Hangout about Language-Learning

Do you have questions about language-learning for which you’d like to know the answer? I just did a Hangout for participants of the Add1Challenge where they could ask all kinds of questions related to their learning.

Watch the recording of this video call by clicking on the video below.

Haven’t heard of the Add1Challenge before? It’s a 90-day challenge with the goal of having a 15-minute conversation in your target language at the end. I’m studying Hebrew and the challenge is helping me make incredible progress – will give you an update on Monday. Anyway, I recommend the Add1Challenge to anyone who seriously wants to improve. The next batch will start in a couple weeks. Check it out!

Full disclosure: if you do join the Add1Challenge based on a link from this page, I will get a bonus, but I would recommend it anyway, because I’m deriving so much value from it.

How I Spent 700+ Hours on Languages Last Year

After publishing my Summary of 2014, a lot of people have been asking me how I managed to spend 749 hours on languages last year. This is my answer.

To achieve a goal like this, you need three things: tracking, obstinence and inventiveness.


There is no way to achieve any planned goal if you’re unable to say where you are now and where you’re going. I’ve been tracking myself since the end of 2009. I’m not a fervent believer of the Quantified Self, and generally not a fan of numbers, but I do believe in tracking the metrics that I want to improve.

I have extreme liberty in what I do and when (freelancing from home, so no set 9 to 5 schedule), which also means extreme temptation to procrastinate – and I don’t want that. I have a lot of goals in life and procrastinating won’t help any of them. So I started tracking the relevant metrics. My key interests are:

  • How many hours did I spend on each language? The brain often remembers language study to have been more recent than it actually was, so by looking at the spreadsheet, I have a more accurate view of what actually happened. If I see that I haven’t spent much time on a certain language recently, then I don’t get demotivated by not having made any progress. I’d often decide to do more.
  • How many hours did I spend productively? I. e. doing work, housework, paperwork, reading, learning, studying languages, playing Go (which I deem important for myself) and working out. I don’t particularly care about tracking these hours in detail, but I care about maintaining / achieving high overall productivity.

So I created a beautiful elaborate spreadsheet, which I use to track not just language hours but also other indicators of productivity.
screenshot of my language-learning spreadsheet

You can get a copy of my 2015 spreadsheet as of yesterday at WORKING_2015_forshare.ods  . If you want to use this kind of spreadsheet to track yourself, I recommend the simplified version at WORKING_2015_simple_forshare.ord , which assumes less languages and requires no customization. (Ignore the “Half-hours in 7-day average”, it won’t work during the first week of 2015 but will be fine afterwards)

The basic idea of these spreadsheets is that you can quickly enter your hours for the relevant date (actually I enter everything as half-hours due to the way I study), you only enter everything once and the computer does all the calculations. In the two right-most columns you’ll see your productive time for that day and in the header you’ll see overall statistics for each language / your total study time. The best feature is that if you enter your goal hours, you will see whether you are on track for that goal, given how many days are left in the year. This is the part that says “Total lang hours: 7.8, Should be > 10” at the top left in the above image. If I bring the number up to 10 today, I’m on track.

My total language study time has never been more than 712 hours since I started logging it, until last year:
2010: 523 hours
2011: 712 hours
2012: 569 hours
2013: 643 hours
2014: 749 hours

I recommend setting a goal that is equal to or slightly above your previous record, so that’s why I set 700 hours as my goal for 2014 (and now 750 hours for 2015) and my spreadsheet let me know if I was on track for that – very often, that indicator convinced me to study more. Or I’d check the French column, find it was completely empty as far as the eye could see, and decide to do something in French. I would not have hit so many hours without this spreadsheet.


Opening this spreadsheet is the first thing I do when I switch on my computer and it is the last thing I close. You have to develop this habit, otherwise it won’t work. As far as habits go, it’s really well-chosen: opening this spreadsheet is not “work” and it’s so fast that you don’t have the desire to procrastinate on it. However, once you see the columns and numbers and what you need to do in order to not fall behind your goal, you are probably motivated to study languages. 🙂

I found that being able to enter a number and watch my totals go up is satisfying. I sometimes study 10 minutes of Anki just in order to be able to put another 0.33 into the spreadsheet somewhere.

Scheduling is also really helpful: get on iTalki and schedule some language classes with an online teacher. Once you’ve scheduled something, cancelling it is more work than attending, so your laziness works in favour of your language-learning plans. In this past year I’ve also taken advantage of the Swedish university system, which allows all EU / EEA citizens to take classes free of charge. Swedish universities have a lot of classes that are held completely online, so I enrolled in “Chinese in Speech and Writing IV”, “Modern Chinese Literature” and “Chinese Linguistics” (all taught in English and Chinese; I actually don’t speak Swedish). This meant having some set times in my schedule every week that were reserved for Chinese. You may have seen that my summary report of 2014 includes 349 hours of Chinese alone – it’s largely because of those classes, and their homework. In exchange for that work, I finally reached C1 (fluent) level in Chinese, mastering a mock HSK 5 exam.

To make it through an entire year AND hit your target, you do have to be inventive though.


There were plenty of days I was too bogged down in work or too sick to be able to do anything, or simply feeling down and not motivated. The key is to invent things you can do then.

For example, when I’m feeling well I may study Italian on Duolingo or write a text to be corrected on Lang-8, but when I’m feeling out of it, I’d just watch an Italian movie. This is also time I can log in the spreadsheet – the key is to expose yourself to the language a lot and obviously more involved ways are better, but when those are not an option, I’ll gladly take less involved ways over not doing anything at all.

When sick or tired, it is difficult to come up with something language-related that you could do, so I recommend making a list of possible activities beforehand. You’ll be surprised how many there are.

Another challenge was that when I had a regular office job at a big IT company, I struggled to find enough time to study languages. So I was inventive and initiated the idea of “language lunches”, getting together for lunch with international colleagues who spoke my target language. Italian on Wednesdays, Spanish on Thursdays, you get the idea. I also downloaded Anki and podcasts to my iPhone so that I could study a little bit on my way to/from work.

I like to read books, so I ensured that I’d have interesting foreign-language books lying around that I could pick up and read. Create opportunities. The opportunities will convert into time spent.

The most important thing is to realize that study time doesn’t have to be sit-down-with-textbook time. I’m actually quite bad at sitting down with a textbook, unless it is to prepare for a scheduled class. In this coming year, I will attempt to develop some textbook study habits through the Add1Challenge. If 749 hours is what I can do when “winging it” (basically studying whenever I feel like it), I want to see what will happen when I develop some good habits.

Duolingo: Esperanto coming soon!


(Guest post by Chuck Smith)

Have you heard of the latest language-learning website that’s sweeping the globe: Duolingo? It was founded by Luis von Ahn, previously best-known for creating Captcha, those boxes on the Internet where you have to type a mangled word to prove that you’re human.

His next dream is to translate the entire Internet in every language, an ambitious goal to say the least! Through this new website, anyone can learn a language for free and once they progress far enough in learning the language, they can practice by translating real texts from their target language. Then people collaborate in a manner similar to Wikipedia and when the translations are good enough, they send the results to their clients and this is how they make money.

Duolingo and Esperanto

Luis von Ahn once said that Esperanto has been, by far, the most commonly requested language on their site as you can hear yourself from his lecture about Duolingo at Duke University. So, Esperanto was recently added as one of the new languages in its Incubator, which means that it’s open to collaborators to create the course. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first two people selected to start making the course from the very beginning. We were given a template for a generic skill tree with lessons to learn for English speakers, which we could modify as we liked to make it suitable for Esperanto.

One example of this customization is that relatively few Esperanto speakers know the word for suit (kompleto), because it’s fairly rare to wear a suit in typical Esperanto situations even though this is a really important word for other languages. In the end, we decided it wasn’t basic clothing vocabulary and moved it to a more advanced lesson called Business. Another example is that we’re working on a series of lessons called Affixes 1-3. That means that by the end of the course, you will have learned all the Esperanto affixes with examples of their usage.

In this system, we systematically teach vocabulary and every new word has to have at least three example sentences. With each sentence, we have to think of every possible translation. This makes sure you learn each word as used in a normal context and have enough reinforcement to help it stick in your head. Since we’re only human, once our course reaches a certain level of completeness, we’ll launch into a beta testing phase. Then the public can take the course and point out translations that are missing or mistakes in the course. After we’ve dealt with enough of these reports, then the course can enter its “stable” phase. At this point, Duolingo can start considering if they want to make other courses for Esperanto based on another popular language like French or Spanish.

Our team of five people has now brought Esperanto now over halfway through Incubation Phase 1 (course not yet released) and it’s been a wild ride. You can see all the courses in all phases of development here on the official page of the Duolingo Incubator.

The Future

I personally believe this will be known as one of the most important projects in the history of Esperanto. To get some idea of where Esperanto is going within the Duolingo system, it’s important to compare it with other languages within the same system. I would like to make comparisons between Esperanto, Irish and Ukrainian.

Ukrainian and Esperanto currently

First I would like to compare it with Ukrainian with the only reason being that the Esperanto and Ukrainian course description pages were both launched on Nov 4, 2014. Here people can sign up if they want to be notified when the course is launched. As of this time, 2610 people are waiting for Ukrainian (a language with 30 million speakers), while 6320 are waiting for Esperanto.

I personally believe that language course creators incorrectly estimate the market demand for Esperanto courses by looking solely at its number of speakers. In my opinion, this can be compared with looking at population density with respect to public transportation. Many people look at population density to determine whether high-speed train lines should be built. However, the correct question to ask when looking at market demand is the traffic population density. Many people have to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles even though the people living between these cities doesn’t come close to the density of people living, for example, in many European countries. For more about this, see my article on Trains and Esperanto.

In the same way, it is more important to look at how many people are interested in learning Esperanto than its current number of speakers. In this sense, it’s interesting to note which language series offer a course for Ukrainian even though there is currently more demand for Esperanto: Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Colloquial, Pod101, etc. Some people may criticize these numbers and say that a lot of these 6320 are likely to be Esperanto speakers who just want to inflate the numbers, but I think a large amount of these are beginner or intermediate speakers who still want this Duolingo course to improve their language. A lot of people learning on Duolingo aren’t starting to learn their foreign language there from scratch.

Irish and the future of Esperanto

Another interesting metric is to take another small language like Irish. It is interesting to note that currently more people are learning Irish on Duolingo than there are native speakers of this language as posted by Luis von Ahn in this thread. I then answered this with my own parody thread that there are more people signed up for the Esperanto course than its number of native speakers.

So, considering that Irish has 130,000 native speakers with around 2 million speakers worldwide to various levels of capability, this is the closest language Duolingo offers for comparison to Esperanto to look into the future. The course went into beta on Aug 29, 2014, so now in a little under four months, there are over 250,000 people who have started learning Irish on Duolingo. This means that with a conservative estimate, it is very likely that next year over 100,000 people will have started learning Esperanto by the end of 2015.

Esperanto in Duolingo

So, last week we finalized our skill tree. You can see it below, but subject to change. Also, if you want to be notified when our course goes live, sign up on the official Duolingo Esperanto course page!

So, the most common question I get is when will the course launch? My best guess as of now would be May 2015. In any case, it will be very interesting to see what over 100,000 new Esperanto students does to its reputation around the world. Someone in a Duolingo thread did point out something else though, all these new Esperanto speakers will already, by definition, also be English speakers, which is true. But this could change when another Duolingo Esperanto course comes out, such as for French or Spanish speakers. Who knows what the future holds? At least as we go into 2015, we can be sure of one thing: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Duolingo's Esperanto skill tree so far
Duolingo’s Esperanto skill tree so far

7 Ways that Computers Changed How We Learn Languages

If you are learning a language today, chances are that your study sessions are looking vastly different than they would have even 10 years ago. This is a part of our daily life that has been radically transformed by the digital age.
The revolution came in 7 waves:

1. Digitalization

Regular texts gave way to hyperlinks and dictionary programs. Digitalization also made it much more likely that someone would consult a brick of a dictionary with 500,000 entries plus sample sentences – as long as it’s on the smartphone and not on paper.

2. Multimedia

Everything includes audio or video now. It feels obvious, but: when did you ever tap next to a word in a paper dictionary in order to hear it pronounced? Our habits really changed. For the Defense Language Institute’s online materials, media are the essence of their lessons. They take authentic target-language radio and TV broadcasts and then teach you to understand them. And as for flashcards, using open-source tools like Subs2Srsand Anki, you could create digital flashcards that play two-second excerpts of your favorite foreign TV show and then quiz you on what was just said. (step by step guide)

3. Auto-correction

Auto-correction ran quite a gamut. A 10-year-old can probably create a fill-in-the-blank text and some Javascript that checks whether the answers match the correct solutions. Much more sophisticated results of the same innovation are spellcheckers, which are already ubiquitous, and now style-checkers. The most exciting application of auto-correction is in accent improvement. At Wordbook, you can pronounce Chinese words and phrases and the computer will show you how closely you matched a native speaker’s pronunciation. Rosetta Stone implements similar technology.

4. Social Integration

Learning a language in self-study used to be a solitary hobby, which partly explains the high number of people who abandon a course after the first few lessons. When web 2.0 became a hot item, language-learning websites started to add a social component. It can take three forms: competition, encouragement and help.

Competition is when a website encourages you to best your friends, for example by displaying a highscore based on how much you studied. Some examples are the Read More or Die competition or the 6 Week Challenge.

Alternatively, or also in conjunction, sites can increase the likelihood that you get encouragement from your peers. Duolingois a master at this: when you log into Facebook, ready to waste some hours there, only to find that a bunch of your friends are applauding you for having learned Dutch plurals on Duolingo, guess where you’ll be heading next. This kind of positive feedback loop just does not happen when using traditional courses or even attending local classes.

Users helping users is also an important part of modern language-learning websites. Most have a forum, chat or user diary/blog. Then there are sites where people will correct your foreign-language texts for free or record audio for you, taking this to the next level.

5. Personalization (starting in 2007)

What if your friends are ready to help and encourage you, but you still can’t motivate yourself to spend much time on phrases like “the duck eats the strawberry”? The next innovation looked at how to ensure you’re genuinely interested in what you’re learning, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach that is still commonly-found even today.
Every human has different interests. How can companies create language courses that will cover hardware news for one person and gardening for another?

Personalization puts you in charge of your learning. You surf to foreign-language content that is interesting to you and then use a tool like Lingua.lyin order to understand the content and learn the vocabulary you need. Alternatively, if you don’t know what kind of interesting foreign-language content is out there or have trouble finding texts that are easy enough for your level, Bliubliuwill take care of that for you. With a bit of training, Bliubliu can predict which texts you’ll like and serve you a daily diet of interesting foreign-language articles – personalized to you.

6. Gamification (starting in 2010)

Don’t make mistakes or you’ll lose a life. Collect play money to buy vanity items from the store. Complete this series of lessons in order to gain access to a special area or mini-game. Learn Esperanto in Second Life. Play Space Invaders to review Japanese Kana. Solve a detective story while learning French.
Different sites fall on different points of the spectrum from serious course to language-learning game, but what can’t be denied is that companies are discovering gamification as another way to retain your interest in language lessons.

7. Computer Language Teachers (starting in 2011)

The latest innovation comes in the form of systems which are intelligent enough to determine
a) what you need to learn and
b) which exercises will help you learn it.
They play the part of language teachers. The basic idea was pioneered by Khan Academy (for math, not languages), whose system keeps generating new questions on the same topic until you finally understand it. In 2011, Duolingo took it one step further by even leaving the order of introduction of new vocabulary up to the AI.
At the moment you can study English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Danish or Irish on Duolingo. Many more languages have been requested. If you want to have the computer teach you Chinese in a similar way, check out LearnYu, my site, which is currently in beta but already usable.
What innovation will we see next? For us language geeks, these are very exciting times.

6 Tips for Working with a Tutor

Spending a lot of time actively using your target language can do wonders for your progress. At the beginner level, a tutor is the best investment you can make. So without further ado, here are my tips for having a successful language tutoring experience:

1. Look online

Unless you’re living in a country where the target language is spoken, you will find a lot more tutors online than offline. Having a bigger selection is always better, as I will also explain in the next few points. Besides, online you can take advantage of the fact that a lot of tutors live in countries where cost of living is much lower than in your own, so you can pay them somewhat less than you’d pay a tutor in your country and it will still be a higher wage than they could earn locally – a win-win situation.

2. Experienced tutor for inexperienced students, inexperienced tutor for experienced students.

– If you’re an experienced language learner, you probably have a very clear idea of what you want your language lessons to look like. Experienced tutors do, too, and are unlikely to complete change their habits. Inexperienced tutors are more likely to accommodate you.
– If you are an inexperienced student, it is good to have a tutor who knows what he’s doing, that’s why I recommend experienced tutors for inexperienced students.
Essentially ONE of you should be experienced, not none and not both. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Ideally, the tutor should share your interests. Lessons are much more interesting and more effective when you have something to talk about that interests both of you, no matter whether that is the news, language-learning, foreign cultures or sports. This is especially important for the intermediate and advanced level, where you’ll (hopefully) do a lot of free talking rather than just following a textbook.


3. Individual lessons for speed, group lessons for persistence

1-on-1 tutoring is great if you want to progress quickly, because the tutor can spend his/her entire energy on helping you past your weaknesses and you also get a lot of speaking opportunities. The more students there are, the less chances you’ll have to speak, and the more time will be spent explaining words or grammar you already understood. So generally I’d recommend 1-on-1 tutoring, except if
a) you have trouble motivating yourself to study – group pressure helps immensely
b) you’re finding 1-on-1 lessons too intense, especially as a beginner
These conditions are actually quite common, so weigh this carefully. I have just started to take group classes in advanced Chinese at Dalarna University (online) and I’m suddenly spending a lot more time on Chinese than I otherwise would.

4. Use the target language

The more time you spend listening to the target language, the better. So your tutor should not spend a lot of time using your native language but try to communicate everything in the target language and you should try to do the same. I’m not saying it’s bad for the tutor to translate words you don’t understand. I think it’s better to have the translation and move on rather than spending a lot of time trying to understand a convoluted description and getting sidetracked from the actual discussion. (I know some polyglots would disagree with me and that’s fine; choose your tutor according to your preference there.) The important thing, and that we can all agree on, is that the tutor won’t use your native language much.

5. Have them write stuff down

During a lesson, you will invariably learn a lot of new words, including words not featured in the textbook. Have your tutor write down every word you don’t know, so that you can learn them later. Note this is another reason I prefer online tutoring, because online it’s much less hassle to quickly write something down in the text chat without losing track of the conversation. It’s also much less hassle to later copy the words into Anki – especially if you’re learning a language with a foreign script, you’re much less likely to make copy mistakes if your tutor wrote down the words on the computer.

6. Master one topic at a time

A lot of conversational classes suffer from lack of structure. If you want to master conversation as quickly as possible, I found that it’s best to work on one topic at a time. So you might pick the topic “the weather” and then talk about nothing else during 30-60 minutes. Talk about the weather right now, the weather in different cities, that really cold winter one year, the time you went on vacation to the Caribbean, and so on. If you spend 30-60 minutes talking about a single topic, each word and expression will come up so often that it easily enters your memory. Also, there won’t be too much vocabulary in one lesson because it all centers around one topic. This way, you can even choose a comparatively advanced topic (e. g. “nuclear power”) and learn to talk about it despite being a beginner, if that’s what interests you. At the beginning of the next lesson, briefly talk about the previous topic and then choose a new one.

Using these tips, you can make the most out of your language tutoring experience.

Where to find tutors?

Probably the biggest site offering online language teachers is iTalki. There you can really find tutors for any language, including rare languages. Most of the tutors are cheap or reasonably-priced. Enjoy your language lessons!

Which Language do Polyglots Choose to Speak Together?

This question came in on Quora just when I had spent three days with two of the greatest polyglots alive: Professor Alexander Arguelles and Richard Simcott. Both know more than 30 languages. We had also organized a polyglot dinner where people could speak 10 languages on average. All in all, I was in a unique position to answer this question and had a lot of fun doing so.

When being introduced at a polyglot dinner, everyone would speak English. Then, there was often a trial period where people would repeatedly switch languages in order to assess each other’s levels. This would happen without agreement or warning, just answer in a different language than the one you were speaking or add something like “Natürlich sprichst du auch Deutsch?” (of course you also speak German?).

Dinner with polyglots

The language that was finally chosen was often not people’s native language. For example, even though Professor Arguelles and Richard Simcott are both native English speakers, they spoke very little English with each other. Instead, people will communicate in their best “non-boring” language. “Boring” languages being ones that they already speak every day and have reached maximum fluency in. The idea is that you should learn something from speaking this language but without obstructing the flow of conversation. Adjusting for everyone’s comfort of course, because it would feel too unequal to communicate in a language that one person is completely fluent in and the other still regularly searches for words. So when Richard and Alexander recorded a short video where they talk about language-learning (forthcoming), they chose to do so in German, which they both speak perfectly, so as not to give even a hint of one-upmanship. At other times they also spoke a significant amount of Italian, Spanish, French and Russian to each other, and less often 8 or so other languages.

It’s another thing if the purpose is to practice. When polyglots meet, it’s often also an occasion to try out rarer languages that they don’t often get to speak where they live, for example Modern Greek, Modern Hebrew, Welsh, Esperanto and so on. At the polyglot dinner we hosted, with 8 people attending, more than 20 languages were spoken (in different pairings) over the course of two hours and at one point the entire table was learning phrases in Indonesian. The Polish-American-German group at the table next to us actually came over and asked where we’re from, because they heard so many different languages. A great occasion for Richard to flabbergast them some more by explaining in fluent Polish, which we hadn’t spoken yet 😉

Whichever languages you choose, being a polyglot and meeting another polyglot is great fun.

The Perfect Language Course

What would your requirements for a perfect language course be? I have spent a lot of thoughts on this question. If I could dream completely free from the constraints of existing books and audio courses, here’s what I would value:

  • Highly interactive: rather than just listening or reading, I want to use the language myself
  • Frequent feedback, so that mistakes won’t become fossilized
  • Audio for everything, especially if the pronunciation of the language is very different from what I’m used to
  • Useful vocabulary, not a single word that I couldn’t see myself using/needing, illustrated with example sentences
  • Regular recurrence of vocabulary, so that it stays in memory – too many courses teach a lot of words and then never use them a second time
  • Grammar when useful, for example too many students of German are forced to memorize declension tables when they still make many worse mistakes; the perfect language course would always consider what the biggest obstacle to comprehension is
  • Plenty of exercises, because it’s always possible to skip some if I have mastered the topic, not possible to conjure new exercises if I’m still struggling to understand
  • Clear goals and measurable progress towards them. Seeing progress motivates me.

When I was creating language lessons for GermanPod101, Myngle and other sites, I tried to incorporate these points as much as possible. I couldn’t change the format of the lessons though, so a lot of these issues remained.

Now I had the chance to design a language course from scratch, design a method from scratch. For the past year, I have been working on the language course of my dreams, the one that I wished I had had when I started out learning Chinese. Because it will Chinese. Chinese is generally taught so inefficiently, without regard to modern research on language acquisition, that I decided that improving the situation of Chinese learners would be the most worthwhile cause.

I am now ready to unveil my course to the world for the first time and I need your support to take it further.

Please have a look at LearnYu – the Automagic Chinese Course and then tweet about it and write about it on Facebook if you like the idea.

Here are some pictures to whet your appetite:

Please help me develop more lessons for LearnYu!

Thank you!

Who is in the Polyglot Community? Am I?

A lot of people refer to the Polyglot Community these days. I do, too, talking about the Polyglot Gathering and similar events. So who is this community?

It is certainly NOT just the 15-30 most popular polyglots who have Youtube channels or blogs. When I mean people like them, I personally use the term ‘Youtube polyglots’ or more broadly ‘internet polyglots’ – and by that I also mean for example Iversen of HTLAL or Simon Ager of Omniglot. My idea of an ‘internet polyglot’ is really anyone who is accepted as an authority on language learning by a reasonable number of people online, no matter what form of communication he/she uses.

The polyglot community however is much broader than just the ‘internet polyglots’, to the tune of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people.

Talking about it at/after the Polyglot Gathering, the consensus seems to be that anyone who loves to learn languages, even independent of how many language he has mastered, is a polyglot – it’s this attitude which sets our community apart from John Doe, who only learns a language because he has to. Love of learning and passion for languages.

Now there may be some hermits in Siberia who really love to learn languages without having any ties to any online polyglots. I probably wouldn’t include them in the term ‘polyglot community’, because there can be no community without being connected in some way to the other members of the community. But if you love to learn languages and have been to one of the polyglot conferences, you’re part of the community, if you’re a regular contributor to HTLAL or Unilang, you’re part of the community, if you follow at least one of the popular polyglot blogs or vlogs, you’re part of the community.

Polyglot group photo at the Polyglot Gathering
A small part of the polyglot community, at the Polyglot Gathering

Internet polyglots are not the whole of the polyglot community, they are the pillars. Polyglots come together around them and often because of them. Internet polyglots are also a representative sample of different philosophies, opinions and approaches to language-learning. For example, to start learning a language:

  • Benny Lewis will start by speaking the language
  • Steve Kaufmann will start by reading a lot
  • Richard Simcott will follow a textbook or a class based on the communicative approach
  • Professor Alexander Arguelles will look for a really old textbook based on the translation or grammar approach
  • Niels Iversen will memorize ten thousand words from a dictionary

So there are many differing and even contradictory opinions in the community. There used to be quite nasty fights and vicious attacks, especially around Benny Lewis. These days, the disagreements are still there, but the attacks are gone (mostly), since people started to collaborate and to meet up in person. Even if they personally think that a certain approach won’t work well, people are happy to live and let live, let everyone pursue whatever approach he/she thinks is good, not rail against each other. After meeting each other in person or collaborating together online, most of the most visible members of the polyglot community have started to say:

“You know, I might not want to use your learning approach or methods, and I might recommend something different to people who ask me, but I recognize that we are all each of us helping people learn languages and I respect you as someone who is working hard towards the same goal I have.”

Bilingual Books

When you’ve finished a textbook, you’re often at a strange stage where other textbooks are too easy but real materials (books and TV shows intended for native speakers) are too difficult. At that stage, I’d sometimes use easy readers, but the stories rarely manage hold my interest. A better solution I discovered are bilingual books, which allow me to read interesting texts intended for native speakers while skipping past many of the difficulties.

Bilingual books have the same text in your target language and in your native language. There are several ways this can work, roughly from worst to best:

  • Text in target language first, text in native language second. This is hard to use because you have to keep turning the pages in order to compare the two versions.
  • Parallel texts (non-aligned). These have the text in your target language on the left side and the text in your native language on the right side. With this setup, it is already possible to compare texts more easily, but if the paragraphs don’t line up, it’s still not convenient to glance over if you need to know the translation of a word. You’ll probably just look at the English if you don’t understand several words in a single paragraph.
  • Parallel texts (aligned). Same as above, but with paragraphs aligned, it often takes me less than a second in order to find the translation of the word I didn’t understand, so this is quite convenient to use. Various indie publishing houses offer parallel books and I have sometimes even created such parallel books myself (electronic versions only), either by hand or by using the handy software Hunalign. My friend Pete explains how to do it but you have to be a bit technical.
  • Sentence in your target language followed by the same sentence in your native language. This concept, which was popularized by Franklang in Russia, also allows relatively quick comparisons once you’re used to it. I personally find it more disruptive than parallel texts though, because I cannot read only the target language, even when I’m in the flow.
  • Interlinear translations. Here, the translation of each word is underneath the word itself, so that you can absorb new vocabulary and its meaning without having to glance anywhere else at all. This is clearly the best method if you want to learn a lot of new vocabulary while reading. It’s a lot of work to prepare texts in such a way, so they used to be quite short and rare, but now Interlinear Books has started to publish entire books treated this way. I recently had a chance to read the collection of Modern Greek short stories “The Clockmaster” by Roubina Gouyoumtzian, published by Interlinear Books, and I must say that they did a really good job. You can also read my review of this book.

So, which one do I recommend? All of them except the first. The thing is, while texts with interlinear translations are clearly the best, there are still very few of them out there. Parallel texts / books are easier to find, but still not exactly common. So don’t wait until you find the ideal method coupled with the ideal book that you always wanted to read; you’ll probably be waiting forever. Just go with what’s out there, create your own if you’re particularly tenacious, and otherwise focus on leaving behind that annoying intermediate stage as soon as possible. The real fun lies beyond, when you don’t need translations and you can simply pick up any book and read it with pleasure. And that’s what bilingual books help you achieve.

Why do Computers Suck at Languages?

I studied Computational Linguistics, which is the part of linguistics that tries to teach computers human languages. It’s a very interesting subject, responsible for machine translation, dictation software, text-to-speech tools, dialog systems like Siri and many more applications. If you want to learn a bit more about Computational Linguistics, what problems there are for computers to deal with human language and what the future looks like, you can now watch my intro talk from the Polyglot Conference in Budapest:

If the idea of a Polyglot Conference appeals to you, check out the next Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad or the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin.