Monday, August 17, 2009

Can you help me improve my language-learning routine?

I thought I'd share with you what's shaping up to be my language-learning routine. I'd love it if you could take home a few good pointers from my routine, but I'd love it even more if you could give me a few good pointers to improve my routine.

My days are, predictably, dominated by Japanese and English. I try to maximize my use of Japanese because of my need to use it at work, but there are two places where I use English as a matter of course. The first is with my kids; I only use English with them, and my wife and I speak English to each other whenever we're in earshot of them, in order to maximize their exposure to English. This is of course a direct trade-off between my Japanese and their English, but one I'll take to prevent them from speaking Engrish. The other place I use English regularly is of course at work when I need to do any of the various things a lawyer might need to do in English.

My language-learning day gets kicked off with my morning alarm; I awake to the sound of Japanese podcasts giving me today's news. Breakfast with the fam is largely in English, although my wife always speaks to the kids in Japanese and the nanny speaks to all of us only in Chinese, so that'll be floating around as well. My mother typically joins us for breakfast via video chat, so once in a while she and I will use some Italian when we don't want anyone else to understand.

Whenever I'm walking around (such as to, from, and in train stations) or standing around (such as on trains when I can't get a seat), I use my iPhone to listen to podcasts and to review vocabulary with iAnki. My first iAnki/podcast stint every day is from the time I leave my apartment until I sit down on the train to work.

Once seated on the train, the podcasts continue, but I typically break out my computer and try to get stuff done that often doesn't involve a foreign language—doing actual work, responding to emails, working on the book, or preparing these blog posts. When I arrive at the station at which I get off, I return to iAnki/podcasts until I get to my office.

Once in my office, I switch from listening to podcasts on my iPhone to listening to them on my laptop quietly in the background, and I keep them playing in my office the entire time I'm there. I also run a screensaver that shows selected vocab on my laptop screen while I work from the firm-supplied computer. You do end up glancing at it from time to time, and it's especially useful for getting extra exposure to things you've been struggling wtih.

Although I end up doing much of my work in English, I get exposed to plenty of Japanese over the course of the day. Once people figure out that my Japanese is passable, they typically stop using English with me whether via email or in person (and I of course encourage this by using Japanese as much as possible). I also regularly have to deal with Japanese-language documents, websites, etc.

All of these serve as founts for vocab to feed into iAnki and from there into my brain. As I come across words and phrases that I'm unfamiliar with over the course of a day, I quickly note them down in an Excel spreadsheet. Before I leave the office each day, I send the Excel sheet I made over the course of the day—which typically has somewhere between 15 to 30 items in it—to my personal email. When I get home each night, I look up all the words, get example sentences, and add them to iAnki.

Whenever I write Japanese, I get it corrected, review the mistakes, and make any new items for iAnki that might be necessary (by first adding them to that Excel spreadsheet). My secretary helps to correct any Japanese I put together for work, but I've been submitting everything else to Lang-8 for corrections—totally gratis. On Lang-8, native speakers of the language you are learning will correct your writing (and you're expected to reciprocate). Response times are impressive, and I've rarely waited more than a hour for corrections, and certainly never more than a day.

As for other languages I encounter at work, I treat them the same way I treat Japanese. As I'm part of the China Practice Group at my firm, I regularly get exposure to Chinese. I've also had to review documents in other languages, such as Spanish and French, and there have been phone calls to Latin America, so any words I've had to look up have ended up mixed in with my mostly Japanese iAnki reps.

Whenever I get the chance, I'll revert to podcats/iAnki, e.g., on a walk to the bank, which is maybe 5 or 10 minutes away from my office. And whenever I get a little bit of time in which I can't effectively do anything else—such as if I'm on hold on a phone—I'll quickly pull out my iPhone and do a few reviews on iAnki. Even if I only have 30 seconds, I can probably get through at least 10 reviews in that short a time period.

On the way home, it's back to iAnki/podcasts. I typically can't find a seat until maybe halfway through my ride home, so this is typically the period each day in which I spend the most time reviewing vocabulary. Once I do find a seat, I break out my laptop and do the same kinds of things I do on the morning ride, while continuing to listen to the podcasts. And, once again, the walk from the train to home is more iAnki/podcasts.

Once home, I add the new items from the Excel spreadsheet mentioned above to iAnki and see what I've managed to do over the course of the day. Typically, I'll get through somewhere between 300 and 500 reviews in a given day. I'll then make any changes necessary to the items in iAnki (such as adding example sentences to things I'm struggling with), as well as updating the vocab words in my screensaver.

It's also at night when I do thing like read news in other languages, although I don't spend as much time doing that as I'd like to.

And that's pretty much my routine as it currently stands.

I am looking to make a few changes, however. One thing I've been puzzling how to do efficiently is bring in languages other than Japanese in a more systematic manner. I think I'm going to do this by assigning a time percentage to each language and then listening to podcasts in each language accordingly. Ideally, I'll be able to find podcasts with transcripts and then review those as well, and then put the vocab into iAnki.

And, of course, I'm sure you might have some tips for me as to how I can improve this routine, so please drop them in the comments below!

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