My first 3 months with Spanish – My goals vs what I actually did

I talk a lot about my monthly goals over on my YouTube channel but have never written about it over here before. 

Therefore, I thought it would be useful to reflect and write about my first 3 months learning Spanish.

If you are just starting out learning a new language but not quite sure where to start, I hope this post will offer some ideas of a good way to get started, and how to set a series of progressive goals to push yourself without overstretching.

In this post you will read:

Why setting goals is important

What were my monthly goals during my first 3 months learning Spanish?

Did I achieve my goals, what did I actually do?

Tips for beginners starting out in a new language.

Why should you set goals?

 

Setting goals, in my opinion, is a massively underutilised tool when it comes to language learning. It helps you carve out a path and break the process down into smaller steps, but without goals, it can seem like you have an unscalable mountain to climb. 

It helps you do all of the planning in one go, keeps you on the straight and narrow, and makes sure you can keep on making progress in the language. 

Without setting goals, there is a big danger that can creep in. This can be summed in two words: Decision fatigue

But what is decision fatigue? Ever wonder why Mark Zuckerberg wears that same famous grey shirt every day? It's for the same reason. 

The actual process of making decisions and finding the right plan of action takes a lot of time and energy. Time and energy that could be better spent on other things, like actually learning a language! By taking out the need to make decisions and wearing the same grey shirt every day, this frees up your time and energy to do things that actually matter to you and make the whole process a lot easier.

By setting my goals ahead of time, I know exactly what I am doing and exactly what I am going to do ahead of time. All that is left for me to do, is to keep on plugging away and actually do the things I said I was going to do. 

 

Monthly Goals

 

In this next section, I will cover my monthly goals that I used to get started with Spanish and quickly progress onto interesting and authentic material.

Everyone's interests vary and what may be enjoyable for me won't necessarily be enjoyable for you. But, by being specific and showing you exactly what I did, I hope that you can find some inspiration to help set your goals and carve out your own path to fluency. 

 

Month 1 (Nov - 30 days)

All of my goals have one thing in common, they are purely input based. For me, input is the main driver of learning and as long as I keep on exposing myself to a variety of content in the language, it is impossible not to make progress across the board. Vocabulary, grammar, comprehension all improve simultaneously while you sit back and enjoy rich and interesting content.

Apart from when I first start, I can't understand interesting content, so what now?

Typically in month 1, I like to find any solid beginners course and work though. With Spanish, there are many courses to choose from, so I would simply pick one you like the look of. The main thing here, is to make sure to pick a course that is full of dialogues. 

Here is a video where I cover some of what I think are the best options available for Spanish beginners today: 

To find my Spanish resources page referenced in the above video, click here.

For me, I chose Spanish Uncovered. This course offers as compelling a story you can hope to get from a beginners course, with good length chapters and clear audio.

I aimed to complete 1 chapter each day, with a total of 20 chapters, and then leave 2 days for review. This gave me a total of 22 days.

As this would give me a solid base in the language, I figured the next best thing I can do is to improve my vocabulary. Therefore, I also bought a book of 8 Spanish short stories for beginners.

I aimed to complete four out of eight of the stories in this first month, giving myself 2 days per story.

This gave me a total of 30 days making up the rest of my time for the month, my month 1 goals are summarised below:  

 

Spanish Uncovered (20 chapters) - 22 days

(4/8) Short Spanish Stories (8 days):

3. El Caballero (Knight) (2 days)

6. Ferrg, El Dragón (Dragon) (2 days)

2. La Criatura (Creature) (2 days)

7. Tierras Desconocidas (Unknown Lands) (2 days)

Watch Extra

Extra is a sitcom-style TV show made for college Spanish students with lots of body language, Spanish subtitles and the language isn't too fast either. I figured starting off in Spanish would be the perfect time to enjoy this cheesy but funny sitcom as a way to ease myself into an immersion environment.

So what did I actually do with month 1?

As far as my focused study time went, everything pretty much went off without a hitch. The one that caused me the most trouble was actually extra.

And the reason might not be what you are expecting. It wasn't because the show was too hard, too complicated or even too long. The whole series is only 13 20 minute episodes long! 

The reason is simply because I got distracted. My girlfriend had just bought me Skyrim on steam and I also managed to find my favourite anime (Hajime No Ippo) dubbed in Spanish completely for free on Youtube.

Where I said I was going to going to be watching extra I spent my time running around as Sangre De Dragón (dragonborn) slaying dragons and screaming "eso es Ippo!" at my TV.

An important note, wherever possible I try to align my immersion with my more focused time. Because of my time playing Skyrim, I decided to pick all of the fantasy-based stories to read first. 

But having said that, I did eventually complete my goal of watching Extra with a bit of a binge towards the end of the month.

 

Month 2 (Dec - 31 days)

With my first month out the way I finally started to get a decent grounding after having finished Spanish Uncovered. Therefore, it was time to push onto the next stage.

For my month 2, I decided to select an intermediate course, again, built around dialogues. The one I chose,Spanish Conversations, is split into 20 Chapters all revolving around story.

Again, taking a similar approach to before I gave myself 22 days, going through 1 chapter a day with 2 days for review at the end.

After that, I decided to go through the rest of the four stories I hadn't read yet from my short story book. I gave myself 1 day per story, and from then on trying to ease myself into native content.

Thanks to the new feature that allows you to import YouTube videos into LingQ, I figured now is the perfect time to import short and interesting videos to study for the rest of the month. I hoped, this would broaden my vocabulary and help me start getting used to native speakers at full speed.

The break down of my month 2 goals is shown below: 

 

Spanish Conversations (20 chapters) (22 days)

 (4/8) Short Spanish Stories (4 days):

1. La Paella Loca (1 day)

5. El Cofre (1 day)

4. El Reloj (1 day)

8. Laura, La Mujer Invisible (1 day)

 

YouTube Videos:  

History of Mexico (3:01) (1 day)

10 things you probably didnt know about Skyrim (7.56) (2 days)

6 tips to learn any language faster (6.35) (1 days) 

Veganism in 2015 vs 2018 (7.17) (Conversations review days, 2 days) 

 

Month 3 (Jan - 31 days)

Going into my third month of learning Spanish having now completed Conversations, I started to pick up a bit of speed. Now, is the time to throw away the stabilisers and start cycling through the masses of native level content that Spanish has to offer.

To do this, I decided to start by reading a book. But with a relatively small vocabulary, where do I start? 

In the end, I chose The Linguist written by Steve Kaufmann (available on LingQ completely for free). The book is split into 63 chapters, all of which are very short, and the book comes with full audio.

What's more, is that because this is a non-fiction book about a very specific topic, language learning. This limits the range of vocabulary used quite significantly which makes it a great choice for anyone looking to start reading authentic content in their target language.

In general, I think that non-fiction books tend to be a lot easier to understand than fiction. Where a non-fiction book will try to simply get a point across, fiction books try to use very poetic and artistic language to draw from all their life experiences to paint the most colourful and vivid picture they can for the reader. The end result is very dense language, that is very hard to understand for a learner. Also, because this is a translated book and not in the original language, this too lends itself to be more easily understood by the learner.

Additionally, to keep on the theme of language learning and to give me a bit of a break between books, I gave myself the goal of going through a TedxTalk I found on YouTube on the theme of language learning.

 

Here are my goals for month 3:

 

The Linguist - LingQ (63 chapters) - 2 to 3 Chapters a day (30 days)

How to learn a language and contribute to society (10:42) (1 day)

 

So to my surprise, The Linguist was nowhere near as difficult as I had originally thought. Due to the huge amount of repetition across the book, short chapters and engaging content, I found myself finishing the book in just under 20 days. Much less than I had originally planned. 

From there, I went through the TedxTalk as planned and set off to start next months book ahead of time, to read Leafstorm and step into the exciting world of fiction.

This turned out to be rather more difficult than I had first anticipated, which lead to an overall very hazy understanding of what actually happened in the book. But more on that later.

For my next post in 3 months time, I will go over the next stage of my learning and how to fight your way through the seemingly endless intermediate plateau, come out the other side (hopefully) having successfully and enjoyably learnt a new language. 

 

General tips and advice for beginners 

 

Starting out learning a new language can be very intimidating, especially if this is your first time. Hopefully, you can now see that with the setting and accomplishment of a series of short goals becoming progressively more difficult, this can help bring structure to your language learning and help keep you on the right path. 

This is just what I did in my opening months learning Spanish, and not what you have to do. The important part is not the deadlines nor the materials I chose but rather the ability to break down a big task into smaller steps and keep improving. If you can manage this, by setting progressive and attainable goals, then you will be well on your way to being fluent in Spanish before you know it.

Top myths in language learning – part 2

There are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to language learning, some more damaging than others. Therefore, today I am continuing with the second blog post in my series about top language learning myths.

 

I need someone to teach me the language

Whenever the topic of language learning comes up people usually ask my why I wanted to learn Cantonese. When I mention that my girlfriend is from Hong Kong a lot of people react in the same way.

"ohh, so your girlfriend is from Hong Kong, now it all makes sense. She must be a really good teacher"

The idea that your partner or your friend should teach you a language, let alone the idea that they are obligated to is something I always have a hard time wrapping my head around.

I mean really think about this for a second. Think how many new words there are to learn, how many hundreds if not thousands of hours of input you need to be able to get yourself up to a decent level. Now imagine if the only source you had for all of this is one single person.

This would take forever to learn the language, assuming you even learn anything at all. If you look at most successful polyglots out there today, they all have one thing in common. They say language learning is a auto-didactic process. This means that they don't rely on any one person to teach them, they themselves put in the time.

You don't need an expensive tutor or a girlfriend to help you learn a language, all you need to do is put in the time yourself. Listen and read basic material, and then ramp up the difficulty from there moving onto progressively more difficult and interesting topics.

When it comes time to speak, of course you need to find someone to practice with, but the bulk of the learning happens from input. This means as long as you have an internet connection, you can learn a lot more from your bedroom in most cases than you ever could by waiting for your partner or friend to teach you.

 

I just can't learn a second language

This is something I hear a lot from "I am too old to learn a language" or "I just don't have a language talent like you do".

This is by far one of the most damaging mindsets you can have. Defeating yourself before you have even started. Lucky for us, you don't need to be a rocket scientist, memory expert or child to learn a language. Anyone at any age can learn any language, it's just a matter of time and exposure. Sure, some people might be faster than others, but it doesn't really matter. The only thing that matters, is that if you stick with it for a long enough period of time, then you will learn. The only way for you to fail essentially is to give up!

 

I don't have time to learn a new language

Have you got kids or a family to look after? Full time job? Other commitments you need to look after? Just don't have the time to learn a language?

It is more about making time for yourself than having it. We all live busy lives in this day and age more then ever. We all have friends, families and jobs to take into consideration. The key here is being smart and about prioritisation.

If you have other things going on for you right now that you prioritise, then that´s absolutely fine. But assuming you do actually want to learn a language in this decade, then you need to make language learning a priority.

Once you do that, you will be surprised at how much time you can create for yourself. Between pockets of dead time throughout the day, making most of commute and travel time as well as carving out regular focused time each day to focus on your learning, the minutes soon add up to hours and before you know it you have already managed to scrape together enough time to be able to start having your first conversations. 

If you start small and easy, make sure you can commit every day and then once you are comfortable you can always keep adding more on top later. 

Personally for me, to make sure nothing gets in the way I like to do my focused learning first thing in the morning after I wake up. That way I am clear headed, fresh and completely free of distractions, and all I need to do in return is get out of bed a little bit earlier. 

 

Conclusion

 

These are just a few of the myths floating around when it comes to language learning. If you have any more that you want to share, or you disagree with any of the ones I have on this list then please leave me a comment and let me know.

Top myths in language learning – part 1

Whenever the topic of language learning comes up, usually it is not long before some myths start to follow.

Sometimes these feel more like excuses than myths or anything that would actually prevent them from learning and range from reasonable and fairly well grounded, to going completely against what the literature has been saying for the past few decades.

In this post, I want to go over some of the more common myths that I have heard relating to language learning, dispel them and offer some concrete advice in return.

 

The only/best way to learn a language is to live abroad

This is by far the most common one I hear out of all of them. Almost every time the topic of language learning comes up, a few sentences later someone always says "If only I could go to where the language is spoken, I would be fluent in no time".

Sometimes I feel like this is more of a romantic fairy-tail than reality. Imagining flying off into the clouds, to a distant land and somehow absorbing an entire language through osmosis.

So what does that mean for the rest of us? If we aren't prepared to pack up our bags and move, we should just give up on even trying?

Lucky for you this is far from the case. This might of been true pre-internet, or before we lived in such a multicultural society, but nowadays you can learn a language wherever you are in the world right from your laptop.

Assuming speaking practice is what you need then there are countless services online, free and paid, you can use to get the speaking practice you need in order to get yourself to fluency. Not only that, if you live in a major city, you have access to people from all around the world right at your doorstep!

Just last weekend I was hanging out with some of my friends from Hong Kong here in Bristol, and spend the whole Sunday chatting in Cantonese and learning (failing) at how to play Mahjong.

But let's take this back a second, if we could go to the country where our language is spoken, that would be ideal right?

Well yes and no.

If we are already at a comfortable intermediate level then more exposure and speaking is what we need Going to the country offers a great way to surround and immerse with a new language, and practice it on a daily basis.

If however, you are a complete beginner, then going to the country where the language is spoken straight off the bat may not be the best idea. Moving is very stressful, you have to deal with a new culture, new city, moving house, visas, bills and all of this in a language you haven't even started learning yet?

This whole experience can be very very stressful, and you will most likely just end up finding the other expats living in that area, spend your whole time with them and live inside your English speaking bubble the whole time.

It doesn't matter if you are surrounded with the language, the fact that it is too high level for you makes the input incomprehensible. And if you can't make out what is being said then this is not an efficient/useful way to learn.

And this provides a good segway into my next point.

 

We all need to watch TV/Movies in our target language

Whenever you talk to a native speaker about their own language, they almost always say the exact same thing.

All you need to do is watch more TV, you'll be fluent in no time.

Sometimes they even go as far to say as it's ok to put the English subtitles on, once you watch enough you will start to understand and then you can just turn the subtitles off afterwards.

This is terrible advice!

Like with the last point, movies and TV for a beginner learner of a new language are extremely hard to understand. If you try to watch without subtitles you will be quickly lost, bored and fed up.

But if you watch with subtitles then you will spend the whole time reading English and not even paying attention to what is coming into your ears.

So what then?

Look, I'm not saying TV/movies are always bad. Used as a supplement around your other studies to increase contact with the language and the culture, sure, that is an excellent idea!

At the intermediate and advanced stages where you can understand enough to pick up the plot, go ahead, spend whole weeks binge-watching TV shows if you want to.

But as a beginner learner, we need a different strategy.

It is very important that when we learn a language, we pick material that is at the right level for us, and that we have some way of understanding. This is what is known as comprehensible input.

If you want to start with native materials, then I recommend looking on Youtube. You can find a lot of very short videos, some even less than 1 minute long, with subtitles in your target language.

Search the CC for a topic of interest, and download the subtitles for a transcript to the entire video. Once you have done that, you can take your time and read slowly through the transcript looking up all the unknown words before you listen, and with enough repetition of listening and reading, eventually, even the hardest text becomes comprehensible.

Another good alternative is to start off with a good beginners course based on dialogues like I did with Cantonese.

Then if you still want to watch TV on the side, start with something that you are already familiar with and has a relatively simple plot. Then, if they are available, put the subtitles on in your target language and just try and enjoy as much as you can picking out the little bits of vocabulary you actually recognise.

A good example of this for me was to watch my childhood favourite anime dubbed into Cantonese, dragon ball. I have watched it enough times to know the plot, and with all the fight scenes it's entertaining even if I don't have a clue what they are saying!

 

We need to master the basics

This is something that I think has partly been drilled into us from our days at school. We spend hours learning words and structures to try and master them and pin them down so we will never forget them.

It seems to be every week, that a new course comes out "master the basics".

Through personal experience I have realised is that this is quite far from the truth. We never "master" anything. The idea that we need to stop and master everything before we move on will hamper you in the long run and lead to you spending way too long with your beginner resources.

In reality, some words we remember and some we forget. After enough time passes eventually we will forget everything. So we relearn it, and relearn it until eventually it starts to stick.

Where this is damaging is when we are so called "mastering the basics" we are not learning anything new. We are simply trying to pin down the few words that we have learned to try and stop us forgetting, which we innevitably will anyway.

However, if you move onto harder & harder content, all of the so called basics will get so much repitition in natural language, that they will stick over time. All this while being exposed to new words as you go. Every now and again when you forget you can always go back and refresh in the future.

 

Need to master the grammar first

Similar to "mastering the basics", another common belief is that we have to master and learn grammar rules.

Typically in school, a teacher will tell us a rule, and then have us practice it in production over and over again until we eventually get it right.

The fact that teaching is still done in this way is surprising, especially considering we have had research suggesting we learn in directly the opposite way. Something we now call comprehensible input.

In addition, learning and understanding grammar can be difficult in our mother tongue, let alone a language that is completely alien to us.

I always use the metaphor of trying to start with the inside of the jigsaw. Sure you can get a few pieces linked together, but you are making it a lot harder for yourself without putting all of the edges in place first.

If on the other hand, we expose ourselves to lots of input and natural language, we gradually build up our base and comprehension. We learn patterns through repeated exposure building up a natural sense of the most frequent words and structures, simply because we have heard them so many times.

 

 Conclusion

 

There are a lot of myths floating around today about language learning, way too many to be covered by a single post.

Therefore, in the coming weeks I will release a part 2 to address some more of the most common myths and misdirection when it comes to language learning advise.

Is the myth you were thinking about not on this list? Stay tuned for the coming weeks to see if it ends up in part 2, or leave me a comment below this post to let me know!

How to improve your focus and find more time

The more we can focus during our study time the better we can learn and the more information we will retain.

The ability to be able to sit down, concentrate and just get on with it is something that is getting harder and harder. Especially with the advent of phones, laptops, tablets and the like built to send you popups, adds and notification after notification.

It can be so hard to concentrate with all this technology around us, but if we can, this will accelerate our learning and help us reach our goals even faster.

 

How to concentrate

The first piece of advice I would give is to carve out a designated time to learn the language every day.

This can be 30 minutes, it can be 2 hours, just go with whatever time you have and make sure it's sustainable in the long term.

Once you do something at the same time EVERY DAY, it starts to become a habit. The habit becomes automatic and procrastination stops altogether.

If like me you have a short attention span, or at least I did when I started, it is best to start with a small time slot of half an hour or so. Then the more experienced you get, and the less foreign the language becomes, you can start to increase the amount you do each day.

For me, I like to dedicate 45 minutes to an hour before work every day, between 7 and 8 am, and then another 45 minutes to an hour when I get back from work.

First thing in the morning really is ideal. I wake up and my phone has it's internet turned off. I have managed to get into the habit of not even looking at my phone until after I get my work done because as soon as I do, the floodgates open and before I know it 15 minutes are gone.

This leads me to my next point, turn off all distractions.

If you are using a book or physical resource that doesn't require your phone or laptop, then turn them off! Don't even give yourself the opportunity to look at them, just get away from them all together.

If however, like me, you store all your audio on your phone for ease of access, then you can't just lock away your phone. I like to use an app called Speater (Clone replayer works for Android), which sets the audio or track I am listening to or studying on loop. Then once it's on loop, I turn my phone into flight mode and leave the audio playing and don't touch it.

While it's not quite as good as getting rid of your phone altogether, I find that not having to reset the audio track and find the right place every time really makes everything much much easier, and helps me to focus and just get on with things.

 

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is a time management technique to increase your focus and get more done during your study time.

It works off the principles of the brain operating in two modes, the focused mode and the diffuse mode.

When in the focus mode we can concentrate on problem-solving and getting through complex tasks, and this uses the frontal cortex part of our brain.

However, if you come across a new idea or concept or just get fatigued we can shortly become stuck. This is when the diffuse mode comes into play.

In the diffuse mode, the ideas and concepts we were working on before subconsciously bounce around the rest of our brain forming links with past experiences and memories. This means that when not concentrating our brain is still working in the background the entire time.

Switching between these two modes is the best way to increase your focus and your problem-solving ability and the Pomodoro Technique utilizes this.

Let's take the time frame of one hour as an example.

First, you study for 30 minutes, listening and reading to a difficult text and trying to make heads or tails of it.

Then after 30 minutes are up, have a 5-minute break. The key here is to rest completely, or at least use a different part of your brain to what you were using before. If you turn on twitter or facebook in this time, then not only will this make you lose focus after the 5 minutes is up, but it will also probably take you well over the 5-minute mark.

Sometimes I even just set a 5-minute alarm and take a small nap on my bed while I wait.

Then get back to studying for the remaining of the 25 minutes.

As I said before, the trick is to try and really focus during the study time, clear yourself of distractions. Then during the breaks try and take your mind off it completely and do something unrelated or just relax.

This is where my trick comes in. Usually, around my house, I have lots of 5-minute chores that I put off for way longer than I like to admit. But these are remedial, and can easily be done with little effort, so what I like to do now is to mix in the Pomodoro technique with chores around the house to help me get focused and stop procrastinating in other areas of my life as well.

 

A practical example

 

Let's give an example of me waking up in the morning, just getting out the shower and having eaten my breakfast, and then sitting down to study.

For this example, I will say I am a beginner learner of Spanish and am using a dialogue from my beginner's textbook.

7:00 - 7:10 - Listen to the dialogue's audio many times over and try to understand as much as possible.

7:10 - 7:20 - Listen and read to the text at the same time, try to follow along and pick out the sounds I couldn't with just my ears

7:20 - 7:25 - Wash up my dishes from breakfast

7:25 - 7:45 - Read through the text slowly, look up all of the unknown words in either the glossary of the textbook or in a dictionary. Try to read over a few times.

7:45 - 7:50 - Brush my teeth

7:50 - 8:00 - Read and listen to the text many times over, try and understand everything

8:00 - 8:10 - listen to the audio by itself and see if I can still understand everything. If not refer back to the text.

 

Conclusion

 

Notice how in the last example, not only are we combining the science behind language acquisition (comprehensible input) with the science behind how our brain works to help us concentrate. On top of this, we are adding in small activities or chores in the break time to help free up more time later.

And remember, one of the most important things you can do is to turn off all possible distractions and study at the same time every day.

This will help ingrain habits that will make your learning more and more automatic and sustainable, which will inevitably lead to success in the long term.

Did you have problems in the past with focus like me? How did you get around them, or are you still dealing with them now? Let me know in the comments below!

Intensive vs extensive reading

Reading, in any language, is one of the most powerful and efficient ways to increase our vocabulary. Even in our own native language, If you think about those with the largest vocabulary it is always the people who read a lot.

Reading is not only good for improving your vocabulary but also helps improve your grammar and solidify existing knowledge.

When reading in a foreign language, most of us do intensive reading. However, in order to progress to a high level, you need to know how to utilise both extensive and intensive reading.

 

What is intensive and extensive reading?

 

Intensive reading, as the name suggests, is short and focused. The goal is to take a short text and understand everything.

This entails picking a difficult text, reading it many times over and looking up every single word. The aim here is to try and understand everything in great detail.

By its very nature, the time spend on intensive reading is very short and very focused. Typically half an hour to an hour. You should be sat upright where you can concentrate, free of distractions, and pick a text short enough so that you can read it many times over and go into great detail.

Extensive reading is the polar opposite of this, reading for pleasure. Pick texts just above your level, and expose yourself to large volumes of content. As the texts will be much simpler and closer to your level, this should require much less mental strain on your part and you should be able to read for longer periods of time.

You can be in whatever position you want, just make sure you are comfortable. Sat on the sofa, laying down on your bed, really anything is fine.

The trick here is finding compelling content at the right level. This allows you to focus on the content itself without having to look up much or any unknown words and then you can try to figure out the rest through context.

 

Choosing a text for extensive reading

 

The biggest obstacle when extensive reading is trying to find material that is both at the right level, and compelling. This is especially true in the beginner stages.

If chosen correctly it should be at the right level to get you totally immersed in the story, while at the same time still having some unknown words. This allows you to figure out the rest through context and expand your vocabulary as you go.

Some experts say you should aim for 90%+ comprehension and others state you should aim as high as 98%! But what does this even look like?

To put this into context, this is only having 1 out of every 50 words unknown.

Lucky for us over at sinoplace, they have texts of English with nonsense words added in to get a feel of what 98, 95 and 80% comprehension actually feels like.

 

98%:

 

"You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, 'I move papers around.' It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…"

 

 

Here you can see a few nonsense words have been added in, but as the percentage is so low, you can take an educated guess at what they might mean. The nonsense words don't affect your overall comprehension and the whole text still reads pretty smoothly.

Next, let's take a look at 95%:

 

 

"In the morning, you start again. You shower, get dressed, and walk pocklent. You move slowly, half- awake. Then, suddenly, you stop. Something is different. The streets are fossit. Really fossit. There are no people. No cars. Nothing. 'Where is dowargle?' you ask yourself. Suddenly, there is a loud quapen—a police car. It speeds by and almost hits you. It crashes into a store across the street! Then, another police car farfoofles. The police officer sees you. 'Off the street!' he shouts. 'Go home, lock your door!' 'What? Why?' you shout back. But it’s too late. He is gone."

 

Here you can see that you can still get the overall meaning of what is happening but some of the detail is beginning to get lost.

Next, let's look at 80%:

 

"'Bingle for help!' you shout. 'This loopity is dying!' You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. '…if you get this…' Evie says. '…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…' Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. 'Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…' BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…"

 

Now with 80%, you can still get the gist of what is being said, but almost all of the detail is completely lost. Sure, you can guess what "joople" probably means phone, and "bingle" means dial, but it's almost impossible to try and figure out all of the unknown words through context.

 

Different people have different tolerant levels of noise. Some of us hate it, while others can tolerate a higher level of ambiguity to be able to fight your way through interesting content.

Based on the sample texts above you should have a pretty good idea of how much noise you can tolerate.

 

Intensive vs Extensive reading

 

With intensive reading, because the aim is to understand as much as possible, the text is kept short and you have to read over the same passage many times.

As a result of this approach, this means that you can tackle content with a much higher percentage of unknown words. This allows you to tackle much more interesting content at an earlier stage in your learning.

Additionally, when we first start out in a language we are on 100% unknown words apart from a few cognates. This means that the only option we have is intensive reading until we build up our comprehension to a level where extensive reading becomes possible.

The downside to this, is that because you are only reading short texts, you aren't exposed to a lot of language. You go over the same structures many times which is great for when you first start, but the better you get diminishing returns start to kick in.

The words you encounter become less and less frequent and this sort of focused study becomes less and less useful, unless you have a specific area or niche you want to improve in.

This is where extensive reading comes into play. With extensive reading, you expose yourself to massive amounts of language. Because of this, you are exposed to large amounts of new vocabulary and structures as well as re-consolidating the older ones.

Also, as you are just reading for pleasure this becomes a much more natural and enjoyable way to learn.

One drawback is that reading can be very exhausting and difficult when first starting out in a new language.

If the amount of unknown words is too high, then you can't figure out the rest from context. This means that in order to be successful in extensive reading you need to be at a much higher level. In the start, you simply don't know enough words, so intensive is your only option.

Then the larger the base you have in the language, you can start to shift your focus from intensive towards extensive reading.

 

How to get started with extensive reading

 

As I said before when you first start out intensive reading is the best option, until we have built up a base in the language. But once we reach an intermediate stage what is the best way to get started?

The first thing you could try is to read simple stories. These can be graded readers, short stories, novella with lots of dialogue, or even comic books and manga.

Another great thing you can do is choose something you already know the plot of. For example, if you are learning Japanese and you have watched the anime Dragonball, a good choice would be to read the manga version as you already know the plot.

Another tip is to read online as much as you can. Reading on the computer, especially in languages like Chinese or Japanese, makes looking up new words a lot easier. This keeps you entranced in the story as opposed to being glued to the dictionary, and lets you enjoy more difficult content through extensive reading at an earlier stage.

Another option I have tried before is to read the first few chapters intensively. When you start out you need to get used to the authors writing style, place and character names, and any niche vocabulary. For example, if you were to read Harry Potter, there is a pretty good chance you won't know words like wand, potion or spell.

Going through the first few chapters intensively you will learn a lot of new vocabulary and themes that will keep on recurring for the rest of the series and make the transition into extensive reading much easier.

 

conclusion

 

Both intensive and extensive reading are both vital parts of language learning and you need to know how and when to use both in order to advance quickly in a language.

For intensive reading, this is best used either at the initial stages in your learning when there are simply too many new words, or if there are really specific topics you want to learn about.

Extensive reading starts to come into its stride at the intermediate level and beyond. The better you get, the more useful extensive reading becomes and the more interesting content you can access.

Extensive reading is great because it is the most natural and fun way to read, as well as exposing yourself to a tonne of new vocabulary and grammar structures at the same time.

What have you been doing more of intensive or extensive reading? Which do you prefer, and why? Let me know in the comments below!

Why are the characters so small?

When reading books or manga it can seem like the characters are so small, just a black dot on the page. Any effort to decode what’s actually written can leave our brains scrambled and our eyes sore. So how is it we are even supposed to be able to make out what it looks like, let alone read it.

 

First, before we move onto this I want to take a look at our own native language first, in my case English.

 

Defining the problem

Why is it that when reading characters or letters of a similar size in English it causes us no problems at all?

 

Is this because the letters in the English alphabet are less complex than the characters used in Chinese?

 

This may be part of the reason, but what I found early on is that characters that I struggled to make out, native speakers could read effortlessly and looked at me with a confused expression as they stated how clear everything looks.

 

So this would point the finger at a different underlying problem.

 

First, let’s take a look at this quote from a research paper at Cambridge University:

 

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

 

Notice how the letters are completely jumbled up, yet for native speakers of English, this is still incredibly easy to read. How come?

 

As it states in the quote:

 

“This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole”

 

We have become so accustomed to reading English through thousands of hours of exposure across the entirety of our life, that we don’t need to read every little detail to make out what is being said. All we need is for our eyes to pick up the gist of what is said, and our brain can fill in the rest for us.

 

When it comes to learning a second language, we lack this mass exposure over years and years that we have in our native tongue and this can cause a lot of problems.

 

How does this apply to me as a learner of Chinese?

 

Similar to how our brain can fill in the gaps of jumbled up words in English, with native speakers of Chinese their brains fill in the gaps and details in the characters that are too small for the eye to pick up alone.

 

But as learners of Chinese we don’t have this advantage, so what can we do?

The first thing may seem obvious but just read more. We all get caught up in intensive reading and trying to understand every little detail. Extensive reading, mass exposure to the language for pleasure, helps our brain slowly get used to the language and the more we read the easier it will become.

 

Not only will this help the characters become clearer, it will also massively improve your grammar and vocabulary as well.

 

However, this is a catch 22, we need to read more so we can make out the characters clearly, but we struggle to read because we can’t make out the characters clearly. So what can we do?

 

How to read as a beginner

 

The biggest advice I can give you on how to read Chinese extensively as a beginner is to make it as easy as possible for yourself. In order to do this, avoid hard copies of books and do as much reading as possible on your computer.

 

This is for two reasons. Firstly, if the characters are too small to make out you can simply zoom in or increase the font size. Then, as you get more accustomed to reading in Chinese you can decrease the size of the font incrementally as you go.

 

The second reason for this is that it gives you access to online dictionaries. Using a program like LingQ, or by using popup dictionaries on your web browser this makes looking up new words incredibly quick and allows you to manage more difficult content at a much earlier stage in your learning.

 

One thing I like to do is to save chapters of my book into an app called Pleco on my phone. This way I can use the Chinese reader in the app to easily read Chinese on my phone wherever I go.

How can we speed up the process?

 

The reason native speakers don’t have this problem and we as learners do is that their brain knows what the characters are saying just by the first glimpse. We as learners don’t have this advantage while we are reading in general. However, if we know what the characters are before we read them then our brain can do a lot of the legwork for us and we can get used to reading smaller characters.

 

First read through with an increased font size on the computer looking up the words you don’t know. When you come back to read the same text, this time at a normal size, as you already know what is being said you are able to fill in the gaps a lot easier.

 

I have even known learners when using hard copies use a magnifying glass on their first read. Then going back over it again, without the magnifying glass, is a lot easier as you already know what you are reading.

Another solution you can try is to take a clear picture of the word or phrase you am struggling with on your phone or tablet, and then zoom in on the picture so see what is being said.

 

However, one of my favourite solutions is to take advantage of the settings in Anki to get used to reading smaller and smaller texts. Anki is an SRS flashcards app. If you take my approach of sentence mining you will have a bank of sentences inside Anki which you can practice reading every day.

 

The font scale ranges from 0.1 times right the way up to 2 times the normal font size. You can change this in the settings from the flashcard viewer on your device as shown by the pictures below:

When I first started this process I found it so difficult to read anything, so I had the font scale maxed out all the way at x2. Then as I got more accustomed to reading I slowly decreased the scale lower and lower in my daily flashcards and eventually now I do my daily reviews with a font scale of 0.8.

 

The great thing about this approach is because the sentences are in your SRS, you are seeing the same characters over and over again giving your brain lots of opportunities for the repeated exposure it needs in order to fill in the gaps when reading.

 

Additionally, you can alter the font size in a matter of seconds whenever you want to allow easy adaptations if we suddenly decide it's too difficult to make out.

 

Conclusion

 

All of these methods are to help our brain figure out what is being said without having to read every single detail. However, the main underlying factor as to why we have so much trouble with a new script as opposed to our native language is just that, it's new.

 

In the beginning, reading will be very alien and difficult to you, and that's completely normal. This is why I would recommend starting out with more intensive reading in the early stages. Read over the same page or article many times and each time you go through it will get easier and easier.

 

Still, do some extensive reading to simple and short stories, and make sure to read on an electronic device so you can easily look up new words and enjoy the story.

 

Gradually as you get more comfortable reading Chinese you can shift your focus away from intensive reading and more onto extensive reading. Read large volumes of material for pleasure using electronic aids to make things as easy as possible.

 

This way you can enjoy your study and keep your attention on the story or book you are reading.

 

If you stick with it what seemed fuzzy and bizarre before long will start to become familiar and comfortable, and your reading will progress as you go.

 

Have you had to deal with a new writing system where you just couldn't make out what was being said? How did you deal with this problem? Let me know in the comments below!