Monday, January 1, 2018

The Year in Nerdiness

Last year I continued to track the time I spend on my hobbies.

Most of my language nerdery during 2017 had to do with Chinese. I listened to Pimsleur lessons 104 through 150, finishing the 5th and last level sometime in the fall. Then I listened to 27 ChinesePod lessons, most of them from the Intermediate level.

I like ChinesePod more. I think it's because of the personalities of the hosts. They use lots of voice actors, but the lessons I'm listening to now are hosted by John Pasden and Dilu. They sound like they're having fun. If I was just starting to learn Chinese, I'd probably begin with Newbie ChinesePod lessons. I should also recommend the Pleco app as a dictionary and Anki for flashcards.

One other advantage of ChinesePod over Pimsleur is that it has many times more lessons and they go up to more advanced levels.

These lessons are less than 15 minutes each, but it takes me almost 3 hours to listen to one. Each lesson starts with an introduction. Then there's a short dialogue, whose transcript is provided by the ChinesePod company. Then the hosts discuss this dialogue in detail. In the Intermediate level a lot of the discussion is in Chinese. I understand 80% to 90% of it, but of course I have to be obsessive about the other 10% to 20%. I spend a lot of time trying to figure it out by myself. If I fail, I look at one of the transcripts made by ChinesePod users. I think there are only about 150 such transcripts. There's more than a thousand ChinesePod lessons at the Intermediate level and above, so if I stick with this system, at some point I'll have to start flying without the transcript safety net.

Here's a graph of my piano practice over the last few years:

My experiences with language learning made me pretty disdainful of formal education. I didn't learn most of what I know about Chinese, French, German, etc. from lessons. So when I started playing piano and guitar, I assumed that I would be able to learn them myself, simply by playing pieces.

But I eventually hit a wall. In spite of daily practice the speed with which I learn new pieces hasn't improved in years. And this speed is very low. So I started looking around the Internet for suggestions.

Many people think that learning scales and arpeggios is crucial. A lot of music is made up of them, so if you can play them automatically, without thinking, you learn pieces faster. Or so the story goes. Last year I decided to give this theory a try.

After some research I chose this scale book. So far I've learned almost all the exercises for one key, C major. But there are 24 keys in total (by one count), and it's not at all certain that I'll stick with this to the end.

The red segments on the above hobby time graph represent me studying calculus and other STEM subjects. Again, I don't know how far I'll go with this. It's not that I can't plan ahead and follow through, but most of my desire and ability to do that is used up by my job. Off work I'm only really willing to do what I want to do at any given moment. And that varies unpredictably.


  1. Did you use any other courses before Pimsleur for Chinese? What level would you say you are in Chinese after finishing the Pimsleur course? And how would you rate your ability separately in terms of listening and speaking?

    In another post you mentioned that studying grammar and many other classroom methods for learning a language are useless. I definitely agree with this. I think the best way to learn a language is through repetitive listening and repeating like in Pimsleur courses. It's really the only way to assimilate the sounds and patterns of a language.

    Have you looked at Glossika? It's a language learning course that uses "mass sentences", a set of 3,000 sentences that they drill into you to achieve fluency.

  2. I've been learning Chinese on and off for quite a few years.

    I started with John DeFrancis's Chinese Readers. I wanted to learn the characters first, and the spoken language later, so at that point I ignored the pinyin (pronunciation). I read both volumes of DeFrencis's Beginning Reader, then both volumes of his Intermediate Reader, then half of his Advanced Reader volume.

    Then I learned about Rick Harbaugh's dictionary of character "etymologies". There are about 4,000 characters there. Perhaps 3,000 of them were new to me after DeFrancis's books. I memorized all of them together with their meanings, but I still ignored the pronunciation.

    Then I learned about Anki, which is basically smart flashcards. I entered all the characters from Harbaugh's book into the Anki program. Not his "etymologies" though. They were helpful in the learning process. You do need mnemonics. But entering the characters themselves was difficult enough. Then I entered about 1,500 of Harbaugh's multi-character words into Anki.

    Then I found a Chinese translation of an English-language book, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Spent some time trying to read it, checking my results against the original. Then I read Chinese Google News for a while.

    I rated my reading speed in various languages here:

    I read Chinese very slowly, with mistakes. It's a difficult language.

    After all of the above I started a separate Anki deck for character pronunciation. Right now I have a little less than 2,500 characters there.

    Then I went through the Pimsleur course, which is 150 lessons. Then I listened to 59 ChinesePod lessons, 55 of them from the Intermediate level. I would guess that these 209 lessons took me about 350 hours to get through.

    I'm sure that I spent several times that amount of time on learning characters before that.

    I've been planning to measure my listening comprehension in various languages objectively. I just haven't gotten around to it. When I hear my Chinese co-workers speak Mandarin, I get a few words and phrases hear and there. My level isn't high. The last (5th) Pimsleur level roughly corresposnds to ChinesePod's Intermediate level.

    If I were starting to learn Chinese now, I would probably do this:

    I'd download Anki and Pleco, which is the most popular electronic dictionary among Chinese learners today.

    I'd sign up for ChinesePod. I'd start with their Newbie level. They only really teach you the spoken language. However, if I was just starting now, I would look up every new word I'd hear in ChinesePod and enter its characters and prunuciation into Anki.

    ChinesePod goes up to much higher levels than Pimsleur, and as I said in my post, it's also more fun to listen to.

    I've never heard of Glossika, but the "mass sentences" method sounds good to me.