field notes, languages

5 months with Turkish: a recap of my language-learning strategy

It’s time for an update on my language-learning project, a cup of tea! (Turkish edition: bir fincan çay.) In preparation for my trip to Istanbul (and continuing into the months I spent in lockdown there), I started to seriously invest some time into learning Turkish. And now that I’ve returned to the States, I’m winding down my Turkish studies and will go into maintenance mode, where I won’t expect to make any more progress for the time being. Instead, I’ll go back to shoring up some Romance languages, as well as dialects of Chinese. But for about 5 months, I was able to focus primarily on Turkish, and this post goes into the learning strategies I used during that time.

I. A bit about the Turkish language

Turkish is a pretty interesting language, especially in terms of where I’m coming from as a learner. It’s the first language I’ve seriously studied that is completely unrelated to either English or Cantonese (which I consider to be my native languages). It really makes me appreciate how extreme the boost is from related vocabulary when learning, say, French or German. Without that, almost every single word seems totally arbitrary. Examples: English information, French information, Italian informazione, German Information, Turkish bilgi. English justice, French justice, Italian giustizia, German Justiz, Turkish adalet. You’re going into this whole new world, where you have to learn everything from scratch, and almost nothing comes for free. (Though I was surprised to find a lot of loan words from French, which helps me. There is also a lot of vocabulary overlap with Arabic, which doesn’t help me at the moment, but maybe will someday!) But Turkish is a pretty regular language–it’s very pattern-based, follows its own rules and has few exceptions–which makes it “guessable” now that I’ve made some headway and built a base of vocabulary. But it wasn’t guessable from knowing words from English or any European language.

Turkish is a whole new world to me not only in vocabulary but also in syntax, where it has paradigms that are new to me, like agglutination–basically, you take a word root and pile on suffixes to add units of meaning which in English might be expressed via a long string of separate words. “I might be able to go” can be said as one word, via suffixes. In addition to that, almost everything that can be in reverse order from English, is. In Turkish, the verb is at or near the end of the sentence. Prepositions are actually postpositions–they come after the thing they refer to (which is actually the same in Chinese). And so it goes, inversions everywhere you look, at the sentence level and within parts of sentences. I love this tweet which diagrams the mind-bending inversion in Turkish sentences, as compared to French or German. (If you’ve seen the movie Arrival, this one is great too.) It can be kind of frustrating–for me, the feeling of parsing a long sentence was the feeling of waiting until the very end, to find out the core of the sentence from which to “hang” all the other bits of meaning encountered on the way there. It’s again a much more extreme divergence from English than you find with Romance languages or Germanic languages. It’s pretty taxing on my brain, and makes me extra impressed by Turkish people who are fluent in English.

II. Current state of my ability in Turkish

Whenever I study a language, my skills develop unevenly, where my reading ability way, way outpaces my ability in writing, listening, and speaking (in that order–speaking is always the least developed), and Turkish is no exception. At the level I’ve gotten to, I can read without too much difficulty on the easier side: signs and notices, magazine articles, news, probably young adult (YA) books; but nothing very literary or technical. It’s easier with the help of a dictionary, but I can get the gist of things without one. I can write understandable sentences, with some errors. I could probably write this post in Turkish, but it would take forever and have a fair number of errors and awkward usages. In listening, I can only fully understand short sentences/questions that I can hear very clearly. With anything more complex than that, I can often understand very vaguely what is going on and what people are talking about, and I can catch parts of sentences, but not enough to do a full translation. In speaking, where the opportunities were especially lacking due to months of lockdown in Istanbul, I can sometimes say tiny 1-4 word sentences as needed. (“Half kilo, please.” “I have a bag.” “Excuse me, is this yours?” As people with tiny children are aware, you can get amazingly far with micro-sentences.) Often I blank out in the moment, then think of the correct response to something after the moment has passed. It’s annoying. But at least I think of it eventually.

After checking some mock exams at different levels from TELC, which provides language certifications (but without actually doing the exams, because they looked boring), I’d put my level at around A2 or B1. Far from fluent, but I’m happy with that.

More importantly, I attained that experience of “breaking through” to where something like a bit of overheard conversation floating by as I walked down the street, which just months ago was a completely opaque, mysterious string of random sounds, is now full of meaning and expression, full of humor, caring, full of logistical details, pop culture references, political rants, sarcasm, and all the things you can say and understand. That’s the ultimate high that I’m always striving for, that’s what gets me through the many hours of tedium especially in the beginning, when it feels like a slog and totally impossible and pointless to imagine that I would ever understand what people are saying.

III. Summary of the strategy

As I briefly mention in my post Language learning advice I freely ignore, I always tend to heavily prioritize input over output (reading/listening over speaking/writing). There are good practical reasons for this, but it also boils down to the philosophy that there is no true expression without first understanding.

The specific strategy I tried for the first time here with Turkish involves first focusing intensively on grammar until I’d been exposed to all the rules needed up to an intermediate or advanced level; then switching over completely to only consuming real-life material (stuff for native Turkish speakers, not for language learners), including readings, podcasts, and TV. And compiling and reviewing vocabulary throughout.

IV. Components of the strategy

According to my logs, I spent about 250 hours on various forms of Turkish studies. I tended to put in about an hour or an hour and a half each day, with some periods when I wasn’t feeling it and spent much less time, and some periods where I studied more intensively. I studied DIY-style, without any class or teacher, just some occasional help from a friend when I was stuck on something. My studies can be broken down into the following activities. I also logged how many hours I spent on each activity, so I’ve included the percentage of time under each. (They only add up to 90% because a few hours went to miscellaneous other things.)

Grammar (20% of hours)

From the outset I started working through a textbook, The Delights of Learning Turkish. I always feel ambivalent about textbooks, but I’d say it was a decent textbook and probably about as good as any other. My routine was to go through each chapter in 3 steps: first, read through the chapter; next, input all new words into my Anki deck (more on that below); finally, do the exercises and check answers. The time investment for these steps divided pretty evenly (60-90 minutes for each), so I got into a rhythm of doing 1 step per day, so 1 chapter every 3 days.

I also started my own grammar cheat sheet, a doc where I would add new rules as I learned them. The benefits of making my own cheat sheet are that I can organize the rules in a way that makes sense to me (for example putting similar/complementary ones next to each other, not just in the order they show up in the textbook), and I can describe them in a way that helps me remember (for example rearranging charts/tables or using different examples than the textbook). And generally that describing stuff in your own way vastly helps retention, which is one thing teachers have always said that is actually true.

I also kept a list of just the verbs I learned, in infinitive form, alphabetized. This started out as just a helpful reference because lots of verbs sounded so similar to me, I could never remember whether I had already seen a verb or if it was new. It helped me answer my own questions like, “I feel like I’ve seen a verb that sounds a lot like this.. what was it??” and thus differentiate verbs that often only differed by 1-2 letters. Over time, it just became fun (and compulsive) to keep the list up to date. I think there are 500-600 verbs on the list now.

Vocabulary (40%)

For vocabulary retention, no strategy in the world has yet been found that can hold a candle to SRS (spaced-repetition software). (Google it.) (Btw, “can hold a candle to” means “can compare to.”) SRS is just a special form of flashcard review. As my SRS app, I use Anki; I add cards using the desktop app, and review them on the iPhone app. The time spent adding cards and the time spent reviewing cards are both reflected in the 40% of hours that I spent working on vocabulary.

For the first time, instead of using someone else’s pre-made deck, I started my own deck for Turkish words/phrases. But I hate adding cards–I find it a boring chore–so I keep them super simple, just the Turkish word(s) on one side and the English on the other. Sometimes I have the TV on while adding large batches of cards, just to keep me company through the slog. It’s not really recommended–classic high school / college student shenanigans–but hey, if it’s TV in the same language, maybe you could get two things done at once!

This is one of those areas where teachers are probably teaching all the wrong strategies. I’ve never heard a language teacher (or any teacher) mention SRS, but if you’re not using some form of SRS, it’s likely that you’re wasting a ton of effort and/or simply not retaining words.

(See my post 中文: the first 1000 characters for more on my thoughts around rote memorization, and how I used Anki to learn to read Chinese.)

I started my Turkish deck on Day 1 and started with words from my textbook, then later words from my readings. Every time I came across a word I didn’t know, I would add it to the deck. I was very strict about this; if I didn’t add it then I didn’t learn it. This was confirmed by how often I would totally forget a word just one day after “learning” it. So every single word has to go into the review cycle, or it is lost forever.

I found a great online dictionary, Tureng, whose autocomplete search was a lifesaver. So when I came across a new word, I would look it up in Tureng to get the root form and multiple definitions, and add the card in Anki.

For review, I went through the cards once a day, and tweaked the daily limits such that it took 20-30 minutes per day. (For me, after some tweaking this ended up meaning a max of 300 review and 30 new per day. It varies by language.) That’s my happy spot where it feels productive but not tiresome/overwhelming. I review them by having it present me with the English, then I guess the Turkish and check it. Because English to Turkish is harder for me than the other way around, and because it mimics the feeling of trying to come up with a word when I’m speaking.

My deck now has about 3700 cards, I’ve reviewed nearly all of them (I’ve stopped adding cards, so in a couple of days I will have seen all of them), and I’ve been maintaining about 80-90% retention. I’ll probably continue my 10-20 minutes a day of maintenance review for a few more weeks or months.

Audio input (listening) (12%)

Listening to podcasts. I also started this on Day 1, with real, full-speed Turkish podcasts, not the kind for language learners. In the beginning you can’t understand anything of course, but according to the passive-input theory/method, it still gets you used to the rhythms, intonation, and phonetics of the language, and this has been my experience. So in the beginning I just put them on in the background while doing whatever and didn’t try to pay attention; but later, as I started to be able to catch phrases here and there, I would listen carefully to try to parse as much of it as I could, which was also great practice and enormously improved my ability to understand real-life speech.

In my experience, it’s really hard to find real podcasts by googling. A really easy way to find them is through the iTunes store: change your iTunes region to the target country, then go to the iTunes store for Podcasts, and browse it for ones that seem interesting. Then you can subscribe to them via your favorite podcast app. (If you have a media library on iTunes, don’t forget to change your region back to the original, or else it may not let you access some of your own movies/music that have regional restrictions. Yay Apple.)

This iTunes-store trick completely changed my life. I started collecting podcasts by language and have found lots of cool ones. For Turkish, I listened to a few, but the one I eventually settled on, especially as I started to be able to understand a little, was one where each episode, the hosts interview a Turkish author. They read aloud the first page from one of the author’s books, then ask the author about their writing process, thoughts on the publishing industry, etc. The episodes are 30-50 minutes long, and I’d listen to 1 or 2 around lunchtime.

Textual input (reading) (8%)

I started reading real stuff only after I finished going through my textbook, so it was only for the last 6 weeks of the 5 months. I love dual-language materials (target language + English, side by side), because the English translation helps confirm/correct your understanding, and it can also introduce you to new meanings of words that you didn’t know or that aren’t given in the dictionary. As a makeshift dual-language reader, you can also get an easy-to-read book that is available in both languages, and read both copies together. Plenty of language learners swear by the Harry Potter series for this, as it’s one thing that’s available in pretty much every written language in the world. I’m relatively new to serious language learning, so my reading choices are pretty random; I just go with whatever I feel like reading.

Early on, on my flight to Istanbul, I discovered a dual-language reader in the form of the Turkish Airlines in-flight magazine, Skylife, which has Turkish and English side by side from cover to cover, and was also the perfect level to start reading at. So that was my primary reading material, once I was ready for it. Each session, I would read a couple of pages, comparing my understanding with the English translation, highlighting words I didn’t know, then later adding them to my Anki deck.

I’ve just finished all the articles in the magazine, and that marks my stopping point in the language. If I were to keep reading, I’d probably go for a YA novel next, and order two copies in Turkish and English.

Video input (10%)

Normally TV and movies are a large part of how I absorb a language. For Turkish I just happened to not have that many TV series or movies I was dying to watch, so it was a smaller part of my routine. Actually I watched live Turkish TV on YouTube for a while, but I stopped when it became close to 100% coronavirus news. Other than that, I only watched Şahsiyet, which is a great murder mystery miniseries (some would say, the best-produced series to ever come out of Turkey, to date). I do recommend it, and it has English subtitles, but you have to VPN into Turkey to stream it (or physically go there).

Typically I watch TV with audio in the target language and subtitles in English. (People say not to do this, but I ignore them.) I listen closely to the audio and read the subtitles at the same time, which helps solidify the meanings in my mind. Occasionally I will watch a movie in English with subtitles in the target language. I guess for me the main thing is to have the audio in its original language; I don’t like dubbed versions, I find them gross.

I haven’t found an easy or systematic way to discover TV series and movies in a given language and on a given streaming platform. I usually just google around and look for recommendations on Reddit or other sites, or attempt to browse Netflix, but they don’t make it easy to do this. Letterboxd lists can work for movies. If you have any tricks, I’d love to hear them.

A few other things I tried and abandoned

Just for completeness’ sake, a few things I tried but didn’t commit to:

  • Duolingo. Duolingo is nice for getting a taste of a language, and to have something to fiddle with on your phone, but I find it to be extremely inefficient for getting practical results of any kind. In general, “fun”-oriented language apps have a fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to learning: if they are going by the standard mobile-app playbook, then they want to give you lots of little rewards frequently and make you feel good about yourself, so that you’ll keep using the app. But the fastest way to learn and retain anything is to struggle to remember things, without hints, and fail all the time. Most apps don’t make you fail nearly enough (or ever). This is my personal opinion. For more on this topic, see the book Ultralearning by Scott Young.
  • Using a pre-made Anki deck from someone else. This can be helpful–I used it for Chinese–but for my purposes here, there was no shortcut or substitute for locking in my understanding by making my own deck of words as I encountered them. The pre-made deck had all kinds of minor annoyances that I disagreed with and that would end up confusing me, so I abandoned it.
  • A different Turkish textbook. I’d started with Elementary Turkish by Lewis V. Thomas, a decades-old book I randomly found at the used bookstore. It was fine, though a little on the persnickety side, like drilling you on details and edge cases and prioritizing 100% correctness, rather than a more holistic understanding. I didn’t really have a problem with it, but I decided to try a different textbook, and just never looked back.

V. Conclusion

Is there anything I would do differently? The kind of routine I’ve described actually took a few months to get settled into, so I’ve already gone through a few iterations towards practices that seem to work better. For the next language I start, I’ll be able to use this routine that I like right from Day 1, so it will already go differently.

For reasons I went into above, Turkish has been one of the most daunting languages I’ve encountered so far, and the first real blank-slate experiment in my language learning. It’s given me a lot of confidence that, with any language, there’s a recipe that works, and that you can start from zero and eventually break through. Whenever things felt hopeless, I would tell myself: before you complain that it’s not working, go through a full textbook, memorize at least 3000 words, listen to 50 hours of audio, read one book/magazine, and watch one full TV series. You can’t fail to understand something after that. Understanding just enough to feel excited to keep going, is much more important than whether you’re fluent or not. It worked this time and it will work again.

This wacky language has also been mind-expanding and changed my perceptions of what paradigms are possible in human languages. It’s made me appreciate how other “foreign” languages I’m familiar with are really not so foreign in comparison, but are practically close siblings of English. I’m super thankful to have been able to spend the past few months in the company of this language.

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field notes, languages, personal history

中文: the first 1000 characters

Rediscovering the forgotten advantage of rote memorization.

I recently reached the 1000th character in my deck of Chinese characters on Anki, my flashcard app. It seemed like a good occasion for a blog post celebrating the fact that memorization still works. By the end of this post, this pie chart should make sense to you:


i.

A couple of months ago I wrote a book review that’s now sort of “trending” on Goodreads–I happened to review the book the week it came out, and must have been one of the first. My review is currently tied for the most-liked review of that book. The book is Ultralearning by Scott Young, I gave it 2/5, and my review reads, in its entirety: “Just maybe 10x longer than it needed to be.” 😂

Still, it may be worth the money just to skim through Ultralearning and pick out what’s new to you. For me, it was worthwhile to be reminded of a few of the big components of learning. One is ensuring that you understand the big picture of what you’re trying to learn: the whys, causes and effects, overarching narratives, recurring themes, etc, without getting bogged down in details. There are lots of good tactics on how to do this.

But another big component is, at first glance, just the opposite: rote memorization. Drills. The weakness of my schooling, growing up, was that it focused on memorizing trivial things without any of that big picture context or critical thinking. No wonder we grow disillusioned as adults and ditch that whole system.

But more recently, I’ve hit a stage in my language learning project where rote memorization is really my biggest blocker. See, I’m currently working on Mandarin and Cantonese. But having grown up in a Cantonese-speaking household, and often hearing Mandarin spoken on TV (or sung in my Walkman CD player!), I’m in an interesting position as a language learner. I’m already comfortable with the grammar and pronunciation of both dialects/languages. I have everything you need… except for words. I just have a really small vocabulary, and need to learn lots and lots and lots of words.

I also never quite learned to read Chinese–which, to an even greater degree than learning meanings of words (which can be learned in context, like by watching more TV), is a matter of pure rote memorization. I need to learn a character, and know its corresponding sound(s!), including the correct tone(s!), and know its meaning(s!) and what words it’s found in. And just repeat that thousands and thousands more times. Yes, there are some patterns, so it does get progressively easier to learn new ones, but the patterns not very systematic. There’s no real shortcut. There’s also no real excuse for me not to do it, as it’s basically the only thing keeping me from being fluent.

(Digression: Okay, but who came up with this writing system, anyway?! Especially gems like these: 千 干 于 (qiān, gàn, yú, respectively), or these: 未 朱 失 (wèi, zhū, shī) which are the bane of my existence. Yes, Chinese characters hold layers of meaning and history. But the cost of that romanticness is that it’s also taxing as hell to memorize them and tell them apart. They are gorgeous. Gorgeous and annoying.)

Facing the imminent reality of thousands of characters to memorize, I thought back to earlier times when I’d relied on rote memorization and it had served me well. Before college, before high school, before all the failed learning strategies taught in school.. there was 6-year-old rory, trying to memorize the times table. 6 x 8 is 48, 6 x 9 is 54..


ii.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell has this theory about why Chinese kids end up better at math. (Caveat, I read this book like 10 years ago, so I may not have it exactly as he wrote it, but this idea stood out to me so much that I still remember it now.) Part of it is that Chinese numbers take slightly less time to say (already a questionable statement), and since the window of short-term memory is just a few seconds long, Chinese kids can fit more numbers into their memory, a slight advantage which compounds over time.

Lol. I suppose it could be a factor, but why do I think that I personally ended up better at math than the next kid? Because when the next kid was trying to learn the multiplication table, they invariably tried once, got maybe halfway, and then left to go play soccer or whatever. I practiced math, completing assignments from my dad, for hours, every day, including all summer. In the period of time when I was learning the multiplication table, I practiced it in both English and Cantonese, repeatedly writing out each row, then reciting the row out loud. Only when I had the 6’s row perfect was I allowed to move on to 7’s.

In case you’re wondering if this was a tiger mom / tiger dad type thing: nah, let’s be real. I had my bad days when I resented the whole thing, but overall, I loved it, even then. No form of learning in life since has been as satisfying as the education my dad gave me in those days. Because beyond multiplication, exponents, and algebra, my dad imparted to me a general principle for me to carry through my life: that the ability to use your own mind, to endlessly expand what’s in it and then call upon it when needed, that ability matters. And the next kid’s parents imparted to them the principle that it’s not really going to matter, because in the real grownup world we’ll all use calculators anyway.

The absolute best days at school were whenever we had a timed test for math. I’m not kidding. 3 minutes to complete 100 problems (where each problem was like “7 x 3”)… it was the performance of what you’d practiced, pure and simple, no bullshitting through it. You don’t get anything for finishing first–just glory. But I always aimed to finish first with 100/100. And I often did, except the year that I was in the same class as the new kid, Tyler, where we’d kind of alternate being first. No one else came close. Naturally I was deeply in love with him.

(A note of interest: it was common for tests to go up to 10×10, but I deliberately chose to memorize up to 12×12, because I was that kid–and I actually feel that being able to multiply 12’s is one of those little things that has paid off disproportionately well throughout my life, compared to the investment up front. So if you have kids or something, maybe have them go up to 12.)

So anyway, I’m disappointed that the same Malcolm Gladwell who also popularized the 10,000 hours idea (work > talent) would neglect a far more likely explanation for high performance–that kids who put in the work, and kids who believe that it matters, perform better–in favor of some fancy cognitive-linguistic storytelling. I feel like people who endlessly pontificate on the whole question of Asian kids and math are often turning a blind eye to the raw number of hours of focused work involved. In fact, once you get into the habit of seeing, in these discussions, the subtext of white Americans finding creative ways to rationalize away the idea of another ethnicity performing categorically better than them at something–rather than maybe trying to learn from it–you can’t unsee it. “It’s just ’cause X makes it way easier for them”; “but at least they’re not as good as us at Y”; etc. Reader, don’t be that person.

The point of this brief visit back to the 90s: Lots of things in life are less work than they seem. But some things are exactly as much work as they seem. Believe in your brain, believe you can put a lot of new stuff into it if you put in the work, believe that it matters, believe you can retain and recall all of it, more than you ever thought possible. If fewer and fewer people these days believe in memorization (as seems to be the case), that just means that whoever is using it will have that much more of an advantage. You’ll have your answer instantaneously, and it will be correct, while the next person is still reaching for their phone to open Google Translate or the calculator app, because they’ve allowed their beautiful mind to wither away.


iii.

That said, even rote memorization can be done far, far more efficiently than people have conventionally done it. That’s where spaced repetition systems (SRS) and Anki come in. I won’t go into detail about how SRS works, as there are tons of great explanations on the internet, including this one in the intro to the Anki docs. Basically, it’s a way of timing your flashcard reviews so as to maximize retention.

Anki is the SRS-based flashcard app that I use. Currently I’m using it just to memorize Chinese characters. I imported a deck of the 3000 most frequent Chinese characters and have been working my way through it for the past couple of months.

A really nice thing about learning Chinese is the existence of HSK, a widely used proficiency test that effectively standardizes the proficiency levels, along with the vocabulary you need to know at each level. Thousands of Chinese characters have an HSK rank (1 being the most basic/frequent, up to like 5000 or something). My flashcards include the HSK rank of each character, so I know approximately how advanced it is.

I want to point out that I’m not recommending this as the best way for anyone else to learn Chinese. Heck, it’s not even the best way for ME to learn Chinese. Most units of meaning in Chinese (beyond the basic stuff) occur in groups of 2 or more characters (let’s call them “words”). For example, 电脑, computer, which is a pair of characters: literally “electric brain.” I think it would be way more effective if I used a method that included words, and not only individual characters. But I’m lazy–too lazy to look for another deck–and stubborn, and I already have this deck, so I’m going to brute-force my way through it.

Now we can actually revisit the pie chart and what it means.

It’s a chart of where I’m at with all 3000 cards in the deck. “Unseen: 2000” means I’ve seen the other 1000 of the cards at least once. It doesn’t mean that I know all 1000 of those; I’m not yet able to consistently recognize all the cards that I’ve seen. “Young+Learn” are cards that I’m not yet doing consistently well with. “Mature” are cards I’ve been doing consistently well with for some period of time. “Buried+Suspended” is some obscure Anki stuff I won’t go into here.

I have it set so that each day, I get 20 new cards, and a bunch more old cards are up for review, up to a max of 200. It takes about 20 minutes a day total. The more recently I learned a card, the more likely I am to get it wrong in review, but the more likely it is to come up for review. Which means I get things wrong quite a lot, and some days (a lot of days) I start to feel really dumb.

BUT! I also already have 388 “Mature” cards. Meaning, I’ve already more or less memorized 388 characters of Chinese! It sounds like a lot, when you put it that way. It’s really comforting and also mindblowing to know that over time, if I just keep doing my 20 minutes of reviews each day, that “Mature” section of the pie chart will grow and grow, until it reaches 100%. And then I really will have to find another deck–or just switch to another way of learning new characters and words.

The little I’ve learned so far has allowed me to start texting my parents and friends/family in Chinese, which is one of those things I’d never thought would really happen in this lifetime.

So: Believe in your brain. And a little algorithm that helps your brain do its best work.


Further reading:

The book I was talking about, Ultralearning, also has a lot of good tactics for memorization. The entire chapter on retrieval is really important, especially because it’s really counter to how everyone (at least in America) thinks about effective studying. It’s just funny to me that our standards for how to learn have fallen so low that a book about basic, fairly uncontroversial learning practices gets titled “Ultralearning” and gets all this marketing hype around it. Like, the book should be called just “Learning.” 😂

Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm — nice lengthy backstory on how SRS was invented.

You Don’t Have A Foreign Language Problem, You Have An Adult Literacy Problem — a rant about how the Western world developed the mindset that Chinese/Japanese writing systems are hard, and how one might go about reversing that mindset.

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field notes, languages

Language learning advice I freely ignore

As part of my language learning project, nicknamed a cup of tea, that I started in earnest at the beginning of this year (but which I’d been toying with on and off for maybe a year longer), I’ve read and heard plenty of advice and opinions on language learning from lots of different sources, from books (Fluent in 3 Months, Fluent Forever, Kató Lomb’s book Polyglot) to blogs (All Japanese All The Time) to podcasts (I Will Teach You a Language) to Reddit. I’ve even attended a Polyglot Gathering.

There’s a lot out there. I pick and choose tactics based on what seems intriguing, what works for me, what doesn’t, what’s fun, what’s boring. My system is always evolving, and it’s still pretty unsolidified, but already I can identify a few things that work for me and a few things that don’t.

We’re only a few months in and I don’t actually spend that much time on languages, so it’s too early to say like, “You can do what I do and still be wildly successful,” but I am happy with my progress given the time I put in, so all I can say is, “You can do what I do and it’s a valid way to go about things.” (Though as I’ll explain later in this post, you shouldn’t just blindly do what I do. I don’t think that will work either.)

Here’s some common pieces of advice that I freely ignore:

Focus on one language at a time. Work on that language until you reach a certain threshold of fluency, so that you don’t forget it as easily.

I experimented with this advice by attempting to follow it, but seeing what I gravitated towards (and letting myself stray from the rule if I wanted to). What I found was that I can focus on one language for a few months, and then all of a sudden it starts to feel icky and boring, while another language starts to feel exciting and urgent, and I would have to force myself to keep working on the original one. And I don’t learn quickly when I force it.

Instead, I just switch my focus to the new one, and I find that the original one becomes exciting again in time. It’s like rotating your crops. Or something. Or to switch analogies, riding the surges of motivation is like drafting, in cycling and car races and bird flight.

After a while, I get a little rusty in my inactive languages, but it comes back very fast. When I return to one, it’s not like relearning so much as reactivating.

I usually have one main language that I’m most actively working on at any given time. But it’s also not uncommon for me to have days where I might do my flashcards in Mandarin, complete a lesson from my Italian grammar book, put on a podcast in Turkish while I’m making dinner, and then watch a movie in Spanish. Those are great days.

While I find the “one language at a time” advice perfectly reasonable, and it’s quite possible that it would be more effective for me to follow it, I’m not in this to be effective, I’m in this to have fun. I try not to draw too much on willpower, which can run out and need to be replenished. Doing whatever I’m already motivated to do is my long game.

Speak from day one.

I get the sentiment behind this. Too many people try to learn a language without ever using it in real life. And you just can’t. (Well, most people can’t.) The best way to learn to use a language is to use it.

The only problem is, I don’t like awkward conversations. I don’t even like having them in English. So I’m not gonna speak from day one.

Conveniently, it turns out there’s an entire opposing school of language learning that happens to align well with my preferences, which we might term the school of “keep your mouth shut from day one.” In this approach, you listen to hundreds or potentially thousands of hours of audio by native speakers, without ever uttering a word, until you feel like it (which you probably will eventually, after having listened to thousands of hours of other people speaking). The argument is that by starting to speak too early on, you’ll develop more of an accent, or other bad habits, because you haven’t gotten enough correct input yet.

That’s what I do. Keep my mouth shut. Like a little baby just watching all the grownups talk around me. Or at least, I listen about 100x as much as I speak. Jury’s still out on how well it will work for me, as I have yet to reach my first 100 hours of listening in any of my languages, a far cry from AJATT’s recommended 10,000 hours, but it already works wonders for my listening comprehension, which is also really important to develop.

Use keyword mnemonics.

Keyword mnemonics are the kind where you try to learn some word in the target language by pairing it to some word that it sounds like in your native language (this is the keyword), then coming up with a memorable visual scene that links the two. Like Benny Lewis’s example of learning the French word gare (train station), which reminded him of the cartoon character Garfield (gare, Gar), by imagining Garfield in a train station. This seems to be a common suggestion in language-learning literature.

Personally I don’t do this because I’m fundamentally against any strategy that relies on sounds in the native language. (Another example is the sound charts in textbooks that are like, “this vowel is like the a in car.”) You risk messing up your pronunciation if you map sounds in one language to sounds in another that are not quite the same. Plus, I don’t want to make up a memorable image for every word I want to learn. That’s just not what I want to do with my time.

I do use some visual mnemonics that don’t involve English, whenever it would help. For example, in learning the Chinese character 影 (ying3, “shadow,” but I know it from 电影, which means “movie,” literally “electric shadow”–pretty cool right?), I imagine the written character as a drawing of a movie projector casting shadows on the wall. No English involved.

Watch TV/movies with subtitles in the target language, not in English (L1).

The argument behind this one is that if you watch a movie with audio in the target language and subtitles in English, then all you’ve done is read the movie in English, and gained no experience in the target language at all.

Of course, it’s only true for you if it’s true for you. When I watch with English subtitles, I really do listen to the audio and read the subtitles at the same time, and the English subtitles inform the way my brain parses the audio, allowing me to identify words in the audio that I wouldn’t have been able to make out otherwise. Which all makes for an immensely satisfying, active, multilayered watching experience.

In fact, it’s my killer tactic. Don’t let someone else steer you away from something that could be a killer tactic for you.

Make your own flashcards.

Hell no. Making flashcards is so boring. (UPDATE May 2020: I do now make my own flashcards, but not in the very involved and “fun” way described in the book Fluent Forever.. I make mine as quick and minimal as possible, just a word/phrase sentence and the translation. And I don’t enjoy it.)

Those are a few of the things I DON’T do. What DO I do? Briefly, here are a few components of my system thus far:

  1. SRS (spaced repetition software). I use Anki app on my phone. I find a deck that someone else has made online, of the most frequent sentences/words/characters in a language, depending on what I want to focus on, and then use it every day until I feel that it’s not valuable anymore. (As a side note, active recall might just be the most underrated learning tactic, in any subject, ever. Google it.)
  2. Mass input. Not 18 hours/day like AJATT (more like.. a couple of hours a week), but as I said above, I listen about 100x more than I speak. When I get better at reading, I’ll also read much more than I write.
  3. Grammar practice. Acquire any decent grammar book that has lots of exercises (my Turkish grammar book, I randomly found at a used bookstore, I have no idea whether it’s considered good or not). As long as it’s a grammar and not a textbook with annoying dialogues, vocabulary lists, or pictures. I do the exercises longhand in a notebook, for about an hour at a time.
  4. Watch TV/movies with English subtitles. See above.
  5. Occasionally text with a native speaker. If I have a friend or family member who’s a native speaker, we can text each other. Not only is it a more realistic time investment for them than speaking with me, I learn better this way, because if they use words I don’t know, they’re already written down, plus I can look them up before I respond. The most annoying side effect of this is that I have a ton of keyboards I have to toggle through on my computer and phone.

But the real point I want to get across in this post, is not that you should adopt my system. It’s that NOTHING beats a system that you create for yourself, picking and choosing tactics from a wide range of sources, based on what does and doesn’t work for you and what is and isn’t fun for you, which you find out by experimenting and paying attention.

I have no judgment re: laziness, as sometimes it’s beneficial to be deliberately lazy in something and limit the attention you invest in it. But if you value results and/or fun over laziness in the area of learning languages, NEVER blindly follow someone else’s system.

All of the work that really multiplies the payoff, is essentially the work of developing self-knowledge: the knowledge of how the system of your body interacts with the systems of the world. This is a metaphor for life.

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