Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Esperanto version of a Sesame-Street-like program

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 July 2020 at 8:53 am

Posted in Video, Esperanto

More about writing — in English or in Esperanto

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My ideas often develop slowly, emerging over time, like the gradual growth of a crystal in a solution of mineral salts. In this post from yesterday, I wrote about how we express ourselves in our native language (for me, English) by drawing from a large mental storehouse of stock words and phrases — Lego blocks of language, which one snaps together to convey a thought or describe an experience. The stock words are our vocabulary and the stock phrases are those often used that flow easily from our tongue or pen (or keyboard).

Often those stock phrases are but an approximate match and it’s not always easy to find the best fit in phrasing — or even the right word. Mark Twain commented, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

This storehouse of stock phrases and stock constructs — not merely idioms (“we’ll paint the town red”) includes also stock ideas — ideas that we’ve learned and worked through, ready for quick retrieval when they fit (or come close to fitting) what we are trying to say. (Such ideas, alas, include not only things rationally worked (e.g., the products of small whole numbers) out but prejudice and bigotry that come to mind without conscious effort.)

One example of a word and its accompanying idea, present in the mental stockpile of many movie fants, is “McGuffin” (sometimes “MacGuffin”). The word itself is due to Alfred Hitchcock, but the idea is older. A McGuffin is the physical entity that drives the plot and pushes the characters into action. The story is the story of the characters — their hopes, dreams, fears, thoughts, words, actions, and relationships, what they are as people — and the McGuffin (and its pursuit) serves as the catalyst to bring each person’s character into high relief so that we can see it.

The canonical examples are the Maltese Falcon (from the movie of that name) and the wine bottle of suspicious sand in “Suspicion,” but once you understand the idea of a McGuffin, you see it in many movies: it’s the eponymous stone in “Romancing the Stone,” it’s the treasure in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

And the idea of a McGuffin can be generalized beyond a physical object. For example, in “Friday Night Lights,” a television series ostensibly about football but in fact about the people involved, the McGuffin is football and a football championship. Thus people with zero interest in football (e.g., me) can enjoy the series immensely because of the story and the characters — who they are and how they interact and change. The series is not really about football, it’s about people.

Another example: the AlphaGo documentary ostensibly is about AI and the game of Go, but if you watch it (and I encourage you do that — it’s free on YouTube), you will see that AI and Go constitute a McGruffin, and the movie is actually about the people involved: what happens to them, what they do, what that reveals about their character, and how they change. Moreover, in this case the people are real — this movie is not “based on” or “inspired by,” it is the real deal: the actual people in the actual events at the time. But the McGuffin still works as a McGuffin.

It’s interesting the degree to McGuffins come into our lives: the new car one wants so much — it’s a McGuffin. Attending some big event: a McGuffin.

Let me return to that storehouse of stock phrases and ideas, which is what I discussed in the earlier post. As I mentioned above, though we try to describe our experience using these Lego blocks of predefined (and well-worn) phrases and ideas, in fact experience is unique: people differ, physical environments differ, and interactions differ. We must blur our perceptions somewhat to fit that uniqueness into the standard pigeonholes our stock phrases and ideas provide.

It strike me that breaking free of that limitation is exactly what poetry and literary fiction are about: an effort to write clearly — beyond the stock responses — and to express what is seen and understood without cutting it down to fit the stock phrases and perceptions that we normally use to avoid the effort of recognizing our (complex) reality and expressing it (to ourselves or others).

Of course, it goes beyond literary fiction and poetry. It includes art, and theater, and dance. All of those creative efforts are to help us see clearly things hidden from us by our the blinders of our daily life and learned habits.

Naturally enough, much fiction and verse and paintings cater to our limitations, using them, relying on them, and thus reinforcing them: romance novels, for example, or greeting card verse, or Thomas Kinkaid’s paintings. Those are comfortable, like well-worn house shoes, because they fit our expectations and habits of thought and language.

Art (fiction, poetry, painting, sculpture, theater, song, whatever) that makes us see things in a new way is uncomfortable because it breaks the shell we’ve built to hold and categorize our life, the shell that enables us to get from one day to the next without much angst or effort.  Art can make people uncomfortable (so they don’t like it), but it also can break through our old habits and let us see things afresh.

You, like me, have probably experienced discomfort at some painting or movie or sculpture or book and then suddenly “get it.” It feels as though scales have fallen from your eyes and you really se it for the first time, looking at what was familiar and seeing it in a new way, from a new perspective.

This article describes pretty well that phenomenon for a painter.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 July 2020 at 4:45 pm

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

“Jen Nia Mondo”: excellent free audio-oriented Esperanto course

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Jen Nia Mondo is an excellent course, offered free of charge by Esperanto Association of Britain. This set (audio files and two books) is a superb way to learn the language.

You can download the set of 50 audio files (MP3 format) and the two supporting books at no cost. You  learn directly from listening to the MP3 files and repeating phrases, which will develop listening and speaking skills. The book states that it’s best to listen to the audio version of the lesson first, reading the lesson in the book only after you’ve heard it. Specifically, the recommendation is to listen to the audio repeatedly, until you know it by heart, before reading the lesson in the book.

I’ve added these lessons to my regimen.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 10:39 am

Posted in Books, Education, 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

What’s up with my blogging

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A reader wrote inquiring about the change in pattern of my blogging (less frequent) and about the spareribs recipe I posted (do I still follow a whole-food plant-based diet?). I thought others might be wondering about that, so here’s what’s up with me on those accounts.

Blogging and its interruptions

My decision to acquire fluency in Esperanto has required a fair amount of time — here’s my current regimen. That post includes some detail on the reasons for the regimen.

The time spent in study means fewer blog posts. However, I now have the bit in my teeth and am determined to achieve fluency.

Whole-food plant-based diet

I still follow this diet, but my family and (I suspect) many of my readers do not, though certainly my family and I hope my readers do emphasize the consumption of fresh vegetables (including leafy greens), dried beans, intact whole grains, fresh fruit, berries, and nuts and seeds, and minimize the consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs — and try to avoid refined and “product” foods.

Still, I like food, and when I see a recipe like the St.-Louis-style spareribs (riparaĵo laŭ la stilo “St. Louis”), a recipe that is interesting, sounds tasty, and is easy, I post it for my meat-eating readers. Indeed, I might eat a rib or two on a special occasion, but certainly I continue now to follow a diet that is almost exclusively whole-food and plant-based. If I don’t, my blood glucose goes up (since I no longer take any medication for that — or for high blood pressure, since I also have cut out added salt).

I do think it’s a good idea to cut out refined food (e.g., refined sugar and foods that contain it, ultra-processed foods, fruit juice) and move toward whole foods, and to minimize one’s consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs, for the reasons explained in Dr. Michael Greger’s book How Not to Die and his more recent book How Not to Diet. But I figure you can read those and decide for yourself based on the research findings he points out.


Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 10:25 am

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

Updated post

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I updated the Anki observations post with some illustrations.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 June 2020 at 2:19 pm

An Anki observation

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I continue to use Anki daily, and currently I’m using 13 decks, 3 of which I made and 10 downloaded from shared decks. These are all Esperanto decks, so there’s a fair amount of overlap, but each deck has some things the others lack. (I have deleted three decks simply because I had mastered all the vocabulary in them, and I’ve also go through all the cards in four of the current 13 decks so I get only review cards, no new vocabulary.)

You can see how many cards each deck will have for you, and nowadays the total number looks intimidating, but as it turns out many of these are cards I know so well that they should up only once every 2 to 3 months — it’s just that they’re spread out, so I’ll see a good number of them every day (and then not see them again for a few month).

The net result is that almost all the cards for a day are cards I know well, so I can go through them quickly and then not see them again for weeks. Of course, there are some stubborn cards I’m still working on, and occasionally a card I had indicated I knew will return and I’ll find that I don’t know it, so I click “Hard” and it comes back sooner.

I’m impressed by how well (and easily) it works. If there are any subjects that you must learn well and for which flashcards would be helpful, I highly recommend Anki — and do take a look at the shared decks. Those are not all good, but since you can readily edit any card, you can fix up minor errors and/or augment the information on the card.

UPDATE 17 June 2020: Here are the decks as of this morning:

I have no cards to review in Esperanto Affixes, and in Esperanto Correlatives, Recognize False Friends Like a Native!™, and Speak Esperanto Like a Native!™ 1 there are no new words to learn. I’ve been through those decks so it’s only review, and that goes quickly because I know all the words — the review is just reinforcement through spaced repetition.

The green numerals show how many I will review in each deck and the blue numeral shows how many new words are introduced, and I’ve left the default of 10 in place, though you can change that to match your ambition.

Here’s a typical recent word:

If I totally blank on the card, I click “Again,” otherwise I click on how easy it was. As cards are repeated the intervals get longer. Here are the choices for a brand new word:

And here are the choices for a word that I know well:

If I click “Easy,” I won’t see the word again for 4.2 months. Thus over time the daily review lessens dramatically. I average around 5 seconds a card.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2020 at 7:18 pm

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

The direct method of teaching Esperanto via YouTube

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The direct method of teaching a language uses only that language, along with gesture, mimicry, drawings, diagrams, maps, calendar, clock, color charts, photos, articles of clothing, cookware and tableware, tools, household supplies and equipment, sports equipment, models (of trains, cars, planes, boats, and so on), and other props.

The direct method can be very effective because learners associate their new vocabulary directly with the objective referent rather than with words in another language. If someone holds up a hammer and says “martelo” several times, you associate “martelo” directly with that object rather than with the English word “hammer.”

Moreover, if the teacher is holding a hammer and says “martelo,” s/he can also then point to the various parts of the hammer and provide the names for those, and also use the hammer and provide the name for that action along with the word “najlo” (nail) and “tabulo” (board), all the while using only the target language.

Today, with the global reach of YouTube, the direct method comes into its own since it is independent of any native language. A direct method language course can be used equally well to teach speakers of any language at all.

The course can begin with a native-language Lesson 0 to explain (in the viewer’s native language) how the course works and what will happen. Then, from Lesson 1 on, only Esperanto is spoken. (This is what various graduate-level math textbooks have done: Chapter 0 sets out the basic premises and establishes the foundation of knowledge the course assumes, and then Chapter 1 begins the actual course.)

The benefit is that the points to cover in Lesson 0 can be provided (in Esperanto) as a text comment attached to Lesson 1, so that anyone so inclined can make a Lesson 0 in his or her native language, covering those points and include a link to Lesson 1 of the (Esperanto-only) direct-method course. Over time I would expect more and more Lesson 0 videos to emerge, in a wide variety of languages.

The benefit is that production time and effort can focus on the core course and let a thousand Lesson 0 videos bloom as they will.

Voilà! (or, more appropriately, Jen!) A universal course for the universal language.

I would expect that the core direct-method course would in time have direct-method supplements made by volunteers to teach (via direct method) particular aspects of their culture: local foods, local dress, local customs, music, occupational terms and knowledge for various occupations, and so on. If these are based on the core course, in time there would be a rich variety of offerings, with each video purely in Esperanto and thus available to all Esperanto speakers. And making these would be facilitated by the fact that the teachers could use the Esperanto taught in the core course and build upon that.

And such a course is now underway, though not (yet) so generalized as I describe. You can see my posts on Esperanto by doing a Subject Search at the right with the subject Esperanto.



Written by LeisureGuy

8 June 2020 at 12:37 pm

Posted in Education, Esperanto, Video

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

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

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

Not in Spanish

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I am interested in becoming bilingual, something I’ve not yet accomplished but am interested in. [Full disclosure: The Wife is totally bilingual: English and French with a Parisian accent.] My study of Esperanto is specifically aimed at inducing bilingualism, and I truly believe it will happen. Duolingo will do it. I currently have a 37-day streak and probably in the neighborhood of 40-50 hours — really, just one long work week, but stretched across 37 days with a little over an hour each day. I supplement Duolingo with Anki to ensure I acquire vocabulary efficiently, but I am surprised by how much I already have gained. And I’m not even in level 3 yet.

If you are monolingual and want to experience bilingualism, I highly recommend Esperanto as a relatively easy solution. See the Esperanto section on the “Useful Posts” page for more info.

Michael Hoffman writes in the London Review of Books:

This​ is the first and only book on bilingualism I have read, but before coming to that there are two other things worthy of mention.* The first is the author’s biographical note. Albert Costa, a research professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona who specialised in neurocognition and language processing, died in 2018, at the age of 48. The second is the single modest line on the copyright page, where no one looks, crediting the translation to John W. Schwieter. Schwieter also appears in the brief list of Further Reading, as the editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Bilingual Processing (2015). He is, as some of us would say, vom Fach.

The Bilingual Brain is the product of equal parts personality and intellectual curiosity; it reads like a book of lectures (it isn’t), complete with attention-grabbing tics and posers, provocative understatements and iron logic, curious factoids and handsomely signalled changes of direction. The ‘popular’ and the ‘science’ parts of ‘popular science’ achieve a kind of maximum separation. Costa speaks to the reader in a way that he and we are equally helpless to resist – unmannered, natural, charismatic. He is obviously in love with his subject, taking it everywhere with him, seeing it wherever he goes. ‘Most of the people I know are bilingual’ is his delightful shrug. He sounds at times like an amateur, drawing materials from the breakfast table, and at others like the gifted neurologist or psycholinguist he was, advancing provisional conclusions, to be overturned by the research of others or himself. There were moments when I didn’t understand him, moments when I wasn’t interested in what he was telling me, moments when I wished he had gone further, but I suspect that the fault was all on my side. I felt like someone unexpectedly in receipt of a partial brain scan he is probably holding upside down.

Costa’s treatment is both hard (too hard for me) and oddly soft. He has no interest in saying what bilingualism is (‘I prefer to avoid giving prescriptive definitions’) and, besides identifying technical features (‘tonal languages, like Mandarin Chinese or Vietnamese’), none in delineating the specific character of this or that language, its historic or sociopolitical formation, its advantages and drawbacks, its current market rating. He doesn’t really distinguish between the individually-formed bilingual, handmade by circumstance, and those who belong to groups historically or geopolitically tending to bilingualism – Catalans, for example, like Costa himself, or Belgians. Sometimes ‘bilingual’ for him seems to mean little more than someone with a very good grasp of a second language. Perhaps, in the broadest sense, he is simply exclaiming at the wonder of human speech (‘We are all talking heads,’ he begins) and, en passant, praising the social-scientific method, the fantastically resourceful experiments that have been undertaken on the human animal.

Costa is interested in both qualitative and quantitative results, though the latter type tends to dominate his analysis. Numbering trumps mere description. (Something that can’t be made into a plural is of less use and less worth, packs less punch.) The main idea is to extrapolate and sweep and generalise, not to specify. The Bilingual Brain has Conrad – almost the only literary writer – in the index, but not Beckett or Nabokov or Brodsky. It dives into the brain, not into words. Ideally, I think, Costa would number the bilingual’s languages #1 and #2, for maximal theoretical applicability, not name them, as he gamely does, with his Korean French speakers, his Catalan Mexicans, his Zulu and Hindi English.

Hard cases make bad law, but perhaps they make good science. The opposite ends of life feature more prominently in The Bilingual Brain than the muddled middle. There is much play in the book with ‘bilingual babies’ and the almost brutally ingenious experiments aimed at gaining and evaluating their attention. Newborns ‘show a preference for words spoken by their mother compared to those uttered by a stranger’. Two-day-old babies take in more oxygen to their brains when listening to a recording of their mothers reading a story played forwards rather than backwards. Four-month-old bilingual babies can distinguish (already!) their two languages; on hearing them, they take longer to respond than monolingual babies, possibly, Costa conjectures, because ‘evaluating which of the two languages is the one being heard … would take additional time’. Costa’s second focus is on strokes or brain injuries as they affect bilingual individuals: what happens to their languages, do they both disappear, and from the same places in the brain? Is one damaged while the other remains unimpaired and is there an observed order? It’s an uncertain, contested area, with one scientist defining five distinct types of linguistic recovery, though it seems to be accepted that ‘there are quite a few people who after brain damage have more problems processing nouns than verbs.’

The brain parts of Costa’s conclusions largely

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 May 2020 at 8:21 pm

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

‘Saluton!’: the surprise return of Esperanto

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Josh Salisbury writes in the Guardian in December 2017:

In the village of Barlaston, just outside Stoke-on-Trent, a strange language can be heard. It’s not the friendly Potteries dialect, but something that sounds a little like the lovechild of French and German. A Tudor house here is home to the Esperanto Association of Britain (EAB), which encourages people to learn the constructed language.

Esperanto summer schools were first established in Stoke in 1960, and were funded by the council for more than 50 years. The concept of an easy-to-learn, universal second tongue was energetically promoted, drawing prominent speakers to the area. And the city still bears traces of its Esperanto history. In Smallthorne, in the north-east of the city, drinkers can stop off on Esperanto Way to get a pint at the Green Star – the symbol of the Esperantist movement. A row of terraced houses a short walk away are located on Zamenhof Grove, named after the inventor of Esperanto, LL Zamenhof.

The language isn’t a relic; in fact, while exact figures are difficult to pin down, there has been a resurgence in people taking it up. The Esperanto Association has increased the number of beginners’ courses it offers four-fold to keep up with demand, says Viv O’Dunne, the charity’s operations and events director.

The “inner idea” of Esperanto, Zamenhof once said, was to promote world peace. A Jewish-Polish doctor born in 1859 in Białystok, now in Poland, Zamenhof grew up under Russian occupation. Violence between different groups was common – Białystok which was a melting pot of Protestant Germans, Catholic Poles, Orthodox Russians and Jews. While still a child, Zamenhof hit upon the idea that a constructed second language that was easy to learn and understand would allow people to talk as peers, rather than fight. In 1887, after tinkering away for more than 10 years, Zamenhof published his ideas in a pamphlet. By 1905, the fundamental rules of Esperanto had been established by a conference of speakers in France, and Esperantist groups began popping up across the world.

Tim Owen, education director for the EAB, gives me a crash course in what makes it straight-forward. “Probably the main factor is that you can acquire a huge vocabulary without knowing so many words,” he says.

All words ending -o are nouns, an -a ending is for an adjective, while -e denotes an adverb. He shows me that, for instance, “vidi” – meaning to see – can become “vido” for vision, “vida” for visual and “vide” for visually, concepts that require different words in English. If you need to find an opposite, you can add the “mal” prefix: “pura” is clean, “malpura” is dirty. These building blocks can help speakers learn new words very quickly. “It’s like working with a magic multiplier,” says Owen. The spellings are phonetic, there are no grammatical genders, verbs are strictly regular, and the vocabulary is a blend of European languages familiar to many. It’s child’s play to learn compared with my years of torturous high-school language lessons.

But isn’t a universal constructed language just a hobby for idealistic eccentrics? O’Dunne laughs, and concedes the stereotype might have a grain of truth: “We’ve still got those!” But, he says, there’s been a marked change in the demographic of attendees recently. “Over the last two or three years, there’s been much more interest from younger people who want to use it to travel and correspond … it just feels like it’s been rejuvenated,” she says.

At the charity’s headquarters at Esperanto House, there are rows of old academic tomes on the linguistics of constructed languages, but it’s the colourful translations of bestsellers and bright current affairs magazines that catch the eye. “[Esperanto is] a little bit geeky, but geeky is cool now, right?” says one recent convert.

Nineteen-year-old Sammy Kennedy, an aspiring photographer who works in retail in Manchester, is one of the young Esperantists helping the language shake off its niche image. He has attended events run by the EAB and has noticed more and more people taking an interest. Esperanto groups where he lives were defunct for ages, he tells me. “Now, there’s a new Manchester Esperanto group that meets up monthly,” he says.

Esperanto has become steadily more accessible largely thanks to the language-learning app Duolingo. The Esperanto course recently reached a million learners worldwide, more than are currently learning Hungarian or Czech on the site. There’s a dizzying array of other online options to help would-be learners, too. A few taps on the Amikumu (or “do the friendly thing”) app shows users local Esperantists to chat with, while numerous Facebook groups help beginners with vocab and grammar. Esperanto may have been the brainchild of a Polish doctor in the 19th century, but it has adapted for the 21st.

Simone Davis, a civil servant, began learning Esperanto online to distract her from painful chronic health conditions. She found that even at her most tired or ill, she could manage a lesson on her tablet. “One lesson easily becomes two or three and before I knew it I was hooked,” she says. In just over a year, she learned more Esperanto than she has French, despite taking French classes for five years.

It’s the values underpinning the language, as well as its ease, that drew in Davis. Esperanto is “a symbol of intentional goodwill towards others”, she says. Esperantists place a heavy value on the language being “neutral”, not belonging to one country. Many tell me they were inspired to pick up the books in response to what they see as rising isolationism in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit. Learning the language isn’t just a hobby, but a commitment to making connections across borders on a level playing field.

I initially write this off as simply a nice sentiment, but there’s plenty of practise behind the principle. O’Dunne shows me the Pasporta Servo, a pocket-sized directory of Esperantists all around the world. They offer fellow speakers a place to stay in their home country, often completely free of charge. For language enthusiasts under 25, the charity NoJef will pay for travel and accommodation for attendance at Esperanto-themed events.

The Pasporta Servo led 26-year-old James McMurray, a data engineer from Crawley, to make learning Esperanto his New Year’s resolution several years ago. He had first became familiar with the language while leafing through his grandfather’s books – he had become an Esperantist while stationed in India during the second world war. “I remember growing up and seeing his books in Esperanto, without being able to understand it, and his correspondence with people all over the world who may not speak English and be able to communicate,” McMurray says. He has since attended Esperantist music events in France, and met up with fellow learners in Prague and Malaga. His first serious relationship started through a shared interest in Esperanto. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

On a personal note, after completing 12 lessons in the course, I have recently focused solely on the Duolingo course. As of this morning, I’ve done at least one lesson (and always in fact several lessons) a day for 36 days:

For what I learned about how to use Duolingo effectively, see this post.

This morning I also revised my two posts (this one and this one) on using Anki to reflect more discoveries on using it, and in particular to note the Duolingo shared decks and this quite valuable shared deck:

61,907 Esperanto dictionary entries in order of usage frequency in the Esperanto Wikipedia (dumped 2016-10-02). Dictionary entries come from Paul Denisowski’s Esperanto Dictionary Project (ESPDIC). To learn in order of frequency, you should set the options group for the deck in the “New Cards” section to have “Show new cards in order added” selected. Then the first few words to appear should be “la, de, en, kaj, esti”.

I submit that in this socially isolated, lockdown time, learning a language using Duolingo and Anki is a pleasant and useful way to pass some hours. And if you don’t know any foreign language, learning Esperanto first has been shown to greatly facilitate the learning of later languages.

I will say that after just over a month’s study I’m surprised by how much Esperanto I know. — or: Mi diros, ke post nur unu-monata studado mi estas suprizata per kiom da Esperanto mi scias. That I just wrote off the top of my head, using just what I’ve learned to date.


Written by LeisureGuy

24 May 2020 at 3:18 pm

Useful checklist for critical thinking

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 May 2020 at 9:46 am

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