How to Memorize Chinese Characters

If not for the characters, Chinese would be one of the easiest languages in the world. Yet, I would be the last to suggest for characters to be abolished – they are what drew me to the language. As a teenager, I read this popular science book on linguistics and it had these lines from a Tang poem by Han Yu, describing the characters:

年深岂免有缺画? Time has not yet vanquished the beauty of these letters
快剑砍断生蛟鼍。 Looking like sharp daggers that pierce live crocodiles,
鸾翔凤翥众仙下, Like phoenix-mates dancing, like angels hovering down,
珊瑚碧树交枝柯。 Like trees of jade and coral with interlocking branches,
金绳铁索锁钮壮, Like golden cord and iron chain tied together tight,
古鼎跃水龙腾梭。 Like incense-tripods flung in the sea, like dragons mounting heaven.

As beautiful as they are, that doesn’t make them easier to learn, it just gives you the motivation to keep going. I wasted a lot of time trying to learn characters the Asian way, by writing them over and over and over again. Writing them like that commits them to muscle memory – your hands can trace them, like your PIN at the ATM, even if your brain cannot remember their shape. However, muscle memory only works with very regular re-inforcement and I don’t intend to hand-write Chinese often enough for that to be viable, at least not beyond the most common 600 or so characters (it explains why this method works for Asians though, or used to work, getting weaker with the advent of computers and cellphones). What’s left is trying to commit the characters to your real memory, so that your brain can recall how to write them when your hands cannot. That’s where it helps to have a photographic memory, or even any kind of memory that’s good with pictures – I don’t have either, I think in abstract terms only, and yet I really wanted to learn Chinese characters!

The Solution

First, stop seeing the characters as a series of almost-random strokes. Familiarize yourself with the basic elements and their inate meaning. This will also help you distinguish 王 (king) 壬 (ancient burden) and 玉 (jade) or 土 (ground) and 士 (knight). You will notice that the vast majority of Chinese characters are not new, they consist of two or more of the basic elements. If you know the basic elements, you can then construct a mnemonic to link the elements to their meaning, a little story to help you remember or even a downright explanation. For example, the character 明 meaning “bright” consists of sun and moon – not difficult to remember, is it? The character 休 meaning “to rest” consists of a person and a tree – mentally fix the idea of an exhausted hiker resting against a tree and you’ll never forget this character again. This works for complex characters as well, and for each character you can choose into how many parts you split it, e. g. if you want to think of 偷 meaning “thief” as (person + making a canoo) or as (person + Chinese roof + moon + knife) – I went for the latter, with a story involving a thief on the roof of a house in moonlight, knife in hand, in order to climb into one of the windows and steal stuff. Stories can be colourful, absurd, racy, nonsensical even, as long as you personally find them memorable.

For the purpose of learning a large amount of characters this way (I memorized almost 2500 in one non-intensive year), it makes sense to go from basic characters to more complex ones, also so that you don’t have to memorize all possible basic elements at once. Unfortunately quite a lot of frequent words involve characters that are complex combinations of 4 or more elements. So character study has to be somewhat separate from regular textbook study at first, until you have a foundation. It is possible to go this path alone; Zhongwen.com gives you an analysis of each character’s components. But I don’t recommend it, because then you’ll encounter the issue of having one peg word corresponding to several characters, or inadvertently learning out-of-use characters, or learning complex characters before learning the parts that they’re made of.

I recommend getting a book to guide you. Depending on your background, there are three books I can recommend for learning characters:

1) Alison and Laurence Matthews’ Learning Chinese Characters proposes pictures and stories to go along with every character and the stories will even help you remember the pronunciation and the tone if you choose. On the down side, this book only covers about 1000 characters. They are sorted roughly in order of appearance in textbooks (!); it’s really great as a textbook companion for a beginner with little prior knowledge of characters and methods.

2) William McNaughton’s “Reading and Writing Chinese” (simplified characters or traditional) is a better choice if you have already learned more than 200 characters and taught yourself how to make mnemonics based on the character parts. This book is also guided by frequency and teaches you more than 2200 characters but doesn’t feed you the stories.

3) T.K. Ann’s “Cracking the Chinese Puzzles” is for the pros, sinologists and the like, covering almost 6000 characters, basically all that you’ll ever need, even when reading literature. The book doesn’t give stories so much as etymology – etymology with a bit of fantasy filling in the gaps – usually making characters very memorable. On the down side, you will find frequent characters mixed with infrequent ones, so getting this book only makes sense if you’re planning to learn all characters anyway, and if you have time to wait e. g. till the end of the first volume to learn some characters that will come up in the first few lessons of your Chinese textbook. T.K. Ann also provides lists of words using the characters, but again you have to be careful – some of these words are clearly literary or outdated, without being marked as such.

4) I guess I should mention James Heisig’s “Remembering the Hanzi” (with traditional or simplified characters) for completeness’ sake, but I would not recommend it except possibly if you already used Heisig to study Japanese Kanji. His book has several drawbacks. The biggest is that he doesn’t provide Pinyin (pronunciation) with the characters, even though in Chinese it makes sense to learn pronunciation at the same time (characters with the same elements usually have a very similar pronunciation and characters usually only have one possible pronunciation). Also, Heisig made the mistake of largely copying his Japanese Kanji book for this, giving little thought to how frequent/useful these characters are in Chinese, or whether a different order of introduction might make sense for Chinese.

Note that you probably won’t need to graduate e. g. from “Learning the Chinese Characters” to “Reading and Writing Chinese Characters” to “Cracking the Chinese Puzzles” when you’re ready to learn more – once you’ve learned 800+ characters this way, the method and the meaning of basic elements should be so ingrained that you can learn all future characters on your own as you encounter them. The main advantage there would be if you’re making a push to learn lots of characters BEFORE you encounter them.

Good luck with your studies!

How I Shall Tackle a 15min Vietnamese Conversation in 90 Days


I have decided on my next goal: I want to be able to have a 15 minutes conversation in Vietnamese in roughly 90 days from now. Right now I know zero Vietnamese: not even the pronunciation, not even “hello”. However, I have experience succeeding in language challenges. This is my action plan:

  1. Sign up for the Add1Challenge, which I have successfully used to achieve the same goal in Hebrew in 2015.
  2. Familiarize myself with the basics of Vietnamese pronunciation. As Vietnamese pronunciation is very difficult for Westerners (it’s a tonal language and has unusual sounds), I will also keep working on my pronunciation throughout the challenge, and ensure that all my materials include audio.
  3. Study Assimil’s “Le Vietnamien de Poche” as a quick introduction to the grammar and useful phrases.
  4. I haven’t yet studied a language with Glossika, but I will try it this time, since 15 days of Glossika are included in the price of the Add1Challenge. Afterwards I will decide whether to continue with Glossika or one of my more typical choices (Teach Yourself or Colloquial).
  5. Start using Vietnamese every time I eat at a Vietnamese restaurant. At the beginning I might just use the greetings and “I would like “, from there I will graduate to being able to understand numbers (for paying) and being able to have a bit of small talk. Schedule a restaurant visit for day 3 and regularly from then on. (Oh the hardship of learning a language… must have more Vietnamese food, oh no!)
  6. Within one week of the start, I will start taking italki lessons. I will aim to overlearn one conversational topic per lesson in order to quickly develop a number of topics I can have conversations on. All topics must be things I find interesting and practical for my current situation (e. g. talking about language-learning rather than practicing booking a hotel room).
  7. Use Anki in order to retain the vocabulary I gain from the lessons, since vocabulary retention tends to be a problem for non-European languages. I will use chunking and flashcards enhanced with sentences and audio in order to make the most of this software. I will resolutely refuse to learn all words that are too advanced to be useful for my Day 90 conversation. A key factor in success is knowing what to chop.

Wish me luck!

My introductory video for this challenge:

Feel free to adapt the above plan for your own Add1Challenge!

14 Tips for Learning Languages (+ 14 language video)


Which language should you pick? How to stay motivated? Is it bad to learn more than one language at once? How to memorize vocabulary? How to keep improving when you’re already at a high level? … I get a lot of questions about learning languages. Here are my top 14 tips in a handy list. Watch the video below in order to hear me expand on each idea. To make it more interesting, I have recorded each section in a different language, 14 languages in total.

14 Tips:

  1. Choose a language or accent you enjoy.
  2. Know your reasons and purpose, so that you can eliminate detours.
  3. For a huge boost (once you know some basics), live the language 24/7 for a week or two.
  4. Have a plan for how to use the language, otherwise you’ll forget it as fast as you learned it.
  5. Get involved in the community and you’ll never have to worry about maintaining the language.
  6. Use any excuse in order to speak the language. Don’t wait until you have to. Be proactive.
  7. Find things that are only available in your target language.
  8. If you’re still a beginner and struggling to find the discipline to study every day, set up goals and challenges. There are existing challenges you can join, like the Add1Challenge, the Tadoku challenge, the 6 Week Challenge, the italki Challenge.
  9. Stick with a language until you have a decent level. It’s much easier to forget a language if you never knew it well.
  10. Don’t learn similar languages at the same time. Wait until you reach a good level first.
  11. When you do have a good level in one language, do invest a bit of time in similar languages, at least enough to understand.
  12. Take advantage of word families when studying vocabulary, especially if you’re studying a non-European language.
  13. To keep improving when you’re at a high level, find challenging activities that take you out of your comfort zone.
  14. Stay up-to-date on new methods and tools.

Longer explanation of each tip in this video:

Time stamps for languages:
0:21 German
1:10 Latin
1:33 French
3:02 Swahili
3:39 Esperanto
5:05 Italian
6:07 Modern Greek
7:13 Modern Hebrew
8:15 Arabic
9:02 Spanish
9:49 Dutch
10:58 Indonesian
11:58 Mandarin Chinese
13:12 English

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.

Tracking

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.

Obstinence

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.

Inventiveness

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.

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!

Understand Your Favourite TV Series in 30 Days

This is a concrete step-by-step guide through which beginners can learn to understand the majority of what is being said in their favourite foreign TV series in just 30 days, spending 1 hour a day (or more slowly with less time per day). Moreover, all the required tools are available for free online, no need to buy any expensive course or software.

Know what you’re asking for

Understanding a TV series after just 30 days of study is an amazing feat, something that none of your friends would consider possible. However, note that it comes at a price: while you’ll be set to watch that TV series, you will still have more difficulty with other TV series, and you will suck big time at having conversations or reading books. For 30 days, you will pursue one goal only and temporarily set aside anything that isn’t immediately relevant to the goal, so your skill is one-sided. Still, one might say that being able to understand TV episodes will be a good preparation for learning to have conversations as well, since it will train your listening comprehension.

The idea

You will learn to understand the TV series by getting a very cursory understanding of grammar and then quizzing yourself on audio snippets from the TV series, starting with easy ones of just one or two words and gradually moving on to more and more difficult sentences.

A video explaining the concept:

The tools

You will need:

  • at least 500 minutes’ worth of your favourite TV show with target-language audio, in digital format (if you own it as DVDs, most countries allow you to have a digital copy). I recommend using a show about everyday life in the modern world rather than a war drama set 1000 years ago, because you’ll learn modern, relevant language.
  • target-language subtitles for the above, as well as subtitles in your native language / a language that you know well. You can find them on sites like OpenSubtitles.org or Shooter.cn. Double-check that both subtitles match the video you have, i. e. that they show the text corresponding to what you hear.
  • Anki, a great flashcard (spaced repetition) system
  • Subs2Srs, a program to convert videos into flashcards
  • This Anki deck that contains the basic layout

Preparation

Repeat the following steps for each episode (you don’t have to do this for all episodes immediately, 3 or so is good for a start and you can do more whenever you run out of material).

  1. Open Subs2Srs.
  2. Click on “Subs1…” and point it at your target-language subtitle file for this episode. Click on “Output…” and point it to a new, empty folder that you will easily find again. Click on “Subs2…” and point it at your native-language subtitle file (typically English).
  3. Click on “Video…” and point it at the video file of the episode.
  4. The settings should be perfect already, but double-check that “Generate audio clips” and “Generate snapshots” each have a checkmark next to them and “Generate video clips” does not. Enter a name and click “Go!”.
  5. This will take several minutes. When it’s done, switch to Anki. If the first episode, download and unzip the basic anki deck from above and rename it. All episodes will go in this one deck. Open the deck in Anki.
  6. Click “File > Import”. Choose the .tsv file that Subs2Srs generated for you. Then, change the fields, as follows:
    • Field 1 = Tags
    • Field 2 = sequence marker
    • Field 3 = Audio
    • Field 4 = Image
    • Field 5 = “Japanese” (you can rename this to your target language)
    • Field 6 = English

    Click “Import” and wait for it to go through. You may get a message that some cards weren’t imported because they’re duplicate. That’s normal.

  7. Go to the folder that Subs2Srs generated for you and copy all the audio and images to the .media folder of your Anki deck.
  8. In Anki, open the Browse view of your cards and look for easy cards (by looking at the English text). At the beginning, go for cards that are only one or two words in English, or a name with some extra words. Later, you can go for full sentences and then longer sentences, especially if they involve words you already learned. Whenever you find a suitable card, go into the Tags field and enter “learn” as an additional tag. You will only study cards tagged as such.

How to study

Open the deck in Anki. On the Study Options page, click on “Change” (next to “Show Chosen Categories”) and make sure that “Show only cards with any of these tags” is checked and that “learn” is the only tag marked in that list. This is the setting for both new cards and reviews.

Aim to do at least 15 minute sessions. I believe that doing two 30-minute sessions (one in the morning and one in the evening) is best, for a total of 60 minutes per day.

When studying, listen carefully to the audio. Even if you know you cannot understand everything, try to catch at least a few words of whatever sentence is playing. You will gradually understand more. If you see the solution and it’s not a “doh!” moment, copy-paste the target-language text into Google Translate in order to see a more literal translation. Cut out some words, see what Google Translate says then and aim to get a full understanding of what each word of the sentence means. If the result is a jumble, either remove the “learn” tag from that card or delete it outright – you have enough material that you can afford to be picky about what you’ll study.

If you notice that the audio is cut off (for languages like Japanese, Google Translate gives you a phonetic transcription of what you copy-pasted underneath the text field on the left), delete the card. If it is hard to make out the words, for example because people are talking over each other or mumbling, delete the card. If the translation doesn’t match the target-language text (sometimes they have to swap the order of statements), either delete the card or adjust the translation, if you can. If the translation is something like “Arrrgh” or other sounds, delete the card. Be bold in deleting cards that don’t help you, that are duplicates of what you had before or that you don’t consider useful.

Day 1-3

Study your cards as described above.

The first few days are special in that you’ll also do some grammar study. Your goal is to discover the following:

  • How is the plural formed?
  • Do verbs change depending on the person (I, you, he, she…)?
  • How is tense indicated?
  • What is the typical word order?

Look for broad knowledge only. Don’t memorize conjugation tables, only simple patterns that are good investments. If -shita comes up a lot in past tense endings, that’s probably good to memorize. Don’t memorize all the possible variations; you’ll pick them up naturally. The best place to get a quick and useful overview like this are the Kauderwelsch phrasebooks, but unfortunately they’re only available in German. Alternatively, look at the grammar summaries of every lesson in a textbook of your choice. Online grammar references or (gasp) Wikipedia can also help, but they likely provide too much detail that isn’t useful to you at this point. You’re only looking for an overview. Make a note of the most useful endings and review them a few times over the course of the first few days.

Day 4 to 15

Spend one hour a day studying the Anki deck as described above. If you have time to watch TV, watch some episodes of your favourite series in addition to the Anki. Watch the episodes in the original language with English subtitles. You will find that you notice more and more words and phrases that you learned, even while only half paying attention (part of your attention is caught reading the subtitles). You couldn’t learn a language just by watching the episodes, but it is a good way to consolidate what you learned in Anki.

Day 16 to 30

Continue studying the Anki deck, adding more cards as needed. If you run out of episodes, you can also go back to the beginning and tag some of the cards that used to be too difficult.

Do an experiment sometime: watch an episode in the target language without subtitles, or with target-language subtitles only. See how much you understand, maybe using a clicker-counter to count the number of sentences. If you followed the program faithfully, you probably already understand half of all sentences, albeit the easy ones. Since a lot of important communication is done in longer sentences, you may still find it difficult to follow the plot. However, you’ll see steady improvement in your comprehension, and by day 30 you should be able to follow the plot easily, even if some sentences continue to elude you.

Congratulations, you went from zero language knowledge to understanding your favourite foreign TV series in just 30 days!

Example Progression

I wouldn’t recommend this method if I hadn’t used it myself. In this case, I studied the Japanese anime “Hikaru no Go”, which is about the ancient Asian board game Go. I hadn’t studied any Japanese before. Some examples of what I was able to understand ON FIRST HEARING, without having seen these exact phrases before:

450 cards in
お前 知ってたの?- You knew?
黒六十八目 – Black has 68 points.

800 cards in
もしかして強い奴? – Could he be someone really strong?
お前ならできるだろう – You can do it, right?
速く打てよ お前の番だぜ – Hurry up and move! It’s your turn.

1200 cards in
なぜ囲碁部に入った? – Why did you enter the Go club?
私は最近ぜんぜん打ってないですよ~ – But I haven’t played at all lately!
海王の三将ってどんな奴かな – I wonder who Kaio’s third board is.

1500 cards in
俺は 海王の岸本と打ちたい だから 負けるなよ あんた – I want to play against Kishimoto of Kaio, so don’t you lose.
佐為にも時々打たせてやりたいけど – I want to let Sai play every now and then
英語なんかできなくだっていいんだよ 碁を打つだけだから – I don’t have to speak English, all I’m doing is playing Go.
普通の君がインターネットで世界中の人と碁を打つの? – You’re only okay and your playing people from all over the world through the internet?

Clearly understanding more and more complex stuff.