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The Cheating & Consolidating Method

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emk
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 Message 1 of 136
30 July 2014 at 3:24pm | IP Logged 
Or How I Reached 99.8% Comprehension of (Some) French Fiction While Goofing Off

[I’ve said all this before, but I think it’s time to put all the pieces together in one article. This is a long article, and it mostly covers passive skills. But you shouldn’t need lots of insider knowledge to make sense of it, and it includes almost all of my favorite tricks.]

During the Super Challenge, I read over 10,000 pages of French, and I spent about 90 hours reviewing sentence cards in Anki. By the end of the challenge, something really cool had happened: I could understand virtually everything I read, easily, almost as if I were reading in English. I could understand most of the text automatically, just by looking at it. Nearly all of the rest of the text was easily decipherable just by staring at it for a few seconds. And only 1 or 2 words out of every 1,000 were completely opaque to me.

As best as I can figure it out, here’s how this worked, from the beginning up to today.

Opaque, Decipherable & Automatic

When I first started learning French, it was mostly opaque. Sure, I could guess a few words thanks to Latin roots, and maybe I could get a very general idea of what the text was about. But I couldn’t actually read it.

Thanks to Assimil’s New French with Ease, I gradually reached the point where I could decipher a fair bit of French text. (I’ll talk more about Assimil shortly.) Reading wasn’t easy—I read slowly, and I could only understand about 70% of a typical page, even with guesswork. But I picked up La grande aventure de la langue française, a 450-page history of the French language, and spent a couple of months plowing through it slowly. But by the end of the book, I found that I could understand more and more of the text automatically, without deciphering it.

Let me put this in visual format:



In the story above, text started out opaque. With various forms of cheating, it became decipherable. (“Decipherable” corresponds to what the linguist Stephen Krashen calls “i+1 input”: something you can understand thanks to context and effort, but which you haven’t fully internalized yet.) And with more exposure, I could eventually consolidate this decipherable text into something I could read normally.

Note that all three kinds of input will typically appear together during this process: Parts of a text will be easy, other parts can be figured out with some effort, and some parts make no sense at all.

Cheating & Consolidating: Assimil

I never would have gotten started in French without Assimil’s New French with Ease. This is a great course, published by a third-generation family company in France. Each lesson in this book contains:

1. A short text in French.
2. An English translation of the French text.
3. An audio recording of the French text.
4. Short explanations of how things work.
5. Some simple exercises.

The idea is that you read through the English text, and use it to puzzle out the corresponding French text and audio. This usually takes me 8 to 12 passes through the material, focusing on the different versions in various orders.

Each Assimil lesson is short, requiring 20 to 40 minutes, and there are slightly over 100 lessons. Starting with lesson 50, the student is encouraged to start an “active wave”, which involves going back to old lessons, and translating from English and to French.

So how does this fit into the model?

Cheating: Assimil starts out very simple French texts, with English translations and explanations. If I made multiple passes through the lesson, this was enough that I could eventually hide the English, and “understand” the French directly.

Consolidating: As the course progresses, Assimil repeats lots of common vocabulary and grammar. Further repetition and consolidation was provided by my 8 to 12 passes through each lesson, and by the active wave.

Cheating & Consolidating: Extensive Reading

Since I’ve started learning French, I’ve read between 10,000 and 15,000 pages of novels, news articles, bad humor sites, and so on. That’s the equivalent of 40 to 60 short novels, or around 2.5 million to 5 million words. At first, this involved a lot of fumbling around, but things got better quickly:

500 pages: I could read! In French! OK, I was slow and missed a lot.
2,500 pages: Reading got dramatically easier and faster.
7,500 pages: I could read about 40 pages per hour with an "opaque" word every other page or so. Not bad!

Cheating: I discovered lots of fun ways to cheat. My favorites are (1) e-readers with pop-up dictionaries, and (2) reading French translations of my favorite books, which I already knew by heart. Another great way to cheat is to use parallel texts, like Assimil does.

Consolidating: Reading a few thousand pages will provide an amazing amount of consolidation.

Cheating & Consolidating: Anki Sentence Cards

Anki is a great tool for reviewing information efficiently. It exploits the forgetting curve to get as much information into your head with as little effort as possible. My favorite way to use Anki is to make “sentence cards” with short blanks to fill in. Here’s a sample card I just made from New French with Ease lesson 1:

Front:

Quote:
Pardon, madame. [___] est le métro Saint-Michel ?
Excuse me (pardon) madam. Where is the metro [station] St. Michel?

Back:

Quote:
Pardon, madame. est le métro Saint-Michel ?
Excuse me (pardon) madam. Where is the metro [station] St. Michel?

The card format was first popularized by Khatzumoto under the name MCD cards. It works best if you don’t worry too much about any given card, and if you delete any card which annoys you. Remember: If something’s important, and if you read enough, then you’ll see it again soon. Keep things easy and fun, and don’t try to learn more than 10 new cards per day for the first month—the reviews build up quickly. Oh, and eventually you’ll reach a point where you don’t really need an English translation any more.

Cheating: Most of the “cheating” here happens when you make the cards, because you can look up missing vocabulary and puzzle things over. But you can also stick an English translation or other hints on the front of the card.

Consolidating: Anki will review these cards at rapidly increasing interviews, and most of the cards will sneak into your brain like an annoying top-40 song lyric. Even hard cards will often become a lot easier around the 30-day mark.

Cheating & Consolidating: Buffy on DVD

Once I could more-or-less read French, and once I could have one-on-one conversations with very patient and sympathetic French speakers, I decided to do something about listening comprehension. After many false starts, I discovered some online Buffy transcripts and I bought a DVD box set. When I started watching, I could follow maybe 40% of the dialog. By the end of the first season, I could understand 70%. By the end of the third season, I understood well over 90%. I repeated this with several other TV series, and I could eventually understand the vast majority of French television.

Cheating: For the first half-season, I read through episode transcripts, looked up unknown words, and watched every episode twice. But even after that, television series offer many subtle ways to cheat: pictures of the action, repeated vocabulary, and familiar voices.

Consolidating: Again, TV series provide an excellent way to consolidate your knowledge, because you can watch season after season.

In a Nutshell

Find cool things to read and watch. Cheat any way you can until you can decipher them. Keep doing this until your knowledge consolidates and the language becomes second nature.

You are encouraged to invent your own methods for cheating, as long as you remember to spend plenty of time consolidating!

UPDATE: For another example of "cheating and consolidating" taken to an extreme, see my Spanish subs2srs log.

Edited by emk on 22 December 2014 at 3:35pm

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Stelle
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 Message 2 of 136
30 July 2014 at 3:35pm | IP Logged 
Excellent post!
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Serpent
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 Message 3 of 136
30 July 2014 at 8:13pm | IP Logged 
Yes, amazing :) My favourite cheats are learning related languages and learning linguistics:)

That's also why I'll never stop recommending reading (and watching/listening) to those who already speak Spanish and learn Portuguese (for example). Consolidation.
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emk
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 Message 4 of 136
30 July 2014 at 10:45pm | IP Logged 
Thank you for your kind words!

Just as a fun mental exercise, I'm going to try to apply this model to some other popular techniques.

* Cheating & Consolidating: Childhood Language Acquisition

How do children learn their first languages?

Cheating: Parents say the same 50 things a thousand different times, with plenty of pantomime. (Trust me on this.) If they really need to get a point across, they slow way down and explain things as many times as needed. Eventually children master enough of the basics that they can start learning from context and asking lots of questions.

Consolidation: Studies claim that children hear between 3 million and 13 million spoken words per year. The children towards the upper end of that range do better in school. This is the equivalent of multiple Super Challenges per year, every year.

Kids work surprisingly hard, and they get far more input than all but the most dedicated adult learners. However, Krashen claims that although school-aged children may learn the basics of a new language quickly, they still generally need 3–5 years to catch up with their monolingual peers academically.

* Cheating & Consolidating: Listening/Reading

Although I've never tried Listening/Reading seriously, it fits into this model very nicely:

Cheating The L1 text makes it much easier to understand an L2 text, and the L2 text makes it easier to understand the L2 audio. There are presumably some limits here: L/R will be much harder to make work in unrelated language, with very different grammar, no cognates and possibly an unfamiliar writing system. But I would guess that it works amazing well when moving between related languages.

Consolidation: L/R recommends do lots of long sessions, which should offer plenty of chances to consolidate.

My prediction is that as long as you make the L2 text semi-decipherable and you put in enough hours, L/R should be a pretty efficient method.

* Cheating, with Consolidation After: Iversen's Word Lists or Gold Lists + Reading

Methods like Iversen's word lists and Gold Lists focus heavily on the first part of the problem:

Cheating: By quickly learning a large number of frequent words up front, the learner builds a mental "dictionary". This makes it easier to tackle natural texts.

Consolidation: As I understand it, Iversen recommends plenty of reading once a reasonable amount of vocabulary has been learned. I suspect that if you omit the reading practice, none of these vocabulary-oriented methods will produce fluent, automatic reading.


And for the scientifically-minded, I'll make some predictions: If a method provides no way to produce decipherable text, or if it offers no way to consolidate, then it's probably going to work poorly. And conversely most methods that fail to produce comprehension will do so because they neglect one or both steps.
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Serpent
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 Message 5 of 136
31 July 2014 at 12:34am | IP Logged 
As for LR, it has more cheating options for unfamiliar languages:
-reading the whole text in L1 first
-using a parallel text
-in the beginning, using interlinear translations

And the Ilya Frank method is great in this regard too, you get a translation after each phrase/sentence, it's as literal as possible, when things get idiomatic you can have a more literary equivalent too (in addition to the literal, of course)... and then you get the same paragraph without any cheats, and you're encouraged to reread it before moving on.

Edited by Serpent on 31 July 2014 at 12:35am

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iguanamon
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 Message 6 of 136
31 July 2014 at 1:27am | IP Logged 
Hmmmm, Cheating? None of this is nefarious at all. I call it normal language learning.
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emk
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 Message 7 of 136
31 July 2014 at 2:45am | IP Logged 
Serpent wrote:
And the Ilya Frank method is great in this regard too, you get a translation after each phrase/sentence, it's as literal as possible, when things get idiomatic you can have a more literary equivalent too (in addition to the literal, of course)... and then you get the same paragraph without any cheats, and you're encouraged to reread it before moving on.

Yeah, this is perfect. Make the text comprehensible using anything that works.

Assimil Egyptian does the same thing: They give me hieroglyphs, and a transliteration, and an insanely literal translation, and loose translation that captures the meaning. Linguists do the same thing with glosses: a word-for-word translation with detailed grammatical annotations, and then a free translation.

iguanamon wrote:
Hmmmm, Cheating? None of this is nefarious at all. I call it normal language learning.

Well, cheating isn't always nefarious. Cheating death and cheating fate are both highly admirable occupations. :-)

But I chose the word "cheating" deliberately, because a lot of first-time language learners seem to feel an obligation to do everything step-by-step, as specified by their textbook. And another group of students seem to feel this crazy obligation to tackle native materials directly, with no help, and they're hoping to jump straight from "Opaque" to "Automatic" via some kind of miracle. I wasted maybe 75 hours trying to understand news radio by brute force, hoping for some kind of miracle when it would all became easy. Eventually I learned that I've got to through "Decipherable" first, before I get to "Automatic."

But the amazing thing is that it doesn't seem to matter how I get to "Decipherable." If I'm clever enough, I don't need to settle for "i+1 input", I can just keep adding trickery until I can comfortably decipher "i+5 input" (to coin an expression). Then all I need to do is keep pumping more content through my brain until things consolidate. And I don't even need to be able to decipher everything—just enough to follow along and have fun.

I want to encourage people to try ridiculous, off-the-wall things. To look for miracle cures. As long they can somehow decipher the input, in large quantities, then I want them to be as clever and sneaky as they can possibly be—and to share their ideas.

This is much more aggressive advice than I usually give, and with a lot fewer caveats. But I've tried out maybe a dozen variations of this idea over the last several years, often unknowingly. And it hasn't led me wrong yet: as long as I can make stuff decipherable, and I can get enough input to consolidate it, then it's a huge win for my French.

So if there's a programmer out in the audience thinking:

Hey! I could make TV decipherable by writing a video player that replayed each line of dialog three times—once in the L2, once in the L1, and finally in the L2 again. Or for more advanced students, maybe it could have a button to only replay on demand! And maybe it should automatically export the replayed clips to Anki.

…then my response is, "Sounds great! I totally bet that would work. And please take my money now."

There's nothing new here, either—this is basically just Krashen's classic claim that "We acquire languages by understanding messages," applied specifically to the problem of understanding input.[1] All I'm saying is that as long as you get that understanding—and you get it often enough—then you can be as devious as you want about how you get it.

[1] Output is another discussion. I believe that some people really do need to practice output. But even that is zillion times easier if they get tons of comprehensible input.

Edited by emk on 31 July 2014 at 2:49am

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iguanamon
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 Message 8 of 136
31 July 2014 at 3:39am | IP Logged 
emk wrote:
... a lot of first-time language learners seem to feel an obligation to do everything step-by-step, as specified by their textbook. And another group of students seem to feel this crazy obligation to tackle native materials directly, with no help, and they're hoping to jump straight from "Opaque" to "Automatic" via some kind of miracle. I wasted maybe 75 hours trying to understand news radio by brute force, hoping for some kind of miracle when it would all became easy. Eventually I learned that I've got to through "Decipherable" first, before I get to "Automatic."

A thousand times, YES! Exactly! For many languages, these kinds of resources are available, maybe not for sale and it takes a little effort to find them. It may not come out of the box, but trust me, it's well worth the effort.

Popular US TV series are translated into a lot of languages. Subtitle files (.srs) are available in English and many other languages for popular US shows. With a little effort, learners can make good use of these as subtitles for video or to make free, bilingual texts of conversational speech.

Take, for example, Deutsche Welle's Radionovela series in French Learning By Ear- Français. These are 10-12 minute audio plays about a wide variety of subjects intended for Francophone Africa. The language is conversational, intended for adolescents and young people so not overly complicated. The actors are native-speakers- though African, not metropolitan French. There are exact transcripts available as well- and they're free to download. As a bonus, the same series is available with English and Portuguese transcripts.

This isn't out of the box, but with a little work, learners could make their own bilingual texts, and have free audio of almost 70 hours of French in conversational, play form- free and legal.

There are a myriad of other sources available, NHK World News has exact transcripts in many languages (including French) and English available. Democracy Now- Spanish and English- exact transcript, native speed. Veinte Mundos- Spanish- Exact transcript and mouse over English definitions/explanations of difficult text. Global Voices.org 26 languages most with translations in English, etc., etc, etc. Call it cheating if you will, I call it using your head for something else besides a place to hang your hat.

Edited by iguanamon on 31 July 2014 at 4:07am



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