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.