Using Anki in Language Classes

February 1, 2008

facebook-languages2.jpgI’m planning on starting Yiddish classes again in a few weeks. I tried that a few months ago, but it didn’t work out so well, mostly because not enough students showed up (the class started with about two people, then one, then none). Hopefully I’ll be able to get a better response this time. They’ll be on Sundays, and several people have said they’re interested. This time, I hope, the students will be more committed (and not absent) than last time. (I know some of them personally already, so there may be justification here for hope.)

Another problem with last time (in my mind) was that, well, it’s hard to learn a language, and especially absorb vocabulary, on an hour-and-a-half a week. That way, either people can’t keep up, or I can’t put in nearly as much vocabulary as I’d like. Fortunately, a potential solution has presented itself since then, namely, my dear friend Mr. Anki. Amazingly, I won’t be the first to use Anki in a Yiddish class.

There are a couple ways I can think of that Anki would improve my class. Firstly, I’d be able to introduce far more vocabulary than otherwise with the expectation that the class will actually be able to retain it. Secondly, it can provide a way for the class to partially learn the vocabulary before class so that we can concentrate in class on how to use the vocabulary and building conversational skills. Thirdly, Anki comes with an audio feature so that I can include a sound file of each vocabulary item being pronounced on the flashcard. This may obviate the need to use transliteration, which would be a great help in maintaining the connection of each word to its representation in ייִדישע אותיות (Yiddish letters).

Speaking of Anki, you may be wondering how my own Anki experiences are going. Well, I now have 2136 cards in my Russian deck, and 511 in my Yiddish deck. (These numbers aren’t as big as they seem, since Anki stores Production (English → Russian) and Recognition (Russian → English) as two different cards. Some day I’ll explain how my Yiddish deck can have an odd number of cards.) A couple weeks ago, I was getting 200+ cards a day on Russian, which was too much, so I quit adding cards for a while and now it’s down to less than 50 a day. A couple days ago I started adding again, and am now up to word 1550 in my frequency word list. (See previous posts for an explanation of all this.)

In other news on the language aquisition front, I went to a Spanish language meetup the other night where I had a 2½-hour-long conversation (in Spanish)language-proficiency-chart.jpg with a native Spanish speaker from Colombia! Given that I can do this, I guess it’s a little silly to only be giving myself one star on my language proficiency chart. I orginally wanted to up that to two when I finished Pimseur, but my progress there has been mysteriously (and happily) slowed recently, and I’ve been making up the differences with various Podcasts and other methods, so I guess it’s time to give myself two stars. Yay!

Yiddish Irrealis

January 28, 2008

איך האָב זיך ערשט אָנגעשטױסן אין אַ בלאָג פֿון אַ טאַלאַנטירטן חבֿר מײַנעם, בנימין סאַדאָק, װאָס איך האָב אים, בנימינען, הײסט עס, שױן לאַנג נישט געזען. אָבער אַ פֿאַרדראָס! ער האָט אױפֿגעהערט צו שרײַבן אינעם בלאָג העט אין 2006. ס’איז טאַקע אַ שאָד, װײַל זײַן בלאָג איז אַ סך בעסער געשריבן און אינטעראַסאַנטער װי מײַנער. דאָרטן גײט די רײד אױך אין שפּראַכן, און איר קענט לײענען די אַרכיװן אָט אָ דאָ: אױף דער װײַלע קענט איר אים בעטן ער זאָל שױן װידער נעמען שרײַבן.

Meanwhile, I wanted to talk just a little bit about irrealis in Yiddish. I won’t pretend to know much about the subject (so anyone who knows better should correct me), but basically irrealis is a special form that language can take when something you’re talking about doesn’t or may not exist, or some event didn’t or may not have happened.

Some languages mark irrealis more than others ( For instance, English doesn’t seem to mark it all that much. There’s an old English subjunctive that people use less and less:

It’s important that you not be late.

Be here is the subjunctive form. But I think you could also say:

It’s important that you’re not late.

In this case, the subjunctive has been lost. In Spanish, however, you must use the subjunctive, at least as long as you’re talking about a future event (someone let me know if I get this wrong):

Es importante que no te atrases.

A common way of marking irrealis in Yiddish is with the modal verb זאָל (zol).So in Yiddish, as in Spanish, you must here mark irrealis:

ס’איז װיכטיק, דו זאָלסט זיך נישט פֿאַרשפּעטיקן.

Another example where Yiddish and Spanish mark irrealis but English doesn’t think anything special is going on:

I’ve never seen a man that kisses dogs.

Nunca he visto a un hombre que bese perros.

 איך האָב קײן מאָל נישט געזען אַ מאַן װאָס זאָל קושן הינט.

On the other hand, if you do know this man exists, you wouldn’t use irrealis:

Yesterday I saw the man that kisses dogs.

Vi ayer al hombre que besa perros.

נעכטן האָב איך געזען דעם מאַן װאָס קושט הינט.

But Yiddish doesn’t always use זאָל where Spanish uses the subjunctive. For instance, after the word maybe (Sp. quizá(s), Yi. אפֿשר):

אפֿשר קושט ער הינט.

Quizás bese perros.

Maybe he kisses dogs.

Here’s an interesting case of Yiddish use of זאָל. Can you tell the difference between the following two sentences?

A) כ’האָב מורא, זי זאָל נישט קומען.‏

B) כ’האָב מורא, זי װעט נישט קומען.‏

For those of you not in the know, a word-for-word translation gives:

A) I’m afraid she should not come.

B) I’m afraid she will not come.

Well, have you figured it out yet? According to Yiddish II, a textbook written by Yiddish linguist Mordkhe Schaechter, these sentences translate to:

A) I’m afraid she’ll come.

B) I’m afraid she won’t come.

In other words, if you want to say that you’re afraid that something will happen you use the modal זאָל  together with the negation of the clause. Once I noticed this in Yiddish II, I realized I had long misunderstood a line in one of my favorite Yiddish songs!

כ’װאָלט איצט געלאָפֿן, אסתּרל קרױן, אָראָפּ צום טײַך זיך טרענקען
האָב איך מורא, אַז טױטערהײט זאָל איך נאָך דיר נישט בענקען

I would now run, my dear Esther, down to the river to drown myself.
But I’m afraid that in death I would long for you.

I always thought this meant “…I would not long for you”!

And in the next line, the construction is different, this time a more Englishy “I fear that you will” instead of “I have fear you should not”:

כ’װאָלט זיך געלאָזן, אסתּרל קרױן, װאָגלען אױף אַלע װעגן
האָב איך מורא אַז איבעראַל װעסטו מיר קומען אַנטקעגן

I would set off, my dear Esther, wandering about,
but I fear I would encounter you everywhere…

There might be a reason this hadn’t come to my attention earlier. A quick Google search suggests that this form (“I fear it should not”) is not used nowadays very often, at least in colloquial Hassidic Yiddish. Meanwhile, I’m almost sure none of my Yiddish-speaking friends uses this construction. But why? Is this a recent development, possibly influenced by English, or was that always the case? (In posing these questions I don’t mean to imply that these are unsolved mysteries of Yiddish linguistics. I’m sure someone knows, just not me.)

I’m also confused sometimes about whether or not to use Yiddish irrealis in certain situations. These are generally cases where I would use the subjunctive in Spanish or Portuguese, but using it in Yiddish might be overcompensating (from my subjunctive-poor English). For instance, yesterday I noticed my friend Arele (of Tmesis fame) typing a sentence of the form:

 איך גלײב נישט זי זאָל דאָס האָבן געזאָגט.

I don’t believe she said that. (Lit. I believe not she should that have said.)

I queried him on his use of the subjunctive here, and he noted that his family makes fun of him for this type of construction, then later admits he’s probably correct in using it. If his family doesn’t use this form, where’d he get it from? Other Yiddish speakers? Reading? Or has Arele, in learning to speak a fluent Spanish, also become a bit subjunctive-happy? I admit I tend to avoid such types of sentences entirely. Instead of saying

 איך מײן נישט אַז ער איז (זאָל זײַן?) אַ רײַכער.

I’ll say

איך מײן אַז ער איז נישט קײן רײַכער.

I may not be alone. A Google search for the phrase “איך מײן נישט אז” had only 3 results (!) as opposed to 690 results for “איך מײן אז”.

It’s hard to do better without a good old Yiddish corpus. Maybe someday…

Meanwhile, let me know of any thoughts, questions, or corrections you have on this topic!

A Pimsleur Spanish Speed Demon

January 11, 2008

Last post I wrote about the zero-sum system I developed with Julie to keep her motivated and listening to Pimsleur Spanish lessons. Well, I found out the other day that there’s someone else I know who is apparently not in need of such a system: my brother Baruch.

king-of-spanish.jpgA very little bit about Baruch: He’s 19 years old (five years my junior), and had been living in LA for about 12 of those years, until a couple weeks ago, when my family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Baruch started studying Spanish (to my knowledge) several months ago. He began listening to Pimsleur lessons I had put for my mom onto her mp3-player (these amounted to the whole of Pimsleur Spanish I), and also started going through some textbook. He seemed somewhat serious about it, and so this was a good part of the motivation for me to begin learning Spanish, for if my brother is learning another language, it would be silly for me not to do the same. (If you don’t see the logic here then you haven’t been reading enough of this blog.)

So I began to listen to Pimsleur Spanish, and occasionally would talk to Baruch on the phone a bit in the simple Spanish that we knew. Initially, Baruch was ahead of me, but by the time I finished Spanish I, I found out that he’d stopped listening at some point in the 20s. (Remember, each level contains 30 lessons.) He claimed it was because he didn’t know where the mp3-player was, but I figured it was just an excuse, אַ תּירוץ פֿאַר די בענטשליכט. I thought, “Other friends have flown before; oh that Baruch, he has left me, as my hopes have flown before!” (This wouldn’t be the first time I started learning a language as a result of someone else, only for the other person to stop learning while I remained propelled forward by the irresistable language tide.) So as I continued along in Spanish II, I kept nagging him to find the mp3 player, or recharge it, or whatever, and finish Spanish I. I think he kept reading his textbook at this time, but it was frustrating that when we talked on the phone (in Spanish), he wouldn’t understand things I said because I’d learned them at a point further in Pimsleur than he’d reached. Weeks went by like this, and I finished Spanish II and moved on to Spanish III. I haven’t been keeping close track, but on my Dec. 21 post I noted that I’d reached lesson 12 of Spanish III.

A few days later, as my family was packing the house up for the trip to Cleveland (they’d be making a road trip of it), Baruch mentioned that he’d found the mp3-player. I urged him to keep listening to Spanish lessons. He said he would, and I guess he did because at some point on the way to Cleveland he asked me to send him Spanish II. I did so, and he received it on Dec. 28. I wasn’t sure how much he was listening to the lessons, but his Spanish did seem to be improving again, so I was satisfied he was back on track. Still, I was flabbergasted a few days ago when he asked me to send him Spanish III: He’d finished 30 lessons in a week-and-a-half! I was quite impressed. I haven’t had the chance to send him Spanish III yet, but hopefully will do so this weekend.

Incidentally, I’ve most recently finished lesson 19 of Spanish III. At this rate (and with Julie slowing me down by listening to lessons almost daily), Baruch will finish Pimsleur Spanish before me after all! The next step, of course, is to get him to learn Yiddish too. Muahahaha…

Julie’s Spanish Progress and Google Ranking, Etc.

January 2, 2008

My lovely wife and I have been trying to study Spanish together for a couple months now. (She’d studied it for years in high school, but, like most high school students in most subjects, and especially language, she’s retained little of what she learned, and in any case was probably never able to hold a conversation. In fact, now after a short while of studying with me she’s able to hold a more fluent conversation in Spanish than she ever was then, though I’m sure she has yet to relearn lots of vocabulary and grammar that she once knew.) Although we’d wanted to keep abreast of each other’s progress in Pimsleur Spanish, she’s been lagging the past few weeks. This is partially due to her not sharing my psychotic drive to learn languages, and partially because I have an Ipod, which is (somewhat) conducive to listening to these lessons, while she has a Shuffle, which isn’t. (It’s difficult to go to a specific place in a lesson, and you can’t see how far along you are.) I’d switch with her, except I need the Ipod to listen to various Podcasts, which I couldn’t listen to with the Shuffle, and which also serve to slow down my Pimsleur progress.

So we came up with a new system for motivating her: every day she finishes a Spanish Pimsleur lesson, I’m not allowed to listen to a lesson the next day. For whatever reason, this system has so far worked beautifully. It drives her competitive spirit better than simply trying to outdo me by conventional means. (I think there is some game-theoretical terminology for differentiating games in which you can affect another player’s moves from ones in which you cannot, but I can’t remember what it is. Can anyone help me out here?) However, even if she listens to a lesson a day, it’ll still be a few weeks till she catches up. But no matter.

For anyone whom I’ve convinced to use Anki, note that the web site has changed servers. I’ve updated the link.

I’ve been thinking of using Anki as a mandatory part of my upcoming Yiddish class, which I’d like to start maybe in February. That is, students would have to use Anki to make sure that vocabulary that gets taught in one class gets stuck in their heads by then next class. I’m currently teaching Yiddish to kids at the Workmen’s Circle, but as they only have class one a week or so, and are not overly motivated, it’s very difficult to get anything to stick.

Factoid: Not only is Julie’s blog the first hit on Google when you search for “byuralistke” ((female) office worker), but it seems that all 529 (as of now) hits are related to her blog: she has single-handedly planted this word on the Internet! In comparison, the word “byuralist”, the masculine version of the word, gets only 3 hits. Meanwhile, ביוראַליסטקע, the same word written with Yiddish letters, still gets no hits. (Of course, with this post I will have planted ביוראַליסטקע and added to the hits of the other words — such is the observer effect of the blogosphere!)

I’ve met a new Russian language exchange buddy through Meetup. His name is Edward. We’ve met a couple times at the Yugntruf office. Unfortunately, my Russian is still not at a point where I can naturally, say, make plans over the phone in Russian. When we speak in Russian, it is more deliberate; our “default” language is (sigh) English. My Russian has definitely improved, I think, these past few weeks. I really hope I’ll be able to get to a comfortable conversational level in the next months.

My Languages rankingThat is, incidentally, my criterion for reaching three-star level on the Facebook “Languages” app. Even though it’s a just a silly Facebook trick, I take that ranking seriously as a rough way to keep track of my progress through my various languages. Here’s my current ranking:
 Once I finish Pimsleur Spanish, I’ll give myself another star there. Also, I’m looking to upgrade my German to three stars in the not-too-distant future.

Pimsleur German Completed!

December 21, 2007

Now, I’ve gone on and on about Anki, but I’ve failed to spend as much time describing my first language-learning love, the Pimsleur audio-course. But I needn’t go into too much detail, as they both use similar methods to get you to remember stuff, namely spaced repetition. What this means in Pimsleur is that after you are first introduced to a new word or phrase, you are drilled on it, say, a few times in the first twenty seconds, then maybe once after a minute, five minutes, twenty minutes, and so on, so that the word is gradually tranferred from your short term to your long term memory. Anki uses the same principle, which is why my first thought when I began to use it was that it was like designing my own “Pimsleur”. There are some big differences, of course, some positive, some negative. A few of the positives:

  • Pimsleur works by audio, which is better if you’re trying to focus on speaking and listening instead of writing and reading. (I feel this is best when first starting to learn a language, but you may disagree.)
  • Anki always gives you the same old cards, but Pimsleur is constantly mixing up old vocabulary with new so you’re always producing new sentences.
  • Pimsleur begins with simpler, usually “core vocabulary” words and grammar and gradually builds up to more complex sentences. Anki will only work like this if you’re very smart and design your own course in this manner, gradually inputting more and more complex cards, which is impossible since you don’t know the language yet. (Alternatively, you could get someone else to design it.)

 And some negatives:

  • Expen$ive! A single course can set you back hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Alternatively, you could borrow it from you local library for free or obtain it by more illicit means.
  • The course seems designed more for business people and diplomats (and tourists, for that matter) than just average shmoes like me. Of course, a lot of the language is the same, but there’s a bunch of vocabulary that I don’t care to learn right away, though I’m sure I would if I were some globe-hopping government dignitary/corporate executive.
  • Similarly, you don’t get to personalize what you learn as you can with Anki.

In the end, I’m not really sure why I’m framing this as a comparison between Pimsleur and Anki, since they’re not mutually exclusive alternatives, but both valuable components to your language learning.

I would begin learning a language using Pimsleur (if available), using Anki intermittently as you encounter specific vocabulary you want or need to know, and then when you’re done with Pimsleur, continue with Anki using, in addition, a frequency list (if available) to make the most of your vocabulary building energies.

So far I’ve gone through Pimsleur Portuguese and Russian, each with 90 half-hour lessons, and today I finished the 100th (and last) lesson of Pimsleur German! Every 30 lessons are grouped together (e.g., Russian I is lessons 1-30, Russian II lessons 31-60, etc.) until 90. Then, for some languages, there is a “bonus” pack of ten lessons. For German, this was called German Plus. For some reason, all the vocabulary was based around the publishing industry. I don’t know why they do this instead of continuing to introduce vocabulary of general use. I learned the words for “publishing”, “audiobook”, “editor”, “author”, “publishing house”, “bookstore”, “bookseller”, “bestseller”, and so on. This is kind of bizarre. I don’t know if this is also the case for other Plus packs, but I suspect it is. When you’ve done as much Pimsleur as I have, you start seeing the patterns. For some reason, you always learn the words for “engineer” (before all other jobs, I think), “tennis” and “golf” but so far not any other sports, and so on. Are most people going to foreign countries engineers who play golf? I don’t get it.

Overall, though, Pimsleur is as good a way to begin learning a language as any I’ve come across. And mostly on the basis of Pimsleur and my Yiddish, I can have a pretty decent conversation in German. By the way, I’m on lesson 12 of Spanish III (that is, the 72nd lesson). I listen to these on my Ipod as I go about my life doing various things, and also to Podcasts I’ll talk about some other time. And as long as we’re keeping track, I just got through the first 1350 words on my Russian frequency list.

 What do you guys think? Anyone ever try Pimsleur? Or find something better?

Anki Overload

December 17, 2007

Due to having neglected it for several days, when I checked Anki today, I had over 400 cards waiting for me. After some concentrated effort, that’s now down to 157. Well, it’s my own fault for creating so many cards all at once. Even 400 is a small fraction of the total number of cards I’ve stuffed in there since I began a couple weeks ago. Well, I’ve since slowed to a more manageable rate. I can’t remember hundreds of words a week anyway (probably). At the beginning I wasn’t learning entirely new words, but rather trying to catch up with what I had (to some extent) already known months back when I was originally compiling the list in my little Russian notebook.

By now I’ve inputted all unknown words among the first 1213 in my Russian frequency list. In my notebook I’d gone up to a bit over 1600. So I’m still a bit aways from that. Afterwards, I’d be fine with an average rate of, say, five new words a day, at least until I reach 2500 or so in the frequency list. (Of course, I won’t have to input all those words because I’ll already know many of them.) At that point, vocabulary will probably have ceased to be my bottleneck, and I’ll be able to concentrate on other aspects of learning Russian, probably extensive conversational practice and reading. At some point I may leave off somewhat of the frequency list and just input words that seem important as I encounter them, or more likely do both this and continue to go down the list.

Of course, that’s not the end of Anki. I input not only lexical items, but also sample sentences and phrases with grammatical structures that I want to know. This is different from vocabulary and would probably continue in parallel.

Meanwhile, incidentally, I’ve begun an Anki Yiddish, inputting various idioms, phrases, and vocabulary. I feel like I’ve hit a plateau in my Yiddish as well, and I hope this will be of assistance.

RRRRRRRRRRR… The Language Learning Obstacle Anki Ain’t Gonna Help With

December 13, 2007

I will today describe for you what is probably one of the more frustrating obstacles to language acquisition I’ve encountered in recent memory. It goes by the deceptively innocuous name alveolar trill. Oh, trilly, trallah, it’s the alveolar trill! No, no! There’s nothing happy and innocent about this sound!

‘Cross the decadent hill
blows a wind harsh and chill
Oh there’s no sense of thrill
Its blood will I spill–
I just want to kill–
I don’t know how I will–
This alveolar trill!

If a phoneme drives me to poetry you know something’s wrong. Alright then, more soberly:

The alveolar trill is a sound, not uncommon in Indo-European languages. It’s produced (so I’m told) by vibrations of the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge–this is the part of the top of your mouth right behind your teeth. Now, I’ve encountered this sound before: it exists in Russian, and some dialects of Portuguese, German, and Yiddish. Hell, it exists in English–Scottish English, that is. But in all these cases another sound can be substituted. In Portuguese, German, and Yiddish, it’s not present in the standard dialect or the one I wanted to learn, and in Russian you can always switch it for a tap (like ‘tt’ in “butter”). But now, after navigating successfully through seven languages without a hitch (of the alveolar sort), I’m confronted with Spanish.

Spanish, of which I’ve been told on numerous occasions, “Oh, Spanish! That’ll be so easy for you after all those other languages!”, “Hoho, Spanish is so easy!”, “HOHOHAHAHAHAHA!”. They laugh at me, they mock me! For not only is the Trill present in the vast majority of Spanish dialects, but I can’t just use the tap instead because they’re two distinct $%@!&#”$%@ phonemes! That means that there are words with the Trill that, if I use the tap instead, mean something completely different. For instance:

pero (with a tap) means “but”. So far, so good. But then,

perro (pronounced peRRRRRRRRRRRRRo with your tongue flailing wildly in all sorts of unholy directions) means “dog”.

I know what I’m supposed to do, but I can’t make that noise! The mind is willing but the tongue is weak. It does not know how to dance oh so sinfully, licentiously, cunningly. Why will my tongue not take part in this ritual? Does it think of Cortés, in whose mouth the trill helped bring a civilization to ruin? Or of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who used it to afflict our people? Does it not know that this powerful weapon can also bring peace and harmony to the world? Does the Trill not begin words such as rezar, regalo, and risa? But the fleshy lithe muscle attached to the floor of my mouth does not listen. It does not perform. It cannot. It will not. But it must!

Not Your Bubbe’s Flashcards

December 11, 2007

Alright, I’m back from studying Russian. Now let me tell you about a new tool I’ve discovered (if reading about on someone else’s blog counts as discovering) that has almost singlehandedly rescued my Russian from the abyss of desuetude. It’s called Anki. Sometimes I affectionately call it Ankele.

 So what’s the deal? Well, let’s start with the question, What’s the problem with flashcards in the first place? I’ve made light use of flashcards in the past, but the problem was that I’d keep looking at the same ones over and over again, and then if I decided I’d remembered something and got rid of the flashcard, or just got bored of the same set, I’d stop looking at them, and then subsequently forget the words. Now a system was devised by a German dude named Sebastian Leitner to overcome these failings. In this system (according to Wikipedia),

flashcards are sorted into groups according to how well you know each one. This is how it works: you try to recall the solution written on a flashcard. If you succeed, you send the card to the next group. But if you fail, you send it back to the first group. Each succeeding group has a longer period of time before you are required to revisit the cards.

For example, suppose you have 3 groups called Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3. The cards in Group 1 are the ones that you often make mistakes with, and Group 3 contains the cards that you know very well. You might choose to study the Group 1 cards once a day, Group 2 every 3 days, and the Group 3 cards every 5 days. If you look at a Group 1 card and get the correct answer, you “promote” it to Group 2. A correct answer with a Group 2 card “promotes” that card to Group 3. If you make a mistake with a Group 2 or Group 3 card, it gets “demoted” to Group 1, which forces you to study that card more often.

The advantage of this method is that you can focus on the most difficult flashcards, which remain in the first few groups. The result is, ideally, a reduction in the amount of study time needed.

Of course, if I wanted to implement this on my own, I’d have to carry around a bunch of boxes full of flashcards, and keep track of when to look at the cards in each box. Sounds like more trouble than it’s worth!

The genius of Anki (and, presumably, similar flashcard programs) is that all this is automated, with the computer deciding when to show you which cards. Furthermore, Anki allows you to store all your cards for free on their website, so you can access them from anywhere you have an Internet connection. Also, they show you cool graphs where you can see your progress charted in various ways. All this adds up to making learning vocabulary feel a bit like playing a computer game! It’s like I’m able to create my own personalized Pimsleur program.

It immediately occurred to me to first apply this to my Russian. Far more than for my other languages, the bottleneck for Russian has been in absorbing all the vocabulary, much of which doesn’t sound like anything I already know, and all the inflection (conjugating verbs, declining nouns, etc.) which is highly irregular. Furthermore, I haven’t been able to practice speaking Russian to let all this stuff sink in, so that I never quite got to the point where I could feel comfortable having even a simple conversation.

Now, one important tool I’d found earlier was a Russian frequency list. What’s a frequency list? Just what it sounds like: a list of words in a language in the order of the frequency with which they appear (usually along with this frequency). Of course no one can count all the instances of all words used in a language, so part of compiling a good frequency list is choosing a good sample of your language. This is known as a corpus. But more on that another time.

So I had my frequency list, and proceeded to go down and find all the words I didn’t know yet. I wrote these in a little notebook along with their meanings and took this around with me, peeking in it and going down the list every once in a while. But this proved ineffective. It was too inefficient, and too boring to just look at the same list all the time, hoping I was memorizing everything. I tried making flashcards a couple times, but I didn’t get much further, and so my Russian was a held hostage for a time, frozen in an unfriendly languid state I like to call a plateau. Learning should ideally work like a chain reaction, where positive feedback allows each bit of information to connect to other bits and help them to fall into place. A plateau is where that chain reaction breaks down due to some obstacle (or several). The level of your knowledge stays where it is, and can even decline if the stagnation discourages you from even using what you already know. Getting through these plateaus always requires some new thinking, some new method to get the learning juices flowing again. Enter Anki.

I started inputting all my frequency list words into Anki a little over a week ago, along with different inflections of those words and examples of their use culled from resources (books such as “5000 Russian Words”, “Roots of the Russian Language”, “Modern Russian: An Advanced Grammar Course”, and more). Everything I put into Anki. And don’t think it doesn’t take time! I’ve spent hours and hours each day doing this, inputting (that’s most of the work), and actually using the program. But the results have been astounding. Now, I haven’t had much chance to actually speak much Russian since then, but I have been reading news articles in Russian (from BBC Russian, Google News Russian, and so on). Immediately before Anki, I felt like I understood maybe 30% of what was in an average article, not enough to connect the pieces. Now I feel like it’s more like 80%, enough to figure most of the rest out from context. Keep in mind these results are far from scientific, but who cares? The point is I’ve been launched to a place where I can now use reading and further Anki use to propel myself forward. The chain reaction has been reignited.

Let’s try again.

December 10, 2007

Well, I haven’t written a post in a while, and I suppose it’s clear why: just because you can write in a bunch of languages doesn’t mean you have anything meaningful to say. On that note, maybe I’ll try again. Instead of boring you with swaths of text you probably can’t understand, I’ll let you know a bit about the process of learning how to produce those swaths.

 I started getting into languages and linguistics while in college (that means 2001-5). I started out with my good old American English, plus a fluent Israeli Hebrew gained from five years in Israel as a kid (ages 8-13).

Now, I started college as a math major, but not, perhaps, your average math major. At the time, I was obsessed with math, as obsessed as I now am with languages. I remember in my senior year of high school, I would sometimes stay home from school (not so unusual as a symptom of senioritis) in order to spend the entire day doing math (maybe a little less common). I would buy Dover (cheap!) books on math with names like “Modern Algebra” and “Topology” and “About Vectors”, and spend my free hours going through them page by page, doing every single problem.

Why was I able to do this? Well, I was inspired to do well in math, in part at least, by my math teacher Doug Shy, whom I invariably called ‘Mr. Shy’. His own passion for math, but more so for doing things that are intellectually challenging, was infectious. Not that I didn’t do such things before, but having a math role model allowed me to focus my energies on this one subject.

I used to get told regarding math, and now do regarding languages, that I must be a “genius” or at least “gifted”. My view, meanwhile, has been that most people could do the same thing if they put as much time and energy into it. Sure I knew more math than almost anyone I knew (in high school). But I’d also put more time into learning it than anyone I knew. And sure I have a better command of more languages than most people I meet, but I also spend way way more time learning them than almost anyone I know. If I was able to somehow catch on to a new language after a few hours of hearing it, then I’d agree that I was a genius. But it’s not like that! It’s really hard work. Except it doesn’t usually feel like work because I enjoy it so much.

OK, I gotta go study some Russian. If I come back to write more, this idea was a success!

נאָך מיטאַפּס

July 23, 2007

געפּראַװעט האָב איך דעם פֿאַרגאַנגענעם שבת אין מענהעטן מיט אַ צאָל ייִדישיסטן, מײַנע גוטע־פֿרײַנט לײזער, מנחם־יענקל, און חנה־רבֿקה בתוכם. פֿרײַטיק־צו־נאַכטס האָב איך געגעסן בײַ לײזערן אין זײַן מאַמעס דירה, און זיך אַרײַנגעכאַפּט האָט יואלי (נו, װי אַזױ שרײַבט מען?), אַ װױלער בחור פֿון קרית־יואל. מיר האָבן אַדורכגעשמועסט און אַדורכשפּאַצירט דעם אָפּער־איסט־סײַד. ס’איז געװען, װי געװענטלעך, אַ מחיה זיך צו באַקענען און אַ שמועס צו כאַפּן מיט אַ יונגן געבױרנעם ייִדיש רעדער. אפֿשר צוליב דעם װאָס ער איז אַ סאַטמאַרער (?) איז זײַן ייִדיש דװקא נישט אַזױ דורכגעװײקט מיט אַנגליציזמען.

אַ פּאָר באַמערקונגען װעגן זײַן שפּראַך:

ער רעדט אַרױס  דאָס װאָרט “ברוקלין” נישט \BROOK-lin\ נאָר \broo-CLEAN\.
ער איז נישט געװען אַזױ אױסגעהאַלטן מיט זײַן אַרױסרעד. אָפֿט מאָל האָט ער אַרױסגערעדט אַ װאָרט אַזױ װי ער האָט ערשט געהערט װי מיר רעדן עס אַרױס, װאָס דאַכט זיך מאָדנע פֿאַר אַ געבױרענער רעדער מיט נישט געבױרענע רעדערס. ער האָט אױך אָנגעהױבן צו ניצן דאָס װאָרט “בילעט” שטאָטס “טיקעט” נאָך דעם װי ער האָט געהערט װי מיר ניצן עס. קען עס גאָמאָלט זײַן אַז ער שאַצט אָפּ אונדזער שפּראַך אײדער זײַן אײגענע?

שבת בײַ טאָג האָבן לײזער און איך געגעסן מיטיק בײַ מנחם־יענקלען, װאָס האָט אונדז געקאָכן אַ הײסן אַ געשמאַקן טשאָלנט, לכּובֿד שבת! איך האָב זיך באַקענט מיט אַ פּאָר פֿון די ייִדיש־פּראָגראַמניקעס, װי אַרנאָ, אַ פּראַנצױז. מיר זענען שפּעטער געגאַנגען אין פּאַרק שפּילן פֿוסבאָל באָרװעסערהײט. גײ פֿאַרשטײ פֿאַר װאָס מיר האָבן געדאַרפֿט שפּילן אָן שיך! מע האָט מיר געזאָגט אַז ס’איז כּדי מע זאָל נישט װי טון אײנער דעם אַנדערן די פֿיס, אָבער ס’איז שװער זיך אױסצומאָלן אַז דאָס װאָלט מער װײ געטון װי שפּילן אָן שיך.

זונטיק בין איך געגאַנגען אױף צװײ “מיטאַפּ” גרופּעס. די ערשטע איז געװען אַ ייִדיש־שפּראַכיקע, אָנגעפֿירט דורך דער קעז־באַלעבאָסטע, עליזאַבעט (נעכטן האָבן מיר איר אַ ייִדישן נאָמען געגעבן שבֿע). פּערעלע איז בײַגעװען, און מנחם־יענקל איז אױך געקומען. דאָס קען נישט זײַן זײער אינטערעסאַנט, צו לײענען װאָס איך האָב נעכטן געטון? אפֿשר װען איך װאָלט געגבן עפּעס אַ קאָמענטאַר, אָבער דאָס אױך נישט! עס איז צו װוּנדערן אױב איר לײענט נאָך!

נאָך דעם ייִדיש מיטאַפּ בין איך געגאַנגען אױף אַ רוסיש־ייִדיש “ירושה” מיטאַפּ. דער אָנפֿירער, אַן ערנסטער, װיל שאַפֿן אַן אינטעלעקטועלע סבֿיבֿה אַזאַ, װי מע קען עפּעס “אױפֿטון” מיטן ייִדיש־רוסישן אידענטיטעט. גײ װײס װאָס ער איז אױסן! און אַלע דאָרטן האָבן בעסער געקענט רעדן רוסיש װי איך, אָבער מע האָט גערעדט ענגליש. אַ קלאָג! דער אָנפֿירער איז אָבער יאָ אַ סימפּאַטישער און מיר זענען נאָכן טרעפֿעניש געגאַנגען עסן פּיצע צוזאַמען (װאָס איך װעל פֿון איצטערט אָן פּרוּװן אַרױסרעדן “צאַם” װײַל אַזױ נײגן זיך די חסידים, און דאָס איז עפּעס װאָס איז געװאָקסן אין אונדזער מיסט!), און ער מיט זײַן באַקאַנטע האָבן געפּרוּװט רעדן רוסיש מיט מיר, אָבער ס’איז נאָך געװען שװער. די פּראָבלעם איז נישט אַנדערש װי מײַן שװעריקײטן מיט דער שפּראַך. נו, עס װעט זיך פֿאַרבעסערן. איצט האָף איך אַז איך האָב אײַך אַלע געהאָלפֿן אײַנשלאָפֿן. אַ גוטן!