Further Adventures in Language Learning

My continuing quest to find a truly effective language learning method.

Josie presenting the German castle Eltz on the Mosel river

About half a year ago I wrote a massively successful blog post about how to really learn a language. In it, I laid out some backstory of how I have tried learning French and Japanese and how I would from that moment forward try some different approaches to learning German, trying to narrow in on things that worked for me and could possibly be replicated successfully by others.

I had mentioned that I was going to visit Germany in the summer and would test out how far I had come while in country. Well now that summer is upon us, here is my report card along with my next steps.

What Did I Do?

To begin with, let’s recap what I said I would try to do in order to learn German this time around. I said I would learn vocabulary words in a spaced repetition system like Anki, do one on one video chat sessions with German speakers as often as I could and concentrate on scenario based role-playing exercises.

To start with, I immediately went off the rails. Like any true software developer, I spent the first few months writing my own software to handle a bunch of this rather than using what existed. If my plan worked, I wanted data on how I did it and I wanted to be able to help other people do it too.

The upside is that I have a nearly perfect record of every minute I spent studying and practicing German from my first learned word. The downside is that I started a bit later than originally planned.

I started the vocabulary studying in earnest around March and started semi-regular video sessions in mid-April. Since I flew to Germany on July 18, that meant that I ended up only having roughly 4 months of study. If anything though, this is an even better experimental setting than I had originally proposed, since it’s very close to the amount of time I spent learning French with Duolingo before moving to France.

The bottom line is this: over the roughly 4 months of German study that I did from not knowing literally any German at all, I put in about 45 hours of spaced repetition flashcard study time (an average of about 20 minutes a day) and 43 hours of video tutoring. Since I started the video sessions a month later, that ended up being 3 months of hour long video tutoring sessions an average of 3 times per week. In addition, I probably did about 13 total hours of homework for the video tutoring. So let’s say 100 total hours of effort.

While this is not a small amount of time and effort, it really isn’t a huge amount either. The 100 hours of total study time over 4 months comes out to a commitment of maybe 45–60 minutes a day on average — probably 1/4 of the time the average American spends watching TV every day. Part of the point of this experiment is to see what could conceivably be accomplished in one’s spare time.

Is It Effective?

So, what does that get you? If you were to stop reading this article and start studying a language for about an hour a day using the methods I’ve described, what would you be able to do in 3 months? Also, keep in mind how short a time span 3 months really is — if you’re reading this at the beginning of August, we’re talking Halloween.

For me, in the end, I was just finishing up the last part of a Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) A1 German curriculum when I left for Germany. The CEFR standard states that A1 speakers:

Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
Can introduce themselves and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people they know and things they have.
Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

I have found that to be pretty accurate. I can’t hold long conversations with people or follow conversations between native speakers very effectively, but I can communicate comfortably in several situations and I can get through many situations entirely in German without any serious problems.

It cannot be overstated how much better my German is than my Japanese, even though I dedicated about twice as much time to Japanese study. In fact, my German now is menacingly close to my comfort level in French, which I studied in various ways for the better part of a year (while living in France).

One of the more interesting outcomes of this experiment, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that I’ve now spent very close to the same total amount of time studying German from scratch as I spent learning French from scratch using Duolingo before moving to France (I had an unbroken 100 day streak).

I can confidently say that when I landed in France, my French was totally unusable while my German is currently pretty comfortable in several situations.

Not only is this method far more effective than Duolingo (and in turn, far far more effective than Rosetta Stone and the like), it is comparable and possibly much more effective than high-end language schools like Alliance Française (at least for me).

I took Extensif (9h/week) courses in French with AF and my wife took the entire A1 and A2 Intensif (20h/week) classes with them while living in France. They have a great reputation as one of the best ways to learn French and I think it’s well earned. As a guideline for learning A1 French they state that you will need 80 hours of classroom time over 4 weeks for Intensif or 72 hours over 8 weeks for Extensif. There is a good amount of additional study time needed on top of that. Given that I was able to get roughly to A1 in German in 43 hours of class time plus study, I would say that it’s possible that this is a more efficient method. It’s possible that I’m not quite A1, I haven’t technically taken a test — but knowing my wife’s French at the time and my French when I was last evaluated, I would say that my production and comprehension levels are pretty comparable.

It makes sense that it would be a more efficient use of time, since it’s one on one time with a tutor dedicated only to you, rather than in a classroom of 15 people. It’s also worth noting that both of these methods are fairly expensive, including mine, but they’re comparatively expensive. My personal tutoring time was $25 per hour, so in total a little over $1,000 spread over 3 months. For 8 weeks of Extensif classes at AF at €100 per week, it’s about the same total cost. But of course with my approach you can make your own schedule and spread it over any amount of time you wish, in addition to taking less total time — far less total time if you factor in commuting time to an in-person classroom. You also spend that time practicing with a dedicated native-language tutor the entire time rather than pairing off with someone who is just as unfamiliar with the language as you are and largely unable to correct you.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

One of the upsides to having written my own software to accomplish this is that I have a huge amount of data about my own language learning process.

A basic contribution graph style visualization of the last 5 months or so of my study activity. There was also sporadic studying leading up to April as I was working on the software. You can see me stop at the end of July when I flew to Germany. The weekends (and for some reason, Thursdays) tend to be when I missed a session.

In addition to knowing nearly exactly how much time I spent on studying (which is often difficult to evaluate otherwise), I also know things like when I took breaks, when I crammed, how many times I was exposed to each word and over what intervals, etc.

In the last few months I have studied just over 1,000 flashcards of common German words and phrases. Of those, I have fairly well memorized about 860 cards, 670 of which are vocabulary words. This means that I know fairly confidently that I have a good working knowledge of at least 670 common German words and another 100 phrases. Not only that, I also know almost exactly how well I know them by how many times I’ve gotten them correct in a row over periods of time.

The 750-ish German words I’ve memorized to various degrees through a spaced repetition system, sorted by roughly how well I know them. The words in red I’ve gotten correct 6 or 7 times in a row over the course of months without missing them once. The ones in grey I’ve gotten correct twice in a row without a miss over the course of a few days.

Now, this system isn’t perfect in that I don’t have a lot of data about my video sessions or related homework and the vocabulary I learned in those lessons aren’t always reflected in this card data, so I assume that my actual working knowledge of German is somewhat larger than this list. The next iterations of this software will hopefully feature a more integrated curriculum so that the two approaches are not so out of sync.

Using German in Germany

Let me describe some of the real-life situations I found myself using German in on this trip so you have some idea of what a little less than an hour a day for 4 months and a working vocabulary of about 600 words gets you in real life.

When we first landed, we rented a car (done all in English — I can’t haggle over insurance in German yet) and then stopped in a small town to get some food after our long flight.

This was an important moment for me, because I distinctly remembering being useless at this in French after months of studying with Duolingo. I had done restaurant scenarios in German a handful of times with my wonderful tutor — would this be close enough that I could do it without them switching to English?

The waitress came over and asked us what we wanted to drink and I successfully ordered a beer for me and water for my girls. When she came back I ordered food for everyone and then hit my first stumbling block — the water came with bubbles and my 7 year old isn’t a fan of carbonation, which forced me to ask for water without bubbles, which I was entirely unprepared for. I ended up using the phrase “ohne Gas” which is close enough and got through that one. I answered questions like “big or small” and asked for and paid for the check all in German. Not a single word of English spoken and only a few semi-confused looks from the waitress. Mission accomplished.

Buying snacks in German

Over the two weeks we spent there, I ordered food in German probably 20 times. I’m pretty good now at communicating my girl’s water needs (I use “mit/ohne Kohlensäure”, which is probably unnecessarily formal or strange, but it always gets me the correct order where “Still” or “Sprudel” sometimes gets confused), I have checked into and out of hotels (in tiny towns, way in the middle of nowhere) entirely in German, I’ve asked for prices and purchased several things with few problems, I’ve gotten instructions to the location of a bathroom a hundred times, I’ve gotten tickets to a dozen castles and tourist sites in German (including them asking how old my kid is and me understanding the question and answering properly). I even did a wine tasting that lasted about 5 minutes in German before abruptly switching to English (I asked her where the vineyards were and she switched — I guess my wine talk isn’t as polished as it could be).

The Failures

Of course, I also have a nice mental list of language failures.

My favorite one was when we went to a Ritterturnier in Kaltenburg, which is about 50 km (30 miles) west of Munich. It’s essentially Medieval Times meets a Renaissance Fair in the middle of nowhere in Germany. Tons of people dress up, knights battle each other, you drink beer from goblets — it’s amazing. In this environment everyone is German, most people don’t speak English well or expect non-German tourists — I had to use German everywhere and all the time. I bought snacks and beer, bought some souvenirs, asked for directions to things, tried to follow the dialogue in the show, etc.

Knights can be intimidating. Knights speaking German can be terrifying. This guy was actually incredibly sweet — Jo warmed up very soon after this was taken.

Overall, I actually used quite a lot of German there very effectively and should have felt pretty good about it. There were two interactions that made me really frustrated though, both trying to do exactly the same thing — buy a beer.

They had these mugs that you essentially rent for €5 each and then can fill up for a lower price all day. You can get your money back at the end of the day if you turn it in. They also give you a small coin that you’re supposed to return with the mug somehow which I never quite figured out. However, when I ordered a beer and a water, which should have been about €6 or so total, the woman told me it was “sechszehn fünfzig” (€16.50). I heard “sechsundfünfzig” which would have meant €56 (think “six and fifty” which is how you say 56 vs “sixteen fifty”). Since €56 for a beer and a water is insane, I assumed she was saying something like “six and fifty” maybe meaning €6.50 colloquially, which given the listed prices would have made sense, not realizing that there was an unlisted price of €5 extra per drink for the mug rentals. I handed her a €10 bill and she just stared at me.

Now, I put this mostly on her. I feel like if I were working at the Mid-State Fair serving beer with a complicated mug-rental scheme and someone who obviously didn’t speak English super well came up and said “I would like a beer and a water please” and I said “large or small?” and they understood that and replied “small, please” and then I said “that’ll be fifteen dollars” and they heard “fifty” (which is a pretty comparable unfortunate phonetic similarity in English) and assumed I meant 5 and put down a $5 bill, I think I would have said something like “no, I said ‘fifteen’, you’ll need more” or jerked a thumb up to indicate more money or pointed at a $20 they were holding.

But no.

This person just stared at me in such a way that I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I thought maybe I wasn’t supposed to pay her, perhaps there was a cashier elsewhere or something. I tried putting another 5 down and she continued to stare at me. I asked something like “where do I pay” and she just said something super complex about how I need to pay extra for the mugs that you carry around with you — but I only understood parts of it, not how to rectify the impasse. I didn’t want to keep slapping money down (which was in fact the answer to this problem) because I already felt insanely stupid. I ended up shamefully saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” in German and just walking away.

We eventually got a water. :)

The same basic scene repeated itself a few minutes later as I tried again to at least just get a water for my kid since it was a hot day. I could not figure out the mug scheme at all and ended up just putting down a fifty and seeing what I got back. I figured out the basics of what went wrong much later after thinking about it for a while. I had learned €16.50 as “sechszehn Euro fünfzig” which was the entire difference. Ugh.

There were various other times when people tried to say something to me and I struggled and they would rephrase or switch to English, but this mug thing was the only total failure of the trip.

I’m actually curious if this person simply didn’t like people who didn’t speak German well. While I would have been able to easily make it work in her position, and while basically every single German we met was incredibly, at times almost literally unbelievably kind to us, I certainly know lots of Americans who wouldn’t try very hard to help a foreigner at the Mid-State Fair with much of anything. Tis a curiosity.

The Highs and the Lows

One of the downsides of early language learning, at least for me, is that I’m way more embarrassed when I can’t do something or don’t understand something.

Successfully negotiated a table full of food somewhere around Untermeitingen, Germany.

When I haven’t learned any of the language I can simply be an affable tourist. However, now that I know some of the language, when I start a conversation in German, both to practice but more often to show a sort of cultural politeness in my effort, and cannot continue the conversation when it veers into unknown territory or vocabulary, I become horribly consumed by embarrassment. I feel so stupid for having presumed to have started the conversation in a language I couldn’t do much with when it’s almost always the case that English would have been easier for both of us.

In France, I always found that people really appreciated when I started with French so that the switch to English could be their choice rather than my assumption, but in Germany I feel like people think I have judged them as uneducated or simple if I try to speak German because I have assumed they can’t speak English. This may not be true, but I’m always afraid of this for some reason. Possibly it’s because nearly every German we’ve ever asked “Do you speak English?” (even if I ask it in German), replies “of course…”.

However, after two weeks I was completely exhausted. It was more and more personally frustrating when I ran into situations where I tried to say something and it would fail. In the last days I went back and forth between being very confident and having no problems when I was fresh, to struggling badly and getting very frustrated with myself if I was tired or off for some reason.

It’s an interesting paradox for me. When I get something right in a different language, I feel amazing. It’s so great to be able to follow a long line of questions and answer them correctly and have no issues at all. However, there are few things that can make me feel so embarrassed or stupid than not understanding something simple.

Is It Worth It?

I suppose one might ask if it’s worth it to spend all this time and energy learning something like French or German.

Certainly for most of the world, learning English is incredibly valuable if it’s not your first language. It’s the lingua franca of the modern world — used nearly everywhere as the common language between any two people who don’t speak each other’s languages. I saw several Japanese and Chinese visitors speaking English in Germany to Germans because that was the common ground that most people in touristy places had.

For an American, is it worth it learning another language though? Certainly, knowing the global lingua franca natively, we can get by all over the world. Is another language really necessary?

How do you say “fairy headband” in German?

I think it’s important and worthwhile for a few different reasons.

The first is that if you’re traveling somewhere and you know at least some of the language, it helps when you get into a situation with someone who doesn’t speak any English, which is common when you get outside the larger cities and hotels.

This helps you feel more comfortable exploring — I never would have gone to a rural Ritterturnier for example, if I couldn’t speak the German that I now can.

The second reason is that I think it really helps people connect and empathize with a culture that is not their own.

Josie and I highly enjoying watching a German comedy duo on stage at the Ritterturnier — something we never would have experienced had I not started learning German.

This is my favorite part of learning another language. I like to be able to go off the beaten path and have a better sense of what German’s lives are like — how they differ or are similar to my own. To be able to participate to some degree in a culture that I wasn’t born into.

I feel that if more Americans learned Spanish, French, Mandarin or Arabic fluently — had real conversations with real people in other cultures, it would be more difficult for the xenophobia and fear that is currently so evident in our culture and politics to exist. Very few things connect humans like language.

I actually never really wanted to learn German. Not once in 36 years have I ever thought “You know what I wish I could speak? German”. I chose it for this experiment because it was easiest to compare to learning French for me and I didn’t know any of it. It was simply an experimental hack. However, in having learned a basic amount I now have an interest in and appreciation for German things — art, history, travel — that I never otherwise would have. I have a connection now, the beginnings of an intimacy with a culture I could never appreciate before. It makes my world and my life bigger.

There are tons of reasons for Americans to learn other languages. Travel opportunities, job prospects, possible cognitive benefits, helping your dating life, the list is almost endless. But I think the most globally and universally important reason is this nearly automatic cultural empathy. It’s both personally rewarding and societally important.

Next Steps

So, what is my next challenge? My next goal is some semblance of fluency. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’m in the A1/A2 level in several languages now (Spanish, ASL, French, Japanese and now German). I’m a bit of an expert in how to get to a basic breakthrough level in a language, but I still haven’t gotten really good at one. So, the next step is to achieve some level of fluency. For this, I’ll define fluency as roughly B2 in the CEFR levels, but more specifically I would like to be able to watch a movie or TV show in a foreign language without difficulty and have an easy conversation with a stranger without struggling on my next trip abroad.

For this, I’m going to continue German. My plans are to concentrate on German until at least next April, so I can report on what can be accomplished in under an hour a day of studying a foreign language for a single year. In the meantime, I’ll give progress report blog posts about every quarter so you can follow how far one can get in any of those timeframes as well (though it’s unlikely I’ll be able to have a real-life German immersion session for another year).

New Methods and Software

You may well ask what I’ve learned about learning languages in the last six months or if I’m changing things up as I go. Furthermore, some of you may be interested in more detail about the software I said I was writing.

First of all, I’ve learned that spaced repetition is actually pretty great for learning vocabulary. At least, it’s great at helping you recall words when being tested on them in the same spaced repetition software. Identifying them when spoken in the wild or recalling them when wanting to use them in a sentence is a different beast, but at least it’s way better than physical flashcards. While I wrote (with help) and used spaced repetition software that I think is pretty good, I still used a normal curriculum for everything else and the two didn’t often match up effectively or reinforce each other, which is something that can be improved.

We used the “Begegnung Sprachniveau A1+” textbook and while I wanted to stick to an established curriculum, I still feel there was a good amount of time spent on cloze test style exercises that were not very helpful for listening or speaking comprehension.

It’s not that I didn’t learn anything doing them, it’s that I spent time improving a skill that I don’t think is very helpful — I am now better at filling in those cloze tests, but I still struggle trying to pull together simpler spontaneous sentences. Luckily I had a great teacher who would walk though an exercise like that with me and then often times switch to a more conversational role playing moment where I wasn’t reading as I was answering, making me use the part of my brain that needs to process and produce spoken German more than the part that is trying to match spoken German to what I see on the page.

I think that there is the opportunity for a system where spaced repetition study of vocabulary and grammar is effectively synchronized to live lessons with native speakers that make you hear and produce the language and they reinforce each other. Where your homework adapts to the live exercises that you do and vice-versa.

If you couldn’t guess at this point, this is what I’m working on building (with a few of my friends in a new company we’ve started). It’s very exciting and fun for me and obviously a big passion of mine. I’m sure I’ll touch on this in more detail in my next blog posts as we get closer to inviting more people in.

If you’re interested in learning a language and want to help test out what we’re working on, send me an email (schacon at gmail) or Twitter DM with what language you want to learn and what you speak natively, we’re getting a list together.

If you can’t wait for our software to be available and you just want to emulate what I’ve done, my current best practice is:

  • Choose a common, highly rated textbook for the language you wish to study — preferably one that doesn’t have any English in the book.
  • Use spaced repetition software like Anki to memorize phrases and vocabulary that you’re exposed to in your curriculum. If you have the time, you can pre-seed it with the 500 most common words in the language, which will give you a good head start. Then add vocabulary and phrases to your deck every time you have to look something up.
  • Find a native-speaking tutor on iTalki or LiveLingua and try to schedule at least 2 or 3 sessions per week. Tell them that you would prefer to use as much of the target language as possible and that you would like to focus on conversational dialogue and scenarios.

I think this will get you pretty far fairly quickly. I would highly encourage you not to feel the need to do every exercise in the book and instead try to write a few prompts that have to deal with the topics that are focused on in each section and practice answering them or talk about them with your tutor. For instance, if the chapter is about office stuff or hotel stuff, write a prompt like “Introduce yourself” or “Order at a restaurant” or “Check into a hotel” or “Talk about your day at work” and practice that each day until you’re able to converse extemporaneously about it — it’s way more helpful than filling out endless cloze tests. You may even want to put the prompt in your spaced repetition set so you’re forced to do it at least mentally fairly often until you get very good at it.

Until next time and my next update, wish me luck!

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