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Strange sensation vis-à-vis Esperanto and Duolingo

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I’ve been doing Duolingo now for less than two months (53 days, to be exact) and I do around 100-200XP per day, sometimes more. What I’ve noticed the most recent few days is that my experience in listening to the dictated passages has totally changed: I now hear them clearly, though before I had to click the repeat button again and again, working out the sentence word by word and often not getting it at all. Now I don’t see what the problem was.

And when I go back to an earlier lesson to “fix” the “broken” skill by doing a practice session, I listen to sentences I know I struggled to understand earlier, but now they’re clear as a bell. It really is training a neural net, and as the net is trained, the errors diminish. And of course what’s happening — the improvement — lies outside conscious awareness, so it seems that it just mysteriously clarifies itself.

I mentioned this to The Wife who speaks fluent French, and she described how she recalls reading Diary of a Country Priest in French one fall and working through it, understanding all the words but not getting much, and then at the end of that school year reading it again and this time really reading it, and getting the story. Again, because of the intensive work, the improvement was clear because the time span was short.

Two months was suggested as the amount of study required to start really understanding Esperanto, and for me that’s a week away, so it seems that things are happening pretty much on schedule. Still, it’s an odd sensation to have understanding occur when before there was puzzlement.

I will say I’ve been working quite steadily, every day, and in those earlier passages that I just couldn’t understand, when Duolingo displayed the correct answer, I would repeatedly play the dictation, following along by reading the answer, until I could hear it clearly, and then I would listen several more times with my eyes shut, just focusing on understanding — and I was doing this deliberately to train my own neural net. And it seems to be working.

I have to say I’m enjoying this.

Written by Leisureguy

11 June 2020 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Daily life, Esperanto

Maximizing benefits of Duolingo’s spaced repetition in language learning

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Anki explains well how two tactics maximize learning: active recall and spaced repetition. Quoting from that page:

Active recall

‘Active recall testing’ means being asked a question and trying to remember the answer. This is in contrast to ‘passive study’, where we read, watch or listen to something without pausing to consider if we know the answer. Research has shown that active recall testing is far more effective at building strong memories than passive study. There are two reasons for this:

  • The act of recalling something ‘strengthens’ the memory, increasing the chances we’ll be able to remember it again.
  • When we’re unable to answer a question, it tells us we need to return to the material to review or relearn it.

You have probably encountered active recall testing in your school years without even realizing it. When good teachers give you a series of questions to answer after reading an article, or make you take weekly progress-check tests, they are not doing it simply to see if you understood the material or not. By testing you, they are increasing the chances you will be able to remember the material in the future.

Spaced repetition

The ‘spacing effect’ was reported by a German psychologist in 1885. He observed that we tend to remember things more effectively if we spread reviews out over time, instead of studying multiple times in one session. Since the 1930s there have been a number of proposals for utilizing the spacing effect to improve learning, in what has come to be called ‘spaced repetition’.

Duolingo uses both active recall and spaced repetition

Duolingo structures its courses as a “tree” of skills, each skill shown as a disk with an icon. A skill has 5 levels, and after 5 levels the skill is completed (though you can do additional practice sessions if you want).

Each level comprises four to six lessons, typically six. Formerly, I would start a new skill and complete all five levels, then move to the next skill.

I finally realized that approach is bad because it undermines spaced repetition, which (along with active recall) truly solidifies learning. Active recall is built into every lesson of Duolingo, and Duolingo is also structured for spaced repetition. One obvious example of Duoling’s use of spaced repetition is how a mastered skill will occasionally, over time, be displayed as “broken,” to be fixed by completing a practice session.

The approach I had been using was counter to the idea of spaced repetition.

A better approach

The skills are displayed in rows on a language tree. When I finish a skill, I start a new available skill (a skill icon in color rather than grayed) by completing the first level in it. I keep 6-8 skills active, which amounts to skills in 3 or 4 rows (and perhaps not all skills in the rows are active because I haven’t started them).

I work sequentially through the skills I am currently working on, one level in each skill. That number seems to be about right: I return to the oldest open skill within a reasonable period of time to reinforce what I had learned earlier.

I work through the entire current set of 6-8 uncompleted skills (i.e., skills below level 5), completing one level in each skill before I repeat any skill. I don’t start a new skill until I complete one of the currently active skills.

The result is spaced repetition: I complete a skill level and move on to the next skill, returning later. Now that I’m doing it, I see that the levels seem to constructed with this approach in mind. My former approach amounted to cramming (as the night before a test), and that is not effective for long-term retention. Spaced repetition over time is.

I imagine most Duolinguists know this already, but I just figured it out and wanted to share it.

Update: Yep, this very approach was described in the Duolingo blog. Wish I had seen that post earlier. (Someone just sent me the link.)

Written by Leisureguy

10 June 2020 at 12:14 pm

Oral typos and autocorrect by the unconscious: Another Duolingo note on learning Esperanto

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One thing has become clear as I get my sea legs in Esperanto: the person listening — the auditor — contributes as much to oral exchanges as the speaker. Far from being a passive recipient of the speaker’s words, the auditor (once s/he is familiar with the language) unconsciously corrects the spoken equivalent of typos just as the reader does with written text — a process so unconscious that it becomes difficult to spot some typos, since the adaptive unconscious autocorrects such errors and thus renders them invisible to the conscious mind — see a famous example at the right. (And that is why copy editors get — or should get — the big bucks: they can still see what’s really there, not just what should be there.)

Just as we unconsciously correct and read right over typos because we know the language well enough to know what should be there, so also once we learn a spoken language we don’t notice so much the inaccurate word choices (“de” when “el” is meant) or mispronunciations (“kay” instead of “kai” (rhymes with “sigh”)). Our ears carry the sound, our brain corrects the meaning. We may wince at a mispronunciation (“toomeric” instead of “turmeric”), but we know immediately what is meant.

A person who is just starting to learn English, on reading the word “resaerch,” will try to figure out what it means, searching dictionaries for the word in a vain attempt to find the definition, while a person who knows the language — and the context of the sentence — will read “research,” perhaps not even noticing the error. (Writers, who know exactly what they meant to write, are notoriously poor at proofreading their own written work.)

I’ve observed as I listen to Esperanto dictation on Duolingo the same sort of thing. Initially I was hypersensitive to the slightest mispronunciation, which stymied my effort to understand the meaning. As the neural net of my brain has become more trained (through repetition and correction), those mispronunciations gradually fade from my attention, since I now “hear” (in my mind) the sounds that make sense. In effect, I adjust what I hear to match the most likely meaning even when it means ignoring some of the actual sounds that were made.

This same phenomenon distinguishes phonemes that are very close in sound (think of the English “thy” and “thigh” — we have no trouble distinguishing them because our unconscious uses the context to help what we perceive ourselves to hear..

It’s similar to training an AI neural net to recognize cat pictures. At first the AI cannot tell the difference between a cat picture and a dog picture (or a cow picture, for that matter): a fur-covered four-legged animal with eyes, ears, a nose, and a tail: all much of a muchness. But with training — “No, not that one. Yes, that’s one. No. Yes. Yes. No. No. No. Yes. ….” — the AI soon is able to pick out cat pictures quite well.

Or an example from my own childhood: I still recall my mother in the grocery store asking me to get a head of lettuce (iceberg lettuce, all that we knew), and I came back with a head of cabbage. She laughed and showed me the difference, but I just couldn’t see it: they were both globes of green leaves, so how on earth could you tell them apart?

But experience — and neural net training — works and now I can pretty much distinguish cabbage from lettuce 9 out of 10 times, or even better.

What’s interesting is that my adaptive unconscious is learning Esperanto fast enough (daily practice of 2-3 hours now) that I can remember how some spoken sentences were unintelligible — and even had outright oral typos — now seem perfectly clear: because I now impose my own knowledge and understanding on what I hear and adjust to sounds to match what they should be.

Update: I overlooked the elephant in the room: the big contribution from the listener (as s/he learns the language) is the contribution of meaning, which is bigger and more important than the autocorrection of oral typos. There is no meaning in what hits the ear: that is just a bunch chopped up oral noises. For example, listen carefully to someone speaking, say, Basque and see what meaning you get from it. If you don’t know Basque, then you get from it no meaning at all. If you do know Basque, you get a lot of meaning, but the sounds alone do not contain the meaning — if the meaning were in the sounds, a Basque-ignorant person would get the meaning on hearing the sounds. A person who knows Basque and a person who does not both hear exactly the same sounds. One gets meaning, one does not. The difference is not in the sounds but in the listeners. The meaning is not in the sounds, but in the minds, that of the speaker and that of the listener.

Update again: And of the course the same is true of writing. The reader’s knowledge is a key factor in the writing being meaningful and not simply black marks.

이 구절은 명확한 의미를 지니지 만 독자가 표시의 중요성에 대한 지식을 제공하는 경우에만 가능합니다.

That has meaning, but not simply in itself. The reader must provide some of the meaning.

(I have a number of posts on what I’ve learned about using Duolingo effectively.)

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2020 at 10:14 pm

More about Duolingo, learning, and Esperanto

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I’m going steadily ahead with the Duolingo Esperanto course and I’m amazed by how much I know after (as you see) just six weeks. It seems true that in two months study of Esperanto one can achieve liftoff, as it were. Great quarantine activity, and I thought this post in the discussion section was interesting.

The more I use it, the more I discover (or figure out) about its methods. One basic thing is that you are not simply told you gave an incorrect response (should that ever happen), you are also told the correct response and then the question is repeated later in the lessons so you can give the correct response (and, if necessary, repeated again and again, until you give the correct response).

This strikes me as a basic pedagogical tactic that:

  1. provides a sense of reward (dopamine hit) when you do finally get it right (and hear the “right answer” chime instead of the “wrong answer” buzzer), and
  2. is the approach used in any performance education: the musician must willy-nilly replay the passage until it is played correctly, the actor must rehearse the lines until they are delivered correctly, the tennis player must practice the stroke until it is made correctly, the dancer must practice the step until movement and gesture are perfect — in performance, simply marking something as wrong is insufficient (and largely irrelevant), since the action must be repeated until it is not only right but almost habitual (and language speaking, listening, reading, writing are performance), and
  3. matches exactly the approach used in AI to train a neural network, and of course in learning how to do something one is exactly training the original neural network, the brain.

Duolingo uses other mechanisms to promote learning, such as encouraging daily practice by giving a prominent “streak” award for an unbroken series of daily lessons. Some Duolingo students have streaks of 5 years or more.

I wish I had dived into this earlier. There are several languages of which I would like to have a smattering. Well, it’s never too late.

Consider trying one for your quarantine activity.

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2020 at 7:16 am

Useful Duolingo tactics

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I have gradually discovered some tactics that make Duolingo more effective.

Write-what-you-hear exercises

I listen to the prompt several times before entering my answer. If my answer has an error, I look at the correct answer (which Duolingo provides) and listen to the prompt over and over, following the printed answer, until I can hear clearly what is said. Then when the prompt is given again, later in the lesson, I have no problem understanding it. (Duolingo uses a mastery approach, so it will return to any items you answered incorrectly until you are able to answer them correctly.)

Translate-a-sentence (from Esperanto) exercises

The Esperanto sentence is both displayed and  recited. I make it a practice to not look at the printed sentence but try to understand it simply by listening. I will click the blue loudspeaker button to hear the phrase or sentence repeatedly until I am sure what it is — and only then I look at the phrase to check. If I got it wrong, I listen to it more, reading it while I listen, until I can hear clearly what is said. Only then do I enter the translation. This approach provides more ear training.

When I enter my translation, I hover the mouse over any word I’m unsure of to see the definition. (In fact, Duolingo generally introduces new vocabulary via these exercises, and the hovering lets you learn the new word.

Often, I also make an Anki card for myself for the word, checking’s Esperanto-English dictionary, which usually offers a fuller definition than does Duolingo. As I’ve learned more Esperanto, I’ve also started reading the definitions in La Simpla Vortaro and/or Plena Ilustrita Vortaro.

Once my translation is complete, I do more hovering to make sure my word choices match Duolingo’s. Quite often, a sentence can be correctly phrased in several ways, and since Duolingo is limited in its range of understanding — it’s a computer program, not a human — I find it best to cooperate with its limitations and phrase things as it suggests.

After I press “Check,” I look at any suggestions shown in the green band. Duolingo will often offer a better phrasing (for example, not so literal and awkward), and I learn those for the next time I encounter such a sentence. The key to success with Duolingo is to cooperate with it, not fight it. Learn what it likes, and do that.

Mark-the-correct-meaning exercises

These exercises offer a sentence in English and have you click on the correct translation of three offered. I do not look at the offered options until I have translated the sentence in my head. I then look for the sentence that matches the translation I have done. Again, this provides more practice in working with the language.

Once I have the translation in mind, I look at all three options — not only to pick out the correction, but to see exactly why the other two options are wrong (proofreading practice).

See also: A few observations on Duolingo’s Esperanto course.

Written by Leisureguy

24 May 2020 at 4:18 pm

Understanding Duolingo better — and treating it as a game

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Here’s a screenshot of where I am in my Duolingo Esperanto course:

The image shows a tower labeled “2.” That is the second checkpoint. At a checkpoint you take a test to determine whether are you ready to advance beyond the tower to the next collection of skills. I was, and I’m now working through the new part of the tree. If you are using Duolingo to brush up on a language you know, you can click one of the checkpoints to take the test and move on from there — for example, you might click checkpoint 3 and see if you pass. Obviously, if you’re learning a language new to you, you just start at the beginning and move through the tree, level by level.

Each disk in the tree is a “skill.” Each skill has 5 levels, and each level is reached by going through a series of (brief) lessons. I have completed the first two skills (Family 2 and Useful), the 5 in the crown showing that all 5 levels have been achieved. When level 5 is reached, the skill becomes golden with a gold halo. (After some time has elapsed, the skill will show a jagged break, but you can return to the skill and and with a practice session repair the break — spaced repetition.)

I have completed only the first level (the “1” in the crown) of Home 2, Action 2, and Numbers 2. (The “2” is because those skills are follow-ups to earlier skills  Home 1, Action 1, and Numbers 1.)

I have not completed any of Dates, Occupations, and Requests, but they are “unlocked,” so I can start lessons in them.

Affixes 1, Describe, and Directions still are locked, and those won’t be unlocked until I complete more or the available skills.

What I have been doing was to work my way straight through all the levels in a particular skill before moving to the next. Now, however, I stick with one skill until I complete a level (or two), but then I move to another skill to complete a level there. I limit myself to working on 6-8 skills at a time. By moving among those 6-8 skills it is more interesting and also improves learning and recall when I return to an uncompleted skill and do another level (until it finally is complete).

Although you can leave a skill before a level is complete, stopping after any lesson, I prefer to stick with the skill until I’ve completed a level.

Update: This approach is exactly what Duolingo recommends. /update

Progress is measured by XP: “experience points.” Completing a lesson means you get 10 XP, with a bonus of up to 5 XP depending on how few errors you made. (If you do provide incorrect answers, you are shown the correct answer and then later you are asked the question again (and again) until you get it right, the idea being mastery. (Anki does the same sort of thing.)

In “Settings,” you can set your daily target (and you get awards for having an unbroken streak of days in which you completed at least one lesson). Here is my setting:

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 8.29.26 PM

I chose “Intense,” but it’s really not all that intense. For the first couple of weeks, I was doing around 500XP per day, but now I aim for 200-300XP — which amounts to 2-3 levels.

It’s worth noting that Anki’s shared decks for Esperanto include a couple of decks for Duolingo vocabulary. I use those to lock down my vocabulary knowledge. See this post for more information on Anki.

Now that I better understand how it works, I find it more interesting. And I have to say that it’s a great indoor activity for quarantine.

In fact, Greg Hullander has an interesting blog post on treating Duolingo as a game (in which he also describes the skill tree).

More of my Duolingo discoveries in this post.

Written by Leisureguy

6 May 2020 at 7:25 pm

A few observations on Duolingo’s Esperanto course

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First: Duolingo’s Esperanto course is free. For a good overview of the course structure, argot, and operation, see the Duolingo wiki, a site created and maintained by Duolingo users. Though it has no official connection to Duolingo, it is very helpful in explaining how Duolingo works.

Step 1: Sign up!
The language “skill tree”  (But: see below, Best strategy for working through the tree)
Inside Duolingo lessons
New vocabulary hints
If at first you don’t succeed…
Remember me?
But wait, there’s more!
The Duolingo community
Duolingo on the go
Looking for more info? We’ve got you covered.
See also

Duolingo lessons are extremely brief, so that you get a sense of rapid progress. (It reminds me of how War and Peace, though quite long, gives the reader a sense of rapid progress because in general the chapters are short.)

Update: After six weeks of daily use of Duolingo I had some insight into why it works (and I ahd learned a lot of Esperanto). /update

You can avoid excessive mouse use by typing your answer and using return instead of selecting words from a list and clicking “Check” and then “Continue.” I find using the return key is faster and more convenient than clicking buttons. Click the “Use keyboard” button to avoid the painfully slow process of word selection.

Duolingo uses repetition to build familiarity and quicker understanding of what is being said or written. You have the option to skip some items, but I never do. (I recall reading that Ben Hogan in playing would concede his opponent’s putts — a “gimme,” I think it’s called — for the first several holes and then would not concede any more, which increased the pressure.) I fear if I start skipping I’ll stop learning. Reinforcement is fine.

The audio (“write what you hear” for a phrase spoken in the language you’re studying) develops listening skills. This is important because the skills of reading, listening, speaking, and writing are pretty much independent, and each must be practiced to gain mastery. The speakers vary, with the same phrase being presented with different speakers at different times.

The speakers vary in clarity: some enunciate carefully and clearly. Some clearly enunciate but also speak very rapidly. One mumbles so that it is hard to hear whether he is saying “mi” or “ni” (or “li” or “ili”). One has a tendency to throw in an extra syllable, as when (say) an English speaker pronounces “grand” as “guh-rand” — this guy says “uh-li” for “li.” The extra syllables make it very hard to understand what is being said, and I tended to always get those wrong in my transcription (“Write what you hear”). The reason for the variety of accents is that Duolingo uses contributions from their students as well as professional voice actors.

The more I thought about it, the more I understand why this is good (or as that last guy would say, “uh-good”). When you are speaking with actual people, some will speak clearly and distinctly (but probably those are a minority), some will speak clearly but very rapidly, and some will mumble and mispronounce words. You, the listener, must make sense of what they all say. See this post: Oral typos and autocorrect by the unconscious.

If a speaker seriously makes an error (e.g., clearly says “de” when the correct word is “el” — and you are marked incorrect if you write “de”), you can report the speaker’s error by clicking the “Report” option that’s shown when the correct answer is displayed and then click “Audio does not sound correct.”

There’s also a “Discuss” option shown along with the correct answer. This provides a way of seeking more clarity on a particular question, and the discussions at the link often develop useful posts.

Duolingo lets you repeat the audio as many times as you want: just click the loudspeaker icon and it will say again. And (important) you can repeat the audio after you’ve been told your transcription is incorrect — thus after the correct transcription is shown. I use the correct transcription as a pony and listen repeatedly to the spoken phrase until I can clearly hear the meaning through the “noise” (as it were) of slurred speech and extra syllables. Then I listen to the audio with my eyes shut, getting the meaning purely from the audio.

One tactic I’ve learned to be effective: listen to the audio repeatedly until you have the complete sentence (in Esperanto) in mind. Only after you have the full sentence in mind, use the keyboard to enter it in the text box. Then listen to the audio again, reading along with what you entered. This will allow you to correct errors — for example, I find I have a tendency to omit “la” when I transcribe from memory, and I often mishear “ni” as “mi.”

Over time, you will improve your ability to hear and recall the entire phrase. It’s a skill, so it requires practice.

I’ve noticed as I’ve progressed that I do understand more clearly what is said. My unconscious seems to be filtering out the noise and focusing more on the relevant sounds — the cocktail-party effect in action. And there’s more at work than just the cocktail-party effect: see this post: listening is active, not passive. You don’t simply take in the sounds the speaker makes, you unconsciously (as you learn the language) begin to adjust the sounds so that you start to “hear” what the speaker intended and not necessarily what the speaker said. (More at that link.)

This sounds a lot like training a neural network, and the reason it sounds like that is because that’s exactly what it’s doing: it’s training a neural network (the brain).

UPDATE on listening comprehension. Somewhere around 4 months in, I fell into a kind of depression, feeling I was not making progress. I had been completing around 100-150 XP per day, and I dropped back to 30 XP per day. This lasted for a couple of weeks, and then I got interested again and resumed my former rate. What’s interesting is that after that period my listening comprehension seemed to be significantly improved.

It struck me that the depression may have been a side effect of some rewiring going on in my brain — much as a very young child seems highly irritable and unhappy just before acquiring a new skill (such as learning to walk). I have always attributed that to frustration: the old skill level is not good enough and the new skill is too hard. But perhaps it is the side-effect of that rewiring of brain synapses that the new skill requires.

Bottom line: if you find yourself frustrated at some lack of progress, it’s worthwhile to work through that period of frustration. You may find that once you’re through, you find you are “suddenly” much better. /UPDATE

Another tip: Some exercises present an English sentence and ask you to pick the correct Esperanto translation from three options. I have found these exercises work best if I first translate the English into Esperanto (in my mind) before I look at the three options. But have the Esperanto translation already in mind, it makes it easy to find the correct options, plus I get a little more practice in translating.

The big discoveries in ease of use were keyboard entry instead of word selection and using the enter key to move along instead of clicking the buttons offered. [To that I must now add discovering the Duolingo wiki referenced above.]

UPDATE: Another useful discovery: how the lessons and levels and skills work, and a better study strategy. See this post. /update

I initially use the “Coach” setting to set my daily goal to 30 XP per day (“serious”) but increased it to 50XP per day (“intense”) and usually do 100 XP or more. Doing 100 XP  is easy: it amounts to working through the lessons to complete a level (usually 6 lessons), plus working through 3 reviews to “repair” skills that are “broken” (as shown by the gold disk being cracked).

Easy diacritics: Chrome has an extension Anstatauxi that allows easy entry of diacritics: type x following a letter that requires a diacritic and the diacritic will appear — for example cx produces ĉ, Cx produces Ĉ, and so on for the letters ĝ Ĝ  ĥ Ĥ ĵ Ĵ ŝ Ŝ and ŭ. This means you don’t have to click a button to get those characters when doing text entry in Duolingo. The extension also works in Opera, the browser that I use. Worth downloading. (And note that it doesn’t collide with regular use, since those combinations do not occur in words.) I use this extension and like it a lot.

The same capability is built into for the data entry within that course, and Firefox has similar extensions — the one I use is Ektajpu, but it’s not the only one. See also this general discussion of ways to type Esperanto diacritics.

Duolingo will also accept and score as correct a character combination using the x for a diacritic. That is, if the correct answer is “loĝi,” Duolingo will accept “logxi” as correct.

On Apple computers, you can use the Extended keyboard option. With this keyboard Option-6 produces ˆ and Option-b produces ˘ and the cursor does not advance so the next letter typed appears under the diacritic remark. With practice these key combinations become automatic.

Note the Duolingo forum for Esperanto, and especially note the first post in the forum.  (It’s a “sticky” post so that it stays first.) It consists of links to resources.

Also useful: the Facebook group for Duolingo Esperanto students. This is a useful resource specifically for Duolingo.

Also note that Aniki’s collection of shared decks for Esperanto include three decks for Duolingo vocabulary. I use both of those to lock down my vocabulary knowlege. Also, this deck provides a great number of Esperanto words ordered by frequency of use (so that you learn first the words most frequently used). I study all the decks together since Anki’s spaced repetition makes it easy. More information on Anki in this post.

Best tactics with exercises

See Useful Duolingo Tactics for the tactics that proved to work best for me.

Best strategy for working through the tree

See Maximizing benefits of Duolingo’s spaced repetition in language learning.

See also this post by Duolingo’s learning designers: What’s the best way to learn with Duolingo?

Written by Leisureguy

25 April 2020 at 1:16 pm

A brush having a different waist treatment with a thicker base, along with Phoenix Solstice and the redoubtable iKon #101

with 5 comments

The Simpson Emperor certain has a waist, and unlike the “flange” base of the G.B. Kent (or WSP Monarch), the Emperor’s based is thicker and comfortably rounded (apologies to Napoleon’s ghost). I really like this handle and asked a custom handle maker to make me one in black palm, but he had just decided to retire from handlemaking and I abandoned the idea.

The knot also is excellent — it’s the old (pre-Vulfix) Simpson Super, and this is size 3. It’s a favorite brush, and it showed its mettle today in making an excellent lather from Phoenix Artisan’s Solstice, a favorite shaving soap.

After a couple of days of playing with a lathering bowl, I now more deliberately load the brush well, brush the soap over the stubble, and then slowly and carefully work in more water, a very little at a time, to get exactly the consistency of lather I want.

The iKon Shavecraft 101 is a wonderful razor — and it’s still available, unlike several of my wonderful razors (such as the Stealth or the Merkur white bakelite slant). The 101 is for me both very comfortable and highly efficient.

Three passes produced perfection, and a splash of Solstice sent me on my way to end the week on an excellent note (not to mentioin that today I complete the Duolingo Esperanto Course, for me a six-month effort).

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2020 at 10:37 am

Posted in Shaving

Esperanto frustration, followed by advance

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The triggering event

Yesterday I was struggling intensely with Esperanto, feeling angry, frustrated, and depressed and came close — very close —  to quitting altogether. The triggering incident was my effort to grasp a distinction that Esperanto makes and English does not.

I find it relatively easy to accept the reverse situation, when English makes a distinction that Esperanto does not. For example, English distinguishes between “that” (restrictive subordinate conjunction) and “which” (nonrestrictive coordinate conjunction). Esperanto seems to lack such a distinction, though (for me) it’s a useful convention, helpful to the reader.

But when Esperanto makes a distinction that English does not, I find it much more difficult because I can’t “grasp” it in some internal way. I felt like a Flatlander struggling to understand the nature of the visiting Sphere (which the Flatlander sees only as a circle that mysteriously changes size). The (two-dimensional) Flatlander cannot get his head around an entity that exists in three dimensions.

I struggled to understand the distinction between “dum” (meaning, in the specific instance, “during” — “dum” can also mean “while”) and “en” (meaning, in the specific instance, “in” — “en” can also mean (for example) “into” when its object is in the accusative).

I had done a translation exercise with the prompt “In June my expenses were too high.” The obvious translation is “En junio miaj elspezoj estis tro altaj,” which I imagine you can readily understand since it’s a word-for-word substitution. But I didn’t want the obvious translation, so I wrote “Dum junio miaj elspezoj estis tro altaj.”

Duolingo marked it wrong (as I thought it might), and in the item-discussion forum I asked whether my formulation was not also correct, since “During June my expenses were too high” seemed to me equivalent to “In June” etc.

After considerable discussion and reading of references and struggling with answers that I didn’t understand and mulling it over, both consciously and not, for several hours, I finally grasped that, in Esperanto, “in” June means strictly at various times during the month, whereas “during” June means continuously (or at least continually) during the month.

“Mi ludis ŝakon en junio” means I played chess at some time(s) during the month of June, and “Mi ludis ŝakon dum junio” means I played continually for the entire month. Here’s a continuous example: “Mi restis ĉe mia onklo dum junio” (I stayed with my uncle (continuously) during June).

In English, the distinction can be glimpsed, but the distinction seems muted and visible only in some instances. I do see that “In June I stayed with my uncle” does not mean the same as “During June I stayed with my uncle,” but “During June I overate several times” seems perfectly fine (as a sentence, not as a practice). But while I may be perfectly fine in English, it’s unacceptable in Esperanto, which is much more careful than English in distinguishing continuous vs. intermittent actions over a given time period. In Esperanto, one can say “En junio mi tromanĝis kelkfoje” but to say “Dum junio mi tromanĝis kelkfore” is incorrect — and now that I’ve internalized the Esperanto distinction, the second version feels wrong, where the English “During June I overate several times” feels fine.

The frustration

I was so frustrated and depressed by my inability to understand what was wrong with my proposed wording that I was ready (and gearing up) to quit. I would have walked out on the spot (as it were) except that I have only 5 skills left in the Duolingo course (all but one partially completed) and just 5 days from completing a six-month (180-day) streak. I thought I should at least persist until then to wrap it up, but I was ready to quit altogether.

This particular event was the culmination of a frustrating period. For the previous two or three days I had constantly been making errors in my Duolingo sessions — stupid errors like getting the tense wrong, or using a singular where a plural was needed (or vice versa), or using the accusative when it was wrong and failing to use it when it was right. I was even making frequent typos. I felt I couldn’t get anything right, and struggling to understand what was wrong in my proposed answer brought my frustration to a head.

I was obsessing about it so much that I woke up around 3:00am and posted in the Duolingo item discussion a lengthy note about my frustration and my inability to grasp why my answer was wrong. Then I returned to bed and went to sleep.

The advance

I slept late, and when I awakened I lay quietly in bed and lazily thinking about a scene, describing the scene to myself Esperante, and I was surprised to find that I could go on at some length fairly easily. It felt like (say) skateboarding along smooth pavement and seeing obstacles ahead in plenty of time to alter my direction and avoid the obstacles — no running into things and even no last-minute hasty moves to avoid things.

Specifically: mi pensis pri aŭtuna tago, kiam la arboj estas buntaj, kaj mi promenis laŭ pado sur kio flavaj folioj kuŝas dise. — that’s one part of what I was thinking. (“I thought about an autumn day, when the trees were multicolored, and I walked along a path on which yellow leaves lay scattered.”)

Another analogy: I as though I were skiing downhill, gliding along with little effort, not going anyplace in particular, enjoying the motion and smoothly and easily avoiding trees and rocks without having to think about it.

This sequence — frustration, sleep, new skill — strikes me as similar to how an infant, old enough to get around easily and quickly on hands and knees, shows great frustration and anger just prior to learning how to stand up and walk. It seems that, just before achieving a new level of skill, one hits an emotional low point. “It’s darkest just before the dawn” comes to mind.

This morning the anger and frustration that last night filled me to bursting have drained away, and I’ve been enjoying my increased ease in expressing myself in written Esperanto.

Moral: Persist. When you’re feeling frustrated, depressed, and angry, recognize that as a promising sign. Those feelings augur a breakthrough to a new level of understanding and skill. Feel good about feeling bad.

Written by Leisureguy

11 October 2020 at 12:29 pm

When you absorb without listening: Esperanto progress

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Part of what I enjoy about learning Esperanto, beyond the language itself, is observing the changes in me as I learn. I blogged earlier about a two-week sinking spell at around four months in, and how as that passed I realized that I “suddenly” could much more easily understand the spoken Esperanto phrases that Duolingo presents.

Today I experienced another change. I wasn’t really paying (conscious) attention as a sentence was spoken, but when I went to type what I heared, it played back in mind effortlessly.

Formerly I had to pay careful conscious attention, and make an effort to remember each word. This time I didn’t pay much attention at all, but the words were absorbed. The adaptive unconscious has been learning and is now pitching in to relieve my conscious mind of some of the burden.

It feels odd — along the lines having lifted a weight repeatedly and then finding that someone has substituted a styrofoam replica.

This doesn’t mean that every sentence is so easily absorbed, but this was the first and the experience is already becoming more common.

Note, however, that this is my 172nd consecutive day of doing lessons daily:  the skill is acquired at the speed of growth, not the speed of insight. Training a neural net takes time and many examples — but once it’s trained, it is surprisingly effective.

This is probably a good time to mention again Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.

Written by Leisureguy

7 October 2020 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Education, Esperanto

A brief guide to the accusative in Esperanto

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Lee Miller is the author of this overview, which I found in a Facebook post quoting him. It struck me as useful and succinct.

In Esperanto, the accusative does several things. These are the main ones:

1. It marks the direct object of a verb. (The thing which is being acted upon – so the thing being eaten, or read or had etc)

Mi havas katon.
Mia kato havas katidojn.

2. It indicates movement towards (not movement in general).

La kato saltas sur la tablon.
Mi vojaĝis norden.

3. It marks expressions of measurement (weight, length, time, distance, height, etc.)

Mi aĝas 68 jarojn.
La konstruaĵo estas 40 metrojn alta.

4. It marks points or periods in time.

Mi alvenos lundon.
La parado okazos la sekvan tagon.

5. It marks a number of customary greeting and other expressions.


The accusative isn’t optional. In places where you need it, you have to use it. But it also isn’t random. Don’t just throw -n endings in without a reason.

Note that in 2 (the accusative of direction) one result is distinguishing whether “en” means “in” or “into” (since those two English words differ in meaning):

La knabo kuris en la ĉambro. = The boy ran in the room (i.e., running around inside the room).
La knabo kuris en la ĉambron. = The boy ran into the rooom (i.e., from outside the room).

Written by Leisureguy

30 September 2020 at 9:45 am

Posted in Esperanto

Five months of Esperanto

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I just passed the five-month mark of daily study, and I feel it’s starting to come together. One thing that has helped is my fairly extensive revision and extension of the content of the Aniki “cards” (their terminology is “notes”) that I study. (This effort is not particularly onerous since I revise only the cards for the current day. Gradually, over the coming months, I’ll get around to all cards, but doing a few a day seems the best approach.)

I began doing this with the Kontakto deck (see this post — the update describes the process), but I now do the same thing with my own deck, “1 Daily Words.”I enter the basic word and also words derived from or related to it, so I get a cluster of words related to some idea.

As I describe in the linked post, I used’s dictionary, but I find more and more that I’m using the online Plena Ilustrita Vortaro (PIV). It offers many more derivatives, more detailed definitions, and examples of the words in use.

Of course, since it’s totally in Esperanto, a definition often includes one or more words I don’t know, so I look those up, and so on. It brought back memories of doing this in elementary and junior high school, when I would spend hours tracking things down in the dictionary.

Update: It occurs to me that I could not have comfortably done this at the start. One reason the word clusters are comfortable is that so much in them is recognizable: standard affixes, standard endings, common words I already know — for example, the words below are easier because I recognize “brak” (brako = arm), bebo (baby), el = out of and ĵeti = throw, faldi = to fold, and feki = to shit. /update

Example: “seĝo” means “seat, chair.” On the Esperanto side the note now reads:

aposeĝo, brakseĝo

And the English side:

seat, chair
baby seat, baby chair
ejection seat (in an airplane)
folding chair
potty seat

That particular card is from the Kontakto deck and those derived words are all from PIV.

As a result of my growing vocabulary, I now can read — albeit somewhat haltingly — Esperanto in actual use (not as an exercise). Right now I am reading things in an issue of Belarta rikolto (“Fine-arts harvest”). Augmenting the words shown in the Anki decks has definitely helped. And — of course — when I encounter new words in Belarta rikolto, they (along with derivatives) go into “1 Daily Words.”

I’m getting close to the end of the Duolingo course and will finish it within the next two-three weeks. I’ll then continue my studies using resources listed in this post.

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2020 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Education, Esperanto

An example of why learning Esperanto as a first foreign language is helpful

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Learning a new language presents certain intrinsic difficulties — a new vocabulary is an obvious example. But it has been said that if you want a horse to jump a fence, make the fence as low as possible — that is, remove or reduce barriers to the action you want.

So if you simply want to learn a new language, pick one with the fewest barriers. For example, one that has no irregular verbs or complicated tenses; one that does not require you to learn the gender of each noun; one that provides tools to make it easier to learn vocabulary; one whose grammar is simple, regular, and free of exceptions to the rules.

Esperanto has all that, but there remain essential and intrinsic difficulties, and one reason Esperanto works so well as a first foreign language — being relatively easy to learn and (important point) makes learning subsequent languages easier — is that because the rest of the language is easy, you can focus on the intrinsic difficulties and learn how to attack those.

In effect, Esperanto offers a good environment for learning how to learn a language.

One common difficulty for beginners is wanting to say something — a specific sentence — and not knowing one of the words in the sentence. The difficulty diminishes as your vocabulary increases, of course, but it also diminishes as the student learns how to rephrase the thought using the vocabulary he or she already knows. Rather than simply getting stuck, students fairly quickly learn how to workaround the gap in their knowledge.

Another difficulty is when you know the foreign word for an English word (e.g., “kuri” in Esperanto means “to run” in English), and then use the word in contexts where the sense is very idiomatic.  Lee Miller offers some examples in the Duolingo group on Facebook. He writes:

In English, forms called “phrasal verbs” are used all the time. These are expressions formed of a verb plus a preposition, that yield a unique meaning.

A recent thread about the different meanings of the word “run” made me think it’s important to point out these phrasal verbs, because when you’re learning Esperanto vocabulary very often the literal meaning of the verb in English doesn’t apply.


run aground
run along
run behind
run down
run out
run over
run short
run together
run upon

If you translate any of these sentences, the Esperanto word “kuri” is not going to be involved:

The ship ran aground.
I need to run along.
I’m running behind.
My clock ran down, and I’m feeling run down.
I ran out of energy.
The car ran over a board.
We had enough, but now we’re running short.
All his words run together.
I ran upon an interesting article yesterday.

Always think about “What does this sentence or phrase mean?” instead of “What does each of these individual words mean?”

Another example, not a phrase: “He’s running a temperature?” I would definitely not use “kuri” for the verb. (Verbs are trick: if you want to say “that clock doesn’t work” in Esperanto, the verb would not be “laboras” (works) but “funkcias” (functions — “works” in an idiomatic sense.)

As you practice Esperanto, you develop a sense of phrasing that is not literal — you become aware of when you using words beyond their literal meaning — and that helps you focus on the actual content of the thought you’re trying expressed and not mired down in a word-by-word translation that will be confusing to a non-English speaker.

Once you become sensitive to the traps and errors that idiomatic English presents, you can carry that into your next foreign language: the skill (and knowledge) is transferable, and since you already have it (from having studied Esperanto), you can save time and effort that you’ll need for (say) mastering the various conjugations and irregular verbs of the next language you learn. In this way, learning the next language after learning Esperanto is easier because you can use skills and knowledge you have already gained.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2020 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Education, Esperanto

Four months of Esperanto and I now know enough to have an idea of how much I don’t know

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I’m now four months into Duolingo’s Esperanto course, augmented with Anki flashcards and some additional reading. Although I’ve learned a fair amount in terms of both knowledge and skills — as an instance, I can now quite often transcribe a dictated Esperanto sentence after listening to it once, though certainly I struggle occasionally. The typical problem is that I miss where one word ends and another begins, so that I am trying to “hear” as a word a sound that belongs partly to one word and partly to another — or, conversely, I’ll hear a word not as a whole but separate the sounds and try to figure out the separate words they represent. This is a good example of how our knowledge and understanding shape what we hear.

I went through about three weeks recently when I was doing the absolute minimum, but then I regained energy and interest and am again plugging away happily, though now well aware of how much more there is to learn and master. Still, I can often translate a sentence easily. (Tamen, mi often povas traduki frazon facile.) These tips from Duolingo can help you if you also hit a sinking spell — and they are good as a prophylactic against that.

I have not completed Duolingo’s Esperanto course, but the end is in sight. Then I’ll complete’s course and the Jen Nia Mondo course (free download, PDF of text along with audio files). And I’ll then move on to general reading and podcasts.

For an overview of resources I’ve found and am using, see this post.

Anki update

I now use four Anki decks. I did use several more, but I have gotten from them what I needed (and completely finished some decks), so these are the decks now in use:

1 Esperanto Daily Words” — this is my own deck and I add to it words that I come across and don’t know — “lutro” (otter) is the most recent. It’s useful because is is specific to me and my knowledge and needs. The prefixed “1” is because Anki sorts the decks in alpha order by name, and I wanted to set the sort order for the four decks I use. I have begun adding to each card a substantial number of related and derived words, as described in the update below. I used’s dictionary for this initially, but I’m finding that more and more I use the online Plena Ilustrita Vortaro (PIV).

2 Esperanto from Wikipedia” — that’s how I renamed “Esperanto to English ordered by Wikipedia Usage Frequency v1“, using the “2” prefix to specify sort order. I renamed it also because in the list of my active decks it appeared simply as “Esperanto” and I wanted to remind myself of the source.

3 Esperanto 101 from Kontakto” — original name was “Esperanto 101,” and the deck description includes “This deck contains all must-have basic Esperanto root words as suggested by the editorial team of the magazine Kontakto,” thus my renaming: to remind me of the source.

4 Esperanto 1000 Most Wanted Words” — original name was “EO 1000 Most Frequently Occurring Words.” The description notes:

This deck uses the Frequency Database of Vjaĉeslav Slavik Ivanov found here: . It contains just over 1,000 of the most frequently used words found works, whose original was written in Esperanto, together their English translations. The English translations come from J. C. Wells, Esperanto Dictionary, and the Plena Vortaro de Esperanto.

Problem fix for Esperanto 101

I did find and fix a problem in “Esperanto 101.” Most cards in that deck include in the answer (the “back” of the card) a list of related words, but when I went to edit a definition (which I do fairly often, generally to expand the definition), I noted that there were related words in the card (as viewed in the editor) that did not show up when the answer was displayed.

I looked at some cards that did show “related words” in the answer (“bak” of the card) and compared them to cards that did not, and spotted a difference. In the Edit view, the Back Template (which defines the display for the “answer” part of the card) did not include some text found in the cards that did display related words. It seemed that if that text were missing, the related words failed to display.

I copied that text from the Back Template of a good card (one that did show related words) into the appropriate spot in the Back Template of a bad card (one that did not show related words). Specifically, I copied from the good card’s Back Template the phrase:

[br][br]Related: {{Related words}}

Note: To display this line in this post, I had to use square brackets around “br” instead of angle brackets. You should actually use angle brackets, as you will see in the Edit view of the card.

I copied that text and pasted it into the Back Template of a bad card, putting it immediately (with no spaces) before:

[br][br]Sample: {{Sample usage}}

(Again, I’m using square brackets here because WordPress doesn’t display content enclosed by angle brackets.)

Making that change in one of the bad cards seemed to fix them all, presumably because they all share the same Back Template.

UPDATE: Enhancement for Esperanto 101

The cards for this deck present a single prompt (either Esperanto or English), and then when you view the answer you often will see “Related words.” I worked through the deck (slowly, just revising the cards I was presented with each day) to put all the related words in the prompt and answer.

For the Esperanto prompt, I listed the root word first — shows clearly in parentheses the root word along with the affixes used in deriving other words — for example, one card from this deck has “akvo” and “water” and, in “Related words”

enakviĝi – to get into the water

I use Esperanto to English vortaro and enter “akv” to see the list of words with that root:

  • akvi (akv·i ← akv·o)
    • to flush, to rinse, to water, to irrigate
  • akvo (akv·o)
    • water
  • akva (akv·a ← akv·o)
    • watery
  • akvero (akv·er·o ← akv·o)
    • drop, drop of water
  • akvilo (akv·il·o ← akv·o)
    • watering can

Clearly the root word is “akvo”, so I revise the Esperanto prompt to be:


For the English portion, I enter the definitions from above. I delete “enakviĝi” from “Related words” since is is now a part of the regular prompt.

This revision of the deck, little by little, has greatly strengthened my grasp of vocabulary. If I am uncertain about whether a verb is transitive or not, I look it up in PIV, which not only tells me that but also often reveals more derived words I can add to the card and provides examples of the words as used.

Update to this update: I don’t think I could have comfortably used this technique when I first began. One reason the word clusters are comfortable is that so much in them is recognizable: standard affixes, standard endings, common words I already know. As a result, a new word cluster offers many well-known handholds to make the climb easier now. /update

Written by Leisureguy

17 August 2020 at 11:35 am

Declaration Grooming and Chatillon Lux, with Edwin Jagger

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Same ingredients as in yesterday’s shave, but a different fragrance. Declaration Grooming notes on their website:

Unconditional Surrender is a fragrance inspired by Ulysses S. Grant. After a heroic performance in the Mexican-American War, Grant slipped into a depression and drank his way out of the army. He returned to Saint Louis, struggling to find his place in life. After a few failed attempts to make a living, including selling firewood on a corner, Grant spent time working in his family’s tannery until he joined the Union army in the American Civil War.

Finding himself in a familiar role, Grant threw himself vigorously into his duty. One noteworthy performance that caught President Lincoln’s eye was the capture of Fort Donelson from the Confederacy. When asked for his terms when negotiating the surrender, Grant demanded unconditional surrender. This helped win him the top spot in the armed forces, as well as a level of fame that caused admirers to send him thousands of cigars.

The scent of Unconditional Surrender is an homage to Grant’s tenacity and will to fight back when he was at his lowest point. The scent notes are amber, tonka bean, amyris, cedarwood, agarwood, vetiver, cigar tobacco, black tea, jasmine, and geranium.

For some reason the fragrance this morning was particularly appealing. The Simpson Persian Jar 2 Super easily created a good lather. Perhaps clay in soap is no longer an issue in loading for me because I have unconsciously adapted my loading technique to avoid problems. I recall when I was learning Forth, a programming language with few if any guard rails, how I would get weird errors difficult to track down. As I used the language more, the errors became less and less frequent — I noticed that, but I did not notice how it happened, since it was unconscious.

The same with my current effort in learning Duolingo: 3 months ago I had great difficulty in understanding what was said when the item required me to transcribe a dictated sentence. I notice now that I don’t have nearly that level of difficulty, though I cannot locate consciously what is different. (I will note the process of learning, like the process of growth, is slow, but with steady effort steady improvement will occur over time.)

At any rate, a very nice (and fragrant lather) came forth, and this particular Edwin Jagger, with the fluted black-rubber handle, I like a lot. A very smooth result, and Chatillon Lux’s aftershave is remarkably good.


Written by Leisureguy

23 July 2020 at 9:57 am

Posted in Shaving

Esperanto insight: Don’t write English in Esperanto

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It came about because I wanted to write “I bought this, but now I wish I had bought that.” (I was feeling some regret over buying off-brand headphone cushions instead of the manufacturer’s replacement part.)

The word for “wish” in Esperanto is “deziri,” which also means “to desire,” which did not seem right.

I posted a query in the Duolingo Esperanto group and got very good responses. As Lee Miller, the lead moderator, pointed out, “This English use of “I wish I had ___” really doesn’t have to do with wishing, but with regret.”

I suddenly realized that rather than expressing in Esperanto the feeling I had, I was expressing that feeling in English (in my mind), using English idioms and shorthand, and then trying to translated the English phrasing into Esperanto. What I should do is to use Esperanto to describe immediate experience, not describe it in English (mentally) and then translate (since our English-language descriptions of experience will often include unrecognized idiomatic expressions and follow templates we’ve developed.

Using a different language to describe experience resembles drawing/painting an object: You must observe the experience/object directly, rather than work from the shortcuts we’ve developed to deal with the experience or object.

In drawing, for example, Betty Edwards (in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) gives ways to trick us into seeing directly what is in front of us rather than drawing from our assumptions. For example, in drawing from a photograph, turn it upside down. That forces you to actually look at what you’re drawing, since it is now unfamiliar. Another idea is not to draw the plant or the straight-back chair, but to draw the spaces around it. Those spaces — unlike the plant or the chair — are unfamiliar, so you actually look at them, and the drawing is much improved.

I have enough vocabulary now that I need to ponder the experience (action, idea, feeling, thing) and express it first in Esperanto rather than doing a translation from an English expression.

In this case, I might have written something like “”Mi aĉetis tion. Se mi nur estus aĉetinta ion alian!” — “I bought that. If I only had bought something else.”

“Estus aĉetinta” is the tricky part, since it is “native” Esperanto: “esti” means “to be” and “estus” is the conditional for the verb, and “aĉetinta” is the past active participle of “aĉeti” (to buy). So, literally, the Esperanto is “If I only were having bought something else.” Not the way one would say it in English, but of course it is not being said in English.



Written by Leisureguy

12 July 2020 at 9:42 am

Posted in Esperanto

Esperanto expectations

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I plunged into studying Esperanto a little more than two months ago with a specific goal: I wanted to have the experience of being bilingual, something not all that unusual. Some grow up bilingual — in the southern part of the US West, for example, being bilingual in Spanish and English is common, and in New Mexico being trilingual is not all that uncommon (Spanish, English, and a Native American language such as Navaho).

But I personally have not had the experience of being bilingual, and I want to see what it’s like. Esperanto is an obvious choice for that goal: if I must learn another language to the point of fluency, it makes sense to pick an easy language — and Esperanto, as an international language, was designed to be easy.

In addition to ease of learning, Esperanto is for me a fascinating language. I’ve been exposed to several languages: two years of Spanish in high school and another years as an adult, two years of Classical Green, a year of German, a year of French. Esperanto interests me more — as a language — than any of those. Partly that is because it is a constructed language, and that means it is the result of deliberate choices and conscious design.

The list of constructed languages is lengthy. The reasons I picked Esperanto, in addition to easy of learning, include:

a. Esperanto has a fairly large number of speakers and a fairly extensive body of (original) literature — which means that, once I learn the language, I can use it (vs., say, the language Ithkuil, which is also interesting though far from being easy to learn).

b. Esperanto is an expressive language. Its structure and methods are fascinating to me because it allows Lego-like combinations of roots and affixes to express clearly in a word or phrase shades of meaning with a conciseness English cannot manage — at least not without a certain amount of set-up, as in a poem or short story that builds a context in which a word or phrase can resonate. This aspect of Esperanto reminds me of Forth, my favorite programming language (though I can see that some might go for APL — but I actually did a fair amount of programming in Forth, and I find all the APL special characters distracting.

So I chose Esperanto for three reasons:

  1. Ease of learning
  2. Volume of activity (number of speakers and literary works)
  3. Intrinsic interest

And I might even add a fourth: the spirit of the language (“la interna ideo”) as expressed in its goals (to enable people of all languages to communicate with one another through learning one easy language).

When I started this most recent foray into Esperanto I had some unrealistic expectations, for although Esperanto is an easy language, it still is a language, which means not only must one acquire a large enough vocabulary for fluency, one must also develop new habits of thought, since you cannot simply translate one language, word by word, into another. Different languages approach things differently: their maps from raw experience into language differ. New patterns of speech (and thought) must be learned to the point that they are automatic, new common expressions must come readily to the tongue (without requiring conscious thought).

For example, as I type this, I am not thinking of the individual letters or keystrokes. I have a train of thought and my fingers automatically find the right keys to express the thought with no conscious effort on my part: I have learned to type. Musicians who can improvise are not thinking about the fingering of their instrument, they are thinking about the flow of music and their hands do the work to voice the music of their thoughts. And when you learn a language, you just speak (or write) it to express your thoughts, and what you hear (or read) goes directly to the thought, not parsing the thought word by word.

To develop such patterns of recognition is a slow process that requires time, patience, and repetition. We — or at least I — tend to become accustomed to the speed of insight (or even the speed of two-day delivery) and (unless we are, say, gardeners or have bonsai as a hobby) forget the speed of growth. Growth is slower: it takes time and maintaining the proper conditions. In the case of learning a language, the proper conditions include daily exercise in each of the four skills: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The skills are to a great degree independent, though they all require learning well a vocabulary of sufficient depth.

So now my day includes:

  1. Going through the various Anki flashcard decks I have active. Some decks are now review-only: no new words left in the deck. However, I have one deck, Daily Words, to which I add new words that I have encountered or have looked up because I needed the word. This develops vocabulary, which is needed for the four skills.
  2. Doing a Duolingo level and repairing any “broken” skills. I was doing 3 or 4 levels a day — when I thought I could rush the project — but now I do one level (6-7 lessons) or two at the most. “Broken skills” are those that have been completed long enough ago that Duolingo thinks a practice session is in order (spaced repetition is an important part of learning new things). I average around 100XP per day now, down from 300XP in the past but well above the 50XP that Duolingo offers as the highest goal (“Intense”). Duolingo helps with listening skills, reading skills, and to a degree with writing skills.
  3. Free-writing a page in Esperanto in my journal. This is still quite difficult (and a good source of new words for Daily Words. Obviously this helps develop my writing skill, but in figuring out how to say things and establishing patterns of expression, I believe it will also help with my speaking skills: in both cases (free-writing and speaking in conversation), I am not trying to translate a specific English passage but rather trying to express a thought in Esperanto.
  4. Listen to an Esperanto podcast and/or watch an Esperanto video on YouTube to (a) train my ear and mind to easily understand spoken Esperanto, and (b) to check my progress.
  5. Read at least one lesson in Ivy Kellerman’s book A Complete Grammar of Esperanto, doing all the exercises orally. The book comprises 60 lessons, so that will keep me busy a while.  By doing the exercises aloud, I practice speaking skills (pronunciation, common word groupings, etc.).
  6. I have done a Zoom session 1-1 with an Esperantist, and I want to continue that at least once a week. Right now it is exhausting: 30 minutes and I’m wrung out. This directly exercises speaking and listening skills.

When I finish Duolingo, then I’ll finish the course (I still have 14 lessons left in the Lernu course), and I will expand my reading, listening, and viewing. There’s a Saturday Zoom-based local Esperanto club meeting, and I attend that, though comprehension is still iffy. My thought is to continue an intense effort for one year and see where that takes me. It should take me quite a ways: see this article.

When I started, I intended to work quite solidly for two months and then take stock. Having done that, I am now going to continue to work solidly for one year, and then again take stock. I believe that a solid year will produce some fluency, though the progress from one day to the next or even from one week to the next may not be perceptible.

Still, I do see signs that my skills ar improving. For example, now I can quite often transcribe spoken Esperanto in Duolingo exercises — certainly not always, but now often (whereas before I had to listen over and over and often still could not get it). And about a week ago I completed a Duolingo lesson without make an error and was surprised by a little “Perfect!” display at the end. I had not seen that in the first 60 days, but now it’s happened several times. Those are objective indications of progress.

Scott Chacon suggests in Medium article gives encouragement to adult learners of a foreign language. He writes:

Many late learners become native-like

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some interesting charts and graphs.


Written by Leisureguy

30 June 2020 at 11:14 am

Posted in Education, Esperanto

Esperanto progress

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I have now completed 62 consecutive days of study of Duolingo, and in the process I’ve learned a fair amount of Esperanto — mainly reading, writing, and listening, with essentially no speaking, with the result that I am very uneasy about my (unpracticed) speaking skills. However, there’s a Zoom meet-up tomorrow and beginners (a) are welcome and (b) not compelled to speak if they don’t feel like it. Think: “Mia nomo estas Micjo. Mi estas Esperantisto.” That sort of thing, I think.

Although among languages Esperanto is quite easy to learn, it still is a language, and thus one must learn vocabulary and ways to express in Esperanto the thoughts you have. That takes practice, which in turn takes time. My goal now is to complete a 365-day streak and take stock of where I am after one full year. I’ll run out of Duolingo lessons well before that, but then I will finish the course, and after that dive into the podcasts, YouTube videos, and on-line publications in Esperanto, and also look for more Zoom opportunities.

The goal is to find out what it’s like to be truly bilingual, and Esperanto is the easiest route to that.  Eventually I might try doing one post a day in Esperanto.

Written by Leisureguy

19 June 2020 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Esperanto

Calibre and your ebooks

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Calibre is a terrific program for managing your ebooks, and it gives you the ability to do some very nice things. Calibre is free, though donations are encouraged.

Lee Miller, in the Duolingo Esperanto Learner’s group on Facebook pointed out a good Esperanto resource available as a PDF: Teach Yourself Esperanto, John Cresswell. I downloaded the PDF.

He also pointed out this collection of Esperanto short stories. I decided to read this one. I used my browser to print the page as a PDF.

I added both PDFs to my Calibre library using the Add Books button,  then used Calibre’s Edit Metadata button to correct the author and title information.  Since those are displayed in the library listing of the book, it was important that they be correct. Correcting them a snap: the metadata are displayed and you can easily edit the information.

I then used Calibre’s Convert Books to covert the PDF to the format used by my eBook reader (AZW3 for my Kindle, but Calibre can also do MOBI, EPUB, and many other formats). I then used Calibre’s Send to Device button to send the converted file to my Kindle.

Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 4.57.11 PM

Not quite Bob’s your uncle, but easy enough.

If you use ebooks, you should investigate Calibre. (The link is to a variety of YouTube explanations.)

Written by Leisureguy

6 June 2020 at 10:08 am

Training the adaptive unconscious

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I’ve mentioned before how learning a language (along with other kinds of learning) is very like how in AI one trains a neural network — because, of course, the brain is a neural network. And it seems clear that the part of the brain/mind being trained is the adaptive unconscious. Of course one must consciously learn the rules and the vocabulary and how to understand the spoken phrases one hears. But the idea is that it soon will not require conscious thought since the adaptive unconscious will take over the job, having through much repetition learned the patterns.

I was thinking this morning, as I found spoken sentences easier to understand and the choice of words to use in (say) telling time just came to me without my really having to think about it or even consciously understanding why I chose those particular words.It reminded me of when I began learning the Forth programming language. I had all sorts of mysterious crashes and malfunctions that gradually stopped happening without my ever understanding why most of them occurred. I think it was that through the experience of writing and debugging Forth I was training (through repetition) my adaptive unconscious and that as it absorbed the patterns/rules it simply directed me to choices that avoided the errors.

And part of that is teaching through mastery: you repeat an exercise in Duolingo until you get it right. If you get it wrong, the program shows you the correct answer and marks the error you made, but later in that session you will be presented the same exercise. If you get it right, great. If you get it wrong, you are again presented with it — repeatedly, until you get it right. That’s how you learn.

And it’s also how you work. When I made errors in programming, I had to keep at it until all the errors were fixed and the program ran properly. Repeating exercises until they are mastered is really the way to learn.

Update: Of course, performance skills — playing a musical instrument, for example, or acting a part in a play — are routinely taught with the practice of mastery: you work on the piece until you can do it right. In most math courses, on the other hand, your exercises are marked wrong and you do not get to repeat the exercise until you get it right (and thus learn).

Written by Leisureguy

27 May 2020 at 1:22 pm

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