Back to it

I had good intentions. I was on a roll with my languages; I was starting the Read More or Die challenge; I was making progress on many fronts!

And then I sort of stopped.

It seems to happen to the best learners (and me, too, and I’m certainly not one of the best). I’ll be doing great, and then something will knock me off course. Sometimes it’s easy to hop right back on and keep going. Other times, “things” keep getting in the way, day after day; and like any habit, the further away you get from it, the harder it is to start back up.

I was doing well with Read More or Die, and had worked through a German book in relatively short order. I had just been connected with a Russian pen-pal via eTandem. Then I had company at my house for a few days, so I shelved my studies for a bit so as to avoid looking like an antisocial language geek. After that, life just kept getting in my way, I lost the habit (obsession?) of working on my languages, and here I find myself, nearly a month later, having done more or less nothing. Awful!

So, it’s time to get back to it. My current short-term plans include:

  • continuing the active wave of Russisch ohne Mühe
  • getting back to writing to my German tutor and going over his corrections
  • touching base with French, which I’ve largely neglected lately in favor of Russian

I also need to look a bit more at Rocket Italian, as they offered me a free subscription to their basic Italian course in return for a review, but more on that later.

(And yes, I’m well aware that I just said Italian, which is / was a language that was not on my list. If you all don’t know that I suffer greatly from wanderlust, I’m not sure what blog you’ve been reading. Gimme’ a break.)

Read more or die challenge

If you’ve taken a look at my Twitter account, you might have noticed my tweets to @TadokuBot, which look something like this: @TadokuBot 15 #book #de. The tweets are my updates for the Read More or Die challenge. It’s a fairly simple challenge: read as much as you can in your target language(s) during the month of April. You send your updates to the bot, and it keeps track of how many pages you’ve read, as well as your rank amongst your “competitors.”

While it started on the 1st, it’s not too late to sign up. There were some people on the HTLAL forums who seemed reluctant to take part because they knew they couldn’t read hundreds of pages in their foreign languages in one month, but that’s sort of missing the point. It’s not about “winning” (there aren’t any prizes other than bragging rights), it’s about reading. Some friendly competition is a good way to kick yourself into gear.

If you’re interested in taking part, check out the Read More or Die challenge blog. You’ll want to follow TadokuBot on Twitter to see updates, and you’ll probably want to follow lordsilent as well, who’s behind the challenge.


Tweet, tweet from a Language Geek

My sincerest apologies for the post title, I couldn’t help myself. (It does rhyme, though – sort of!) I’ve set up a Twitter account to share bite-size bits about languages and language learning, as well as communicate with other language learners who are tweeting.1 You can find me @thelanguagegeek if you’d like to follow me. Likewise, if you’ve got a Twitter account that you’d like me to check out, drop a note in the comments.

  1. I really do hate the verb “tweeting.” Oh well. []

The Linguist Blogger on fluency

The Linguist Blogger has a very interesting podcast up in which he and a friend discuss language learning in general, and fluency specifically. Regarding fluency, I especially appreciated how it was stressed that when you say you speak a language, it should be qualified in some way. Otherwise it’s open to an awful lot of interpretation (e.g., does being able to fluently order a coffee mean you speak fluently?) Do check out the podcast.

Assimil’s second, active wave

I posted the instructions found at the beginning of the Assimil Dutch course some time ago. I’ve found that the Assimil instructions are often rather lacking, and plenty of people post on forums asking: how exactly am I supposed to use this course? How should I go about doing the active phase?

After seeing an excellent response to a question about the active wave, I took a look in my Dutch book to see what it had to say:

Use the following procedure in the second wave of your study:

1. Read the lesson, repeating each sentence once. If you have the recordings, listen to them carefully.
2. Cover the Dutch text and try to reconstruct it, looking only at the English sentences. Make an effort to do this both out loud and in writing. This is the most important part of the second wave!
3. After you are finished, uncover the Dutch text and carefully correct any errors you have made.

After each new lesson, you will be told which earlier lesson you are to review in this precise way. This second wave of your study will lead to an active and, in a very short time, spontaneous knowledge of Dutch.

This is a bit clearer than some Assimil courses, but it still has nothing on this wonderful response provided by lingoleng at the HTLAL forums (reposted with his consent):

I can only give some hints, but what you do should really depend on your own needs, not on anything else.

Second wave wants two things, both are very easy to understand:

– repetition

After two or three months, however long it took you to get to lesson 50, you have forgotten many words and phrases of the previous lessons. So you have to refresh them by going through the old lessons again. Very simple, no problem here.

– activation
After the reading and listening of the first wave you start producing sentences, speaking and probably writing. Again, very simple concept. How to do it? Everything is allowed and possible, it depends entirely on you and your needs.

Look at the English text of the first lesson. Try to translate it without looking at the German text. A piece of cake? Not as easy as you expected? Oh man, I don’t remember anything at all? Well, whatever, no problem at all. Of course you use the written text in the book as a tool for correcting your translation, what else? You can use the audio just as well, but this is not as easy, and not necessary. (Just listen to the audio on another day, never a bad idea.) But you have to check if your sentences are right. That’s the most important thing, of course. What if you’ve made a mistake, or two, or it is all nonsense? No problem again, that’s why you do the repetition, look at what is wrong, say the correct version several times, and go on.

Next sentence a complete failure? Well, who cares, you are learning the language, that’s why you do it. If you write your first try and make a mistake, or several, no problem, but in this case you write the correct version twice, or three times, now you’ll know it. For a while 🙂
Assimil says you can listen to the audio before starting your active work, so you can do this. Or you try to get it right without a previous short time reactivation, but as repetition is one of your primary goals it is not so important whether you get it right without listening before, these are all minor details.
. . .
You see, what I propose is a little bit different than only remembering the phrase by heart. Learning by heart is not a bad thing, really not, but only if you understand what you remember. So if you have the automatic reaction: Oh, I remember very well what was written on this page, it was the strange and very queer expression “Haben Sie Hunger”, no idea why and how, but this is it,- you get a point in a multiple choice test but not as many language points, I guess.

To make a long post short: You want repetition, and you get it. You want active skills, and you have to work for them. And the exact procedure is not a law, do what you want to do, or have to do. A third wave, or even a forth one, may be what makes the difference between a successful language learner and a less successful one, but I would never confess that I ever needed a fifth wave, not me.

I really liked his answer, as it shines a bright light on an issue I think some people might run into with Assimil courses: they see the active phase as a “test” rather than a process. They go to their active lesson, read the English, and if they don’t come up with the perfect foreign language equivalent right away – panic! There’s no need to be so harsh on yourself. With the active wave, unless you have a photographic memory, you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s fine; the whole point is to see the material again, and to start playing with it in your mind. If you’re moving bits of the language around in your mind, trying to produce something, it’s worthwhile, even if many of your attempts have errors.

Generating lists of words from reading

Sometimes, I’ll do intensive reading on the computer, so as to make it a bit quicker – I have quick access to my software dictionaries, grammar websites, and the like. When doing this in the past, I’ve generally copied and pasted any words and expressions I didn’t know into a text document, so I could look them up after reading the article. The only downside to this was the constant flipping back and forth between what I was reading and the text document – lots of alt-tabbing, in other words. I figured out a geeky way to avoid doing this, which I thought might be of interest to some people.

It’s basically a bit like highlighting words on a page, and then magically pulling all of those words off the page to instantly put them in a list, at which point you can do whatever it is you want to do – add definitions to the list, look them up and add them to Anki, etc.

Here’s how to do it (and please note, unless someone knows a workaround, you’ll need Microsoft Word near the end):

1. Take whatever you want to read, copy it, and paste it into a word processing app. Google Docs will work fine for the initial steps.

2. Select all of the text (Ctrl+A in Google Docs), and remove all formatting (Ctrl+). You can also find Clear Formatting under the Format menu.

3. Go through the article, select any word you want to grab, and underline it (Ctrl+U). You can also bold it, or change it to a particular color. You can use whatever you want as your word marker as long as you’re consistent.

4. Unfortunately, there’s only one program that I’ve found so far that does the next step easily: Microsoft Word. I’m using Microsoft Word 2007; I’m not sure if older versions of the program have the option needed. For the fourth step, copy your marked up text and paste it into Word. Then, select one of your underlined words, then use Select Text with Similar Formatting.

This will select all of the words you marked up.

5. Copy the selected text in Word, and then paste into your word processor of choice (I usually head back to Google Docs at this point).

Rather than the words showing up in a list, they’re automatically formatted in a list, one word / expression per line.

Hopefully, this is a bit easier and quicker than highlighting a word, copying it, going to your text editor, pasting it, and then going back to your article.

(If anyone knows of an open source application that has an option like Word’s “Select Text with Similar Formatting,” please let me know; I checked out Open Office’s Find and Replace options, and didn’t see anything that worked.)

Puttering along

Back in July, I wrote:

I’ve been trying to decide on how I want to rearrange my language learning schedule. While I’m making progress, certainly, I’m not entirely happy with my haphazard way of hopping from one language to another. Some languages tend to get lost in the mess, and as of late, French has been suffering quite a lot – not to mention poor Spanish, which seems to have wholly vanished from my studies. I’m not frustrated enough to slash any more from my current list, but I’m going to have to put my current list into some sort of overall structure to please myself. I’m just not entirely sure how I’m going to do that.

Somewhat ironically, in poking around in my archives, I discovered that I faced a similar dilemma back in June of 2009 – actually, the exact same dilemma: how to handle trying to learn multiple languages at once (while outright ignoring the oft repeated advice, “don’t! Stick to one at a time!”).

Did I settle on a system? Yes – the system that Geoff (Confessions of a Language Addict) recommended to me over a year ago. That is to say, no system at all, or, as he put it: “… if you don’t need to know any of these languages, you’re best off setting your studies by inspiration than a schedule.” As he also said, it’s not particularly efficient, and I’m not going to win any “learn a language in 6 months!” contests, but I’m enjoying myself and making progress, so I’m happy.

Occasionally1, I’ll go through a phase during which I feel like I should be doing more with my language learning – be more efficient, be more devoted, etc. Whenever I’ve hit such a phase, I’ve tried to bring more structure to the table. And, every time I’ve done this, I ultimately end up burning out and doing a whole lot of nothing for a while. As many people (even I) have said, if language learning is a hobby, it certainly shouldn’t feel like work.

In line with my new devotion to rather haphazard learning, I’ve been continuing my slow, slow plod through Russisch ohne Mühe. Whenever I finish this Assimil course, I may very well be eligible to be entered into the Guinness World Records for the longest amount of time taken to finish one language course. Seriously. I’ve been working through this course off and on for at least a few years now (largely off, I will admit, as I’ll work on it some, and then it will be shelved for a long time). I’m now up to lesson 70, and am now opting to actually follow Assimil’s advice: do a lesson a day, and if I’ve forgotten material in a lesson, so be it. I can always review it later, but the show (course) must go on! No more getting hung up on one lesson for a week.

How are you all doing in your studies?

  1. Apparently once a year or so! 😉 []

The disease of monolingualism

I clicked over to this website, EuroComRom, from a HTLAL thread. The website is about multilingualism in Europe and a strategy for achieving it, but frankly, that’s not what this rather short post is about. What immediately caught my eye (and made me chuckle) was the opening line of the site’s introduction:

Monolingualism is curable.

It made me invision some curious alternate reality in which people who only speak one language are seen as being sick, and are sent to institutes to be “cured” of their ailment.

WordPress Encoding Woes

WordPress is starting to really, really annoy me with its text encoding quirks. I’m not sure why, but I’ll post something that has foreign characters in it, and more or less on its own, the foreign text – whether it is umlauts or Cyrillic – gets garbled into weird characters. I’ve tried changing the text encoding setting in WordPress to UTF-8, which doesn’t seem to help. If I change the text encoding in Firefox to UTF-8, though, the garbled text is fixed, and I see what I actually wrote.

Does anyone know how to go about fixing this permanently? Telling people to use a certain browser and set their text encoding to a particular setting isn’t exactly a “fix” in my book.

Grimm Grammar for German

The Texas Language Technology Center of the University of Texas has a very nice online grammar of German, Grimm Grammar.

A snippet from their about page:

Welcome to Grimm Grammar, an irreverent revival and shameless exploitation of 19th-century Grimm Fairy Tales for honorable pedagogical purposes.  Fortunately for you, Dear Reader, thirty-six characters from these fairy tales have returned to 21st century Germany (their precise location cannot be revealed for privacy reasons) to model all things grammatical … anything the most eager language learner may wish to know about the German language.

This online grammar reference was created for lower-division language courses at the University of Texas, but any beginning or intermediate learner of German may use it completely free of charge, as long as he or she is willing to take a trip to the imaginary world of Grimm Grammar … the characters of which are grumpy and gorgeous, scary and smarmy, witty and wicked!

If you’re getting started in German, check it out; you could probably skip the introductory German grammar book, and instead just wait until you need a copy Hammer’s.