Archive for the ‘Russian’ Category

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.

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.

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.

Statement of Purpose

July 18, 2007

Fine, for now I’ll consider this a place to document my language learning. How’s that for a compromise?

Я сейчас поиду на русскую “митап” группу. That’s right. I will indiscriminately and unmercifully switch in and out of whatever languages I feel like. It comes with the proverbial territory, I’m afraid. Furthermore, since I am in the process of learning these languages, there may well be mistakes.  That also comes with the territory. I urge, nay, implore, nay, beg any native speakers out there to correct what I write. (Who are these native speakers of other languages reading my blog? Are they any more than pure fantasy on the part of the author? If so, do they not still have some validity, if only as whimsical conceits created to indulge his ego with their attentiveness?)

צו פֿיל ענגליש!