Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion (Cantonese, Italian)

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Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion (Cantonese, Italian)

Postby zKing » Tue Apr 24, 2018 1:11 am

Target Languages: Cantonese and Italian

I'm a long time lurker here and at HTLAL and it is probably about time I start a log.

Cantonese background:
I've been learning Cantonese on and off for about 10 years (yikes!), since my wife and I met. She is a native speaker of Cantonese, but speaks almost perfect native-like English without an accent. I don't like to bore her with my two-year-old level speaking and she has very little interest in Cantonese media, so she helps me mostly with "how would a native say X?" type questions. And after being essentially forced to learn English to a VERY high level (she is an attorney), she has very little interest in language learning and only sees it as a huge pile of work. We do both enjoy karaoke, however, and I sing Cantonese songs weekly. When she speaks with her family the conversations are all Cantonese. (I insist that they feel free to speak in Cantonese when around me.) I can usually follow the gist of most conversations, but I get lost easily and miss most of the details. We recently took our first trip to Hong Kong and visited some of my wife's relatives. People were quite stunned at my ability to both understand and read with Cantonese pronunciation. They were very encouraging and motivated me to push ahead and get truly conversational.
My reading is B range, listening is high A range and speaking is phrasebook level.
Over the years I've had spurts of serious focus and long stretches of little contact or study.
My real focus is to get my listening very solid, perhaps high-B2 or even C1-ish and then work on speaking.

Italian background:
My wife and I love to visit Italy so back in 2015 I took a stab at learning Italian.
Up to that point, I had very consciously avoided starting another language as I knew I would be very susceptible to language wanderlust.
(Mmm, Arabic, Hindi, French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, German, Portugese...)
But I told myself that I would learn a lot by learning a bit of a language different that Cantonese, i.e.
  • Closer to English, lots of cognates
  • Has a big selection of learning materials, websites, etc.
  • Written phonetically
  • Written mostly like it is spoken, i.e. no "second language" to learn. (Diaglossia sucks)
  • And just plain faster and easier to see rates of progress.
I think it is FSI that claims Italian takes roughly 1/4 the time to learn as Cantonese.
And... it was all true.
Italian was fun and I was having conversations with iTalki tutors, all in Italian in a matter of months.
On our next trip to Italy, I was chit-chatting with waiters, giving directions to taxi drivers, making reservations on the phone(and making lots of mistakes as well)... all in Italian.
I could _function_ and it was a VERY fun experience and I absolutely love Italian even more than before.
In the past year or so, I haven't done much with Italian so it is a bit rusty.
I was probably around low A2 before, but I need to knock the rust off that.

This brings me to my biggest issue, time. I am not willing to allocate a lot of what I call language learning "Golden Time".
I think my langauge learning time divides up roughly as follows:
  • "Golden time": time at my computer where I can exclusively concentrate on language learning and listen/speak/make noise.
    I can do 'anything': type, click buttons, make noise, listen to stuff, watch and rewind videos, whatever.
  • "Ears-Only time": I can listen, but have limited ability to otherwise interact (i.e. click buttons, etc.)
    This usually includes driving time, jogging, etc.
  • "Quiet time": I can interact with my phone a bit, but I either don't want to be "that guy" and have headphones buzzing or
    I need to be interruptable or it is such a short period of time that I would lose too much of it if I try pulling out the headphones.
    Think of standing in line, waiting for a meeting to start, hanging out in a room with someone who is quietly reading, etc.
  • "Phone time": I'm not at my computer, but I can be a bit more self-involved and can put in the headphones and focus without being too annoying.
The truth is that I have very little time I can devote to Golden time. Most of it comes from lunch time at work.
Life's demands and my other priorities mean that I don't spend much on the evenings and weekends.
So I get between 3-7 hours per week of Golden time.
I do get goodly sized chunks of the other types of time, so I need to be careful how I use it.

The Plan:
  • Golden Time:
    . Primary: Intensively study Cantonese Audio. Vocabulary mine as a I go.
    . Occasionally I need to drop the mined vocab into Anki, but I do this in big batches to keep the time hit minimal.
  • Ears-Only Time:
    . Extensive Listening to familiar or comprehensible content, Cantonese
  • Quiet Time:
    . Anki Cantonse Vocabulary (has no audio)
    . Extensive Italian Reading (with pop up dicationary)
  • Phone Time:
    (i.e. one of the three above)
    . Extensive Listening to familiar or comprehensible content, Cantonese
    . Anki Cantonse Vocabulary (has no audio)
    . Extensive Italian Reading (with pop up dicationary)
The justification for the plan above has a few main driving forces:
1. Anki works, but it hurts.
2. Intensive Listening with Vocabulary mining can really only be done in Golden Time and it is the most directly effective process for my goals.
3. You can learn a lot of Italian with extensive reading, not so much with Cantonese (see diglossia)

On Anki:
I have used Anki a lot. And it is painful. I have tried a zillion variations to try to both make it more effective and less painful.
I have tried goldlists and word lists and spreadsheets and memrise and audio cards and subs2srs and use-a-goolge-image cards, etc. etc.
I have come to a few conclusions:
a. When I use Anki (or really any other spaced repetition question-answer testing things), I learn stuff.
b. If you spend more than 20-30 minutes a day on it, it becomes VERY painful and hard to keep up.
c. Most of the things you try to do to make it "work better" eat up as much or more time than they save. (And often they eat Golden Time)
d. No matter what you do, some cards will come easy, some will come hard, and some just won't stick with this kind of tool. Most will be somewhere in the middle.
e. It doesn't really matter if you don't get some cards, getting say 75% is just fine.
f. A HUGE chunk of the effectiveness is just seeing the card again and again and again over days, weeks and months.
g. Anki does not teach you a langauge. It only puts a mini-one-entry-badly-edited dictionary in your head. But that helps.
h. Perfectionism+Anki=Sadomasochism

So how do I use Anki?
a. While I always take a stab at remembering the card, I never "fail" a card. I always answer "Good".
I really don't care if there are some cards that I always "fail" at remembering. There are plenty of others I DO learn.
b. Due to the above, I have narrowed the ease interval thingy (whatever Anki calls it) so they show up a bit more often.
c. If a card is lame/ambiguous/too hard, I sometimes edit it to make it easier, if I still hate it later... I just let it go by.
d. I always use production vocabulary cards
. They are super easy to make, and I can bulk import them from a spreadsheet of mined vocab.
. They make me pay attention more (spelling, tones, etc.), so I remember more.
e. I spend the absolute MINIMUM time making cards that I can. This is usually Golden Time and Anki doesn't deserve it.
f. I do 20 new cards per day, and always try to spend less than 30 minutes on cards. 20 minutes is even better.
g. I ALWAYS do reviews during dead/quiet time. Usually the bathroom. Remember: Anki doesn't deserve any better.

And now I think I've spent WAY too much Golden Time writing this post... :lol:

Last edited by zKing on Fri Dec 28, 2018 10:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion

Postby Lawyer&Mom » Tue Apr 24, 2018 3:24 am

Major respect to your wife for being an attorney in a second language. I just cannot imagine.

Sounds like you have a good plan going. Keep us posted and thanks for sharing a little Golden Time with us!
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Re: Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion

Postby Axon » Tue Apr 24, 2018 9:35 am

Wow, I really like your concepts for dividing time up by how intensively it allows you to study! I may have to borrow it...

Cantonese is a language that I've been dabbling in for about four years, but I've never achieved very much with it. I'm excited to hear about your progress!
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Re: Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion

Postby zKing » Thu Apr 26, 2018 5:55 am

Lawyer&Mom wrote:Major respect to your wife for being an attorney in a second language. I just cannot imagine.

Sounds like you have a good plan going. Keep us posted and thanks for sharing a little Golden Time with us!

Yes, my wife came to the US when she was 12... we are now middle aged. Today I might catch her mispronouncing a word once every 6 months or so at most, but her accent is basically perfect. Her only weakness is slang that was a little before her adult years. :D All of her friends who are of the same era all have accents, some quite strong, so she is pretty unusual in her skills. Everyone she meets thinks she is an "ABC" (American Born Chinese).
But I'm pretty sure I know why she speaks so well: whenever I speak Cantonese to her she is absolutely militant about saying it _right_. She is equally hard on herself if she ever says anything wrong in English. She never stops pushing herself to make her speaking perfect. My drive for such things is little less robust... hence why her English is even better than mine. :lol:

Thanks for the encouragement!
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Re: Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion

Postby zKing » Thu Apr 26, 2018 6:18 am

I'm doing my kind of LR'ing with two of my intermediate texts with audio (L2/L2): The Story of Minami and A Feng Shui Master.
I can easily read these texts with only a dozen or so unknowns for each chapter and many of those are food names or other uncommon nouns. I'm doing this in many passes:
  • The first pass I'm pausing regularly and doing look ups for anything the least bit unclear and generating both a vocab list for the chapter as well as dumping the real (useful) unknowns into my Anki deck.
  • Second phase I'll keep LR'ing (Listen:L2/Read:L2), pausing to use the vocab list if needed. Repeating until I don't need to pause.
  • Third phase I'll try "look away" LR'ing, only referring to the text when I get lost.
  • Fourth phase I should be able to listen only and "hear the meaning", the audio will go into a playlist I can listen to in dead time.

After a few days, I'm done with the first pass of Minami and about 1/2 way through the first pass of Feng Shui Master.

To combat boredom/burn out, I do one pass per chapter and then go to the next chapter running through both books in one cycle. I know I could probably 'learn' a chapter faster if I repeated the same chapter ad nauseam, but my rule #1 is to guard my motivation like the crown jewels, so no such grind for me, thank you. I also think this might be an advantage in the long run as I'll be less likely to fool myself that I've learned to "hear the meaning" of a bit of audio, when I've really just memorized the story.

I have a small pile of other materials waiting in the wings once I've conquered these two books.

I'm reading "Omicidio alla moda" on my Kindle with the pop up dictionary in dead time. Since I haven't touched Italian in a while it was a bit rusty initially but after 30 minutes or so, I think I'm getting back into it.

Onward and upward!
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Re: Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion

Postby zKing » Thu May 17, 2018 12:43 am

Had a language learning pause for a vacation + time surrounding it to prepare to leave and then get back up to speed at work.

Small Anki Reset:
The vacation was non-interesting from a language learning perspective (domestic travel), but I did manage to keep up my Cantonese Anki reps, I set new cards to 0 for that time period. Tip: Set new cards to 0 several days before so that the reps drain to lower numbers while on vacation. My love-hate relationship with Anki continues: I had messed with some timing parameters for my Deck at some point to make cards appear a bit more often and the reps held at ~150/day for almost the whole time. Oh well, I was going to do a slight reset on my Deck anyhow.

In the end, I've decided that Anki works best if you just don't mess with the default way it works. My experiment with never failing a card, production only cards, and upping the timing worked "OK", but it started to feel like I was glossing over too many cards, the reps were building up a bit too much. So I restarted the desk, generated the flip side (L2 -> L1) cards and reset all the deck options to default.
This round I will just do it exactly as it says on the tin. I had about 1k cards in some stage of learning before this. I'm not fretting over the reset; obviously there will be a chunk of cards that I've seen before and will get marked "easy" a few times before disappearing into the distant future... that's fine by me. I like easy reps.
Since I'm doing both directions (L2->L1, L1->L2) and only 20 new/day, it means I "only" learn 10 new words per day. That is also fine by me as:
a) That generates about as much Anki time as I can stand (20-30mins tops)
b) I will learn words through other mechanisms simultaneously
c) Based on the brilliant PolyNot ( I'm likely only doing 2k-3k of Anki vocab at most before I abandon it completely. That will be a happy day.

Future Vacation, a Reset and then another Reset:

My wife and I discussed our next vacation and it is pretty much settled that we'll be going back to Italy, likely centered in Rome. So at that point I was thinking I'd shift my studies to focus on my rusty Italian for the next several months and move Cantonese to the back burner. I spent some time digging up my old Italian links and resources (yay,!) and started dreaming up my new plan of attack. The next day I casually mentioned to my wife the new direction and she surprisingly had an opinion that I should stick to Cantonese for a while and get conversational (she usually has very little opinion or interest in my LL hobby.) After some back and forth, I came to the same conclusion. While this is a hobby for me and nothing of substance changes if I do or do not learn any particular L2, I think it is time for me to really chalk up a win in Cantonese conversational ability. I can read alright, and that is an accomplishment of its own, but the real goal from the start was to be conversational in Cantonese. And I really should try to get there as frankly I'm pretty close. (Notice the bit in the title of this log about "fickle devotion")

Anyhow, I've now abandoned my abandonment and I'm back on plan and doubly focused on conversational ability (as opposed to reading which is really SWC and not Cantonese anyhow.) And in particular speaking as that is by far my weakest skill.

I then was trying to figure out how to best get my speaking up to snuff and came up with a few tasks:
  • iTalki: I've scheduled some tutoring with a new tutor (my old one 'retired').
  • Islands and personal Phrasebook: I'm going to finally write up some Islands and develop my personal phrase book. (Tutor/Wife can help correct them)
  • Chorusing: I will try loop-repeat-chorusing gobs of sentences to get my mouth moving.

Any other suggestions?
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Re: Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion

Postby Zomxilla » Thu May 17, 2018 2:23 am

Looking forward to following your journey. I'm in a similar spot to you, though much earlier in my Cantonese learning. My boyfriend is native-born Hong Kong, and moved to New Zealand with his mum at 5 years old. His English is fluent, I think his Cantonese is slightly less so - he can't read much, and some more specialised words escape him.

I can't wait to get to a level where I can follow basic conversation. Apparently my accent is still very flat. :lol:
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Re: Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion

Postby Ani » Thu May 17, 2018 5:24 am

I love how you break down your time. I'm also pressed for "golden time" but I've never really thought of it that way. It actually might take some stress off just to accept that I haven't got the golden time I was hoping for and just do something else that fits the situation.

Great the you're sucking with Cantonese. You can probably refresh Italian very quickly right before your trip. Assimil is about 4 hours of audio so if you're quick, you can probably read through each lesson and listen to it twice in about 10 hours... Practically get it done on the plane ride :)
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Re: Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion

Postby zKing » Fri May 18, 2018 5:54 am


Now that I've re-committed myself to Cantonese more fully, I think it is time to set some real concrete goals... which I've never really done for langauge learning before.
I have some gripes with the often Dilbert-like application of "S.M.A.R.T. Goals" (the short version: some very important goals are not easily measureable, that does not mean we should ignore them or water them down), however goals are useful and my dithering with language learning could use some structure.
The one thing I'm going to go easy on is the "T" (Time) part as frankly, it isn't something I can easily commit to.

My overall fuzzy goal is to "Get good at Cantonse conversations". Which, of course, is too fuzy.
So I'll break this down into specific accomplishments that will generate the skills I need.

  • Speaking: 10 2+ minute monologues (islands)
  • Speaking: 200 personal phrasebook sentences that are fluently automatic and pronounced well
  • Listening: Able to listen to all 4 hours of my intermediate content and understand 99% of it unassisted
  • General Conversation: 20 iTalki lessons

I've picked most of these numbers out of the air and tried to make them hard, but doable within some fuzzy X months time.

The meat of my Cantonese listening content is (I've trimmed the audio to contain only the dialog bits):
  • About Hong Kong (~30 mins)
  • The Story of Minami (~45 mins)
  • Feng Shui Master (~40 mins)
  • Wedding Bells (~30 mins)
  • Cantonese Conversations (~90m)

For the listening content, I am already at the 99% understanding level with 1/3 to 1/2 of it.
I know the first three very well, for Wedding Bells, I haven't really dug into it yet and I just bought Cantonese Conversations.
I have a ton of other content, but much of it is either beginner stuff, doesn't have a good transcript, or is not scanned electronically.
And I don't want to waste any more of my life scanning books and correcting the Hanzi.

I do have the book 男人唔可以窮 as a podcast, in book form and the original web story in electronic format which is like 15+ hours of audio content.
The story is fun, but I'll save that for later as it has a few issues I don't want to bother with yet.

So that's my plan... for today. ;-)
I'd be curious to hear any feedback.

Yes, it feels like it will take forever! Don't look at my pace and get discouraged, I've never really been so serious about Cantonese, and like everything in life it just takes consistency and time. But it is really cool as you start picking up words here and there and suddenly whole sentences and then chunks of conversation. I'm following your log now as well. Hopefully I will get some time to comment there, but I'm trying not to spend too much time on this forum. :)

Yeah, I'm not too worried about my Italian. Frankly, I don't _need_ it to be in top shape for Italy and I'll probably still read on the side now and then to keep it warm. But thanks for the idea of burning through Assimil in one shot, I may do just that right before I go.
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Re: Stealing time and grappling with fickle devotion

Postby Dak » Fri May 18, 2018 6:11 am

I like the way you plan your language learning, I tend to just do listening and reading with no real targets in mind except increasing my vocabulary. Maybe I should be more methodical...
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