Maria Holland

Vida de Pi

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I did it!  I completed my New Year’s resolution of reading Vida de Pi (Life of Pi, in Spanish) in 2013.  In fact, I finished a month early.  This is the second year in a row that I’ve read a book in a foreign language, and I think it’s been so helpful to me in maintaining and even improving my languages.

Last year, I read the first Harry Potter book in Chinese, but that was a little bit different as I had already read part of it in 2011.  Even so, I found myself scrambling at the end, and I think I read the last third in the two weeks I was home on break :(  This year, I did the whole thing, start to finish, in 2013, and I made a couple improvements that I think really added to the experience.

First of all, after I realized that reading Harry Potter in a year would have meant reading ½ a page every day if I had been disciplined, I decided to be more consistent in the task throughout the year.  To that end, I started using an online service called Beeminder.  They describe themselves as “goal-minding with teeth” – essentially, you commit to a goal and if you fail to make it, they charge you. (There are several caveats; you can change your goal anytime but the change takes effect a week from now, and you don’t get charged for the first “derailment”.)  It’s a cool service and I highly recommend it for anything that you’re looking to track but also commit to.

I set a goal to reach page 400 by Dec 31, 2013 (the bullseye at the end) – and, as the graph shows, I made it (without derailing!):

beeminder I think there are a couple of interesting things to notice from this.  First of all, I started the year by reading almost every day, but by June or so I was in a pretty solid pattern of reading 7-8 pages on the weekends.  This ended up being more efficient and, to be frank, realistic.  Also, look at the outlier right around the beginning of October – I had a friend coming to visit me and I knew I didn’t want to have to read while he was here, so I got well ahead in my reading before he came.  This is totally due to Beeminder; without it I would have fallen behind and had to catch up, but this commitment made me be proactive!

The second thing I did also involved data tracking.  Throughout the book, I kept track of the words I underlined (the ones I didn’t know and had to look up) as well as the words that I added to Anki (my flashcard program).  I started using Anki with Spanish at the beginning of the year, so it was a very clean slate to start with.


A few interesting things about this graph:

The red line and dots are the new cards that I added to my flashcard deck.  At the beginning, I added a lot of easy words that I already knew in Spanish, just so my deck wouldn’t be overwhelmingly hard and discouraging.  (Also because I think it’s an interesting concept to quantify the number of words you know in a language.)  This tapered out quickly, and had been reduced to almost nothing around halfway through the book, when it joined the torquoise line.

The torquoise line and dots are the words that I underlined and had to look up.  Around halfway through, the torquoise line and the red line joined, meaning the only cards I was adding to Anki were words that I had had to look up.  At the beginning of the book, this was almost 15 words per page!  By the end of the book, I was reading much faster, and part of that was because there were only a few (<5) words on each page that I didn’t know.

It’s also interesting to note the outlying data points . . . that red dot around page 240 is when Pi started fishing, and I learned a lot of words for fish and fishing equipment.  The turquoise points around 150 are when Pi first got into the lifeboat and I encountered a lot of terms for parts of the boat and the supplies that he had with him.

I thought all of this was really interesting, and definitely worth the extra effort in tracking the information.  Sadly, this is not even close to the nerdiest Excel spreadsheet on my computer.  Not. Even. Close.

So, with 2014 a month away, I am starting to think about next year’s goal.  I want to continue in this vein somehow, but I’m torn between languages, books, and even mediums.  I feel ready to read something originally in Spanish that I haven’t read yet, but in Chinese I would stick with something I’ve read before (probably Kite Runner, because I already own that).  I’m also considering a telenovela, to really work on my listening in Spanish more . . . We’ll see!

Complain + Complain = Drive

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2013 at 1:32 am

Today in our lab meeting, a visiting postdoc from Switzerland gave a presentation on his research.  The title of one of his slides was something like “Gute Results”.

I know a little bit of German – enough to realize that “gute” wasn’t some technical term I wasn’t familiar with, but rather just a relic of a presentation translated from German.

That made me think . . . and I realized that no Chinese speaker would be likely to leave an untranslated Chinese word on an English presentation.  They stick out too much, look too different from English to be passed over or forgotten.

After the success of last year’s resolution to finish Harry Potter in Chinese, I decided to read Life of Pi in Spanish this year.  It’s going well so far!  To finish the book this year I have to keep up a pace just over 1 page per day, and today on the 30th of January I’m on page 42.  My atrophied Spanish muscles are strengthening and I feel like I’m getting faster at getting better, and getting better at getting faster.

I started a Spanish Anki deck when I started the book, and have been adding both the new words I have to look up and old words that I know pretty well.  This helps avoid burnout when reviewing all really challenging cards :)

I’m also still reviewing my Chinese and German decks, plus in a spurt of zeal after I upgraded to Anki 2.0 I made itty bitty decks for all the other languages I’ve picked up words in while on trips . . . I can now say that I know 13 words in Khmer (oh heavens!  10 of those are numbers . . . ), 9 in Korean, 4 in Polish, 5 in Dutch, and 10 in Slovenian.  Not much, but it would be sad to lose those tiny treasures!

Anyway, it’s been interesting having to swtich between languages in a way I’ve never really done before.  When I started learning Chinese I pretty much let Spanish fall by the wayside and never focused on any other language for longer than the few days I was in country.

The other day, I was reviewing Spanish and the English word “complain” came up.  I answered immediately – but incorrectly.  It’s a word that I considered myself to have known before, so I was confused as to how I could have gotten it wrong?

Even more confusing, after a few seconds of consideration, I realized that I knew the true meaning of the word I had answered with - manejar means “to drive”.

But I figured it out.  “Complain” is quejarse in Spanish and manyuan (埋怨) in Chinese . . . My answer, manejar, was a combination of the two.

Interesting how the written languages can be so distinct, but my mind puts all the sounds in the same place!

The Disadvantages of Reading to Learn Languages

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2013 at 1:24 am

I have a lot of thoughts about reading as a way to improve and maintain languages, so I’m going to continue on where I left off in the last post.  There are a few disadvantages to this method, which I think I should acknowledge.  


“Useless” words

My biggest concern when starting Harry Potter in Chinese was all of the “useless” words that I was going to have to learn.  In most languages, proper nouns stick out and don’t really require “learning”, but it’s a different story in Chinese.  (Can you pick out the name in this sentence?  “罗恩打不起精神来,天气实在太热了“)  

But actually, it didn’t end up being too bad.  Yes, I learned about 20 proper nouns (Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Draco Malfoy, the entire Weasley family, Neville Longbottom, Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, Snape, Quirrell, Voldemort, Hogwarts, all four houses, and Quidditch), and had to be familiar with a few others at least well enough to recognize when they were being used.  

But the great thing about reading a 191-page book about the same people is that those proper nouns were almost a one-off deal, an upfront investment I had to make to facilitate the rest of it.  And in the rest of it, I got to learn some really useful things – expel, coma, lion, referee, invisible, peel, Ireland, hatch, sniffle, bow and arrow, intestines, pitch-black, armchair, ankle, chess, flame, and rare are just some examples.  

And the very non-Muggle words like wand, flying broomstick, alchemy, and wizard are really great for impressing people :)


Written vs. spoken language

When I got to see a good Chinese friend of mine over break, I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak Chinese with her for several hours.  As we spoke, I caught myself several times speaking in a way typical to written Chinese, or 书面语.  I guess this is a potential pitfall for this method, which could vary with language and your choice in material.  Harry Potter is not a very formal book, but in Chinese there is a fairly noticeable difference between written and spoken language.  

As I said, I don’t think this is a good way to learn a language from the beginning, and I also don’t think it can or should be the only method used to maintain or advance a language.  It would be most beneficial paired with increased speaking.  In hindsight, I wish I had sought out opportunities to talk to Chinese friends about the book, which would have given me a chance to talk about a subject in whose vocabulary I am well-versed!  


Despite these drawbacks, I made a new resolution this year: this time, to finish my first full book in Spanish!  I have chosen Vida de Pi (Life of Pi) from our family’s quite extensive Spanish library.  I plan to apply the skills I learned last year (though not the vocabulary, haha!) in this endeavor.  I’m interested to see if this tactic works well with my Spanish, despite the linguistic differences (aaah! cognates!  how I’ve missed you!  Conjugations, not so much . . .) and my lower language level.  Stay tuned for future posts!

I’m also using some tools to track my progress, namely Beeminder to keep me on a steady pace of about a page a day.  (A page a day.  Now doesn’t that sound manageable!  Imagine my dismay when, in the depths of my frantic reading over break, I realized that I could have read the entirety of Harry Potter in one year by reading only half a page per day!)

We’ll see how this year goes, but I have tentative plans already.  I was given a copy of 最风筝的人  (Kite Runner, one of my favorite books) in Chinese for my birthday in 2010, and I would love to read that.  XuLei has offered to send me a book in Chinese every year for my birthday present, even making some recommendations.  Adrian, my Mexican lab mate, is also full of suggestions of books written in Spanish.  It would be interesting to read a book written originally in a foreign language, and to read a book that I have never read in English.  These are all future challenges that I hope to tackle soon!


Lastly, I want to share an anecdote from my Harry Potter reading.  While looking up new words after finishing, I came across a few that really surprised me.  Unlike English, Chinese has a finite number of possible syllables, as each syllable is made up exactly of an initial and a final sound, and there are 21 initial sounds and 35 final sounds.  But there are even less than 21*35 = 735 syllables, because not all of the finals can go with all of the initials.  Thus bǔ is not a valid sound, or quen, or xong, or ruai.  After learning around 2000 characters and hearing many more, I have a pretty good feel for what is and what isn’t a valid Chinese syllable.  But there are still some surprises . . . in Harry Potter, I came across four syllables that I had never heard before!  If you had asked me, I would have said that they weren’t even Chinese, but the dictionary says otherwise!  

After looking into it a bit, I suppose it’s not too surprising that I’d never come across them before.  There are only 8 characters that sound like “zei”, 8 “zuan”s, 13 “pie”s, and 30 “kua”s.  This is in comparison to, say, the syllable “shi”, for which my dictionary offers a staggering 276 possible characters.  Crazy.  

PS- looking through the rest of the possible syllables listed on this site, I was surprised by a few others: cen, chuai, chuo, cuan, den, jiong, kei, keng, miu, mou, nang, nen, nou, nǔe, pou, rua, seng, shuan, weng, and zhuai.  Well, that was humbling.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.