2srs, a program that automates the card creation process.

You can’t learn a language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring break

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

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

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

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

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

How to (not) learn a language in 12 hours


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

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

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

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

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

Method #1: the scattershot

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

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

Method #2: the dialogue

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

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

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

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

Method #3: the combinatoric

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

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

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

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

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

The showdown

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

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

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

The point of it all

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

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

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

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

Thierry’s class and finding the right audio

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to sit in on a class taught by Thierry Hsieh, the man who speaks 25 languages and founded the polyglot cafe. It’s essentially a language class, but students are learning one or more of French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Thai, or English all in the same class. During practice time they divide into language-based groups. For some of the languages there is a native speaker teaching assistant to help answer questions, for the others Thierry himself fills that role.

The activities in the class are centered around an audio recording from Hippo Family Club in Japan. When I attended, students had already been listening to the first recording for about a month. The recording is a minute-long message from Janet Brown, a young girl in Middle America who is writing to Sonoko, a Japanese exchange student who is coming to stay with her family. Versions are available in every language represented in the class, and students’ job is to listen to it many times a day and try to shadow the sounds as faithfully as possible (so they could understand the contents of the message, at first they were allowed to listen to a version in their native language).

The day I visited, students were finally being given the written transcripts of the message. Their job was then to study the transcript in their target language and try to deduce the meaning of the words and symbols based on their month-long memorization of the audio. Note, then, that in the case of Korean, until that point students had had no instruction in Hangul. They didn’t know which part of each character denoted a consonant, and which part a vowel, for instance. The idea, in other words, is to rely on the brain’s natural pattern matching to learn how to read.

We spent some time transforming the details of Janet’s life into those of our own — translating birthdays, names and numbers of siblings, and hobbies. Then we went around in a circle and practiced speaking these personalized messages.

One student had poor pronunciation, and it was soon revealed that she had been learning Hangul on her own.

“Don’t rely too much on the written words!” the TA reminded us sternly.

Incidentally, this way of memorizing reminds me of how my siblings and I learned our Torah portions when we were preparing for our b’nai mitzvot. Our instructor would first record herself chanting the passages, and our job was just to listen and repeat until we had them memorized. The text of the Torah itself was just an aid in case memory failed.

Does it work? At the end of class, Thierry showed us a graph with two lines: one line increased linearly before plateauing, and another started off slow but increased exponentially and soon overtook the first line.

The first line represents someone learning the normal, “textbook” way, Thierry said. This would mean, for instance, learning the rules of the Hangul writing system first, plus some vocab and grammar, and then tackling listening and speaking using that material.

The second line is the “natural” method, practiced in this class. At first, there is intensive listening, but no explanation of writing, vocabulary, or grammar. The writing system can be confusing. But, Thierry claimed, once one starts to get the hang of it, progress happens much faster than in the traditional method.

This sounds like a way of approximating first-language acquisition. We don’t start to learn to read and write our first language until the words and phrases are already embedded in our minds, right?

I just had one problem with this class. The message from Janet Brown to Sonoko is incredibly boring. It almost seems like the authors were trying to make it boring (come on, Janet Brown?!). Listening to and shadowing it a few days before the class, I actually found myself getting angry at the authors for forcing such insipid material on all of us earnest young language students. What’s the point of designing a revolutionary language course if the material at the heart of it is so repugnantly bland?

When I complained about this to the teaching assistant, she took it in stride. Maybe this material isn’t for you, she said. That’s fine: you can apply the same learning method to material that you enjoy. That’s actually why we spent the time that day in class personalizing the messages, after all.

Recently I’ve been shadowing a dialogue from Talk to Me in Korean, the one meant to test one’s comprehension of the level-1 lessons. It’s about three young people who go out for pizza to celebrate one of their birthdays. On the face of it, it sounds almost as dull as the letter from Janet Brown, but in practice it’s a hundred times better.

It’s full of misunderstandings, questions, doubts, and surprises, like:

“Thanks! Wait what? The present isn’t for me?”


“Happy birthday! I don’t have a present for you. I didn’t know it was your birthday.”


“Huh? Who drinks beer with pizza?”

“Is it weird?”

“Well, no…”

Actually, the communication sometimes sounds stilted, to the point where I keep wondering whether it’s intentionally so. Is this a lesson about Korean culture? In any case, it’s more thought provoking than the sentence “I have a mother, a father, an older brother, an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother named Terry.”

Maybe even more important than the content is the tone of voice of the actors. The Janet Brown speech is delivered in a “properly” enunciated monotone, with a classical music background that inspires one to start drifting into slumber as soon as it starts. In the pizza dialogue, on the other hand, the moods are if anything exaggerated. Minsu sounds positively distressed when Mina asks for a beer in the pizza parlor. I don’t know why, but this seems to make the difference between material that I get tired of listening to just once, and material that I can shadow a hundred times without losing my temper.

What about you? What makes the difference between learning material that’s entertaining and usable, and material that’s painful to listen to?