Advice on Language Learning

I recently answered the question ‘how should I learn a new language’ on a friend’s Facebook thread because I have a bit of experience with this myself, and I saw no reason not to repost here:


I’m really not an accomplished polyglot, but I did pick up Spanish considerably more quickly in high school than did the rest of my cohort and maintained my level longer, I learned Korean while teaching English in that country from a cold start and was able to hold fairly long conversations by the time I left two years later[1], and I’ve since dabbled in Russian, German, French, and even a teensy tiny bit of Chinese.


All the usual caveats apply; your focus will be different if you’re trying to go to graduate school in Graz and if you’re trying to talk to Austrian exchange students. That said I think the same basic principles apply no matter what, especially in the beginning.


There are two things I think are important in the beginning. The first is building a vocabulary base and the second is maintaining contact with the language.

AFACT the best way to do the former is with a word list like Gabriel Wyner’s ‘First 625’ series, which lays out the 625 most commonly used words in English for translation into your target language. Some polyglots like Daniel Tammet scoff at this approach, but plenty of others have found it effective.

I usually supplement this with reading children’s books, which have much simpler syntax and word choice. Children’s books usually won’t wander outside the thousand or so most common words anyway, so by the time you’ve got that list down you should be able to read fairly freely, building a sense of the grammar as time goes on.

Maintaining contact with the language can be done in many ways, but two favorites are watching t.v. in the target language and listening to music in the target language. By and large you will understand next to nothing, but I find this exposure motivates me to continue my studies and exposes me to a variety of sound combinations which are delightfully exotic.


I’ve always found accents easy, but I know that a lot of people have benefited from Idahosa Ness’s Mimic Method, which trains your accent via a combination of mimicking rap lyrics in the target language and receiving targeted pronunciation feedback.


There is simply no substitute for interacting with natives. Through italki you can find a reasonably-priced tutor specializing in your target language and take lessons over skype.

One thing I used to do in Korea was to ask different people a question whose answer I already knew. For example, I would find the bathroom, then feign ignorance and walk around asking random people where the bathroom was. After they answered I would walk somewhere nearby and ask a different person.

Each time you’re going to get slight variations on the same answer. One person might say ‘behind you’ and another might say ‘by the food court’. Since you already know you’re less likely to be utterly overwhelmed by their answer, but you’ll still be learning new things.

It’s important that you branch out and find different natives to speak with because after a while they will begin to understand and adjust to your weaknesses. I could have whole conversations with the secretary at my school but then struggle to talk to someone on the bus.


I endorse the spaced-repitition software ‘Anki’. There are no two ways about it: if you properly format your cards and faithfully review them everyday, you will remember what you learned forever.


Gabriel Wyner’s ‘Fluent Forever’ and related materials; Idahosa Ness and the Mimic Method; Dr. Alexander Arguelles, who also talks about methods like ‘shadowing’ and ‘scriptorium’, the latter of which is indispensable when tackling alien scripts.

Profundis: “Rapt”

Winifred Gallagher’s “Rapt” is a breezy, uplifting treatise on attention — that prism through which the light of experience is filtered, refracted, and bent. In an age that finds us buried 140 characters at a time, knowing how this vital process works is paramount for anyone seeking to live better by getting outside their own head. The science in Gallagher’s slim NYT-bestseller is elucidated with patient visual metaphors, and the prose is sprinkled with ample references from literature, science, history, and philosophy.

If you’ve been paying attention to the field of psychology then Gallagher’s insights into the relationship between attention and motivation, flow, visual perception, and the like won’t be particularly new. It’s nevertheless an entertaining and accessible treatment of the subject topics filled with all manner of interesting tangents.

The STEMpunk Project: Eleventh Month’s Progress

This post marks the first time in a long time that I’ve managed to write an update before month’s end! My goals continue to be wildly optimistic; I didn’t finish AIMA this month, but I did get through a solid 4-5 chapters, and in the process learned a lot.

This spread of chapters covered topics such as the use of Markov Chain Monte Carlo reasoning to make decisions under uncertainty, the derivation of Bayes’ Rule, building graphical networks for making decisions and calculating probabilities, the nuts and bolts of simple speech recognition models, fuzzy logic, simple utility theory, and simple game theory.

Since I’ve been reading about AI for years I’ve come across terms like ‘utility function’ and ‘decision theory’ innumerable times, but until now I haven’t had a firm idea of what they meant in a technical sense. Having spent time staring at the equations (while not exactly comprehending them…), my understanding has come to be much fuller.

I consider this a species of ‘profundance’, a word I’ve coined to describe the experience of having a long-held belief suddenly take on far more depth than it previously held. To illustrate: when you were younger your parents probably told you not to touch the burners on the stove because they were hot. No doubt you believed them; why wouldn’t you? But it’s not until you accidentally graze one that you realize exactly what they meant. Despite the fact that you mentally and behaviorally affirmed that ‘burners are hot and shouldn’t be touched’ both before and after you actually touched one, in the latter case there is now an experience underlying that phrase which didn’t exist before.

In a similar vein, it’s possible to have a vague idea of what a ‘utility function’ is for a long time before you actually encounter the idea as mathematics. It’s nearly always better to acquire a mathematical understanding of a topic if you can, so I’m happy to have finally (somewhat) done that.


The STEMpunk Project: Sixth Month’s Progress

You may have noticed that I’m getting worse about writing these monthly progress reports well after the month is finished. I apologize for that, other things have been coming up which had to take precedent.

Here is a sampling of what I built in August:

car_car  er_catapulter_crane  car_suspensioncar_steering  car_misc

The first three are from an erector set and the last three are from a charming little children’s book about cars. I also build a model of a jet engine, but since I had six pictures and they make such a nice 3 x 2 grid I decided to not include it 🙂 In addition I read sections of Basic Machines and How They Work and The Basics of Mechanical Engineering.

I was set to begin Robotics in September but recent life events have caused me to reconsider and make the first major structural change to The STEMpunk Project so far.

Each of the modules was designed to expose me to theory while allocating plenty of time to actually tinkering with physical devices. Even though that hasn’t turned out the way I’d hoped it would, I have basically been successful. Robotics was included because it seemed like a natural extension of computing, electronics, and mechanics; but the more research I do, the more I realize that building a foundation in robotics requires a lot of programming skill.

There are good robotics kits out there, but most of them don’t seem like they would be as effective in cultivating useful intuitions as the model engines and electronics kits have been because they don’t bear the same relationship to the actual physical systems which they represent. A toy engine may be wildly oversimplified but real engines also have cylinders, valves, a crankshaft, etc. As far as I can tell, however, code is the heart of robotics, and most of the kits I’ve examined don’t factor that in.

So I’ve been thinking, if I’m going to have to do a bunch of programming anyway I may as well shift my focus to Artificial Intelligence instead of robotics. AI was one of the fields I was thinking about exploring post-STEMpunk, and I may have successfully corrupted a dear friend into moving to Boulder and working on AI safety professionally. If either comes to pass, the work I do now will put me in a better position moving forward.

Moreover, I’m twenty-eight years old and must therefore give thought to the long-term stability of the people whose lives are bound up with mine. I haven’t started a family yet but I suspect that it won’t be long now, and besides that, with my ebbing youth comes the fact that I have a finite number of years left in which to develop the skills I’m going to develop and make the contributions I’m going to make. Since AI is a serious interest of mine, it would behoove me to spend the last leg of The STEMpunk Project working on it.

Finally, these days no one’s job is really safe. The STEMpunk Project probably hasn’t done that much to make me more employable, but a few months spent programming and playing with Machine Learning libraries — especially if I continue on after the main project is finished — probably will.

This is all very new so I haven’t chosen my learning goals and charted a course yet. But I was thinking I’d spend about a month brushing up on python, then maybe read Russell and Norvig’s “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”, then maybe start exploring some of the AI work being done with python, possibly going as far as to get a Machine Learning Nanodegree from Udacity.

Getting Organized

The Devil in the Details

As an English teacher living abroad, my professional and personal life are positively drowning in details.  In a given week I teach something like 150 kids, ranging in age from about 6 to about 16.  These children are arranged in classes of 8 to 10 by ability, not age, though we do make a distinction between elementary and middle school students.

For each class there are a variety of different materials, and there are several different types of classes with versions that are different at the elementary and middle school level. In a given month I must do one-on-one assessments, grade essays and class participation, remember when and what tests to give, plan activities, and make adjustments to the curriculum.

Oh, and when there are holidays or special tests, one group of students gets out of sync with the others and my schedule for just that one class is off by a day.  This happens irregularly and over time the discrepancies pile up, so there may be as many as three or four classes that are one or more days off schedule, each.  What this means is that, whereas before I could think “ah, it’s Monday so all of the middle school kids will have the test from unit 10”, now I must think “ah, it’s Monday so all of the middle school kids will have the test from unit 10.  Except the first and second classes, they’re on units 8 and 9, respectively, so they get those tests.  Also I’ve got to remember to double up on homework so we can get back on track”.

Don’t forget that there are always students dropping out of the system and new ones coming in (my school is a private academy, not a public school, so kids come and go pretty regularly).

Finally, lurking far beneath it all is the slippery, malevolent software I’m forced to use, crashing at random and throwing errors which read like black-magic incantations, and a vast, tangled maze of record keeping that creeps as silently as thorn bushes growing over the fast-disappearing walls of my sanity.

It’s a looooooooooot to keep track of, and things were slipping through the cracks.  Sometimes it was a really inconsequential detail, sometimes it was more serious, but it’s unlikely in any case that as I get older the consequences of my mistakes will get less problematic.

So I Got Organized, and this is what I learned.  What I’ve recounted here is all fairly abstract, and is meant to be more of a framework for thinking about your own organization efforts.  If you want specific step-by-step instructions, check out Zen Habits, Cal Newport, or the Get Things Done system.

It’s All About Complexity

1) The basic insight is that being organized is about dealing with the complexity of your job.  Your need for organization scales as a function of how many more details there are than you can hold in your mind.  The rest flows from this one idea.

2) You have to make things as easy as possible on future versions of yourself. There is an information-asymmetry between your now-self and your future-self; while your future-self will know many things you don’t, there are details you have right in front of you now which your future-self will probably have lost sight of.

For example, when I go into a classroom it’s filled with children who are laughing, talking, fighting, and otherwise raising hell.  Just calming them down enough to start class requires all my working memory and multi-tasking skills, which leaves nothing for remembering what papers I need to get from them or special things I need to tell them.  So I make a to-do list (discussed more below) with anything on it that must be remembered.  When I sit down to calmly think through my day before classes begin, I’m not surrounded by screaming children, but I will be later.  I do my future-self a favor by clearly writing out everything he’ll need to do so he can focus on the kids.   During class I do my even-more-future-self a favor by taking notes on class problems, flow, results of things I tried, etc., so that he can look back on what I’ve written in a few weeks and draw insights from it, long after he’s forgotten the details.

3) As much as possible, try to carve tasks at their joints, or at natural stopping points.  Sometimes you have no choice but to stop right in the middle of something, but you can minimize mistakes by taking your daily workload, figuring out the smallest units it can be broken into, and knocking them out one by one.

This is not as trivial as it sounds.  Most of the mistakes I was making were a result of very small, very preventable omissions or filing errors.  For example, I might come in and see a huge stack of papers I need to grade.  Before returning the papers to the students I must both grade and enter the scores.  You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to input the scores, especially if I stop to check Facebook after grading.  This is bad because it pisses off the parents and it’s nigh-impossible to get something back from a student once it’s disappeared into the abyss of their backpacks.

I’ve eliminated this class of errors by establishing two habits: one, I carve the task at it’s joints, always grading and inputting scores for a class before moving on, and two, every so often I take ten minutes to review the scores I’ve input for all my classes to check for gaps.

3) A little bit of redundancy is necessary and desirable.  This is especially true if you’re in a job where no one is double checking you on the details (I figure most jobs are this way).  Keeping two different sets of records, particularly for things you do infrequently, will let you cross-check yourself and prevent you from getting too far off track.

An example of good redundancy is carefully recording the dates.  For each class I have a homework sheet with a grid on it that has a list of sudents’ names.  When I have a class, the date goes in three places: on the homework sheet, on the syllabus for the class, and on my to-do list.  This may seem like overkill, but it means that I can figure out in seconds what I taught on a given day, which students were absent, which ones did their homework, and what I should’ve received from them.  This has proven enormously useful when new students have joined our school, or kids have been absent for a few weeks and needed to catch up, or when something is missing and I’ve got to track it down, etc.  In addition, if I mistakenly write down the wrong date or put a score in the wrong column or something, I can use the redundant information to notice and correct the error.

To put it another way: you’re going to regret not writing something down ten times as often as you’ll regret writing it down.

4) Line-of-sight and spatial arrangement matter.  If I’ve got a lot on my plate, the things I can’t see might as well not exist.

In “The Intelligent Use of Space“, David Kirsh argues that space is a resource like time or memory which can be used with varying degrees of effectiveness.  He provides an example of good use of space through the seemingly-mundane activity of preparing a salad.  One subject carefully laid all the vegetables she’d sliced into neat little rows.  That may not seem clever, but by arraying her workspace in this fashion she could quickly assess how much of each type of vegetables she had, allowing her to add vegetables as needed and ensuring she didn’t run out of anything.  This would not be the case if she’d piled everything into a heap.  (Read the paper for a lot more discussion, it’s actually a pretty interesting topic.)

Structuring the environment allows you to offload some of what you would be doing in your head into the environment, lightening your load a bit and making mistakes less probable.  By sorting my papers into ‘graded’ and ‘not graded’, I can tell at a glance where I’m at in my day; by grouping papers from each class and each level together over time,  I can tell at a glance where I’m at in the semester (and I can find anything I need to).

You know how I guarantee the trash gets taken out?  I put that shit right by the door.  I don’t have to remember because, in some sense, the memory is stored in my environment. As long as my eyes are working the job will get done, no matter how absent-minded I may be on a given day.  The same applies for files, books, tools, or anything else I’m going to need often.  And this applies in reverse: don’t leave a browser with Reddit open because it’ll catch your eye and distract you.

5) To-do lists are powerful, and you should make use of them.  I didn’t appreciate this when I was in high school and the first half of college, but in a world where dozens of things compete for my attention, having a single place where I keep track of the most essential activities is a huge boost to productivity.  The effect is even greater when it becomes an ingrained habit.  At least in my case, I find it easier to focus on tasks, because when I have an idea or think of something I have to do, I just jot it down and return to work.  I no longer fret about whether or not I will remember to do it later.  Further, seeing the list and seeing one item after another being crossed off of it creates a productivity inertia which virtually ensures that I’ll get more work done.  And I can quickly re-prioritize tasks, say, choosing to knock out a couple of emails before I take a break for dinner because I know it’ll only take ten minutes.

There is a small downside: these days I find it difficult to remember to do something if I haven’t put it on a to-do list.  But given how cheap paper is and how everyone’s smartphones has a to-do list feature, this is a pretty small price to pay for having a clear plan of attack when approaching my daily workload.

From Here to Organized

It’s no doubt obvious how points 2) – 5) are really just elaborations on point 1).  Your need for organization is going to vary directly as a function of how much your job’s complexity swamps your ability to deal with it.

Once I realized this, and had gotten sufficiently frustrated with myself for making silly mistakes, actually getting organized wasn’t that hard.  The only two steps were figuring out what tools I needed to impose some order and being consistent enough to stick with it.  For my job I needed a general-purpose notebook where I keep my to-do lists and notes, and a bunch of files.  Over time I’ve made small adjustments here and there, and I’ve also gotten a good bit more organized at home (though I’ve been applying this information more haphazardly).

While I’m sure there’s volumes more that could be said about organization, this framework has helped me see the purpose of getting organized and how to do it.  As time goes on I’m only finding more reasons and more ways to not let the details get the better of me.

What’s In A (Nick)name?

At the men’s issue blog The Art of Manliness there was an interesting post recently which helped me make sense of two separate phenomena — the ubiquity of nicknames in groups of men and our affectionate use of put-downs — that have puzzled me before.

The post briefly discussed various types of nicknames by introducing the following categorizations:

Referential nicknames are used for well known public figures, i.e. using “The British Bulldog” to refer to Winston Churchill.  

Private nicknames are  generally used between lovers, such as “honey” or “sweetheart”.

Public nicknames are ones given by family or friends, probably very early in life, which are permanent or near-permanent.  

Generic nicknames often pick out a distinguishing feature of a person, like “doc” for a doctor.  

Group nicknames are nicknames which are generally only known about and used in the context of a group.  

The last category were the focus of the post.  Group nicknames, in effect, create an exclusivity by establishing a new group language and a new set of identities for members of the group.  While an outsider may know a man’s group nickname, he probably knows better than to use it for fear of causing offense.  It strikes me that this could be tested empirically, and for all I know maybe it has.

Though group nicknames can sound silly or even derisive to outsiders, they are

boundary-defining and boundary-maintaining mechanisms that draw a line both between who is in a group of men and who is out, and between that group and the outside world.

No evidence was cited supporting the claim that groups of non-males don’t use group nicknames as much as groups of males, but at least in my experience this seems to be true.

The authors point out that this sheds some light on why many group nicknames do start out as mildly (or even extremely) derogatory.  If a man is able to withstand being hazed by the group, it shows a certain level of trust in its members.

If this logic is extended it can also help think about why so much of male-to-male communication consists of insults.  Men are not the most emotionally open of creatures, and habitually greeting another man with  “what’s up motherfucker?” may in fact be a gentle probing for sustained trust and goodwill.  A man who does secretly harbor bad feelings will eventually have a negative reaction to this, and whatever issues are present can potentially be dealt with.

It’s also interesting to think about the apparent exceptions in my case.  I for one nickname almost everyone, but that’s probably an outgrowth of my playful attitude towards words and language.  And my brother and I haven’t regularly put each other down in years.  On reflection, that may have to do with the fact that we live on different continents and don’t ever see each other.  If ribbing and mild derision create bonds in face-to-face communications, maybe the parts of my brain responsible for generating this behavior don’t activate for a relationship that has migrated onto the internet.

One wonders what mechanisms of cohesion, if any, might arise to unite groups formed and maintained predominantly online.

Review: “The Little Book Of Atheist Spirituality”.

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville is a well-written foray into God-free mysticism and spirituality.  Less an assault on the edifice of theism than a gentle admonition, The Little Book is not a place to go for polemics.  Rather, Comte-Sponville expresses his ideas with the sympathetic firmness of a wizened elder who knows that he may be trespassing on a deeply held belief, assuring the wavering person that there is meaning to be found in a universe devoid of God.

I have few in the way of criticisms, and some of them may stem unavoidably from the necessarily deep and heady subject matter.  Comte-Sponville is apparently an extraordinarily erudite man, as he adorned this work with references to Freud, Pascal, Leibniz, and a wealth of other scholars.  In the span of one paragraph there were quotes from Angelus Sileus, Simone Weil, unnamed haikus and Zen masters, and Krishnamurti.  His ability to draw on a wealth of resources is no doubt one of his strengths, but at times the book began to feel like learned bricolage, and I grew weary of yet more quotes from this or that heavyweight thinker.  That said, I never felt like the tone was pretentious or deliberately confusing.

Furthermore, I found myself scratching my head at certain passages near the end of the book, in which Comte-Sponville really digs into his views on mysticism.   Since I’ve never tried my hand at describing powerful spiritual experiences, I won’t denigrate someone else’s efforts.  Regular emotions are difficult to describe, to say nothing of the rare states of mind which can genuinely be spoken of as mystical or transcendent.

Though I occasionally lost the narrative and I felt like it was too sanguine about religious belief, The Little Book is a welcome accompaniment to the atheist literature.


The book is divided into four parts.  In the first Comte-Sponville attempts to analyze what religions are, irrespective of whether or not God exists, and discusses the aspects of religion that we can’t do without.

A religion, on his view, is “any organized set of beliefs and rituals involving the sacred, the supernatural or the transcendent (this is the broad sense of the term) and specifically involving one or several gods (this is the restricted sense), which beliefs and rituals unite those who recognize and practice them into a moral and spiritual community”.  He notes that there are non-theistic religions, as well as religions which began as philosophies and became religious over time, but doesn’t get into the details.  I think the thrust of his characterization is fair.

There are two things society definitely needs which are often sought from, but don’t require, religion.  These are communion and fidelity.  Communion is defined as a deep and lasting sense of cohesion.  Where laws and force fail, cohesion provides a bedrock upon which to build a civilization.  Instead of religion, atheists have the option of building communion around internalized values like freedom, justice, and peace.  This process of internalization stems from fidelity, which he conceives as a sustained contemplation and re-reading of shared ideas and texts.  Again, there is no reason to presume that everyone must read religious texts, or that they must take them seriously as descriptions of reality.  The atheist might nominate great works of poetry, art, music, and philosophy for inclusion in a shared canon which contains ideas that should be reflected upon.

The latter half of this section is spent decrying the twin evils of sophistry (the denial of truth) and nihilism (the denial of meaning).  The book asserts that the sentence “nothing is true” itself claims to be truth — if nothing is true, then that includes the sentence “nothing is true”!  Ergo, it’s meaningless.  No system of knowledge is absolute, but it is obvious that progress has been made.

The book in its entirety can be thought of as refuting nihilism.  No compelling argument for moral realism is ever offered, however, which I find rather surprising.  Comte-Sponville just claims that we shouldn’t be raping people because it’s beneath human dignity.  Lots of atheists claim that humans can be good without God, but fewer of them offer strong, comprehensive moral theories.  The book would’ve been considerably strengthened if it had offered such a theory, I think.


As with “religion”, the Comte-Sponville’s sets up the following nominal definition of God as “…an eternal, spiritual and transcendent being, both exterior and superior to nature, who consciously and voluntarily created the universe.”

His case against God comes into two stages.  In the first, he addresses what he sees as weaknesses with philosophical arguments for the existence of God.  In the second, he notes that, in addition to these weakness, there seems to be little in the way of positive evidence for him either.

Since he doesn’t venture too far into philosophical thickets in discussing these proofs, I won’t either.  The Ontological Proof fails because you can’t just define things into existence, and saying that something exists doesn’t add anything to our concept of it.

He doesn’t address the Cosmological Argument in a way that I feel is very strong.  There may just be things that are unexplainable, he says, like why there is something rather than nothing.  But even if we were to grant that there is a unmoved mover, we wouldn’t have any way to know that it is God.

Finally, the argument from design fails because the universe doesn’t seem to bear the imprint of a designer.  He spends time dissecting the clock analogy.   True, if we were to find a clock in the desert, we’d assume it was designed.  But then, clocks don’t give birth to other clocks, and they don’t change.  The analogy, he concludes, is a poor one, and that’s before we factor in all the waste and examples of bad design that we find in nature.

Beyond all this, though, even more trouble remains.  Comte-Sponville muses that, if God wanted to have a relationship with each person, he wouldn’t spend so much time in silence.  Moreover, invoking God as an explanation basically amounts to making sense of one mystery by reference to an even greater mystery!  Add to this the fact that there is prodigious amounts of evil and suffering in the world, and the universe begins to look very much like one that wasn’t designed by an omnipotent, loving God.

I’m necessarily leaving a lot out of the analysis, and I don’t want to make it sound like his arguments are shallow and unsophisticated.  They aren’t, and they deserve to be pondered.


It is, ironically, this section of the book about which I have the least to say.  I recommend purchasing it for an in-depth discussion, but Comte-Sponville’s account of mysticism, as I read it, amounts to the feelings that accompany the dissolution of the self.  For brief, joyous moments, the world, and time, drop away, and a person can be at one with the all-encompassing vastness of the universe, perceiving no difference between themselves and reality. He gives various characteristics like “immanensity” and “plenitude” to this feeling, but it ultimately boils down to there temporarily no longer being a “you” standing separate from reality.

Many of my atheistic fellow travelers think little of mysticism, but I am sympathetic to those who pursue it outside of religious faith.  Having read this book, I wonder if there might not be ways of more reliably fostering such experiences.  Meditation is an obvious answer, of course, but maybe there are others that I just don’t know about.  Either way, I found the book enlightening and easy to read.  I would recommend it to anyone who is de-converting, or anyone who is interested in the spiritual side of naturalism.