How long will it take to become fluent?

I saw this question show up at the HTLAL forums a few days ago, and have seen it appear elsewhere in the language learning community time and time again. The question is, unfortunately, very hard to answer.

First of all, the questioner often focuses on a poor unit of time: “how many months will it take to reach B2,” or “how many years did it take for you to become fluent?” Months and years aren’t really helpful when measuring something like language learning, as they don’t take into account what the person is actually doing during that time. One person could study for 5 minutes a day for ten years and not be fluent; another person could study for four hours a day for two years and be fluent. Asking for a year or month count just isn’t helpful.

Even if the person asks how many hours it will take, the question also assumes that everyone is the same; that if it takes me an hour to learn something, it’s going to take anyone else an hour as well. This obviously isn’t the case. And of course, even if you have a number of hours to shoot for, what you do is just as important as how much of it you’re doing; watching a T.V. show in your target language for two hours will yield a different amount and type of learning than spending two hours with word lists or grammar.

I think many people turn to questions like this when they’ve hit the intermediate level in their language, because it’s often at that point that progress starts to come more slowly. When you’re starting out with a language, any progress seems like a lot of progress. Going from knowing no words to 20 words is a big leap, and you feel like you’ve made a lot of progress. If you think of learning a language as building a mountain, it’s easy to see how things change as you go along. Once the mountain is a hundred feet or a thousand feet in the air, adding a few more pebbles feels almost pointless; you want to be able to add another hundred feet, and you want to do it fast. Similarly, when you’ve learned 10,000 words, adding another 10 seems almost futile; it doesn’t give quite the same feeling as learning your first 10 words in the language.

Of course, continuing to add to the mountain is the only way forward, even if it must be done pebble by pebble. Eventually they add up. I think one’s time would be better spent adding pebbles rather than trying to nail down some mythical amount of time that will lead to fluency.

Tip of the day: Ignore everyone, do what you want

It’s easy to forget your overall goal sometimes, and language learning is no exception. It’s easy to get caught up in learning about learning languages, as opposed to learning languages. I certainly find myself suffering from this sometimes. Instead of learning more vocabulary, I’ll find myself poking around at the forums. Instead of studying a grammar point that’s giving me trouble, I’ll read (and write) blog posts about “the debate” – whether or not one should study grammar.

There’s nothing wrong with learning about methods, but there is a problem when the amount of time you’re spending on learning about learning languages rivals (or even surpasses) the amount of time you’re actually spending on learning languages. All the wonderful methods of the world won’t teach you a language if you don’t put the time in.

So, today’s tip: ignore everyone, and go do what you want. Just make sure it’s language learning, not learning about language learning. For today, we’ll set aside the grammar debates, the vocabulary debates (context vs. no context), and all of that. Today, just do something, even if someone somewhere on the internet (even me!) tells you it’s wrong. Go do SRS reps, or make some word lists, or study grammar, or translate, or something. For today, no more learning about language learning.

(And yes, this post is at least partially written to myself.)

Using Google As A Teacher

Jim Stroud from wrote an interesting document about using Google as an aid to language learning. Many of his tips involve using Google’s vast text index to compare a search to what Google has on hand, for example:

3. Is there a word missing?

By using an asterix in a sentence, Google will assume that a word is missing and search for phrases that it thinks fills in that blank. For example…

By searching, How are you * today?

Google returns search results that includes:
*   “How are you doing today?”

*   “How are you feeling today?”

*   “How are you guys today?”

*   “How are you coping today?”

Click here to see for yourself and pay attention to the phrases that are bolded.

I really like his ideas, as they help language learners (learning English or anything else) to compare what they think is right, to what is right. If you run a search on what you think is right and get 5 results, it’s probably wrong. If you get 150,000 results, you’re probably onto something. 🙂

You can read Jim’s post here, or download the full guide here.

Keeping a Language Learning Log

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been keeping a language log at the forums. I’ve found it to be a wonderful help, both in keeping myself motivated, and in (obviously) keeping track of what exactly I’m doing in my language studies.

It helps my motivation, as it’s a nice feeling to sit down and document what I’ve done throughout the day. It makes my little study sessions of 15 or 20 minutes seem more substantial, when I’m able to line them all up together, and see that I’ve put in 2 or more hours in throughout the day. While this isn’t always the case – sometimes I’m doing good to total half an hour! – often, it is the case, and when it happens, I’m happy to see it.

And, as the more obvious benefit of keeping a language learning log, it helps me keep track of what I’m doing and stay on track. Particularly when you’re tackling multiple languages simultaneously, it’s easy to get lost as to what you’ve done, and what you still need to do. Did I review chapter 4 of my Russian textbook? When was the last time I reviewed that French Assimil lesson? Have I covered this tense at all, or do I need to hit the grammar book?

As an extended benefit, the log has helped me focus on consistently hitting new material for my languages. In the past, I’ve fallen into the trap of sticking to one thing for too long, aiming for complete mastery before moving along. While some people are capable of doing this, I’ve found that I prefer to learn a lot of new material, and then consolidate the knowledge as I go along. Staring for days on end at one tense or declension generally just bores me to tears, which hinders learning.

If you’ve not kept a language log before, do try it; it might help you. Geoff has also written about keeping a language journal, so if you’re thinking of keeping one, you should certainly check out his method as well.

Stick To It!

I read a post from Geoff today, The Language Habit, and I thought his point was worth repeating:

… [T]here is one old and earthshaking secret too often forgotten about all aspects of our lives: If you work at doing something as well as you can and consistently, you are on the way to excellence. So whatever your method or technique for learning language these days, stick to it. If it fits with what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll soon be on your way.

This is great advice. I’ve found that with language learning, often, what is lacking is not the “perfect” method, but simply enough time invested. With regular study, even if it’s 10 or 15 minutes, you can see improvement in your understanding. I’ve been extremely busy with college classwork, and so my language learning time has been pretty slim. However, I’ve been able to squeeze in 10-15 minutes a day for both French and Russian; German, as my primary language target, usually gets half an hour to an hour. While I certainly won’t win any language learning races by studying an hour and a half a day, luckily, I’m not in a race; I just want to continue learning, which I’ve been doing successfully. A drop here and there will eventually fill a glass, then a bath tub, and then an ocean. I suppose language learning is similar.

So, as Geoff said: stick to it. Even if it may feel like you’re not making much progress, you probably are. Just keep adding drops to the container.

How do you learn vocabulary?

I’m curious as to how other language learners tackle their vocabulary learning. Do you just read lists? Do you not write any vocabulary down, in any form, and simply rely on your memory and exposure? Do you use flashcards? If you do, do you use the index-card kind, or a flashcard program? Do you do something that’s a relatively unique approach?

I use a variety of things to tackle vocabulary. More often than not, I use software to learn words with. In the past, I’ve used Pauker a great deal, a free, open source flashcard based on the Leitner system.

More recently, however, I’ve switched to using a duo of programs: VTrain and Interlex. VTrain is a flashcard application like Pauker, but it’s a lot more robust (and, admittedly, a lot more complicated to use, at least until you figure out the cluttered interface). One of the things I really like about VTrain is that you can set the default language / keyboard setup you want for each side of a flashcard. What this means is that if you’re making, say, Russian-English cards, you don’t have to manually switch your keyboard back and forth between the keyboard setups. When you’re on the Russian side of the card, your keyboard will automatically be in Russian mode; when you move to the English side of the card, it will switch over as to be expected. VTrain has another thing that Pauker doesn’t, and that’s a slideshow mode. In this mode, one side of a card is shown, and then the other; you can customize the time delays involved. If you’re wanting to review but not in the mood for an all out flashcard test, it’s a nice alternative.
Interlex is different from both VTrain and Pauker. Interlex doesn’t use the Leitner system at all; when you create a collection, when test yourself on the words and get the words right, they’re considered “learned.” They don’t move to the next flashcard box or any such thing, because there aren’t any boxes in Interlex. Instead, to go through the words again, you have to reset the statistics of the file, i.e. make all of the words “unlearned” again.

So, why is Interlex in my repertoire? Because it offers something unique: a multiple choice test. I’ve found that using a multiple choice test is a good way to get myself familiar with new words; after that, I can move on to the more difficult types of learning.

Interlex also produces a nicely formatted printed list of the words in your file, much nicer than VTrain (and Pauker doesn’t do it at all). This has been my solution for when I want to “study on the go”; not having a laptop or a high tech cellphone, I can’t bring my software along with me when I’m out and about. So instead, I’ll print out a list of words, say 50-100, fold up the list, and stick it in a pocket. When I’ve got a minute or two I’ll get the list out and go over it.

I’ve found one other good thing about using VTrain and Interlex: they play nicely together, with a little bit of effort on the user’s part. After figuring out how to setup the export options in VTrain, I was able to import words and translations into Interlex, without any bizarre characters thrown into the mix. This is something that would probably hold true for many applications, at least if you’re using VTrain, because you can customize what it exports, and how the words / translations are separate (comma separated, tab separated, whatever you want).

Anyway – when I started writing this post, I certainly didn’t intend on it being so long! Back to my initial question: how do you learn vocabulary?

Hunting down the words you really want to use

Everyone who has worked on learning a foreign language and communicating with it has most likely experienced a similar problem. You’re trying to talk to someone in the language, you’re doing okay, but then the dreadful happens. You want to say something – something that’s perhaps even relatively simple – but you have no idea how to say it. You might even know the grammar bits that you’d need to use, but you don’t know the vocabulary words.

There’s something you can do to make this happen a little less often. A lot of the time when you’re talking to someone, you’re talking about what you did during your day, what you thought about, etc. This obviously isn’t always the case, but it let’s face it: we all talk about ourselves, and a lot.

So, here’s what to do: throughout your day, carry a small notebook around with you, or even a stack of index cards. As you go about your day, when you have a moment, just think about what it is you’re doing. What action are you performing? What are you looking at? What’s around you? And then, try to think about that in your target language. Do you know all of the words to express what it is you’re doing or thinking about? If you come across a word or expression that you don’t know, write down word that you’d use in your native language. Later, when you’re home and can get to your language learning materials, look up the words you need and note them in whatever vocabulary storage you use, whether it’s a plain notebook or a computer flashcard program.

This is a good way to hunt down the words that you really want; the words and expressions that are important to you. While I think it’s a good idea to learn the vocabulary lists that are provided in language books, often, these vocabularies are quite generic, and will not cover what you as an individual want to express in your target language. For those words and expressions, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands and hunt them down. Paying attention to what you do throughout your day, along with your thoughts, and trying to express those actions and thoughts in your target language, is one way to find the words you really want to know.

Using monolingual dictionaries for foreign language learning…

… is it worth the trouble?

I’ve read in a few different places that using a monolingual dictionary which is in your target language is a good way to advance with your studies. I can certainly see the logic in it – if the dictionary is all in your target language, simply looking up a word exposes you to authentic language.

However, while that sounds great, the practicality of it is definitely in question. I can comment on this from personal experience. A few years ago, I was able to get, after much poking around online, a copy of Langenscheidt’s Großwörterbuch: Deutsch als Fremdsprache. (They have since printed a new paperback version, so while the wait is pretty bad – 4 to 6 weeks – you can get a copy of it.)

This dictionary is made specifically for learners of German, hence “Deutsch als Fremdsprache” – “German as (a) foreign language.” I got it with the hopes that I could switch to using it almost exclusively. At the time, I thought my reading level in German was at a high enough level for me to do that, at least with a dictionary that was written for learners. What I got, however, was a pretty big surprise, and what can only be called mixed success.

Book Cover

Certainly, some words that I looked up in my new dictionary, I would read the definition and understand it almost right away. However, with the majority of words that I wanted to look up, I ran into a fairly big problem: I didn’t know quite a few of the words used in the definition! This often led to a humorous “chase down the words” session. I’d start writing down all-German definitions on a piece of paper (or two…), just to figure out the meaning of one word. While I suppose all the reading in German could be seen as beneficial, when you’re trying to read a text and you have to stop for 30-45 minutes to figure out one word, frustration can set in. This problem could be particularly bad with words dealing with concepts instead of physical things or actions.

Of course, my problems were not with the dictionary per se – the dictionary is quite nice! – it was me that was the problem. The monolingual dictionary would have worked great if I’d known all or most of the words used in the definitions, but that just wasn’t the case.

So, the question is: is it worth using a monolingual dictionary to help you learn a foreign language, or is it too much trouble? I think my answer would have to be a yes – with some stipulations. Namely, that you use your monolingual dictionary as a supplement to a bilingual one. Certainly somewhere in your language learning career, you will probably be able to exclusively use the monolingual one. But until you’re at a fairly advanced stage in the language, I think trying to use only a monolingual dictionary is more of a headache than an aid to learning. If your experience ends up being like mine, you’ll find yourself struggling to understand many of the definitions.

Perhaps a balance could be struck, though: try to use your monolingual dictionary first, and if you find that you don’t understand a definition, only then look it up in your bilingual dictionary. Or perhaps even try to figure out the definition in your monolingual dictionary for say, 5, looking up words you don’t understand. If, after that time is up, you’ve not figured it out, whip out your bilingual dictionary.

At any rate, I do recommend getting a monolingual dictionary in your target language at some point or another – just don’t toss out your bilingual one when the monolingual one arrives. 🙂