A little less than two weeks ago, Vat and I arrived in Kunming, China with the goal of not speaking any English. Now that we’re in I wanted to write about life in China and first impressions on learning Chinese.
I wanted to be as thorough as possible documenting the progress in learning Chinese, so for those who are only mildly interested, I’ve divided the article into six parts, which you can skip through:
- Why I Was Wrong About China
- Life in China
- First Impressions on Learning Chinese
- My Goals for Chinese
- Studying Chinese
- Immersion in Chinese
EDIT: When I originally wrote this article, I hadn’t been informed about the Kunming terrorist attack last night. I originally thought about changing my article’s tone to reflect the recent news, but then decided against it. While graphic and tragic incidents like these are horrible, and my sympathies go to the victim’s friends and family, they are, nonetheless rare.
To my, primarily Western, audience, it would seem absurd to form an opinion of Boston (or, more broadly, the US) solely based on their recent tragedy. Similarly, I believe the first impressions I wrote here should stand and that forming an opinion of China or Kunming based on one vivid incident is equally misguided.
That being said, those personally affected by this tragedy have my deepest condolences.
I have to admit, living in mainland China worried me a little prior to arrival. Of all the countries we planned to visit, it was the place with, by far, the most warnings. Negative stereotypes from friends who had visited here abounded: people aren’t friendly, they dislike Westerners, watch out for scams, the culture is closed, and, my favorite, the conjunction of that people both speak too much and too little English.
I try not to take too much stock in tourist advice, mainly because experiences are so idiosyncratic it is hard to make fair generalizations even after decades of experience. However, the sheer abundance of negative feedback (often from Chinese themselves) did make me wonder whether China would be an uncomfortable grind trying to start in complete immersion.
After arriving, I’m happy to say, I’ve never been to a place which so reversed my expectations. My expectations about China were so thoroughly flipped, that I’m almost embarrassed that I had paid heed to them in the first place.
Culturally, I’ve not found Chinese people to be unfriendly at all. If anything, the novelty of seeing a white and brown guy trying to speak Chinese amuses many people. People have generally been both patient and helpful with us while we moved in.
If people dislike Westerners here, it hasn’t manifested itself in any obvious way yet. In contrast, I’ve met both Europeans and South Americans tell me to my face that they dislike anglophones. If less obvious racism is actually worse in China, I’d guess the reason is that we’re far easier to physically distinguish from the native population.
The only thing approaching a scam we experienced was sharply overpaying for our cab ride from the airport (we only later realized how cheap they actually are). However, to put that in perspective, our cab ride to the airport in Toronto we took the day before cost 3x as much. My sense is that even if cons are prevalent in China, they still only affect a minority of travellers. Being cautious about muggings, pickpockets, scams and tourist traps is probably wise, but it’s worth remembering that they are still rare.
It’s still too early to judge the relative openness of the culture, but from the few people we’ve met, they’ve been eager to offer introducing us to help make friends. I can’t say the same about Brazil, even though it has a famously open culture. This isn’t to make a statement that China is more open than Brazil, merely that there’s a high variance to experiences, so making predictions based on the average is foolish.
As for speaking English, I can say that, for Kunming at least, the vast majority of people have almost zero English ability. If I had been worried that people would just switch to English for me, any worry quickly evaporated on arrival.
As for livability, China is actually quite modern and comfortable. The only amenity our apartment lacks is indoor heating (Spain also lacked this, a problem in countries which are generally warm all the time). Everything is cheap, convenient, and despite the warnings, not particularly low-quality.
In short, basically every stereotype I had about China was either flatly wrong or at least not nearly as severe as it had been described to me.
This isn’t to say visiting China will be a wonderful experience for everyone. Nor is it to say my two weeks of brief exposure constitute a definitive opinion. My first impressions may be wrong. My only point is that travel is idiosyncratic and that we tend to put a lot of weight on secondhand experiences of other people when no other good information is available, even if secondhand experiences are poor predictors of your personal experience.
So what is China actually like? Again, if you’ve learned anything from my previous warning, you’ll take these first impressions with a grain of salt.
First item that stands out is food. I’ve come to the impression that the Chinese eat everything. Although pork, beef, fish and chicken are staples, you can also buy live frogs at the supermarket and chicken feet are a delicacy. Here in Kunming, insects are even an option at some restaurants.
While some might take the odd menu options as off-putting, I think they add to China’s appeal. After all, nobody is forcing you to eat bee larvea. You can easily get a bowl of chicken soup or some mixed vegetables with rice. But, the diversity means someone with an adventurous palate can really enjoy China.
Development is another huge factor. China has grown so rapidly, so recently, that many things are very modern, despite being quite cheap. This is in contrast to Europe where hundred-year old buildings have charm but are often incredibly poorly designed. Our building, rented more cheaply than in Spain, has video intercom, widescreen television, good internet (for sites not blocked) and a spacious private courtyard.
While this rapid development also has detractions (smog, traffic, density) at least in Kunming I haven’t found any of those to be noticeably worse than in Canada. Because the Chinese are willing to build high-rise residential buildings, I’d say density is even better than in most European cities. Paris is nice, but the 6-storey building limit means every possible square inch is filled up. Nothing is very tall, but you can’t see around a corner leaving a more claustrophobic feel.
My level of Chinese isn’t good enough to get a real sense for the political atmosphere in China, but it seems to be about as present as it is in the States. The truth is, political life just isn’t important to most people as long as their lives are advancing materially (EDIT: I realize the irony in writing this the day after a, likely politically motivated, terrorist attack but once again I assert such actions are still rare, and the generalization still holds). This, I’d argue, is true in both America and China. This isn’t to argue that political liberalism isn’t important, or that people shouldn’t care, merely that political apathy during prosperous times seems to be a common human trait. As my political views are somewhat libertarian, I don’t want to be an apologist for China, but I do think Americans receive a distorted view of the country when daily life is framed in terms of its political ideology.
In short, China was a country I had hesitations about having an extended stay in, and now I’m disappointed I won’t be staying longer.
How is learning Chinese compared to Spanish and Portuguese? Harder, but manageably so. That may be a fairly bland statement in the online extremes of Chinese being easy to learning Chinese being the one of the hardest possible things, but I feel it’s a fairly accurate one.
We couldn’t do zero English from the first moment of arrival. We had some miscommunication with our landlord, so we ended up having to speak in English to get settled into our apartment. I’ve also broken the no-English rule on a few other pressing situations, but otherwise I’ve been able to uphold it.
Vat has broken the no-English rule considerably more than I have. A big part of that is Vat’s 25-hours of prior practice time meant he was still lacking core phrases upon arrival. Things like “how do you say ___?” and “how much is it?” needed to be learned (or relearned). Despite that, after every slip, Vat’s quick to get up and try again.
The fact that most people don’t speak English has made our job of immersion much easier. We’ve definitely had some interesting conversations trying to describe basic things. Vat once spent nearly 15 minutes trying to ask someone if they could add chicken to the meal he had ordered. (I admire his ambition in trying to order off-menu items the first week in China)
The hardest part about Chinese is the writing. Living in China is a glimpse at what being illiterate must feel like. Ordering from menus that don’t have pictures is a near impossibility (yes, even with Pleco’s OCR). Ditto reading packages or signs. While my Chinese character recognition is around 500 characters (enough for simple text messages and emails) the vocabulary in menus and packages is advanced, so I likely won’t reach a level where this problem will go away even after three months.
Pronouncing Chinese isn’t too bad. It’s harder than Spanish, given the large array of new phonemes and tones. But most people generally understand us if we speak slowly. I still have a lot of work to do on improving my pronunciation, but it’s not the most pressing problem.
Understanding Chinese people speak is quite difficult. Some of this seems to be the Kunminghua people speak here, leading to an accent that is fairly strong when they speak Mandarin. But most of the difficulty I’d chalk up to a lack of vocabulary. The vocabulary necessary to understand someone is much greater than to communicate the same desires. This is particularly true in Chinese which has fewer markers to separate words and words have no resemblance to English, making it nearly impossible to “guess” the meaning of unknown words.
These descriptions may sound defeatist, but I trust you they’re not. Chinese is hard, but so was Spanish. All of the problems we had with Chinese we also had with Spanish (and to a lesser extent Portuguese). In fact, I’d guess my ability to understand Chinese after two weeks is considerably better than I could understand French, despite having invested a similar amount of time prior to learning.
Overall I feel Chinese is deeply logical and consistent. There’s more to learn, but the additional learning burden is also an access point to deeper cultural richness. Different etymologies, grammar and expressions may be more work, but they are also offer insight into a culture that has mostly grown independently from my own.
So my impressions of Chinese are an acknowledgement of the difficulty, but certainly not an admission that it is impossibly difficult. Given my current rate of progress, I believe my original goal of wanting to be able to hold one-on-one conversations without difficulty is an achievable goal.
How I’m Learning Chinese
My last post was commenting on how I planned to learn Chinese. Two weeks in, I’m still spending a lot of time experimenting. It will probably be near the mid-to-end part of the challenge where I’ve stabilized my routine. That’s fine. Most experiments still teach you a lot, even if you eventually find they’re not the most efficient method.
I’m going to divide the discussion of my learning methods into two parts:
Whenever I discuss concepts like these, people come with their own associations to the words. Indeed, I may have used the words differently in different contexts. Therefore I want to be clear about what I mean by each of them so that there isn’t confusion.
By study, I mean deliberate efforts to learn Chinese that are not really using Chinese. This means memorizing vocabulary, doing grammar drills, pronunciation drills, listening to podcasts about Chinese (as opposed to in Chinese), comprehension drills and working with a tutor to deliberately learn a linguistic fact (i.e. not conversing).
By immersion, I mean using the Chinese in real contexts. This means having conversations with tutors, conversations with Vat, speaking to Chinese people, sending and reading messages, deciphering menus and signs, watching television and movies and any of the myriad of smaller exposures in daily life.
Both are important, but study is perhaps more important with Chinese than it was in Spain. In Spain and Brazil, our learning method was 90% immersion, 10% study (perhaps even less). This meant I learned everything through context, trying to interact with people or interact with media.
In China, my goal is to have at least 50% of my time in immersion. As we progress, I hope to increase that to 60%-70%, but that also depends on how able we are to make friends.
Immersion doesn’t become less important in Chinese, rather, studying becomes more valuable. I found everything more than some grammar study to be somewhat unnecessary in Spanish. Why memorize vocabulary when you can learn most of what you need to know by interacting in context?
Study is a little more valuable in Chinese simply because you start off at a lower point. Memorizing vocabulary is a little more useful because there’s so much basic vocabulary you lack at the start. Drilling pronunciation is more useful because there are more new phonemes and tones are quite difficult to master.
That being said, this is a marginal shift, not a revolution. Learning Chinese compared to Spanish isn’t a wholly different endeavour. Yes, it’s more work in a few key areas, and some of those areas benefit from deliberate practice. But, the notion that immersion or active engagement with the language is good advice for Spanish but bad for Chinese strikes me as absurd.
John Pasden, linguist at SinoSplice.com and head of a Chinese learning consultancy, offered me some private advice on my learning methods. While most of his thoughts were in line with my previous thinking, it was useful hearing his stress on the immersion side of learning. I think many Chinese learners, caught up in the difficulty of tones or the array of unknown vocabulary, can use that as an excuse to avoid regularly using the language. I’m trying to avoid falling into that trap myself by trying to make sure the immersion half stays constant or grows during my time in China.
Before I look into how my studying and immersion time are devoted, I need to reflect on my specific goals for Chinese, since these define my activities. If your immediate goals are different, therefore, then my plan probably won’t be ideal.
I have two main goals for my Chinese during these three months. The first, and biggest, is being able to hold a one-on-one conversation without significant difficulty for either party.
Defining significant difficulty is hard, and I refuse to do it. Saying I’ve only succeeded if I understood every word or never needed to use a dictionary is too strong—I don’t have that in Spanish, and I feel almost none of my Spanish conversations are remotely difficult. However, my current level of conversational Chinese isn’t nearly smooth enough to meet this standard. I get lost for words. I have to make lengthy look-ups of a dictionary because I’m missing vocabulary and also the ability to describe the missing vocabulary. So my goal is a subjective one, but subjective goals are okay too.
I consider the one-on-one conversation to be the benchmark of intermediate language learning success because it greatly expands what you can do. Before this level, nearly everything is a struggle. After this level, there are still many advanced hurdles to summit (following group conversations, watching television and movies effortlessly, comedy, etc.) but you can still draw enormous personal value from your language level.
My secondary goal is to have the best pronunciation possible in three months. This is also a subjective goal. Tones and accent reduction isn’t something you just learn once. It will be almost impossible for me to have a near-native accent after only three months, even if I made it my exclusive priority (i.e. I just parroted preformed sentences).
Instead, my goal is to have good tone and phoneme understanding with decent pronunciation. By pronunciation understanding, I mean that when I correctly remember the tones and speak slowly, I can get it right almost every time. That is, a Mandarin speaker shouldn’t have difficulty guessing a word if I’m being deliberate about it.
That being said, understanding is different than practice. I have a good understanding of gender agreement in Spanish, but I still mix it up in rapid speech. When I ask Spanish speakers to correct me, gender agreement problems are the most common mistake I make. I expect, even with strong tone understanding, I’ll still mix it up when speaking quickly, but that having this understanding allows me to self-correct my errors more frequently and pronounce things properly when I know there might be confusion. Beyond that, perfection is just years of practice.
My reasoning for wanting to work on pronunciation are threefold. First, pronunciation is essential to being perceived as speaking the language well, particularly over short conversations. I’d like to be able to strike up a conversation in Mandarin in Canada, and if my pronunciation is bad, the person is almost undoubtedly going to respond in English (because they perceive me, correctly or incorrectly, to be a weak speaker).
Second, pronunciation is a very interesting study in the process of learning languages. In European languages, I mostly fell into the pronunciation. I had an accent, but usually there were only one or two phonemes that gave me difficulty. Studying pronunciation in Chinese, a phonemically difficult language, should give me a wealth of tools for accent reduction in my other languages.
Finally, vanity. I know I’ll be producing a video at the end of this project where the most obvious aspect of my level of fluency will be my pronunciation. I’d hate for all my work to hold a conversation in Chinese be dismissed because my tones sounded funny.
My current studying approach lines up surprisingly nicely with my original plans. (Although this is only at my current, elementary level. Things will necessarily change as I progress).
My daily studying is divided into:
- 90-120 minutes for MCC and HSK vocab list (Mastering Chinese Characters, an Anki deck, which, despite its name, is actually quite good for listening comprehension, vocabulary building and grammar patterns, not just characters)
- 30-60 minutes pronunciation drills. (Right now, I’m focused mostly on tone pairs, although I do sentence-level practice during my Anki decks.)
- 30-60 minutes listening drills. (Take dialog-only ChinesePod podcasts and try to transcribe them. Good for building vocabulary but also recognizing listening mistakes. I hope to move onto more difficult content as my vocabulary grows)
- 30 minutes writing exercise (mostly to practice grammar)
- 2 hours of tutoring (I’m including tutoring in both study and immersion, since it is a mix)
In total, it works out to be around six hours on a good day. I’m not perfect, and not every day I get to everything. Today and yesterday, for example, I fell ill with a bad cold so my output has been less.
My tasks are currently focused on two instrumental goals which I believe are holding back my Chinese level: vocabulary and pronunciation.
Early on in the first week, I did some listening drills since I found it quite hard to understand Chinese. I was hoping that I might get a hint as to whether I was mishearing particular tones and phonemes so that I could make an adjustment.
After graphing my mistakes, I failed to see any obvious patterns. Indeed, if I listened to the recordings more than once, I almost never mixed up the phonemes. I did mix the tones up more frequently, but rarely in any consistent way.
However, this exercise was useful since I noticed something, seemingly obvious, but that I had missed: my ability to note tones and phonemes was near perfect for words I understood. Indeed, around half my mistakes were from over-interpretation, believing I heard a familiar word when it was actually an unfamiliar one.
The solution here is obvious: more vocabulary. From a computer science perspective, my matching algorithm was weak not because it was biased, but because I had a lack of data.
Building vocabulary isn’t an easy task. It involves a lot of work, some memorization, lots of exposure and a decent amount of making connections and contexts to secure the information.
My MCC deck was already quite good for vocabulary building, since it had whole sentences. Compared to when I first started processing the deck, I’ve started repeating the whole sentences and decomposing them to identify words and grammatical patterns. That’s helped me learn countless words, including many that I wasn’t explicitly trying to study.
I like MCC, but I also like diversification of input sources. Each source has its own biases, so having a couple decent quality input sources beats having only one.
The way I wanted to pursue vocabulary was by frequency. So I decided to add two types of drills which would also help me build vocabulary during my studying sessions. Both of these were roughly sorted by frequency so that, along with MCC, I’d have three different sources giving me high-frequency vocabulary and hopefully avoiding biases of any particular source.
The first was the HSK vocabulary list. HSK is Chinese’s equivalent to the European CEFR exams. Each of its six levels comes with a vocabulary list of representative vocabulary one should know at each level. Therefore, it represents a good source of high frequency vocabulary.
I got this list of tone-sorted HSK vocab here. My first step was to filter out all the words I recognized. (Note: recognized isn’t the same as remembered. I only wanted to study words I’d never heard of, not words I’d heard of but didn’t get correctly in a test because presumably those words were already embedded in my other studying methods). I did this by putting Google Translate’s meaning in the adjacent column and adding a mark next to each word that I had never seen before. I did this for all of HSK’s levels 1-4, since they represent fairly high-frequency words.
Once I had finished, I noted roughly 450 words I didn’t recognize. Unfortunately, relying on Google translate to is a lousy way to learn vocabulary. It’s often wrong, and when it isn’t wrong, it often misleads the meaning of the word by a lack of context. To learn these words, I wanted to pair them with example sentences.
I made a quick and dirty Python script that automatically stripped example sentences, pinyin and English translations from an online dictionary and parsed it together into an Anki deck. Now I had a way of learning all the vocabulary I was missing from HSK’s 1-4 vocab lists, with example sentences for context.
The second way to expand vocabulary by frequency was going through ChinesePod’s dialog-only files. ChinesePod is great for passive study (I put their full podcasts on my iPod for use while walking around or at the gym), but it’s rather slow if you just want to build vocabulary. Using their dialog-only files, I’d first listen, try to transcribe and then explore the dialog to fill any missing vocabulary.
I like this method for two reasons. One, it introduces vocabulary through the audio channel first. It’s easy to study written lists of vocabulary, but actually picking those words in fluent audio is a slightly different task. Second, by listening to the dialog and only then going through the meaning, I’m doing active, rather than passive exposure. Learning is done best through self-testing, not passive review.
These three methods give me three, fairly direct ways of adding vocabulary. This, of course, isn’t an isolated method. All of this gets pushed back into immersion, which is essential and can’t be ignored. My biggest weakness with my pre-China study was a lack of immersive practice, not a lack of vocabulary building.
Beyond vocabulary, my second push is for better pronunciation. I do this by trying to do an hour of drills every day (again, along with immersive practice). I don’t do them every day, but I hope that after three months I’ll be able to log at least 50 hours of deliberate practice on this front, along with hundreds of hours of passive practice.
My main activity right now is doing tone pair drills. I’m fairly good at doing individual tones, but most people can do individual tones with very little instruction. The hard part is being able to say tones in rapid succession, and to do that you need to practice switching tones. This is really where tonal languages differ from English, and where most practice is needed.
I’ve heard some people dislike tone pairs, opting for full-sentence practice. I agree, getting sentence rhythm is more important than simply matching pairs of tones. After all, a given sentence has many tones and not all of them are stressed equally (or at all) in natural speech. If you only practice tone pairs, you’ll have a misleading view of how Mandarin sentences sound.
That being said, I subscribe to the deliberate practice view on this problem. The way to get better at a skill is to break it down into its atomic components, master those and then slowly build up to a more complex representation. The time to give up tone pairs is when you’re doing them nearly perfectly.
Tone pairs, I believe, also help build tonal understanding. That’s the ability to perform something deliberately and carefully, even if you aren’t as strong in practice. Knowing what a 3-2 sounds like, in its ideal form, means that even if it is sometimes downplayed in unstressed parts of speech, I know which mistakes I’ve made when I’ve made them.
Right now I’m still only getting 70-80% on tone pair drills done at a speaking pace and my ability is even lower for unknown words. I think another 10-15 hours of practice should be enough to have that near 95-98%, which means that I can more easily recognize and fix my mistakes in actual speech.
The problem with actual speaking situations is that the brain’s working memory is incredibly limited. You can only hold a few things in your mind at a given time, so you can only focus on one or two things that require deliberate effort.
For Spanish, I was constantly juggling the grammatical rules. For every sentence I had to make sure that verbs were conjugated for tense, aspect, mood and person, and that nouns and adjectives agreed in gender and number. Eventually these patterns become automatic, but even a slight distraction (say searching for a vocabulary word) would disrupt my ability to maintain one of the other rules.
For Chinese, I’m constantly juggling pronunciation rules. Grammatical rules mostly come in the form of word order and word choice, so while I’m still learning these, they are simpler than in Spanish. Instead, I’m constantly thinking about which tones a word has, making sure my ch/sh/zh sounds don’t blur with my q/x/j sounds, or trying to maintain a distinction between -eng/-ang or -in/-ing. Adding to this the difficulty of correctly parsing word order or finding a difficult to remember vocabulary word means my pronunciation suffers in practice.
Pronunciation drills alleviate this problem somewhat because your default pronunciation becomes the correct pronunciation. When confused by vocabulary, you can think about pronunciation less because your default way of speaking is closer to correct.
I’m also hoping to invest a bit of tutoring time each class in getting feedback on my pronunciation drills, however, at the moment my first goal of conversational fluency dominates. Getting 15-20 minutes of feedback each week should probably be more than enough to occupy 4-5 hours of subsequent drills.
Other Deliberate Study
Other pieces of deliberate study include listening to ChinesePod (mostly as a passive activity, since the pace is quite reasonable) and doing occasional written exercises. I don’t want to overdo writing, since it is the furthest removed from my immediate goals. However, writing is a good way to drill grammar, since tones and vocabulary aren’t a problem (you can always look a word up). Chinese readers can see my first two entries I did on iTalki’s notebook, which many have already corrected. My hope is to write 2-3 per week, so that I can get grammatical feedback on more complex thoughts.
I like to write about studying techniques since they are easily analyzable. However, studying isn’t as important as immersion in language learning. Many people seem to think this doesn’t apply to Asian languages. That somehow to bulk of vocabulary, weird grammar or pronunciation rules make them exceptions. I disagree.
Instead, I feel the importance of immersion is somewhat larger with Asian languages. European languages, owing to their similar structure to English and often similar vocabulary, an uninformed guess about the meaning of a sentence or how to express an idea is often accurate. Asian languages require more feedback, since your intuitions are more likely incorrect.
Secondly, because immersion is harder in Asian languages, I think that means the pressure to use immersion should be higher. It’s very easy to sit on your couch and do Anki drills, praising yourself for the extra vocabulary you’ve “memorized”. However, if you can’t hold a real conversation or understand a real dialog, what’s the point? There’s plenty of ways you can escape some of the worst biases that studying leads to, but it’s almost impossible to escape all of them. The only way to get real feedback is to be in real situations.
Now, by immersion I simply mean using the language. True immersion may only be possible in the target country. However, having conversations with Skype, or through meet-ups, watching native-language television shows, music, podcasts and movies are options available to anyone, anywhere.
My studying approach is quite detailed, but I’m pushing myself to spend at least half of my time interacting as I am studying. I’m doing this, even though I can’t understand basically any television or movie. Despite the fact that most conversations with native speakers are tremendously difficult. Even though extended conversations with native speakers who can’t help me out with missing vocabulary are often impossible.
Studying is hard work, but it’s easy to do. You just have to sit at your desk and put in the hours. Immersion isn’t hard work, but it’s hard to do. You have to go outside your comfort zone, get embarrassed, sit through meaningless noise and deal with situations that have zero positive feedback.
I’m using several methods to push immersion at a beginner level of Chinese, and I’m also trying to transition to some harder methods that I hope will become more feasible as my level improves.
Conversations with Tutors
The backbone of my immersion is holding conversations with my tutors. This is more important than listening practice, since listening immersion doesn’t give me pronunciation feedback and tends to focus on slightly different vocabulary. This is also more important than conversing with Vat, since both coming from English, we tend to make similar mistakes or at least fail to notice mistakes in each others’ speech.
My first week of conversations with tutors was a predictable grind. I refused to speak in English, but my expressive ability was quite low so I found it hard to have meaningful dialog. My Skype tutors would quickly revert to the typical Chinese pedagogical style of dictation and drills, since I didn’t have the linguistic ability to push the lesson in a conversational direction.
After two weeks, I’m now at the point where I can keep the lessons conversational and actually have meaningful conversations about everyday things. With the help of Google translate to fill in some missing words, I’ve had conversations about Chinese teas, travel, movies, climate and cultural differences.
I’m still a ways away from truly deep conversations I’d consider essential to my success in China. Talking about art, learning, life philosophy, books, religion or other deeper topics are something I can do comfortably in Portuguese, French and Spanish, but are still beyond me in Chinese.
However, by holding regular one-on-one conversations (2 hours per day) with native speakers, I guarantee that I’m getting feedback and can see progress on my main goal of holding one-on-one conversations.
Conversations with Vat
The gap between our speaking ability was largest in Chinese, where I had put in four times as much preparation as Vat. Additionally, I’m putting in heavy hours to learn Chinese as well as possible. Vat is also investing a lot of time learning Chinese, but since he’s also preparing the video, he’s spending quite a bit of time filming and trying to capture life in China.
Despite this gap, speaking with Vat is still a great opportunity to practice. Speaking with native can help with some issues, but speaking with non-natives or beginners can also be helpful, because you can speak more slowly, they are more patient and you can have a dialog about what you’re learning. Vat and I have tried to record semi-daily conversations, as we did in Spain and Brazil, which you can listen to here. Note: it’s taking us a bit longer to get these uploaded, since we can’t access SoundCloud from here in China, however we’ll be uploading them as soon as possible.
Interacting with Locals
Another essential tool any new language is being able to have basic interactions with local people. Things like ordering food, getting directions, asking for particular items, making reservations, etc. While I think many language learning guides mistakenly overemphasize this part of language learning at the beginning stages, it’s still an invaluable way to practice.
I’ve tried to make it a habit to ask a question or probe a little in my everyday interactions with people. This is particularly hard for me because it’s something I don’t do in Canada. I prefer to browse than to ask someone for help, and this feeling is magnified when I’m concerned they won’t understand my request.
However, in the interests of language learning, I’ve decided to push myself in this regard. This is a great way to build practical vocabulary and can give you a chance to test your speaking ability with complete strangers (who haven’t adapted to your accent yet).
Watching Television and Movies
A third source of immersion is watching television and movies. I’m still at a point where I can’t understand most of the dialog. However, I do pick up words and phrases. More importantly, you get used to a rhythm of speech which filters into your own conversation.
I don’t put much priority on this part of language learning, at my current level, for two reasons. First, the level of real dialog is considerably above my current understanding. While foreseeably, grinding through watching natural dialog for years could create fluency, its hardly the most efficient stage at the beginning. The amount of learned words and phrases is dwarfed by those that you miss entirely.
Second, television and movie dialog tends to be somewhat removed from real speech. This means you learn words, but not necessarily those that are most useful to you. I remember watching some dubbed Star Trek episodes in Spanish and I learned the words tripulación (crew) and alférez (ensign), I can say with certainty I’ve never used these words in a single conversation.
Watching television and movies is probably a better step at an intermediate level, when you want a low-effort way to start picking up lots of lower-frequency words.
Humility and the Lengthy Journey Ahead
Someone once said that learning Chinese was a lesson in humility. While I admit to the difficulties, I still believe I’ll reach my goals in three months.
What I am realizing, however, is how much more Chinese there is to learn. Going from holding one-on-one conversations comfortably to true fluency is a huge task that requires years of exposure. While I feel the same is true with my Spanish, where there is still a lot to learn, China’s vastly different origins means there is still enormous cultural richness I won’t be able to touch in just three months.
I don’t see this as a detraction of Chinese, but as a positive. It means that, even after this trip to China, I’ll have plenty of reason to go back, improve and explore.
Learn Faster, Achieve More
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This time, however, I wanted to do things a little differently.
I want to share my thinking process before going to learn Chinese. Then, once we land and the three months progress, I can see how well my predictions met reality and how different my original strategy differed from the one I eventually settled upon.
The Futility and Necessity of Planning
With most of my learning goals, I start with fairly elaborate plans, involving dozens of separate tactics and schedules. Then, after a few weeks, I usually settle on something that only uses one or two of those tactics. The plans are complex and intricate, the reality tends to be simple and pragmatic.
I can remember my original notes when planning for the MIT Challenge. I had planned out 12-hour studying schedules, along with dozens of separate tactics to learn the material. I wound up using closer to 8-hour daily schedules with tactics that boiled down to (1) reading textbooks/watching lectures, (2) doing practice problems, (3) doing Feynman techniques.
The reason for this is straightforward. First, simpler strategies require less willpower to maintain, given the same amount of hours worked. Complex strategies have a mental overhead that, if you’re not suitably compulsive about following them, start to overwhelm the actual work.
Second, most tactics don’t work. Although I sell a course with dozens of tactics, 95% of them don’t work for whatever particular learning goal I’m working towards. That doesn’t mean they’re useless—just that different tactics work for different tasks and figuring out which work for which is a process of experimentation. Plans which start as dozens of tactics get reduced to the few essentials.
Given this, you might rightly ask why I even bother with planning? Why not just try a bunch of stuff out and see what works and what doesn’t? Although that tends to be closer to the truth than I’d like to admit, I still find planning useful for two reasons:
- Planning gives you flexibility. I come up with dozens of micro-tactics in advance, so that I have somewhere to turn to when I get stuck. Without these, it’s far easier to hit dead ends.
- Planning prepares you mentally. Thinking through what kind of schedule I want to use prepares me for the task of actually executing it. Thinking that I would be studying for 12-hour blocks for months in advance of the MIT Challenge made doing 8-hour blocks a breeze.
Given that, I don’t have high expectations for the eventually accuracy of my Chinese plan. I expect that what I eventually settle on will be less intense in terms of workload and considerably simpler in terms of technique. However, hopefully sharing the exercise with you will showcase my thinking process going into a challenge like this.
Prior Experience with Chinese
No learning project starts from zero. For almost every conceivable subject, there’s prior knowledge you can leverage to build off of. This is one of the tenets of holistic learning, that actively thinking about how knowledge transfers between domains can be enormously useful.
For Chinese, I’m decidedly not starting from zero. I spent 105 hours practicing prior to starting this trip. Over half of that was Anki, which is low-efficiency and low-intensity. Taking the equivalent amount of time in a Chinese class would have taught me far more Chinese, but it also would have been much harder to schedule. For that reason, I think the actual time spent learning Chinese overstates my ability.
Right now, my Chinese is far weaker than my Spanish was prior to arriving in Spain. I can make some basic requests, and with a dictionary and a patient conversation partner, I can express simple ideas. In the ten hours of tutoring I did, only near the end was I reaching a point where I could speak entirely in Chinese, with Google translate, and be understood.
Needless to say, my work in these next three months is cut out for me.
Schedules and Tactics
I typically divide new learning goals into two parts. The first is the schedule I want to use for learning. This is all time management and it is an incredibly important part of the learning process. Devoting insufficient time or making a schedule which is impossible to follow are recipes for disaster.
The schedule I want to use for Chinese is broken by roughly two big constraints, first, tutor availability and second, my social life in China. Both tutoring and social activities are helpful for the learning process, so making a schedule which sacrifices them in the name of getting another hour at a textbook is foolish.
That being said, I still have quite a bit of flexibility with setting my hours for self-study.
My current plan is to spend six hours per day on deliberate study. I imagine roughly two hours per day for private tutoring, two hours for Anki spread throughout the day and another two hours studying grammar, vocabulary or using other methods to improve my weak points in Chinese.
Six hours may not seem like that much in comparison to the 12-hour schedule I planned for the MIT Challenge or eight hours I actually followed. However, this is only for deliberate study. In addition to this, Vat and I are only speaking in Chinese, I’ll be trying to socialize as much as possible and I’ll be trying to watch television, movies or perhaps read simple books in my spare time. Total active and passive study will probably be more like the twelve hours I originally planned for in the MIT Challenge.
My hope is to accomplish the four hours of this which are independent from our tutor’s schedule in the mornings. If we do end up socializing a lot in China at night, I might have to flip this to an afternoon schedule on some days.
Tactics and Learning Technique
I’ve brainstormed a large list of possible tactics for overcoming problems in Chinese. Some of these I’ve read about. Others I’ve merely envisioned as being possibly helpful. A few I’ve actually experimented with in my previous Chinese study and want to continue.
1) Mastering Chinese Characters Anki Deck
My goal for the next three months is not to learn to read Chinese. I don’t expect, once I’m finished, that I’ll be able to read anything more than simple emails or text messages. Street signs, menus, newspapers and books will likely remain out of reach, even after three months.
Instead, my goal is to try to reach a comfortable conversational level in Chinese, hopefully in the same ballpark as we got with Spanish or Portuguese. Learning the thousands of characters necessary for literacy is a somewhat separate task, and I don’t want to split my effort away from being able to have conversations.
That being said, I’m also not going to be allergic to learning characters along the way. If a method helps me learn characters and spoken Mandarin, or even accesses some of the synergies between these two goals, I’m all for it.
MCC is a series of Anki decks I found quite helpful that fits into this category. Ostensibly designed to help you learn the basic few thousand characters, it actually helps a lot with speaking too. It has great audio samples, sentence samples to pick up grammatical patterns and listening exercises on top of the character recognition tasks.
My secondary hope is that the minimal exposure to the characters will also help with my ability to speak. Chinese characters often contain semantic connections (unlike the merely phonetic connections present in alphabetic languages) so the ideal amount of study of characters solely to maximize speaking ability is probably a bit more than zero.
I called this strategy “deep linking” in Learning on Steroids, where you learn more about a topic than is strictly necessary, not trying to memorize the secondary information, but using it to anchor connections within the primary information.
2) Phonology and Speaking Practice
One challenge of Chinese is that it contains many phonemes that aren’t present in English (or Spanish, French or Portuguese). The Chinese “b” and “p” sounds aren’t distinguished in the same way that they are in English, so a word that (in pinyin) is written with a “b” sometimes sounds like a “p” to my ear, and vice versa. Add to this the fact that Chinese uses tones, and pronouncing words properly in Mandarin becomes a far harder task than, say, Spanish.
If accent is a problem, I might spend an hour or so a day working on my pronunciation outside of class. Olle Linge has some good games you can play to work on your tone practice (and presumably could also be used to work on some difficult phoneme distinctions).
A simple method is simply listening to a recording of set phrases, hearing it, recording yourself repeating it, and listening to that recording. Pimsleur works on this principle, but skips the self-recording step. My sense is that if you separate out worrying about remembering words and grammar, and focus entirely on how to pronounce certain word combinations, you can train those habits of speech more effectively.
Of course, speaking practice with a native speaker to correct you is ideal. However, I’ve found tutoring works best when you prepare your best before coming to the session and then leverage the tutor to push you where you can’t go further. Expecting the teacher to fix/explain all your problems tends to be less efficient.
3) Getting a Good Grammar Book
My grammar book was one of my best investments in Spanish. Although I generally consider studying grammar to be a low-value activity done in isolation, if you spend your entire day speaking the language its value goes up tremendously.
Having a grammar book allows you to codify some of the intuitions you have while listening to people speak. Why do they say it that way? What exactly do they mean when they use a particular expression? Why don’t they understand me when I try to say a particular type of sentence? These are the problems a bit of grammar study can solve.
The problem is finding a good book. Most language learning books are bloated and horrible. They try to be all-in-one packages, instead of being specialized for a particular aspect of the language learning process.
During our brief stay in Toronto (a necessary step to process visas for China) I bought two books that look promising for giving some basics of Chinese grammar: Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar and Side by Side Chinese & English Grammar. They have the advantages of being concise as well as explaining the Chinese points from an English speaker’s perspective, which is a huge advantage over confusing Chinese-to-Chinese descriptions of grammar.
4) Character Decomposition
Continuing the theme that a small amount of targeting character practice may boost overall speaking (but a large amount is probably a distraction), I’ve been considering trying to master the basic radical system of Chinese characters.
Chinese characters can be broken down into radicals, which are more basic components that reappear in many different characters. Sometimes these components have semantic clues, such as indicating that a character is associated with water or women. Other times these components have phonological cues, indicating that a character has a similar sound to another, more basic, character.
I’ve considered two methods for learning the radicals. One is to go direct—learn the most common 100 radicals and memorize them using a visualization technique. The other is to decompose any new character I encounter in the MCC Anki deck and memorize along the way. I’ll probably end up doing both.
The problem with this technique is figuring out when to apply it. Pragmatically speaking, it doesn’t have the urgency of learning many other parts of Chinese and its payoff will more likely be long-term. Figuring out when to go through this step, if at all, is an open question.
What Won’t Change from Learning Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.
One major difference between the MIT Challenge and my upcoming Chinese project is that I already have the experience of doing two previous languages with this method. That means most of my planning is trying to cope with the additional challenges that Chinese offers, not with the basics of learning a language at all.
I expect that, as with Spanish and Portuguese, the no-English rule will once again be the most important factor in my learning progress. Private tutoring sessions and regular interaction with real people will also form the bulk of the learning progress, with the above tactics and study simply making this process go more smoothly.
Making friends (or better, getting a girlfriend) trump hours of self-study removed from actual speaking situations. Navigating a new culture may mean that these steps are more difficult in ways that we wouldn’t have experienced before, but that doesn’t make them any less useful.
My expectation is that the degree to which I follow these steps with Chinese will be based a lot on how much difficulty we have with the local culture. If making friends and having genuine social interactions is difficult, the more self-study and paid tutoring have to shift to accommodate for it.
While I have high hopes for culture in China, I’ve been given my fair share of warnings about the difficulties of short-term integration. I’m still optimistic that we can make a few close friends during our time in Kunming, but in the case that it turns out to be too challenging to break in, I’m certainly not going to let that slow down my learning progress.
Whatever happens, it probably won’t turn out anything like I’ve described. Like all plans, I’ll have to make many changes and experiments to adapt to problems I haven’t foreseen or ignore problems that never materialized. However, hopefully this article shows a little of my thought process prior to arrival.
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If you care about being correct more often, here’s a handy rule of thumb:
Figure out which groups of people have spent their lives studying the issue you want an answer to. If there is a significant majority who believe conclusion X, then make conclusion X your default answer unless you have very strong evidence to believe otherwise.
Put even more simply: “When you want the right answer, find out who the experts are and believe what they believe.”
People already do this with topics they have no emotional investment in. When physicists say they discovered the Higgs’ Boson, I take it at face value. However, when it comes to accepted theories global warming, economics, evolution, nutrition and psychology people are full of skepticism and pet theories.
When it Hurts to Think for Yourself
We strive to teach people to think for themselves and mock people who accept answers simply because of authority. While this policy has good intentions, it has some serious problems.
First, many subjects are enormously complicated and time consuming to fully understand. Yes, we can chastise people for not making themselves fully informed, but this is a wasted effort. The amount of knowledge in the world greatly exceeds what the average person can or is willing to consume. Advising people to “think for themselves” on every topic is a recipe for shallow observations.
Second, this is the kind of advice that is applied selectively. We all, subconsciously, accept the value of expertise. I cede to Stephen Hawking when he tells me something about black holes. However, we tend to use the “think for yourself” justification to ignore equally informed opinions in sensitive topics. Selective skepticism can be more dangerous than outright gullibility, because at least the latter won’t get biased results.
My advice isn’t to cede your thinking ability, merely that the default position for all beliefs should be the majority view of experts of that field. Only once you’ve done a comparable amount of research and study on the question as those experts, does skepticism bear fruits.
Who are the Experts?
People have varying answers to this question. Some people would argue that only scientists fit that bill, and within them, only the hard sciences where millions of repeated experiments have proved theorems to incredible accuracy.
This kind of thinking is too strict. While it’s true that physics has more rigorous standards for evidence than economics, that doesn’t mean your opinion about economics is equally valid as the body of work of thousands of people spending, collectively, millions of hours investigating such problems.
What we really want is a group of people who (a) have studied the topic in question more than most other groups and (b) don’t have significant biases or incentives to distort information.
Academia fits this bill pretty well for most topics. The problem with other sources of information, is that they often study the issues in question less or they have larger incentives to distort. Writers like me are a weaker source of expertise for that very reason: I’m paid by how many books and courses I can sell, and how many people want to read my work, not directly on how truthful it is. While I still trust and listen to other writers, if they make a claim that is obviously out of line with more authoritative sources, I side with professional researchers.
There are domains of knowledge which academia doesn’t cover, or doesn’t treat as an important concern. In those cases, I’d look at people who have studied the topic for considerable time and don’t have considerable incentives to distort. Writers, professionals and role models can fill these gaps.
What if the Experts are Wrong?
The experts are often wrong. However, they’re wrong a lot less than the average person. And, unless you’ve studied the topic for a comparable length of time as the typical expert, they’re wrong about it less often than you are.
The justification for trusting a group of experts needn’t be based on their infallibility. It only needs to assume that they are, on average, more reliable in their judgement than you are.
Some people might suggest that this would have compelled trusting alchemists for their model of chemistry in the middle ages. To which I would say yes. The alchemists were definitely mistaken. However, the point isn’t that they were wrong, but that had you lived along side them, your pet theory of chemistry would probably have been even worse.
Fallibility of a source of information doesn’t logically permit you to believe whatever you feel like.
Majority, Not Outlier Viewpoints
When I say that you should believe what experts believe, I don’t mean you should believe what one expert happens believes. With millions of PhDs, it’s never very hard to find one person who has non-standard views. What you should be looking for are areas where most people within that field agree. If 99 people with PhDs in math believe 2+2=4, you can safely ignore the one guy who thinks it equals five.
A big problem with reading articles and books on topics, is that they tend to come from a single author. However, because popularity and controversy are positively correlated, this tends to overrepresent quacks in the space of easily accessible ideas.
A better place to start is to look at more neutral sources to get your ideas. Textbooks, classes and even Wikipedia pages, are all more likely to tell you what the majority of a profession think, instead of the one random outlier.
Don’t Teach the Controversy
If a debate exists between sizeable fractions of a group of experts, it is worth understanding both sides of the debate. However, more often the case is that a debate consists of a handful of outlier experts against a more or less consensus viewpoint.
Like the “think for yourself” heuristic, people are quick to point out the controversy if they dislike the majority viewpoint. Don’t like what biology has to say about evolution? Well it’s only a theory. Don’t like what climatologists have to say about global warming? Well the jury’s still out. Don’t like what economists have to say about price controls? Hey, there’s some people who disagree!
If a viewpoint is uncontroversial within the selected class of experts who study the problem full-time, but controversial outside of it, you can trust it’s the people on the outside who are wrong.
How to Figure Out What Experts Think
Unfortunately, this is often the more difficult part. Expert opinions tend to come to us filtered through journalists, television personalities and authors. Some of these people do a good job at translating, but there is a considerably higher incentive to distort than within academia.
Sometimes this incentive to distort comes from creating false controversy. Making a subject seem more controversial is an easy way to grab more news coverage for an idea.
Sometimes the incentive is to simplify needlessly. A quick, recitable slogan may be easier to pitch than reality even if it doesn’t fit the facts.
Sometimes the incentive is to lean on the expertise of others for credibility, but then to say whatever you feel like. You can trust that any self-help book that uses the word “quantum” is of this sort.
Finding out what experts actually think about issues can be tricky. My advice:
- Read more textbooks and take more courses
- Read the Wikipedia articles on a topic (or on a book, if it’s famous) to see whether the book/ideas you’re reading are biased in any way.
- Read what other experts have to say about the books you read
- When you can, look at surveys like this to get better statistical analysis of what are indeed the majority viewpoints.
Lining Up Your Beliefs With Other Experts
Thinking what experts think sounds like a cop-out. Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s a lot of work to line up your beliefs with what experts think. You have to go out and read what they say about different topics, and if you want to have more robust opinions, you have to study a little bit about why they say it.
Thinking for yourself, by contrast, is the easy way out. It gives you the freedom to selectively apply skepticism to any answer that makes you feel uncomfortable, all with the easy justification that you’re an intelligent, rational person.
Thinking for yourself certainly beats thinking by popularity, but that’s hardly the only alternative. For almost any possible question, there’s probably a group of people who have thought deeply about all the possibilities and tried to determine which fares the best on the balance of evidence. Making these your default answers goes a long way to making you smarter and more effective.
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Let’s say you want to be smart about a given topic. What’s better: read several books on the topic, or subscribe to a couple blogs and passively read the latest articles?
If you had asked me this question a few years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated: reading books will make you more well-informed. Books explore ideas in more depth, have stricter editorial standards and have more highly respected authors.
Now I’m not so sure.
Books are Higher Status (and Therefore Overvalued)
Here’s a seemingly straightforward question: why have William Shakespeare’s plays retained their popularity, hundreds of years after they were written?
Ask an English major and you’ll get a suitable answer: because they’re some of the best works of English literature. We study them, because they give particularly deep insights and have particularly beautiful prose.
Another, more cynical, explanation would be that we study them because they’re high status. The reasoning is pretty straightforward:
Reading Shakespeare is difficult. The English used differs substantially from how people speak today. Therefore, to enjoy Shakespeare, you need to be able to decipher it, meaning you’re probably intelligent.
Shakespeare also has a large cultural footprint in the English-speaking world. Enjoying Shakespeare often requires interpreting the connection to these cultural artifacts, meaning you’re probably more cultured if you enjoy Shakespeare.
People want to appear intelligent and cultured, so they profess a greater love of Shakespeare than they actually possess. This becomes a positive feedback loop, as wannabe Shakespeare lovers exaggerate its virtue to signal qualities they want associated with them.
Of course, most people probably aren’t doing this intentionally. Humans are sophisticated self-deception machines. However, many people will acquiesce to Shakespeare’s talent, but wouldn’t read a copy of Hamlet for fun.
The point of this little diversion isn’t to argue that Shakespeare doesn’t have literary value (the positive feedback cycle needed to start somewhere, so why not with works of merit?). But rather that many supposedly more virtuous activities can become overvalued because people want to associate with their virtue more than they actually benefit from it.
My sense is that reading books on intellectual topics suffers from this more than blogs. Tell someone that you read a dozen books on economics and they’ll admire your erudition. Tell someone you subscribe to a dozen blogs and they’ll think maybe you need to spend more time away from the computer.
This shouldn’t be seen as convincing evidence for the virtue of blogs over books, but rather to expose a common thinking trap we engage in. Namely, that we shouldn’t be too quick to praise or dismiss an activity, merely by its association to perceived virtue or vice.
Why Might Blogs Be Better for Understanding Deep Topics?
I see a couple major advantages blogs have over books, in terms of the amount of knowledge you possess after reading them.
One is simply spacing. A great deal of psychological research shows that studying in a burst is less effective than study sessions spaced out over time. Blogs naturally embody the latter method, dripping out ideas over weeks and months instead of in a burst.
Another is interactivity. Many blogs I follow have considerable more interactivity than any book I’ve read. This doesn’t usually manifest in the reader-to-author channel, but in the author-to-author channel, as bloggers comment on each others’ ideas. Good bloggers will link to opposing views in their debates, which will broaden your viewpoint more than an author who carefully conceals a counterargument in his endnotes.
An underrated virtue of blogs is that, quite often, they’re simply easier to follow. Books often require more concentration and investment to get at the same information. A blog can drip that information out over our shorter attention spans.
One might argue that perhaps the difficulty of books is a feature. That reading books trains a higher attention span. That might be the case, but it also might be that many people give up on hard books mid-way, wasting the rest. I say the decent habits you do follow are more virtuous than the perfect habits you don’t.
Finally, technology gives blogging a depth many books (including ebooks) currently lack. The format of books is still stuck in paper mode, even if we no longer live in that world. The average academic blog I follow makes Wikipedia-style references to jargon, so that I can either dive in to explain a difficult point, or breeze over concepts I already understand.
Some Arguments in Favor of Books
My titular question wasn’t intended to be rhetorical. I still see some problems with blogs in their current status, and my professional bias hardly permits me to see the problem objectively.
Here are some potential things I see books beating blogs at:
1. Ideas which can’t be explained neatly in one post.
Some ideas can be delivered in bite-sized drops. Others require so much background knowledge to fully appreciate an argument, that even a long blog article won’t cut it.
My thought is that this strikes both ways. Perhaps the truly long ideas are better delivered through courses, instead of books? Books may handle middle ideas, but technology seems to be attacking them from both the short and the long ends.
Some bloggers avoid this problem by entirely glossing over the background. This is left to the reader to piece together through links to Wikipedia and links to other background material. This lacks the handholding of a good book, but perhaps it is faster for a reasonably sophisticated reader.
2. Higher editorial standards.
Books, as of this moment, still have editors and publishers. Although you can self-publish books and skip this step, it’s usually fairly easy to separate the amateurs from the pros in book publishing.
Blogs largely go unedited, and when they do it’s typically retroactive, in the form of retractions. This means people can be faster and looser with the truth. It also means ill-conceived ideas bubble up to the public when they would have been squashed by a decent editor.
Ryan Holiday, in his excellent book, uses a variant of this argument to condemn blogs. However, I see it as mostly being a condemnation of the more newsy blogs that live off traffic, and less on the blogs which rely on a regular reader base. Still, the lack of editorial oversight is a blow to the overall quality of blogs.
3. Books are better researched and well-thought.
This point is separate from editorial standards. Getting a book contract usually means investing a lot more time in research than writing a blog article. Although some bloggers invest dozens of hours working on a post, most bloggers will jump off one or two sources and provide quick commentary. The posting pressure on the typical blogger encourages a hastier, treadmill-style idea generation which may not be as valuable as spending a year or two deeply invested on a single idea.
The advantage is that books can cull hundreds of different research points to coalesce on an idea, while a blog may organize that information in a more scattered manner. Book writing forces a different kind of thinking than blogging, and that might ultimately be more valuable.
However, part of me suspects this worry will become outdated. As blogging becomes more popular as a medium of communication, it will create more competition, raising the standards. This is easy to see since the last several years when blogs were largely glorified diaries and are now increasingly platforms for ideas.
New Year’s Resolution: Read More Blogs?
I’m certainly not going to stop reading books. However, I’ve recently pushed myself to read more high-quality blogs. I might not be able to pat myself on the back for an extensive library of collected blog articles, but I might learn more along the way.
What are your thoughts? Are books still the clear choice for learning about deep topics? Which blogs have you read that helped you think more deeply? Share your thoughts in the comments.
EDIT: Some people have been asking which blogs I read. Here’s a temporary list (I change my reading habits regularly, so this only happens to capture my current subscriptions):
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Last week I asked you which skills were worth knowing, even poorly. I got a lot of responses, from martial arts to programming, and sketching to survival skills.
Although the poll didn’t bring up any clear consensus responses, I find it hard to argue against almost any individual suggestion. The truth is, most things are worth learning, even poorly. Perhaps the quote I led with by Kato Lomb is simply false.
However, one of the things that did strike me was that most people simply picked things based on there personal experience learning that thing, or their interest in it. That’s a fine way to start a brainstorm, but perhaps there are some intellectual tools we can use to examine the issue more closely?
Which Kinds of Things Are Worth Knowing Well?
The problem, admittedly, with my poll is that the question I posed was open enough to accept almost any answer with a reasonable justification. I had hoped to illuminate a contrast between things worth knowing well and things worth knowing poorly, but a lot of the difficulty in showing that was how I asked the question.
Instead, let’s rephrase:
Clearly some things are more valuable to learn than others, independent of your personal interest. Literacy is more valuable than sculpture, and programming is more useful than Latin (assuming you don’t harbor a secret passion for clay or dead languages).
This is a first way to break down skills—by how useful they are to learn. Many of the skills listed in my previous post were of this kind. Things sufficiently worth knowing that even having a poor level of ability is valuable.
However, I want to focus on a different, more subtle, distinction. Imagine we take two skills that have approximately equal usefulness. Now compare those two skills and ask where the value comes: does most of the value come from the basics or does it come from mastery?
I may be reading too far into Lomb’s quote, but this was the critical point I inferred from her writing. Languages are useful things to know. But they are also things that tend to yield a fair amount of their rewards from simply attaining a basic level. The level of language that can be learned in three months is less valuable than the level one can achieve after three decades, but the former still yields a reasonable payoff.
This payoff of adequacy versus mastery is probably different depending on the language. Fifty hours of Spanish study let me stumble through some basic conversations, whereas one hundred hours in Chinese was still painfully difficult to speak. However, in general, I’d argue that you’ll get a lot more out of a few months of language study than a few months of most other skills of similar overall value.
What’s an example of a skill which doesn’t have this kind of payoff chart?
I’m sure I’ll get some angry rebuttals in the comments for this one, but I’m going to say computer programming.
If we’re evaluating programming and language learning by the first metric—are they valuable enough that they are worth learning, even poorly, there’s a case to be made that both programming and language learning fall into that category.
However, if we’re arguing along the second line, that the majority of their respective payoffs comes from adequacy or mastery, I wouldn’t put computer programming in the adequacy camp.
A Tale of Two Languages
What makes programming different? I see two reasons, one is economic, the other is technical.
First, the economic reason. For most people, programming is a way of doing work. Either you work directly as a developer, or (like me) you make use of programming to help you do things in an unrelated line of work (like blogging).
In the first case, adequacy just doesn’t cut it. Great coders can earn significant salaries, but mediocre coders are fairly cheap. You won’t get rich writing merely adequate code, you have to be an expert.
In the second case, adequacy rarely justifies the cost. I do use my programming skills occasionally, but generally if a project gets more complicated than a small script, it makes more sense to hire someone to build it (or look for a pre-built solution) than to hack something together myself.
In both cases, the payoff tends to come from being a particularly good programmer, not someone who merely knows the basics.
The other reason has to do with the technical differences between human and computer languages. A fluent speaker is only moderately more productive in the act of communication than someone who has an intermediate level. There are many things in Spanish that take me longer to explain than they would in English, but, I’d guess, if you average out all my interactions they aren’t considerably slower than a fluent speaker.
This is quite different from the difference between a “fluent” programmer and a novice. The master programmer can be orders of magnitudes more productive, perhaps accomplishing the same task in a tenth of the time. This is because programming languages utilize layered abstraction to make ever-increasing complexity possible. That increased complexity gives added power to great programmers, but it also means there is more to learn for novices.
Some people will argue that programming helps with logical thinking, even if you don’t actually write any code. Although I’d love for this to be true, I’m skeptical. My sense is that programming teaches you a certain way of thinking, which can be useful outside of programming. But so does marketing, entrepreneurship, biology, physics and music. It’s not clear to me that, if you never touch a line of code, that the “programming” mentality is inherently more worth learning than these other ones.
One could argue that this programming mentality helps with using computers, therefore packing in more rewards for mere adequacy and shifting the balance away from mastery. But I know many computer science professionals who are only so-so with gadgets and non-programmers who are wizards, so I’d say the jury is still out.
Remember this doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile to learn the basics of programming. Skills of high absolute value are worthwhile even if their payoff curve is shifted more towards mastery than adequacy. I did the MIT Challenge largely because of what I believe to be programming’s absolute usefulness, even if more of that value comes from mastery than other skills.
Choosing Adequacy or Mastery
Whether a skill reaps disproportionate rewards for mastery or adequacy also depends on what you do with the skill. I don’t work as a programmer, so my payoff curve for learning about programming is shifted more towards adequacy than it is for, say, the psychology of learning and memory (which is more important for my core business). The opposite would probably be true of a professional software developer.
Ultimately it’s a combination of intended use, personal interest and technical details of the topic itself which determine whether a skill rewards more for adequacy or mastery. What might be worth only the basics to one person could be worth devoting a lifetime to another.
For those of you who submitted responses to the previous post (or thought about the question of what’s worth learning, even poorly), where do you feel your previous suggestions sit? Do you feel the skills you suggested are ones which get a lot of benefit just from having the basics? Or are they skills where most of the total value comes from the long process of mastery?
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I recently came upon this quote by Kató Lomb:
We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly. If someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.
Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan. (HT)
I agree with Lomb’s sentiment. I may never master Spanish or French, not to mention Chinese or Korean. But even learning a small amount connects me with cultures that would otherwise be closed off.
And, although it’s a popular sentiment that everyone in the world speaks English nowadays, they really don’t. This statistic puts the total number of speakers at only 10.7%-21%, meaning a full 80-90% of the world would be unable to understand you if you spoke to them.
I also believe the idea of learning something, even poorly, is a good attitude with language learning. Too many people think speaking poorly is something shameful, so they don’t try to speak another language at all.
Other Things Worth Learning Badly
I depart from Lomb in her assessment that languages are the sole object of study worth doing, even poorly. While there is certainly a category of things without tremendous value if they aren’t learned well, the complement to that category is certainly larger than just languages.
I could take this moment to go through a list of which I feel falls into each category, but I’d rather leave the question open to comments. What do you feel is worth learning, even poorly? And, why do you think that even mediocre ability is worth the time to learn it? Finally, what separates skills worth learning poorly from those that are only worth learning if you plan to learn them very well?
I have my own answers to these questions, but I’m eager to hear your thoughts. Write in and if there’s enough interest, I’ll try to highlight the best in a future post.
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Sometimes the best part of travel is when it all goes horribly wrong. Getting to Brazil was definitely an example of that.
For the last three months, Vat and I had been living in Spain, not speaking English as a way to learn Spanish. I had put in about fifty hours of work in on Spanish, and Vat about twenty, so when we arrived we could have basic conversations without using English.
Portuguese for Brazil was a different story. Before arrival, I had done about three hours of practice, and Vat—exactly zero. Portuguese is closely related to Spanish, so in the pre-trip preparation, priority was given to getting some basics in Chinese and Korean.
The original plan was to get to Brazil and hunker down in the apartment to learn enough Portuguese so that the all-Portuguese rule could be sustained from the first day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, things didn’t go according to plan.
Homelessness, Explosions and Chicken Hearts
We arrived in Florianopolis, a tropical paradise located on an island in southern Brazil, after thirty hours of transit. Exhausted from transit, and with only a shoddy dictionary, Vat and I had decided to continue speaking Spanish until we got to the apartment.
This was when our first problem came up.
After using my six-word vocabulary to get the cab driver in the right direction, we discovered that the address given on our rental didn’t include a street or apartment number. Arriving at the right road, the cab driver tried calling our new landlord only to find the number was busy.
This left us stuck outside with our suitcases on the streets of Brazil.
We hauled all of our stuff to a nearby restaurant which had wifi, and after some chatting (and a violation of our no-English rule) we manage to get online and send an email to our host. After an hour of waiting, someone comes to let us in.
The apartment was disgusting. Reeking of paint fumes from a recent renovation, beds and kitchen dirty, internet unavailable and with most of the major appliances broken in some way. This put us in an unfortunate position: keep on this rental, which was expensive and committed us to three weeks, or try using AirBnB’s 24-hour complaint policy and try to find a new place.
After thirty hours of travel, we decided to leave it until the morning and go get something to eat. We get to a restaurant, and I convince Vat to order what I believe to be chicken breasts, but turns out to be a plate of chicken hearts.
Next morning, we are able to negotiate our way out of the apartment (and violate the no-English rule once again). We get a hotel for a two nights and decide to start Portuguese the next day.
The internet wasn’t proving too helpful for finding apartments. So, we had to resort to the old-fashioned method of going door-to-door looking for a place. By this point, we’ve now learned enough Portuguese to say “I’m looking for”, “rent” and “2 months”. It turns out that vocabulary is the least of our worries. It’s summer now in Brazil, and rental prices are being listed by the day, not by the month, when they haven’t already been reserved in advance.
After canvasing dozens of places, Vat finds a place that might be able to rent for two months, but could only guarantee the next few weeks. We book it for another ten days, giving us a bit more time to learn Portuguese and continue the search.
Back in our hotel, I attempt to make some pasta. Not realizing the glass cover is, in fact, removable and not, in fact, heat-resistant, mid-way through some fusilli, the glass stovetop explodes in shards all over the kitchen. My only moment of intelligence in that ordeal was to happen to be facing the other direction at the time.
A quick update: this is now the third day in Brazil. We’ve managed to break the no-English rule at least a dozen times since our arrival, and we’re still speaking in Spanish to each other. Hardly an auspicious beginning.
Getting Back on Track
We switch hotels to our new one for the next ten days. The hotel room is a small apartment with two beds crammed into one room, a kitchen (this time, I removed the glass before cooking), and a shower with faulty electrical wiring which results in a fairly unpleasant bathing experience (my solution is to fill a plastic pail up first, insulating me from the shocks, and then wash myself with that). There is internet, but it only works some of the time, and then, it only works outside.
Reinvigorated, Vat and I tentatively switch to speaking in Portuguese. We now are looking for a more suitable long-term stay, which means more door-to-door visits and more chances to struggle through basic conversations.
Eventually we find a realtor agent who convinces one of her clients who was trying to sell her apartment, to rent it to us for two months instead. The apartment isn’t perfect, and the price isn’t cheap, but it’s the best thing we’ve seen since we arrived in Brazil. We hurriedly agree and commit to renting the apartment.
The next ten days, Vat and I are still speaking in Spanish most of the time. We were still finishing up the final video for Spain, and that means a lot of discussions. Note to future self: don’t try collaborating on a documentary film project while trying to speak only in a language you’ve learned for less than a week.
The apartment contract process turns out to be delightfully more complicated than I had imagined. Lawyers are brought in. Fingerprints and parental professions are documented. Dozens of separate meetings are had. I’m half surprised a blood sample wasn’t required.
At last, two weeks after our bumpy arrival in Brazil, we’re settled into a decent apartment and Vat’s finished editing the video. We’re now speaking solely in Portuguese together, after a previous ten days of switching back and forth.
Failures, Lessons Learned and Going Forward
By all accounts, I failed at the stated goal of The Year Without English. Although we had never intended to eliminate spoken English entirely (family, business and emergencies were the three categories of exceptions I listed from the start), the spirit of the challenge was to try living in the language from the very first day. Because we had to violate that rule several times in the first few days, I can’t claim success with that part of the challenge.
But, rather than give in, I want to treat this hiccup as a learning opportunity, so we won’t make the same mistakes in Taiwan or Korea.
The clearest observation is that the no-English rule is quite challenging and doesn’t mix well when dealing with urgent necessities (like trying to avoid homelessness) or complicated work (like trying to cut together a mini-documentary). Spanish worked because the first week we had food, shelter, internet and nothing that urgently required communication for.
Second, although linguistic similarity helps in learning, it doesn’t immediately help you speak. Brazilians didn’t understand our Spanish, and we couldn’t understand their Portuguese. In that sense, despite having a wealth of transferable knowledge from Spanish, I would have been able to communicate far more in Chinese, which I’ve actually studied, than Portuguese, which I hadn’t.
My feeling is that the minimum amount of a language you need to know before going full-switch really depends on your circumstances. Had our original apartment worked out, and the video project been completed, I doubt we would have had too much difficulty going into Portuguese from our arrival.
My plan for Taiwan and Korea is to prepare more before arrival. Although linguistic preparation would be the obvious solution, part of my goal with the challenge was to see what was possible with minimal preparation (not speaking English while already competent in the language is hardly interesting). This means making sure we have a livable apartment, tutor and dictionaries prior to landing so we don’t have to scramble when the challenge is at its most difficult point.
Second, Vat and I have decided not to repeat our problem with Spain and make sure the video is finished before we arrive. Although some editing may be required later on, a bulk of the editing was done in Brazil, which exacerbated problems since we had to make major decisions about the video, and thus had to speak in Spanish.
Despite this failure, I still believe the no-English rule is a good heuristic for language immersion. Even if we failed in a strict sense, after the first two days we were speaking entirely in Portuguese with Brazilians here and, once the video editing was finished, with each other. If my experience means anything, it’s that the no-English rule is really hard at first, but it’s still valuable. If you fall down, pick yourself up and try again.
Life in Brazil
I wrote this article during my first week in Brazil, but I wanted to save it until I had more than just my initial frustrations to report. Now that we’ve been in Brazil for three weeks, I can do that.
Brazil, and in particular, the small town of Barra da Lagoa in which we’re residing, is beautiful. Lush forests cover rolling hills, bordered by miles of beaches and impossibly blue oceans. People are friendly and nice, I’ve yet to have a negative experience meeting someone from Brazil.
Although the language learning went off to a rough start, we’re now back on track. Vat and I speak only in Portuguese together, and although I’d say we’re a bit behind where we were in Spanish at the same time, the progress of learning has been a lot faster. Portuguese shares the same grammar and a huge amount of vocabulary as Spanish, so hard-won battles with Spanish are already behind us with Portuguese.
The lifestyle is at a markedly different pace from Spain. Living in a small fishing village means some inconveniences (withdrawing cash means taking a 2-hour detour by bus to the nearest city), but also many great experiences (going to one of the best surfing spots on the island is only a two-minute walk away).
I’m taking surfing lessons and going swimming and hiking each day. Although we were off to a bumpy start, Brazil might end up being one of the best countries we stayed at, averaged out over the entire experience.
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After hundreds of hours of work filming, editing, translating and transcribing (mostly by Vat), the video documenting learning Spanish in 11-weeks is finally ready. We wanted to try to capture both the progress of learning a language, as well as the experience of living in Spain.
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A little less than three months ago today, I arrived with my friend Vat with very limited Spanish, with the goal of not speaking English for our entire stay.
The challenge was an experiment: would it be possible to get by with no English even though our Spanish was rudimentary? And more, how much could you learn in three months of immersion?
I’m happy to say now that the answer to the first question was a definite yes. As for the answer to the second question, that’s what I’d like to describe through this post—what level of fluency is possible after only three months.
Were We Really Able to Speak Zero English?
As I’ve mentioned before, my English usage wasn’t exactly zero. I called my parents once a week. I had to make two phone calls to settle unexpected issues in Canada. I had a few conversations with a previous girlfriend who lives in France now.
Vat also took a two-day detour to Switzerland to attempt to meet renown Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava. He did manage to meet him, and spoke in Spanish with him, but the trip to Zurich meant a few conversations in English as the Swiss generally don’t speak Spanish.
But, I can say safely that this English amounted to less than 1% of our total time in Spain. I haven’t once spoken in English to Vat. Every friend we’ve met we’ve spoken in Spanish to. I even made an effort to have conversations with friends back home who spoke some Spanish.
To a purist, these exceptions may mean I’ve already failed. However, from a pragmatic point of view I’d consider the no-English rule to be a complete success. The only exceptions I made for English were maintaining relationships with my past life in Canada—never because Spanish was too difficult or I was succumbing to the temptation to speak in English.
How Hard is Maintaining a No-English Rule?
Short answer: very difficult in the beginning, tiring the first week, somewhat frustrating the first month and unnoticeable after that.
When we landed in Spain, it was after two days of zero sleep, several months since we had done any of our limited practice in Spanish and a nine hour timezone difference to make for some killer jetlag. You can see how that affected our Spanish by listening to the first day’s recording here:
The first part is the hardest. We ended up using the translator apps SpanishDict and Google Translate extensively (WordReference when those failed). Nearly every substantial word needed a translation, so we were searching for probably a third of the words we wanted to use.
Spanish grammar is also significantly more difficult than English. We solved that problem by ignoring a lot of it until we were ready. Vat didn’t even bother to conjugate verbs until about one week in, but that didn’t stall him from going up and asking questions to strangers on the street.
This first part is what holds people back. Because it’s so difficult, it can feel like it won’t ever be comfortable or normal. What’s more, if you’ve never spoken another language before, you have to struggle with the difficulty of the language on top of the new frustration that you can’t express yourself how you’d like to.
But the flipside is that, if you can maintain the no-English rule, speaking only in that language becomes normal far faster than any other method I’ve tried. You pay for more difficulty in the first week, but it pays of in making the learning process much easier for almost every moment thereafter.
I remember meeting with Benny Lewis in France at the six month point of my stay in France. We spoke only in French that day and I remember feeling exhausted at the end of the day. I haven’t felt that way in Spanish since the first few weeks.
The unfortunate part of the no-English rule is that there really isn’t a way to ease into it. I’ve found forcing myself to speak in the language only some of the time much harder than speaking it completely. It extends that initially difficult period unnecessarily and doesn’t make you feel any better about your progress.
The only way I could imagine making the rule easier would be to wait until you’ve studied the language more before speaking it. If I had studied Spanish for two years at school instead of fifty hours at home, the all-Spanish rule would have been easier. However, that’s a dubious since it means you’re adding years of additional study to avoid a week or two of strenuous difficulty.
Luckily we didn’t have any problem making friends in Spain. We went to an Erasmus party the first day, which led to a few friends who helped us make other friends and got the ball rolling in terms of social activities. My good friend and polyglot, Benny Lewis, also helped us meet a few people from the first day.
Our first friends were all non-native speakers of Spanish. Non-natives are much easier to understand because you both share the same, limited vocabulary. Conversations are basic, but nobody minds too much because we were all trying to learn Spanish.
About two weeks in we met our first good Spanish friends. This was considerably more difficult at the beginning, but by the end of the first month we could get along well with them too.
Later Progress and the Wall of Intermediacy
One of the surprising factors was how fast we hit what I’ll call the Wall of Intermediacy. The WoI is when you’ve learned pretty much all of the functional words you need to adequately express yourself and most of your everyday vocabulary. Once you hit this point, you can probably say just about anything you want, even if sometimes you need to explain things longer or use less exact language.
Once you hit this point, the things you’re learning become less common and less important for simply being understood. Think of the word “tired” in English. If you felt tired you could use this word to express yourself. But English has many words for “tired” all with slightly different shades of meaning: burned out, exhausted, fatigued, sleepy, drained, run down, bushed, drowsy, haggard, pooped, tuckered out, broken-down, warn, spent, exasperated, taxed, fed up, etc.
If you want to reach more advanced levels of English, you need to know not only “tired” but all of these synonyms which express the same sentiment in slightly different ways or for slightly different contexts. Knowing each of these words, along with their nuances of meaning, is an order of magnitude more information than learning only one basic word, even though it only subtly improves your ability to express yourself.
Three months was more than enough time to master the components for basic conversational fluency: the language ability necessary to hold conversations, ask questions to strangers, understand and be understood. But it was far too little time to learn all the nuances that truly distinguish advanced speakers.
What is Our Spanish Ability Now?
I opted not to do a formal test of my Spanish abilities, such as the CEFR, which would have allowed me to officially declare my Spanish at a particular level. My reasoning was simply that preparing for a test offers somewhat different constraints than actual life, so I though preparing for the test might remove me from some of the travel aspects I wanted to enjoy.
I’d say my level is a decent intermediate level of Spanish, but saying this has widely different interpretations for different people. Instead, I’d prefer to describe my level of Spanish in everyday situations—the things I can do and the things I can’t yet—and let you and Spanish speakers judge the hours of unscripted recordings Vat and I have made (including an interview I did here at the 2 month mark).
Difficulties in Description
Part of the difficulty in describing ability is that, particularly for people who have never learned a language as an adult or only learned one in school, is that things which seem easy are often hard, and things which seem hard are often easy.
Take reading a book, for example. The first book I read was a biographical book on the history of various scientific figures. The book discussed many of the technical details of their important discoveries and follies. Arguably a somewhat difficult read in English.
However, this book was far easier than reading a trashy detective novel would have been in Spanish. Why? Because my existing understanding of science helps me make sense of the Spanish, but it doesn’t help with the detective novel.
Another example is in conversations. I could have a conversation about political philosophy or physics, but I’d still struggle through a low-brow comedy routine. Native speakers often confuse subject difficulty with linguistic difficulty, and in many cases the two are inversely correlated—the most silly jokes and simple puns require far higher levels of language skill to understand.
What I Can Do (and What I Can’t Yet)
I would describe my Spanish as being conversationally fluent. That means that I can more or less participate in any conversation on any subject and understand and be understood.
I don’t usually have difficulties in group conversations, if I know what is being discussed and I’m actively participating. However, joining other conversations midway is very difficult, and sometimes even impossible. If people aren’t talking to you, there aren’t any feedback cues to help you ease in.
Reading wasn’t a focus for me while I was here, but I read one and a half books in Spanish during my stay. The first was a translation of an English book on the history of scientific errors. The second was an Argentinian book on mathematics. Although my understanding isn’t always perfect, I can usually read a book without relying on a dictionary or translator.
Watching and listening are areas which I can sometimes achieve without problems (I watched the film La Piel que Habito without subtitles), but other times give me difficulties. The problem here is the same as joining conversations, without feedback cues, it can be hard to skip over words or phrases you don’t understand.
In terms of the actual experience, my Spanish was enough to make dozens of friends, go on dates and have extended conversations about practically any topic. At this point, I feel I could go to any city in Spain, make friends, work (although finding a job in Spain is a different matter) and study without significant issues.
From that perspective, I consider my Spanish to be a success. My original goal was to get to be conversational, to make friends and feel comfortable in the language. I feel I surpassed my initial expectations, and reached a level higher than I had thought would be possible for me in three months.
Vat also did quite well in Spanish. Although his grammatical understanding is a bit weaker than mine, I’d say we’re pretty much functionally equivalent. For comparison, here is a recording we did on one of our last days in Spain. Compare it to our Day 1 Spanish to hear the difference three months without English makes:
Brazil, Taiwan, Korea and Looking Forward
Now we’re getting packed to head to Brazil. This adds a new twist to the challenge because I’ve only done a couple hours of practice in Portuguese and Vat has done exactly zero.
Spain was a bit easier because we already had some of the basics in Spanish. Portuguese represents a new challenge, because we’ll have to be translating almost every word in the sentence until we get into the new rhythm of speaking.
Most of the improvements I wanted to make didn’t have to do with learning the language. Instead it was about adjusting my actual lifestyle so I could accomplish more during my stay.
In Spain, aside from socializing and tutoring, I didn’t have any hobbies or sports. I’m hoping to change that in Brazil, trying a few different activities which should hopefully also put me in real situations where I can use my Portuguese.
Another disadvantage was not spending enough time switching between Spanish and French. In Brazil, I hope to do regular tutoring on each of them, so that I don’t bury my Spanish underneath my Portuguese.
The system for learning was fairly relaxed here in Spain. I’m sure I could have improved my Spanish ability by grinding a lot more through exercises and classes, but I’m not sure it would have made the experience any better. Learning a bit slower, but far more enjoyably, is the right course of action much of the time.
I don’t expect that system to change too much for Portuguese. Because of its similarity to Spanish, I’m reasonably confident we can reach the same level of ability. That means I’d rather learn Portuguese through surfing or hiking with friends than spending more time doing grammar drills.
That system will probably have to undergo some changes when we get to Asia. Because Asian languages mean additional work, the more relaxed approach we took towards learning Spanish might have to change.
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
If you’re looking to learn another language—particularly one you may have studied a little in the past—I highly recommend opting for the no-English rule, at least for the first few weeks.
I found that many of the systems we use in non-immersion environments (flashcards, drills, software and courses) becomes unnecessary once you start living your life in the language. You learn vocabulary and grammar because you need to, not simply because it’s listed on a sheet of important terms to memorize.
Obviously immersion is easier in the environment you want to speak, but I want to stress that it isn’t necessary. A good 60% of the speaking I do, ends up being with my roommate Vat. Had we decided to speak to each other in Spanish while in Canada, I would have still spent most of my time speaking Spanish. Had we decided to speak English to each other in Spain, we would have spent most of our time speaking English. Immersion is a choice, not just an environment.
This is especially true when we meet other foreigners here learning Spanish. The majority of speakers who start with low ability, cluster together in groups of the same language so they can continue to speak in English, Italian, French or whatever language they came with. As a result, even though they are in an immersive environment, most of their time is spent speaking their native language.
In contrast, there are people like Benny Lewis and Khatzumoto who create semi-immersive environments where they speak only the language they want to learn, even though there may not be native speakers around them.
To end off, here’s an unscripted conversation I recorded with Benny Lewis where we discuss the language learning process through immersion in Spanish. The conversation wasn’t edited to remove any stalling points or mistakes (although it does have two cuts because the camera shut off automatically). This gives a good idea of my Spanish level after three months:
Note on subtitles: I did the subtitles myself to try to mirror some of the mistakes we were making in Spanish. Unfortunately the task proved very difficult. Both because translation makes representing some errors difficult (how do you represent a misspoken gender agreement in English, which lacks that grammatical feature?) and because transcription is almost never exact, even without translation. So, as you watch, you’ll notice some of the errors we make in our speech, but that this was an inevitable undersampling of our actual error rate.
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The biggest difficulty I had when learning Spanish was, perhaps surprisingly, speaking French. I had learned French to conversational fluency before learning Spanish. However, as my Spanish got better, I found it made speaking French much harder.
The problem got so bad, that after only a week or two in Spain, I could speak better Spanish than French. That’s not because my Spanish was great—I still couldn’t perform even basic functions like the past tense—but because every time I spoke French I’d stall on basic phrases and accidentally use Spanish words.
This, of course, presents a serious problem to someone like me who wants to learn multiple languages. What’s the point of learning a new language, if your previous one gets overwritten in the process?
What’s Actually Going On?
Given I’m going to be tackling four languages in a short period of time, this was definitely a problem I wanted to research. It turns out to be quite a common problem for adult learners of multiple languages.
My suspicion was that the French wasn’t lost, it was simply being dominated by my more recent Spanish. When I’d look for a word, the Spanish one came up and made it harder to retrieve the French word. Instead of being erased, my French had a layer of Spanish piled on which I had to dig through first.
Another bit of evidence with that hypothesis was that my ability to speak was impaired considerably more than my ability to understand French. This makes sense: when hearing a French word, I need to remember a connection between those exact sounds and a concept—something unrelated to my Spanish. However, when speaking, I need to go from a concept to a set of sounds, the correct responses in English and Spanish compete with French, making speaking harder.
For example, hearing the word “aussi” triggers my memory of the word “also” in French automatically. However when I try to say the concept of “also”, I get the word in English, obviously, but also the word in Spanish “tambien” which slows my ability to retrieve the French word somewhat.
I also found that my writing ability in French wasn’t impacted nearly as much. Again, this supports the same hypothesis because writing allows longer time to reflect over which word to use. Allowing longer reaction times meant I could push past my Spanish interference and get at the correct word, which would have broken my flow in a speaking situation.
Restoring my French
This hypothesis implied that I could restore my French simply by speaking French for an extended burst. That would bring those buried French linkages back to the surface so they wouldn’t have to compete with my Spanish.
I tested that hypothesis by taking a week to visit France and speak only in French (luckily only an inexpensive train ride away from Spain). And, despite the initially bumpy start, things became easier until by the end of the week until it was only a little worse than my prior ability. I made a few more mistakes and had some tip-of-the-tongue moments, but otherwise I regained my ability after only a few days.
Upon coming back to Spain, I found myself tripping a little bit in Spanish, but to a far lesser extent than I had noticed in French.
Observations and Switching Costs
Beyond my personal experience, I’ve also made some informal observations about how this problem seems to affect other language learners.
First, it seems to affect you less when your language ability is higher. My French was an upper intermediate level when I last left France, but not at the point of mastery. Learners I’ve met who speak at nearly bilingual levels don’t seem to suffer the overwrite problem as badly. I think this is probably because the correct words are imprinted so automatically that they are very difficult to bury beneath a new language.
Second it seems to affect people engaging in complete immersion more. Because I spoke almost entirely in Spanish for the better part of three months, I wasn’t learning how to switch between French and Spanish. Had I learned in an environment where I still needed to use French frequently, I would have learned that skill as my Spanish improved.
Thirdly, it seems more of an issue the closer the languages are. People who have learned to very different languages seem to suffer from interference less than two similar ones. This is particularly relevant to me because Portuguese, my upcoming language, is very similar to Spanish.
Finally, switching costs seem to diminish the more they are practiced. Believe it or not, my French actually suffered the most at the beginning of my trip in Spain, despite Spanish only having a small amount of time to form an impression. Even the small amount of practice in French I did seemed to make switching easier.
Potential Solutions to Language Switching Costs
I can’t say that I have this problem solved yet, but I do have some strategies I’m hoping to use in the next three countries.
Benny Lewis suggests some solutions here that are worth exploring: namely practicing switching and using your body language to reinforce the distinctions between languages.
My feeling is that part of the problem I faced with French was that I was learning Spanish, but I wasn’t learning the necessary skills to keep it separated from French. For example, I had learned “il y a” => “there is” when I learned French, and “hay” => “there is” in Spanish, but I hadn’t learned NOT to use “hay” => “there is” in my French.
This suggests that the best way to avoid switching costs is to practice switching. In some senses, this means “re-learning” a bit of your previous language in order to keep it separate from your current one.
My Plan for Portuguese, Chinese and Korean
Given I have three more languages to learn, and I certainly don’t want to end the trip with each language having replaced the one preceding it, I think practicing switching will be essential to maintain all of the languages.
Since switching costs seem higher in more similar languages, I think this means Brazil will be the country I’ll need to put the most emphasis on. My plan is to do an hour or two of tutoring every week in both French and Spanish, in addition to my Portuguese. That should give me practice switching while I learn the new language.
With Chinese and Korean this might not be possible—the amount of work to reach an acceptable conversational level might be too high. If so, this will mean switching costs will be something I’ll have to practice on when I return to Vancouver.
Fortunately, more similar languages are easier to learn, but harder to keep separated. That means that if Brazilian Portuguese is significantly easier than Chinese to learn, I’ll have more time to focus on maintaining that separation. Conversely, if Chinese is harder to learn, it might also be harder to mix up.
Does This Mean You Shouldn’t Learn More than One Language?
The decision to learn one language extremely well or a couple languages to conversational abilities depends on a lot of different factors. If you’re interested in traveling and speaking with locals, I feel a rough conversational ability can get you most of the way. If you’re looking to live and work in a single language, then mastery is often worth the investment.
True mastery also dwarfs switching costs in terms of time investment. A decent conversational ability is perhaps 10% of the work of reaching a mastery level. Switching costs may make learning multiple languages harder, but it is still considerably less work than mastery. But it does mean that, if you plan to learn multiple languages, that you should have a plan in place to keep them separate.
What are your thoughts on the switching problem? If you’ve learned more than one language before, did you experience moments where you got them confused? What was your solution? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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