Quantum computers, time management & Korean

In the last post I talked about making audio flashcards by chopping up a podcast episode from Der Explikator about… quantum computers. I’m happy to report that after only a few days of reviews, what was previously totally incomprehensible to me has become pretty comprehensible. It’s only the first few paragraphs — the card-making was time-consuming enough that I only got that far — but I think it’s enough to prove the concept.

The problem that’s hurting my motivation is the subject matter. I can barely talk about quantum computers in English. I don’t know when I’ll ever want or need to talk about them in German. In fact, if I go my whole life without ever talking about quantum computers in German, I won’t regret it. Yes, you can quote me on that.

So I think the next logical step is to find some audio material that’s closer to the German I actually want to learn to understand and speak. The catch is it has to have a transcript. Why? Why can’t I just make cards with pieces of audio and no transcript on the back? This might have its own benefits, but as far as I can tell it’s the transcript that allows me to decipher the audio in just a few repetitions so that it actually turns comprehensible.

Usually, it goes like this: I listen to the audio, uncomprehending. Then I stare blankly at the indecipherable German transcript. Then I read the French translation, and get a sense of the meaning of the sentence. Then I look at the German transcript again, and I can more or less figure out what the words mean. Then I listen to the audio again a few times, matching sounds to text, and by this point the sentence sort of makes sense when I hear it again.

I want to learn natural German dialogue, the kind of German people speak on the streets of Kreuzberg. So where am I likely to find natural dialogue with transcripts? I can think of two places: YouTube and movies. There’s actually also the Slow German dialogues, but there are still only six of those.

With YouTube, the tricky thing is that most videos don’t have captions, and the ones that do tend to be something other than what I want to learn. Maybe I’m being too picky. The other annoyance is that the captions are hardcoded into the video, not given as a text file, so that will add an extra step of typing them out when I create the cards. I’ve got to be pretty motivated to make making these cards worth it. Maybe it’s not bad to be picky about the material.

For movies, or TV shows for that matter, the trick is still going to be finding material I want to learn, that hopefully isn’t too much more dramatic than real life, and then finding a corresponding subtitle file that actually matches the audio closely. It sounds doable. It’s just a matter of spending the time to do it.

Speaking of time, recently I’ve noticed that I’ve been repurposing “language time” for other things. I marked out a three-hour language section on my calendar every day this month except Sundays. There are other sections too, like yoga and language cafe. Those are less negotiable, since they either happen when they’re supposed to happen, or they don’t happen at all. But with “language time” it’s too tempting to try to move it around, break it into pieces, fit it into a break or a subway ride, in order to make room for other things I want to do. The result is that “language time” often doesn’t happen, or else it gets seriously curtailed.

On top of this, I’m “supposed” to start learning a new language tomorrow. (Happy Halloween!) I’ve been thinking about Korean, since 1) I can theoretically do a working holiday in Korea while I’m still not quite 30, and 2) there’s a Korean table at the language cafe, so I’ll get conversation practice for free. Might as well take advantage of it. Also, 3) Korean has a different writing system and super different phonetics from other languages I’ve studied.

But how am I supposed to start Korean when I can barely keep up with German and French?

This gets to the other, deeper problem. When I conceived of this mad scheme a couple months ago, of starting a new “language acquisition practice” every month, I imagined that after spending several hours a day for one month, I would be off the hook. I would have a sturdy language acquisition machine that was all set up to carry me to fluency in six, nine, or twelve months. All I’d have to do is turn the crank for thirty minutes a day.

What I’m realizing is that it isn’t so simple. Maintenance isn’t something you just do once and then forget about. For one thing, I’ve been spending more time recently looking for new material and thinking about how to study it than I have on actual studying. Sure, I put on my podcasts or YouTube videos for ten, twenty, thirty minutes a day. I listen to an odd mp3 rip of a YouTube video on the subway. But this always seems inadequate.

Well, let me be more precise. In the case of French, where I already had some background, it may be enough. I believe that my French is slowly but surely improving just by browsing YouTube videos every day, and this is something I have been able to do almost every day. But with German it’s not so clear. I understand almost nothing of the realistic, everyday-style videos I’ve encountered. It’s not comprehensible input yet. Hence the vocabulary cards and hoops I’ve been jumping through to improve my comprehension using those cards.

OK, so what does this mean? This suggests to me that it takes more than a month to get to a point where the language “takes off” and you’re able to get better just by doing things that don’t resemble studying.

So then, what? Do I soldier on anyway, trying to start a new language every month until I collapse from exhaustion? Or do I modify my original goal yet again, maybe from 12 languages in a year to a more modest 4, 5, or 6 languages. Or, maybe I say to hell with fluency, I never said my goal was to get fluent anyway, and just cut back on French and German now to make room for Korean and whatever comes after.

The problem with the last option is that I still want to get better at French and German (and Japanese, for that matter). I’m getting a sense of achievement from this, and it would feel like a waste to stop now, so soon after having started.

On the other hand, I think it’s important for me to start a new language in November. This project was and is about starting new languages, and so far I’ve really only done that once, with German.

Here’s the most optimistic plan I can come up with: I put French with Japanese, on autopilot. I watch videos for fun, converse in it when I have the opportunity, but don’t spend any time making new study material. With German, I narrow down and focus on just vocabulary cards and audio cards, and shadowing (especially shadowing whatever I’m making the audio cards out of). With the rest of the (theoretical) time I get from removing my (theoretical) French obligations and paring down my German routine, I tackle Korean.

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.

How to watch TV

Fluent Forever continues to pay dividends (investing is a great metaphor for reading, what are you talking about).

TV, subtitles, and listening practice

As Wyner points out, all the vocabulary flashcards in the world won’t help when you encounter a person in real life who strings their words together into monolithic blocks of incomprehensible slang. Few people are considerate enough to clearly enunciate like a voice on Forvo, and those who do are constantly getting into fistfights.

The only way to adapt is to practice listening to realistic speech. So far nothing new. Wyner claims that TV and film are the easiest places to start since they have visual cues. Well, that makes sense. And TV series are the easiest of all, since you only have to figure out the characters and general plot once, and then the following episodes get easier and easier.

What about subtitles? Clearly we don’t want English subtitles, but I’ve been on the fence about subs in the target language. Watching Breaking Bad in French without subtitles, I feel like I’m missing almost everything. With subs, I can at least pick out the key words (cognates help a lot) or pause and look something up if I feel like I’m really missing something important.

Here’s the problem with using subs in French, according to Wyner. When you’re reading subtitles, you stop listening to the voices. In effect, instead of watching TV, you’re reading an animated storybook. This is still good practice, but it won’t help your listening.

So no subtitles is the way to go. But what about the plot? I can’t stand the thought of missing all those nuances. Again, like I mentioned in the last post, when I told this problem to a friendly local polyglot, he suggested watching YouTube instead. Random YouTube videos have a way of taking the pressure off of listening practice. Now I feel like I understand this point a little better.

I tried this today. I found some videos of a German guy going around in Berlin asking people what they like about Berlin. Most of the language was way over my head, but I still got the gist of a lot of it. Hey, comprehensible input! When my interested started to flag after a couple minutes, I took the polyglot’s advice and changed to another video. And another, and another. I did this for thirty minutes in German, and then another forty in French.


With the videos that I found particularly interesting, downloaded the mp3s. Maybe I’ll listen to them later. Speaking of which, all that time I spent figuring out how to record mp3s on my laptop? It turns out there’s a site, peggo.tv, that does it for you. Duh.

More TV: a compromise?

But what about the addictiveness of TV? I still don’t fully believe I’m going to get as motivated watching some bearded guy narrate his bread baking capers to his camera every day as I will when I care so much when Walt is finally going to tell Skyler what he’s been up to. That idiot. Maybe I’m not ready for Breaking Bad though. Maybe I can find some middle ground, where I care enough about the plot to want to keep watching the series, but not enough that I mind missing something here or there. Wyner suggests the sexist, racist action thriller 24. That sounds about right.

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!

Vocab deck, pictures, translations

In Fluent Forever, Wyner suggests making SRS flash cards for the top 1,000-or-so most common words in the target language. For most languages, this short list of words comprises around 80% of daily communication.

The cards Wyner proposes have several possible templates. The front might be a vocabulary word, and the back could have a picture, the audio pronunciation (which one can find on Forvo.com), the phonetic spelling, a reminder of a personal memory connection to the word, or all of the above. Another type of card could use the picture as the front, and have the word on the back. The guidelines say to use two or more different types to build multidirectional connections. One should also make sure each card has only one answer, otherwise they get too complicated.

The idea is to use all this sensory input — and not the English translation — to create strong, multifaceted connections to these vocabulary words.

My initial reaction is to question the effectiveness of single-word vocabulary cards. Most of what I’ve heard and my personal experience so far says that sentences are better. But why are sentences better than words? Because they add context. When one learns a word in the context of a sentence, one learns how to use the word at the same time that one learns the word itself.

So sentences are good. But doesn’t Wyner’s approach make up for the lack of a sentence with the other contextual information — the image, sound, and personal connection? Is an out-of-context sentence really any better than an in-context word?

The day before yesterday I spent a couple hours adding pictures to around 80 French flash cards from my 10,000 sentences deck. I searched Google Images for the whole sentence or part of the sentence, chose the image that I felt was most interesting, funny, or evocative of the given sentence, and put it on the back of the card right under the French text.

Reviewing these cards yesterday, I wasn’t sure what the result actually was. Is having this visual association really strengthening my ability to understand the sentence? Maybe it’s too early to say, but I suspect that the format of these cards doesn’t lend itself as well to this kind of augmentation as the type outlined above.

What skill are these cards strengthening, after all? Audio comprehension is part of it, clearly. Making sense of the grammar and sounds of the language is another. However, one major problem is that the back of the cards still have the English translation on them. This means I’m actually still learning to translate these sentences into English instead of internalizing the meaning in French. Even if I were to only look at the English once, when I first see the card, this may create a lasting connection with the English, which I certainly don’t want.

Further, most of these cards are both similar and abstract. Is it really feasible to have a separate image for “she didn’t tell me yet” and “I don’t know yet”? Does it make sense to connect this to personal memories — that one time I was waiting to know something, as opposed to that other time I was waiting for her (whoever she is) to tell me something?

The English problem is easy to solve. I could do away with the English translation completely. Would this cause problems? Maybe it’s worth it to be unsure about the meaning of the sentence in order to keep it in the target language. Wyner would surely suggest I do it this way. If there are particular words I don’t know, I can search for them on Google Images and — assuming they aren’t too abstract — infer the meaning from the results.

The second problem, that the sentences are too similar and abstract to lend themselves well to images and memories, seems harder. In particular, it suggests to me that I’m really dealing with two different categories of cards, and it’s fruitless to mix them.

I’m going to try two things. First, I’ll remove the English field on the 10,000-sentence deck cards. Will this make it easier for me to avoid mental translation? Will the deck seem more useful once I do this?

[Update]: Unfortunately, the 10,000-sentence deck is formatted in such a way that I can’t just remove the English translation and keep the French. Should I just not look at the back of the card at all? 

Second, I’m going to experiment with making a French vocabulary deck the way Wyner suggests.

To make sure I have enough time to do this, and while I’m deciding whether it’s worth it to keep doing the 10,000-sentence decks, I’m reducing the number of new cards on these decks to five per day (for German too).

Strong memories and spaced repetition systems

I recently started reading Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. I’ve only read the first two chapters, but so far it’s been a refreshingly specific and practical take on language learning, told from the perspective of a successful and creative language student, instead of someone professing to be a qualified language teacher. Wyner is fluent in a lot of languages, and the book is a condensation of the lessons and techniques he’s picked up in the process of learning those languages.

The second chapter is all about memory and spaced repetition systems (SRS). While he hasn’t yet gone into the specifics of exactly what to learn with an SRS, it sounds like it does involve memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules. Normally, this would be a red flag for me on my march to Krashen- and Hippo-style language acquisition. But Wyner makes some intriguing points about memory that I hadn’t heard before, which might even in theory redeem the idea of learning vocabulary and grammar, so I’m willing to suspend disbelief for now.

According to Wyner, for SRS cards to be effective, they must be based on strong memories. Seems true enough. But how do these strong memories get created? The most straightforward way is through the process of creating your own cards, especially cards with images. When you make up your own card for some vocabulary word you’re trying to learn, and when you either draw your own picture or choose an image from Google Images, by the very act of making or choosing this image, you’re creating a rich, personal memory around this image and this concept.

The key difference between your own cards and someone else’s cards is the experience you then have when you meet a new card for the first time. If it’s a card that you’ve created yourself, you’ll flash back to the decisions you made in creating that card, along with the other thoughts and sensations you were having at that moment. The more you review the card, the more this particular memory gets cemented into your brain. If, on the other hand, it’s a card you didn’t create, you’ll miss these associations. If it’s a word or phrase you’ve never seen or heard before, your first reaction will probably be some form of confusion as your brain tries to figure out a) the meaning, and b) whether it’s actually important enough to remember. Unfortunately, in this case, this then becomes the basis for your new memory. A memory of uncertainty or outright confusion.

This seems like an excellent point, regardless of what exactly one decides to put on one’s SRS cards. It also gives me a clearer idea of what is wrong with my current Anki decks — or rather, what could be improved. Namely, they don’t have pictures, and I didn’t make them myself. When I hear a new sentence, I have to struggle (consciously or unconsciously) to construct a mental image to give the sentence meaning and context. This is closely related to the doubts I was having in my last post about context, but now I understand more thoroughly why this context is so important.

So should I just delete my current decks and start from scratch?  I hate to do that, mainly because these decks have audio. That would be hard to recreate by myself. Until I find some better way to make my own cards with audio, I’ll try experimenting with a couple compromises. First, for some cards I’ll draw pictures (I said I was going to do that in the last post but I haven’t gotten around to it yet). Second, for some other cards I’ll do a Google Image search and choose an image to add to the back of the card. Even if it’s a picture that doesn’t wholly represent the sentence being spoken, it may provide enough associative richness to make the cards more memorable.

Growing your language homunculus

All that time I spent listening to bootleg quality audio and trying to make out blurry facial expressions while whatever sketchy site I was watching movies on infected my computer with malware, I could have been watching German Netflix. It turned out to be as simple as going to the settings page and clicking on languages. I just watched the first episode of Breaking Bad dubbed in German.

I watched it with English subtitles. The question now is how to make this useful. Do I watch or listen to the same episode repeatedly? Or do I take the audio, cut out a short segment, and shadow it until I have it memorized? Are either of these things interesting enough that I’d actually do them? Maybe it would be better to just watch the whole series without subtitles. As Johan from Français Authentique points out in his intro series, this wouldn’t actually mean no repetition, since common words and phrases repeat anyway. But it might also get frustrating given that my German level is still low enough that I’d probably have a hard time following the story.

I met a polyglot from Korea today who speaks English, French, and Japanese fluently with almost no accent as far as I can tell. He’s been learning Chinese for three months, and it’s his fifth day in Taiwan. His Chinese isn’t as good as his other languages, but it’s already better than a lot of people who have studied for a year or more.

I asked him about his technique. I tried speaking English at first, but he kept replying in Chinese so I gave in. We spoke Chinese for a while, even though he didn’t have all the words to express clearly what he wanted to say. Later I tried talking to him in French, but after a few minutes he said he didn’t want to speak French anymore. He was here in Taiwan to learn Chinese. I tried reminding him that Chinese wasn’t my native language and I was trying to learn a new language too, but he just nodded and kept speaking in Chinese.

Here’s what I gathered from our linguistically hodgepodge interview. He studies for ten or more hours a day. He reads a textbook and watches movies in the target language. How could he spend so long studying? I asked. Even if it’s just watching movies, doesn’t that get tiring? He said he enjoys it and doesn’t get tired because he avoids thinking about the future. Still, I was curious how could he get so fluent with materials like textbooks that have failed to work for so many people. I asked him if perhaps he was just a genius. He shrugged and nodded. So maybe that’s that. Or maybe he misunderstood my question.

The most striking thing to me about this Korean’s Chinese is that, although he was a beginner, he didn’t sound like any other beginner I’d ever heard. He didn’t sound like someone learning a new language. He sounded like a native Chinese speaker who just happened to be a little taciturn, have a limited vocabulary, and inexplicably got lots of tones wrong. So in what way did he sound like a native speaker? Despite all these impediments, he seemed comfortable speaking Chinese. He would reply without much hesitation, and without spending much time searching for the right word. In a certain way it was like talking with a child.

When this polyglot switched to French his personality changed. His demeanor was different, he wasn’t taciturn, he had a good vocabulary and excellent pronunciation. It was like an adult Frenchman had been hiding inside of this Taiwanese child for the last thirty minutes. I felt like I’d been tricked.

This is a wonderful example of learning a language the same way we acquire our first language. Acquiring a new language is like growing a new personality. If you try to have your current self learn a new language, then when you speak it everything will be translated through this current self who speaks your native language. You’ll speak slower, sound less natural, and probably have a stronger accent. You’ll waste time trying to remember to use specific words you recently learned instead of making use of the words at hand the way native speakers do.

So the trick is to figure out how to grow a new person instead of relying on your current self or selves. Here’s one idea. Say I’m learning German. When I’m speaking in German, instead of thinking about how I would express something, i.e. how my English-speaking self would speak, I should choose what I say based on what I know how to say in German already. This might not lead to the most intelligent of utterances, but children say stupid things all the time and we forgive them. That’s how they learn and eventually grow up to be adults, and that’s also how you can grow a new language-person in your mind.

This also helps illustrate why it makes sense to go through a period of just listening and not speaking when you first start acquiring a language. If you don’t know how to say anything in the target language naturally, all you can do is translate from a language you already speak, which is not a habit you want to cultivate. Even if you’re still at the level where you can just speak in one-word sentences, that’s better than racking your brain or constantly checking a dictionary to come up with just the right word, phrase, or verb conjugation.

The Korean guy gave me some parting advice: Don’t be too serious. Go after what you like.

Why my language goal sucks

What’s my language goal again? I just listened to an episode from the Creative Language Learning podcast about why my language learning goal sucks, and you do have a point, Kerstin. “Get fluent” doesn’t really mean anything, and “study for X minutes a day” doesn’t say anything about how effectively that time is being spent. Even “spend X minutes doing Y” isn’t really specific enough, because it doesn’t explain why you’re doing Y for so long. What are you trying to accomplish by doing Y? What if you accomplish that in half the time you expect?

I wish Kerstin would give some examples of good language goals. The best I can figure from the podcast is that they would be something like “read a newspaper article in French” or “have a three-minute conversation with a German speaker in a month.”

But I’m having a hard time making any specific language goals for myself. If you pointed a knife at my throat I would say my goal is to “acquire” 12 languages in a year, or better yet to get on the road to acquisition of 12 languages. Which means what, exactly? That I make a best effort attempt at exposing myself daily to enough comprehensible input in all these languages, spread out over time, that my brain learns all these languages.

Like magic. It’s not really that simple, is it? But that’s my current understanding of how language acquisition works. Maybe I need to ask some more experienced leaners what’s missing from my plan.

Wednesday is also Taiwanese national personal self-reflection day. I would like to start by congratulating myself for something. I have finished all of my Anki reps for the 10,000 sentence German deck every day since I started it about a month ago. And I’ve done my French reps every day for the past three days. Pat yourself on the back there, Isaac.

Now for the reflection. I have noticed my motivation flagging. I can think of three reasons:

First, I still wonder if this method is really helping. The sentences are out of context. The back of the card has an English translation, so I might be learning to translate from German or French into English in my head.

Second, now that the novelty has worn off, the repetitions are starting to get boring. If I believed they were really useful, I could probably push myself to do the reps and even like them, like how I learned to like natto over the past couple months after learning it was the key to immortality. But the doubts about usefulness plus boringness is a combination of deadliness.

Third, I wonder if it’s taking the place of more useful things, specifically listening to comprehensible input like podcasts. One nice thing about Anki is it’s easy to quantify your progress. You do your reps for the day, and you feel like you’ve accomplished something. This makes even the most boring deck bearable for a while. The downside is it’s easy for me to just finish my Anki reps and then let myself off the hook. So far I have been doing a fair bit of shadowing and listening, but I can tell on some days it’s really more of an afterthought.

What to do about this? Maybe making my other listening goals for each day more specific would help.

For instance, I’ll:

  • Listen to an episode of Francais Authentique five times.
  • Shadow dialogues or monologues from slow German for 15 minutes.
  • Shadow a piece of some French podcast — whose meaning I’ve looked up — for 15 minutes.
  • Listen to an episode of Der Explikator or Slow German five times.

I’ll try doing these four things every day for a week (weekends included) and see how it goes. Is this what you had in mind, Kerstin?

Another thing Kerstin says, that I’ve heard from enough people it must be true, is to make your goals small. It’s better to have a small goal and get the positive reinforcement and motivation boost of accomplishment than to have an ambitious goal, fall short of it, and be devastated.

Why the hell am I trying to learn 12 languages? That seems like the antithesis of this idea. I’m never going to actually learn 12 languages in a year (well, a year and five months if you consider that I’ll only start the last language in the twelfth month and it takes six months to start to be able to speak fluently).

It’s hard enough to keep up anything for a whole year, let alone something that will eventually take up at least three hours a day (six languages at a time, half an hour each), plus the time spent setting up the next language.

I chose this goal partly because it’s audacious enough to be inspiring and motivating. I know it’s not a realistic goal, but I would rather be able to say I tried learning 12 languages and failed than to say I spent a year learning just one language and, hey, did a good job. Is having a goal you know is doomed from the start an evasion of responsibility?

The most hopeful interpretation of all these admittedly reasonable doubts I can come up with is that my understanding of language learning is still very much incomplete, and my goals will necessarily undergo further revision. Maybe someday I’ll have a goal that I actually think is realistic and can feel excited about.