韓文自我介紹

四天前我描述了一件事情:我叫了一個韓國朋友幫我錄音一些常用的句子,然後我每天聽了很多遍。我以為只要這樣下去我就會把這些句話背下來,因此講韓文的時候就可以隨時用到。這個方法不僅沒有成功,而讓我失去了很多動機,因為我快就聽翻了,沒興趣聽下去,但並沒有背下來。

後來想一想,我發現了其中一個問題應該是那些句話是完全沒有語境。難怪它們又不好記又無聊(無聊不就是不好記的定義嗎?)。

我想再試試看。這一次,我編的句子都是跟我生活有關,而是我第一次認識一個人的時候會幾乎每次都用到的話。這些話我並不知道正確韓文怎麼說,所以我要再找一個韓國朋友幫我修改,再錄音下來。我的韓國朋友真辛苦。

一下是我編的句子和我猜測的韓文版(肯定是錯的):

My name is Isaac.      이름 Isaac 입니다

What’s your name?     이름 입니다?

I’m 29 years old.      이십 살 입니다

How old are you?      살입니까?

I like to learn languages.      언어를 배우고 싶습니다.                         

I’ve learned Korean for two months.     나는 개월 한국어를 공부했다

I also like to cook, and bake bread.      요리 빵을구워 도싶습니다.      

I work in a bakery in Taiwan.     대만의 빵집 에서 일한다

What do you like to do?     취미 는 뭐니?

This is what happens when you don’t go to school

I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for about eight years, and I’ve been told many times that I have an almost native-sounding accent. The people who said this were doubtless exaggerating to pay me a compliment, but it’s been enough to make me complacent.

The problem is, after hearing me speak Chinese for a while, it soon becomes apparent that something is wrong. I have a good accent, and I can banter almost like a Taiwanese person (huge gaps in cultural context/awareness notwithstanding, but that’s another topic for another time), but where I fail is in differentiating levels of formality. When things get serious and I have to stand up and make a speech, or open a bank account, or negotiate with my gym’s sales representative — all situations that require a more formal tone — I still just do the banter.

I’m like a Taiwanese person who never went to school. This is not to say that I’m illiterate. But almost all of my reading and writing has been done in the context of personal communication. My reading hasn’t progressed much beyond manga. I can count the number of novels I’ve read in Chinese on one hand. And aside from a few months in Chengdu when I was just starting, I never studied Chinese in a classroom. It’s no wonder I sound uneducated.

Maybe this realization will finally get me to sign up for Chinese classes. In the meantime, I’m just going to try reading and writing more in Chinese, on the assumption that this will also improve my speaking. Specifically, I’ll start making some entries here in Chinese, and then I’ll ask a native speaker to correct my writing as if correcting a paper in school, using more formal writing standards.

Wish me luck!

January: Korean dialogues, Indonesian marathon

Pitfalls from lack of context

Last month I mentioned how I asked a Korean friend to record some simple, extremely common phrases for me, and how I was listening to them and shadowing them every day. I took it a step further and even made audio flashcards out of them, putting the Korean audio on one side and the Korean transcript and English audio on the other. Unfortunately, after a few days of reps this backfired and I completely lost motivation for a couple weeks, and then finally deleted the cards.

Why was this such a failure? First, I think putting the English audio on the card was a mistake. Putting any English on the cards isn’t ideal, but it seems like somehow having to listen to the English audio recordings when I did the reps was short-circuiting my incipient Korean brain and my English brain, and made it feel like I was getting yanked out of Korea World every time I heard them.

Second, I think it was a mistake to ask for these sentences out of context. Listening to a long list of simple phrases is kind of confusing, and also kind of boring, and I think this prevented the phrases from actually sticking even when I listened to them hundreds of times. My passive listening brain just tuned them out. Contrast this with the level one dialogue from Talk to Me in Korean, which I can still pretty faithfully repeat from memory even though I haven’t listened to it in weeks.

Again, this proves the importance of stories.

Speaking of Talk to Me in Korean, I’ve still been listening to these audio lessons sporadically over the past month. They’re entertaining enough, and what makes them really valuable to me is that I’ve been using this audio comprehension deck that takes the audio directly from the lessons. The lessons help me understand the cards (and give me stronger memories/impressions that make them stick), and the cards reinforce the lessons.

Given the high quality of the material, I really wish they would produce more dialogues. If there was a dialogue showcasing usage of the words or grammar points from each lesson, that would be so useful.


Korean dialogues: Korean Class 101

I got back to Taiwan a couple days ago and this gave me an occasion to try to get back on track with Korean. I found another promising resource: Korean Class 101. I was skeptical of it at first because of how commercial it is, but I think I dismissed it too quickly: it has tons of Korean dialogues of all levels available for download, they come with transcripts (and, if needed, lessons explaining the contents in English), and the voice actors do a good job. The key is to not get bogged down listening to the lessons themselves.

I put a bunch of the dialogue mp3s on my phone for convenient shadowing. The method I’m trying first is 1) listen to the dialogue once, 2) read the transcript or listen to the lesson as necessary to understand anything I didn’t catch the first time, 3) shadow ~5 times a day. At this level the dialogues are all less than 30 seconds long, so I can do several a day and still spend under 15 minutes. I’m started with the very lowest level, which might be too low; I’m wondering if I’ll get greater returns and have more fun if I aim a little higher.


Next language: Indonesian

Some language friends have talked me into trying a 12-hour Indonesian-learning marathon this month, on Saturday the 21st. I’ve been skeptical of these, because it seems like too short a time to actually acquire anything that will last. But these friends have more language learning experience that I do, so it seems likely I’ll learn some interesting things by going along with their plan. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong.

Doing this also gives me an excuse to keep focusing on Korean and German until the 21st, and helps cover up the fact that I neglected to start another language before and it’s now already the middle of January (I was still in the US until the 12th, give me a break!).

Patience

Over the past couple weeks I found myself getting a little dispirited when I thought about Korean. Have I just not been trying hard enough? Is it a time management problem again? Why have I struggled to spend as much time studying Korean as I spent learning German, and felt like I’ve gotten less out of the time I have spent? Is Korean really harder than German?

I was given an important reminder in Thierry’s class last week. Language acquisition is like building a muscle, he said. You can’t just work out for a few hours and expect to get strong. It takes time, and while you’re working on it, for the most part, you won’t notice any improvement. It’s only looking back that you see the difference.

I knew this already, but I guess I’d forgotten. I was expecting my Korean to get noticeably better week by week. It didn’t of course, and I think this actually backfired: when I didn’t notice any improvement, I started losing my motivation.

Noticeable improvement isn’t the goal in the beginning of language acquisition. The purpose is the practice: giving my brain time to get used to the sounds of the language.

Why, then, did it seem like I could notice a week-by-week improvement when I was devoting four hours a day to German back in August? One possibility seems pretty obvious, at least as a partial explanation. German really is similar to English. It’s full of cognates, and the grammar isn’t all that alien to an English speaker, even if it’s different. This not only made it easier to start speaking German early, but it made it easier to soak up material. When I started in on that Anki deck with 10,000 simple sentences, I could do 60 cards a day without going insane; I have a similar deck in Korean, but it seems I can barely keep up with 10 new cards a day. OK, it’s partly the structure of the deck: the Korean sentences are all much more different from each other than the German sentences, so each Korean sentence is worth more “points” so to speak. But aside from that, it’s a lot easier for me to remember that gewartet means “waited” than it is to remember “gidalyeossda“, let alone 기다렸다, which also mean “waited” but don’t even have any familiar syllables, let alone a resemblance to the English word.

I think there was a feedback loop here. The easier I found it to understand new German sentences, the more motivated I got to seek out even more German. With Korean, the loop has been in the opposite direction. How do I break this? Again, part of it is remembering that rapid improvement isn’t the point. All I really need to do is find material that I believe in, that I can stand (or, better yet, enjoy), and that I can somehow make comprehensible.


In other news, I recently asked a Korean friend to record some simple phrases for me. Things like “Really?” “I didn’t know that” “Sorry I’m late” and “What a pain.” All told the recording is about a minute long, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat for 10 to 15 minutes at a time almost every day. Again, at first I was dismayed that even such simple phrases wouldn’t stick in my mind after a few days of repeated listening, but now I think this is once again beside the point. They’ll stick eventually, and when they do, I’m going to be a conversational powerhouse at the Korean table.


Oops, it’s December

Hey, isn’t it the start of a new month again already? Oh wait, it’s a third of the way through a new month! I was supposed to start another language this month. At least given the way I’ve been approaching language learning recently, that would have been crazy (there are such things as 12-hour or 7-day hackathon-like languages binges, and one of those every month is definitely doable. But that sounds more like cramming for a test, and I’m skeptical much of it would stick around for long).

I can see I’m still learning a lot about language learning from my experience with Korean. That, and I’m traveling back to the States this month for the holidays and a friend’s wedding, and the thought of starting another language at the same time stresses me out. So as a very wise man once said, Whatever!

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?”

Or

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

Or

“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?

Korean midterm status report

When I started German in August, the month stretched out in front of me, a big, empty space, waiting for me to fill it with anything at all. It was scary. But it was also easy, once I decided to learn German, to fill each day with as much German as I could handle. By the middle of August, I already felt like I’d gone a fair distance.

The days in November were already occupied when I got to them. Yoga, polyglot cafe, making 包子, doing a bit of translating work, and trying to find time to play ultimate and even go out once in a while have meant that I’ve had to kick out the original inhabitants of those hours to make some room for Korean. Or just pack things in more tightly, to the detriment of my health, which is maybe why I’m at home battling a cold right now instead of eating teppanyaki and getting ready to lead the English table.

November is going by fast. What Korean have I managed to learn so far? I spent a few days reading about Hangul, the writing system. In principle, yes, it’s simple as many people claim. But I’ve been finding it pretty difficult to actually memorize the symbols and read Korean. This is partly because I haven’t completely grasped the phonetics. There are about four vowels that all sound like very close variations of “uh” or “oh”, and they don’t look remarkably different either. The basic ingredients of vowels seem to be vertical or horizontal lines with or without certain numbers of lines or dots on either side.

Maybe I just need to spend a couple hours coming up with my own mnemonics and making my own cards to really learn these symbols. On the other hand, so far I feel like I’ve had the most fun and most “success” with learning material that doesn’t include any writing.

Talk to me in Korean (TTMIK) has been useful; the blog itself is entertaining; the hosts are charming and flirt with each other shamelessly, but lessons advance at a crawl. Entire 20-minute lessons are devoted to teaching one or two words. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been listening to the first lessons of the first level. There are a very impressive number of episodes and levels, and it may be worth browsing the later ones.

Luckily, TTMIK also has a dialogue — seemingly one for each level — that’s entirely in Korean. Today I opened this in Audacity, downloaded the transcript, and made Anki cards the same way I did with the Batman story from Der Explikator a couple days ago. Actually, this time I also made reversed cards with the Korean text on the front and the audio on the back, hoping to improve my reading that way.

I also went back to tried-and-true Pimsleur audio lessons, which I used when I first started with Chinese and Japanese. The nice thing is they’re packaged in nonthreatening, 30-minute lessons, no reading is required, and they progress at a good pace and are ordered in such a way as to make memorization easy. The downside is that the content itself is uninspiring, and usually just includes the most formal type of language.

I’ve tried three Anki decks.

The first one, minimal pairs, has been confusing at first. My brain is still frantically looking for any kind of pattern in all these crazy variations of the “t”, “p”, and “k” sounds. But it seems like maybe one is starting to emerge.

The second, about Hangul, has been confusing me even more. Which is surprising to me, since, again, I thought Hangul was supposed to be really simple. I could be wrong, but it seems like the “answers” to the “questions” are actually the names of the symbols, not the sounds they make. Which I feel isn’t very important.

The third one is a deck with lots of example sentences, audio on the front, text and translation on the back. In theory this is fine, but it’s also been a very, very steep uphill battle, since at this point I still have almost no vocabulary with which to make sense of what I’m hearing. I reckon this deck would be more approachable once I’d finished listening to all the TTMIK and Pimsleur lessons.

So that’s it. The good news is I get some satisfaction from the little bits of conversational Korean I’ve been picking up from the audio lessons. So maybe that’s what I’ll do for a while.

Batman’s problem and a solution to quantum computers

How many times is it going to take for me to learn this lesson? In the previous post I was lamenting how I couldn’t find a German podcast featuring natural dialogue and a transcript, which I could use to make my newfangled DIY audio flashcards.

I’d tested the technique on an episode of Der Explikator about quantum computers. It worked pretty well: the portion of the podcast that I cut up and made into cards quickly turned comprehensible. But then I started complaining that the content was pretty irrelevant to my everyday German conversational needs.

Mr. Wunderlich, Der Explikator himself, pointed out to me recently that there’s a page on his site dedicated to short radio plays. They also include transcripts. Heilige Makrele, Batman!

(And don’t get me wrong, Mr. Wunderlich. I may have exaggerated a bit in that last post — I am interested in quantum computers. I wouldn’t have picked that episode to begin with if I weren’t. But yes, it was my mistake to try using it for my A1-level German studies. These radio plays with dialogue, on the other hand, seem like just the ticket. So, thank you!)

I just spent 20 minutes on a Batman and Robin story in which it seems like Batman is more interested in visiting bars than actually finding the Riddler. I only managed to make 20 cards in those 20 minutes. Actually, that’s not so bad. I had been thinking about this card creation as a waste of time, but I realize now that it has value. Those 20 minutes I spent creating the cards, listening to the audio in chunks, and copying the text into Google Translate, I was also understanding the content. This will help the reviews go more smoothly later. And I feel motivated to keep making more cards now, because I want to see how the story continues. Funny how stories work like that, isn’t it?

So what’s the lesson that I alluded to above? Don’t underestimate what you can find on the internet! In this case, if I’d only done a slightly more thorough job of checking every page on Der Explikator, I would have found these radio plays a long time ago.

Agonizing and starting Korean

Agonizing

I’ve been agonizing these last few days over whether I really have the time to start learning Korean this month. I feel like I barely have enough time for German and French.

It’s partly that I really don’t have as much time as I did before. I started a part-time apprenticeship at a bakery and I’m starting to help organize some polyglot events.

It’s also that I still haven’t “figured out” exactly how I’m working on these languages. This afternoon was language time. I started by listening to a bunch of French videos on YouTube while I cleaned my apartment. Then I did 15 minutes of German vocabulary flashcards, took a nap, and then had a 30-minute trial German lesson on Verbling (I got a free lesson when I made an account). I meant to make some more audio cards from a YouTube video I found that had subtitles, or do some shadowing, but somehow six hours had already passed. Hmm.

Struggling to do all these things I feel like I “should” be doing to keep my language practice working is stressful. It’s even more stressful to think about trying to make all these things happen with one more language on my plate.

It’s not going to work unless I can change my mentality. I do see another option. Instead of telling myself I’m obligated to do X, Y, and Z every day for languages α, ß, and γ, I could just sort of “embrace” that I’m trying to learn α, ß, and γ, and just sort of “trust” that by following whatever learning method and whatever language seems most interesting at any given moment, I’ll continue to gradually get better at all of them to varying degrees. I’m not used to this style of learning, but it seems closer to what a lot of the successful language enthusiasts I’ve met have done.

For instance, for the guy who speaks six languages fluently, it sounds like learning them was more of an obsession than a set of chores that required a lot of discipline. And that’s the way it should be. But I’m starting to understand that it actually takes a bit of faith in myself for me to learn this way.

That sounds like good practice in its own right. So maybe I spend three hours a day on languages, but it doesn’t need to be every single language every single day. I go to Polyglot cafe three days a week, but I can decide what languages I feel like practicing once I get there (they’re starting a German table next week!). I look for conversation partners in all my languages, but just sort of go with the flow when it comes down to who/what/when/how often.


Korean

So, Korean. Actually, starting to learn Korean does seem more interesting to me right now than “making” myself study more German and French. That’s what it really comes down to.

And I know I said I’d try a completely phonetics-based approach when I started the next language, but learning Hangul seems fun, and then I’ll be able to read, and, hey, I don’t really believe it’ll make or break my ability to learn Korean phonetics.

Here are the first few resources I’m looking at:

  1. howtostudykorean.com – Second entry in Google search results for learn korean. It claims to have everything I need to learn Korean, including lessons, tests, example sentences, and audio recordings. Yep, what more could I want?
  2. Talk to me in Korean – Recommended by a friend who’s a Korean teacher. They’ve got textbooks and a podcast, and possibly other things.
  3. Anki – Of course. There’s a whole section just for Korean stuff, including a Hangul deck, a phonetic minimal pairs deck, and an audio-containing grammar deck sorted by difficulty.

If these are as good as they sound, they should keep me busy (entertained?) for a while.

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.

Flashcards

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.