January 31, 2022

My random thoughts on language learning

My random thoughts on language learning 

Mastery/no blind spots

Inspired by Salman Khan, while learning a particular concept, try to learn in a way that you understand everything you are learning perfectly with no ‘blind spots’ in your understanding. In other words, if tested on what you are learning, you should get 10/10, ten times in a row. It seems, that the information you learn needs to be perfectly understood by your brain so that it can turn into a solid, automatic, functional block quickly. 

Additionally, you can’t just learn something and know how it works roughly. It’s like learning what the gas and brake pedals do, but not learning what the clutch does and then in the next lesson being taught how to parallel park. Obviously I need to know what the clutch does before I can do that. 

Law of distributed burdens*

It is wise to divide brain-intensive operations into separate, more manageable chunks. While logical, it’s unfortunately not obvious and this strategy has helped me many times deal with brain intensive operations, not only when it comes to language learning. 

For instance, it is very inefficient to learn Chinese by learning how to read, write, speak and understand the language all at the same time. If you distribute the burden, say, learn how to read in pinyin first, then move on to listening, then move on to text-chatting in pinyin, then to speaking, then to reading Chinese characters, then to learning how to type Chinese characters and finally to handwrite, the task will be much more manageable.

This approach can be applied to lower levels of language learning too. For instance, it is more efficient to try to improve your pronunciation one sound at a time rather than try to improve several sounds at once. It’s for instance more efficient to consciously accept that you are not pronouncing the Spanish ‘r’ correctly and leave the improvement of this sound until after you’ve become somewhat fluent in the language. Working on both improving the ‘r’ sound while trying to improve your general fluency at the same time might be overloading the brain and actually slowing down the progress towards fluency itself considerably.  

*I don’t have a better name for this concept unfortunately but I hope it will do. 

July 16, 2021

Interesting ideas from the Lex Fridman Podcast

About two months ago I discovered the wonderful Lex Fridman podcast. It has kept me company most of my days since then and has made me pause and think about what was said by Lex or his guests and life in general really about a hundred times, thinking about some of the ideas mentioned long after the podcast was over.

As a tribute to this wonderful intellectual work, since I wrote some of the ideas I found really interesting into my little notebook, I wanted to post them as an article.

I intentionally didn't attribute individual thoughts or paragraphs to their authors (I did attribute them as a group at the end of the article) and there is a reason for that. I've been experimenting with a new concept (at least for me). I noticed that when I read an article by someone and don't know who wrote it or when I listen to a podcast and do not know anything about the person speaking, it's a completely different intellectual experience for me than when I know at least something about that person. Even seeing the picture sets up a certain preconception in my mind. When I know nothing about the person, I am much more open to that person's ideas, listen/read with much less prejudice and just have much less preconceptual junk in my mind influencing my listening in general.

When I listen to Lex's podcast (or any podcast) now, I skip the guest introduction, and let the 'ideas sell themselves'. I might read up on the guest afterwards, but not before the interview and I am trying to do this with articles I read as well (where possible). I have to say it really is a whole new intellectual experience:)

June 17, 2021

Online superorganisms

Tim Urban's Tweet

A while ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Tim Urban, tweeted a tweet in which he expressed sadness about the fact that Nature (the scientific magazine) was posting too much political content. 

As it unfortunately often is the case today, this, in my opinion innocent tweet, caused an all out war in the comment section with dozens of people attacking him. 

This being sad, but not surprising, I noticed one other thing however. Consider this tweet: (I intentionally deleted the parts that would identify the topic so that I wouldn't get accidentally flamed as well:)

"Come on Tim, you are better than that...remember when you published that multipart hagiography of Elon Musk on yours? What happened to you, dude?? Tim you're better that this. You've had some pretty yikesy takes lately. Hoping it's just a phase and I legitimately don't see the problem here. Very silly tweet. Even if that was a mistake—and I very much hope it was—you’re coming across as what you once called a zealot. ....is this performance art?"

What is interesting about it is, that it is actually not one tweet. These are 10 tweets posted by 10 different people which I pieced together. To me they legitimately seem like written by one person. 

Diverting slightly, more and more I've been thinking about the fact that people connected to the internet have turned into this huge neural network where each one of us is acting like a single neuron in that network. 

December 21, 2020

Some thoughts about my dear book about Chinese Characters

Several years ago I wrote a book about Chinese characters called Understanding Chinese Characters. What started out as small research for my personal study purposes turned into this gigantic project that took more than 5 years of very intensive research and writing to complete and even though I did most of the work alone, there were almost 30 people involved helping me. Many many thanks to them, especially those who were very involved and the book could never have been finished without them. When I was done I was so tired and burned out, that even though I managed to push the book over the finish line with 100% diligence, after I self-published, I had no energy left for promotion whatsoever. 

I'm not a sales person anyway and I feel very uneasy when I have to talk about something I did not to mention promote myself or a product or an idea I worked on, so I submitted the book only to one publishing house and when I got rejected (which happens all the time and I accepted it normally) I only put the book on my blog and let it live it's own life. 

I am very surprised and happy that to this day with basically zero promotion and with the book being hidden on my blog there were almost 200 people who were interested in it enough to buy it. Many thanks to everyone who did.

In either case, the reason why I'm writing this article now is because a reader left a comment under the article where I talk about my book and asked a few questions, the most important being: how is my book different from all other books about Chinese characters? 

A lot of time has passed since my Chinese character burn out and when I read his comment I realized that a reader who doesn't know my work from my Understanding Chinese Characters youtube channel really does not know why I think my book is the best book about Chinese characters ever written! :) All jokes on me. 

He mentioned one Russian book to me and told me that to him it essentially looks the same as mine except for the colors and I have to agree. On the surface and without any explanation the two layouts do look similar:

December 05, 2020

Discussions with my Slovak-born Chinese friend about tones in Mandarin Chinese

Recently I've been going to my friend's Chinese restaurant every Saturday to eat and have a good time for a few hours with my local Slovak-Chinese friends.

I've been always fascinated with perfectly bi-lingual and bi-cultural people - the more complex or unexpected the combination the better. My friend's parents are from the ZheJiang province in South-East China. He was in China for 3 years from 6 to 9 years old to learn Mandarin (until then he only spoke his local ZheJiang dialect at home with his parents) and came back to Slovakia right before he would have learned anything about the structure of Mandarin in Chinese schools as Chinese students do.

He speaks Mandarin completely by feel, at a native level, albeit with a limited vocabulary and sometimes limited expressions, but at a native level. He speaks Slovak better than Mandarin. He feels more Slovak/European than Chinese. 

Since I started learning Mandarin, I was always most curious about how native speakers perceived tones, how and whether at all they think about them when they speak and it was quite difficult to talk about this to educated Chinese native speakers, because they all had learned about the structure of Mandarin in school which influenced their perception. 

My friend however knows nothing about Mandarin structure, speaks it intuitively and the following, to me fascinating, discussion took place:

November 28, 2020

Substance and Form

When I was younger, say between 13 and 21, to a great extent, I was much better at speaking foreign languages because I didn't really care that much about what I was saying :) 

To me it was important that I had a good accent, that I sounded like a native speaker and it was often at the cost of substance - the actual message I was delivering and the way I was structuring it. I might have sounded 100% like someone from New Jersey, but if you paid close attention to what I was saying, it wasn't very coherent. Now, provided, I was young at that time I wouldn't expect my younger self to be very coherent in the first place but I think I would have had struggled even if I had tried. 

As I got older, I started to realize that substance was actually quite important. Surprise (笑). As a lot of people, I imagine, I realized that most of what I was saying, no matter how complicated, was just a resonance of what was said around me. Almost everything I was saying and even thinking was something I'd heard from someone else before, only gravitating to those thoughts and language that was appealing to me and not forming it myself. 

June 15, 2020

How polyglots learn foreign languages - University research questionnaire

Hello everyone,

a university student from Finland asked me if I could answer some questions for his Master's thesis about how polyglots learn foreign languages. It's not like I get flooded with requests like this every day. I am very honored, that someone would like to hear my opinion for academic research and every time I am asked to summarize how I learn I feel like I get better and better at summarizing something I have no idea how to summarize :) 

I suspected my answers would turn into a small essay so I decided to post the text as an article for anyone interested as well.


1) Mother tongue(s): 

Slovak/Czech, Hungarian

2) Enlist the languages you know and evaluate the level of each according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, eg. Spanish C1 etc. (descriptions of the levels available on the last part of this questionnaire).

Current level:

Slovak C2
Czech C2
English C2
Mandarin C2/C1
Spanish C1
Italian C1
German C1
Russian C1

Hungarian B2
French B2
Portuguese B1

Classical Chinese B1
Latin B1

I learned other languages as well, but my current level in them is very poor. Maybe worth mentioning only might be, that when I was more involved with languages, apart from the above, I was able to hold a decent conversation without having to switch to English in: Polish, Serbian and Persian.

May 30, 2020

Are Simplified Chinese Characters really that new?

The great majority of Simplified Chinese characters* were created during the simplification process in the 20th century in the PRC. What is however probably not very well known is that a lot of what we call Simplified Chinese Characters today are characters that are very old themselves.

These characters may have originally had meanings that were not the same as the characters they replaced in the simplification process, or they sometimes were alternative modern or older versions of the same character but in either case, these Simplified Characters existed for a very long time in history as well (as will be shown, often for more than 2500 years).

The point of this post is not to argue that all Simplified Chinese characters are old, or praise their age and neglect the fact that they don't corrupt the phonetic and semantic elements of Traditional characters they replaced. I'm simply stating an interesting fact and addressing the common misconception that all Simplified Chinese characters were created ad hoc in the in the simplification process in the 20th century.

Furthermore, the simplification in the 20th century by the PRC government wasn't the first one in Chinese character history. There were several ones, some large-scale and systematic, others having the nature of random improvements, with the 20th century one being the most recent one. These previous simplifications also often corrupted individual character elements rendering them irrecognizable as will be shown below.

To name just a few all following Traditional characters had previously been simplified with their originals clearly containing recognizable phonetic and/or semantic elements:

Original meaning "to harvest grain" formed by 禾 (meaning grain) and 千 phonetic (pronounced qian1) originally written as 秊

Original meaning "outer side of garment" formed by 衣 semantic (meaning "clothes") and 毛 phonetic (pronounced mao2) originally written as 𧘝

October 18, 2019

Language Trivia

Hello everyone. I made a list of language-related questions for a friend of mine for a trivia game and I thought I would post the questions here for fun.

The rules are:

A) No google:)
B) If you get the whole question right, you get a point
C) Feel free to write your answers in the comments

Here are the questions:

1) Name the three largest Indoeuropean language families in Europe

2) Name 5 major Germanic languages

3) Name 5 major Romance languages

4) Name 7 major Slavic languages

5) Name 3 major Ugro-Finnic languages

September 16, 2019

Impossible tasks and bad techniques

If you see someone trying to lift a 500 kg stone with rollerblades on their feet, maybe knowing that that person had never done any exercise in their lives before, it's clear to you that that person will not lift the stone.

Firstly, the stone is just too heavy and secondly, it's really a dumb idea to try to lift it with your rollerblades on.

Unfortunately, the way people are trying to achieve language proficiency in some languages, is something you cannot see with your eyes, and a lot of people simply don't realize that either the goal they are working towards is impossible to achieve or the methods they are using will not work.

Some very difficult languages just cannot be learned to a satisfactory level with current methods. It's just like trying to lift that very heavy rock with rollerblades on.

So..if you are learning a language and are not making progress the problem might not be your lack of talent, but rather the fact, that with the methods you are using, you just objectively cannot learn what you are trying to learn.