Language Learning - Toshuō
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Category: Language Learning

Part 3, at last! After another month, this is what I sound like:

Progress summary since last time

  • Anki Decks: Almost nothing… just trying to keep up with reviews
  • Living Language: 80% Finished Living Language Intermediate
  • Reading: Read 2 Blaine Ray books, started a third and have done some short stories

Time allocation

I haven’t done so well this month at making time for Spanish. I barely used Anki at all and I spent about 30 minutes, 4 days a week on Living Language. I’ve been reading graded readers, but sporadically. The one bright spot was getting in more tutoring sessions. I managed 6 in April, I think.


Living Language still seems pretty standard, but of high quality. I’m almost done with the intermediate book and while my memory of previous material isn’t perfect, I think I’m retaining a good amount. One thing I particularly like about the series is that while it uses all four language skills, it does a good job of keeping the time spent on writing in control. Back when I was learning Chinese, I spent far, far too much time writing. I think that if I’d spent 2/3 of that time reading or listening instead I’d have improved my vocabulary and comprehension more efficiently and it would have gotten me to a high level more quickly.

Simplified readers

I’ve been super impressed with the Spanish readers I’ve bought. They’re of way better quality than the easy reading materials I used learning Chinese. Especially Blaine Ray’s novels have been fantastic. The first one, Pobre Anna, only has 300 headwords! There’s also a glossary at the back which contains all the words used. Even more importantly, it’s well written and manages to be kind of interesting despite being so simple. The next book in the series, Patricia va a California has a slightly bigger vocabulary but is still very easy. In total, there are five books in the easiest level of the collection, four at level two and two at level three. I’m not exactly sure what the levels correspond to, but the series definitely has a gradual ramp up in difficulty.

Hey everyone! As I predicted, I’ve been too busy with work to have much time for studying Spanish, but I’ve tried hard to do at least a little every day.

Progress summary since last time

  • Audio programs: Finished Michel Thomas’s Total Spanish
  • Anki Decks: About 500 words learned in total
  • Living Language: Finished Living Language Essentials (their book 1)
  • Reading: Ordered some graded readers but don’t have them yet

Time allocation

I’ve barely spent any time at all on Anki. I’ve been reviewing about 1-3 times per week and I don’t spend that long. The “learned” and “mature” cards of the two decks are still growing though. I spent about 1 hour per day on Total Spanish until I finished it. Recently I’ve been spending most my time—30 minutes to an hour a day—on the Living Language series text books.


Michel was great for grammar and for leveraging cognates between English and Spanish to get as much as possible out of the similarity of the two languages. After I get to a higher level, I may do his next program. Anki is doing all the wonderful things it does and unlike when I was learning Chinese, I’m not giving myself stress over it or spending over an hour a day doing flashcards or anything like that. Living Language seems like a pretty standard textbook, but a bit better than average.

I don’ know if my progress in these past three weeks has been good or not. It feels slow and my ability to speak is lagging reading, which wasn’t often the case with Mandarin! Here’s another video in Spanish:

I’ve just finished going through the Michel Thomas Total Spanish audio course. It’s eight CDs in total and it assumes the listener is a complete beginner.

continue reading…

It’s been too long since I’ve been actively learning a language and I’ve decided to take on a new challenge! I’m going to learn Spanish. It should be good fun. Since learning how to learn a language, I haven’t studied anything so similar to English. It’s going to be great having so many cognates with English and not needing to learn thousands of characters!

I have a lot of skills from my experiences learning Japanese and then Mandarin that will help me. On the other hand, now that I’m a software engineer at a tech start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t have nearly the time I had in my 20s while I was learning those languages. Here is my plan:

I’m going to spend some time on vocabulary flashcards in an SRS, but no more than three hours a week. I’ve also got some textbooks and I’m doing an hour of private tutoring each week.

While I’m not a complete beginner, my Spanish is very, very bad at the moment. I’ve often wished I could see the version of Mark from many years ago who struggled to speak Chinese, so I’m recording videos of my Spanish right from the beginning level.

Next time will be better! At the very least, I’ll know how to say 500.


Growing up, I was an avid reader and English was always one of my stronger subjects. But, I never expected that one result of going to Taiwan to teach english would be unintentionally becoming a grammar nazi! I suppose my grammar was relatively strong before I left, but teaching English to non-native speakers has greatly strengthened it.

I taught children. It was wonderful. They were, for the most part, cheerful, eager to please and fun. But they also had this annoying habit of asking “why?”

Why is it, “I haven’t swum this year,” instead of, “I haven’t swam?”

Why is it, “I like eating,” and not, “I like eat?”

“Why is it a big, brown dog and not a brown, big dog?

“Why, why, why…”

Being a student of foreign languages myself, I told them I’d always done better by focusing on how to express a given idea than why it had to be expressed that way. A lot of children were satisfied with that. A few children weren’t. Most of their parents weren’t. They really wanted to know why. And after my first year or two, so did I.

So I ended up learning about when to use past participles, the similarities between gerunds and infinitives, subjunctives and many, many other things about the wonderful complexities of my native tongue. It wasn’t half bad for my abilities to talk about grammar in Chinese, either!

Somewhere along the way, I started to forget what it was like not having an explicit knowledge of various grammatical points. Then I came back to the US and almost immediately started noticing everyone else’s grammatical errors. “There’s a lot of busses to the Embarcadero from here,” I’d hear someone say. And I’d be thinking, “There are a lot of busses because they are countable and plural!” in my head. “I’ve ran a lot of intervals this week,” I’d hear some guy say at a park. “NO!!! You’ve run them because it’s a completed action and therefore is a perfect tense and requires a past participle!” an evil voice would scream. Once in a while it was almost like being a character in The Oatmeal comic.

Now that it’s been two years, my inner grammar nazi is just now finally starting to subside and allowing me to let the distinctions between less and fewer slide. I still haven’t relaxed my stance on English “names” I can’t stand, though!


What is a spaced repetition system? What is it useful for? What are its limitations for use in language learning? See this two minute video.

For those of us from the English speaking world, Chinese characters themselves are often a big piece of what makes Chinese an interesting language to learn. My own experiences are a bit different, since I started with Japanese, but I too have been bitten by that bug. There’s something really neat about how much semantic information is packed in a character! In some cases there are literally a dozen characters with the exact same Mandarin pronunciation, but to the character literate, it’s easy to disambiguate them. That’s cool.

One neat thing about working at an international tech company in China is seeing how new coworkers go about learning English, or if they’re westerners, how they go about learning Chinese. Our CTO has been more interesting to watch in this respect than anyone else I’ve ever seen. He’s all about the characters.

Vacuuming up every character in sight

In a few months, he’s learned to recognize well over a thousand characters during his limited free time. He’s recently started to pick up stroke order from using his iPad to input them, but his focus has been at least 90% on recognition. With this sort of knowledge, he can read ingredients on food labels to ensure that they’re vegetarian, he can operate remote controls, read shop signs and generally navigate around Beijing.

Crippled without comic book bubbles

Obviously there are limits, though. My co-worker is a really smart guy with a PHD in physics and has successfully built and sold 2 start-ups, but he’s still human. There are limits to how much a guy with a family and more than a full-time job can learn in his off hours. He’s learning to recognize so many characters by not spending time on other parts of the language.

Most notably, he’s not learning how to pronounce the characters he can recognize! E.g. he might know that means porridge, but he doesn’t know how to pronounce the character. He would associate directly with the English word “run” and not with its Mandarin pronunciation. It’s kind of amusing to me because he often asks me “what’s the Chinese for (some or another English word)”, and I unthinkingly say the Chinese word to him instead of describing it character by character! Telling him how to pronounce the Chinese word for broccoli during his 3rd month in the country was useless. What he was looking for was “west-orchid-flower”… if only speaking produced bubbles in the air with characters in them as in comic books!

As strange as this method of learning Chinese seems, it’s quite a bit like Heisig’s famous Remembering the Kanji, which helped me quite a bit a few years ago. It’s just that this is the first time I’ve ever seen anybody actually use these methods from the beginning instead of starting with a traditional approach and later trying RTK.

Looking ahead

My co-worker’s current plan is to continue upon his current path until he can mostly “read” newspapers or magazines. If he’s successful, he’ll basically be like my Japanese classmates in my Chinese class– poor speaking skills but some understanding of what most written Chinese he comes across.

There are obviously downsides to going character-crazy. For one, multi-character compounds present a problem. Secondly, speaking is a more useful skill than reading for people actually in China. On the other hand, his speaking is improving from interactions with Chinese people at work, and for the most part he has mental hooks on which to hang the new spoken vocabulary he learns. He speaks more Chinese than any of the last batch of American interns last summer did, and they were half his age and spending each morning in Chinese classes. I’m really interested to see where this endeavor goes.

It was a bit easier than with Southern Min, but it really wasn’t that easy for me to find Cantonese learning materials. I found online dictionaries, but none with audio. There are some very basic youtube videos, but only a few. I emailed a few people with blogs that mentioned learning Cantonese, but nobody had any suggestions of use.

My friend David did tell me of one podcast to help people learn Cantonese, but unfortunately I didn’t know about it until I’d already left Hong Kong. Other than that, the only resources I know of are Pimsleur and the FSI course.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard a number of really positive reviews of Pimsleur language learning programs. Some of my friends have even lent me their Mandarin or Japanese packages. At the time it was hard for me to see the point. I had already learned the vocabulary being introduced, half the audio was English, and it seemed kind of weird. I filed Pimsleur under “stuff that works for people not like me” and put it out of my mind.

Then, not too long ago, I had a chance to see the results first hand. My friend Ben made some Japanese acquaintances and decided to give Pimsleur a shot, largely due to the recommendation of another friend. I saw him the next day, he told me he’d worked through an hour or two and then proceeded to ask me in Japanese, where I was from and if I could speak English! The thing that really impressed me was his pronunciation. To my ears at least, it sounded even better than his Chinese pronunciation! Considering he’d spent years living in Taiwan and using Chinese daily for work, that impressed the heck out of me. Afterwords, I thought a bit more about it. Pimsleur is essentially a spaced-repetition listening and mimicing program.

Arrival in Hong Kong

Before getting to Hong Kong, I’d only worked through the first three hours of Pimsleur Cantonese, but I did find quite a few chances to use what I knew. Furthermore, people in the airport answered my Cantonese in full-speed Cantonese I couldn’t understand! That’s usually a sign that your accent isn’t too far off. Obviously, it’s not ideal for communication in any given moment, but fortunately I knew how to say “My Cantonese isn’t that good” in Cantonese and switch to Mandarin. It’s not much, but even such minor successes gave were very, very motivating!

Over the next couple of days, I continued with the Pimsleur and also found I was picking up a lot of vocabulary from hearing local’s replies. Individually any given reply may not have made sense the first dozen times I heard it, but it did sink in with repetition. I don’t know how much help being a Mandarin speaker and a (poor) Taiwanese speaker gave me, but there were definitely a lot of things that sounded really similar.

After Hong Kong

By the time I left, I was able to order simple drinks, order a value meal at KFC (yay!) and talk to people a little. It wasn’t a lot, but for only spending a single week in Hong Kong, it was far, far better than I had expected. Despite my small vocabulary, locals were shocked with my canned Pimsleur sentences. One even refused to believe me that I was a tourist and not someone who had been living there for a while! The best boost I got was after leaving HK, when I was chatting with a guy from Guangzhou. He said (in Mandarin), “Your Cantonese accent… it sounds like a Hong Konger.” I had been certain he was going to say laowai! I guess Pimsleur must have focused their stuff on HK, not Guangzhou.

I have no illusions about the level of my Cantonese (low-beginner), but it was the fastest start I’ve ever gotten with a new language. If anything, this experience has reinforced to me just how much pronunciation matters. Especially for a clearly foreign-looking person in Asia, your pronunciation has a huge impact on how much input you get and how much of a hassle it is to get it. Back when I first started studying Chinese in Taiwan, I encountered people who downright insisted on using English with me all the time, often even from people with terrible English. After improving past a certain point, I almost entirely stopped running into those people. Similarly, I’ve heard numerous people complain that getting HK people to speak in Cantonese is like pulling teeth if you’re a westerner, but I didn’t experience it at all. Instead, it was me asking them to switch to another language.

If I ever decide to learn Thai or Korean, I’ll probably start with Pimsleur.

I’ve come to value learning phonics well. Both through my experience teaching English as a foreign language and as a student of a number of foreign languages, it’s become clear to me that it’s time well invested. I don’t worry too much if my pronunciation lags a bit, but not being able to distinguish the various sounds of a language is a serious, serious problem. I can’t really remember ever having had that problem with Spanish or Japanese, probably due to the limited set of sounds in each language. Mandarin tones definitely challenged me back when I first moved to Taiwan, but Taiwanese Hokkien has presented a far, far bigger hurdle. Yes, the tones are harder, but that wasn’t it. For at least the first week or two, I couldn’t distinguish the consonants!

Enemy #1: g vs. k vs. kh

Taiwanese includes three consonants that correspond to the two English consonants “g” and “k”. The chart below links Taiwanese POJ romanization with standard IPA symbols.

Taiwanese POJ IPA Classification English example
g ɡ voiced velar plosive get
k k plain velar plosive skit
kh aspirated velar plosive kit

The problem for English speakers is that while we do have both [k] and [kʰ] sounds, they’re in complementary distribution. There’s never a situation in which a an aspirated [kʰ] could be used in place of a [k] or vice-versa. Similarly, we don’t use [g] sounds in positions where a plain [k] could appear (e.g. “sgip”). As a result, our ears are well trained at differentiating [kʰ] vs [g], and not so good at differentiating between the plain [k] and the other two sounds. For me, this has been the biggest listening comprehension challenge I’ve faced in any language I’ve ever studied.

Here is an audio recording with pairs words contrasting the plain k and the g:

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How easy was it for you to differentiate between the two sounds? What kind of language background do you have?

Note: Taiwanese also includes [b], the plain [p], and the aspirated [pʰ]!