Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon)

On October 19, I finished reading Jules Verne's Cinq semaines en ballon, after ten weeks of on-again, off-again effort. Since the book itself came out in 1862, it seems a bit late to write a review of the novel itself, but it was the first novel I ever read in French, and since I've only been studying French for 40 weeks, I thought it might be of interest to discuss how I managed to read a French novel at all.

(All pictures taken from WikiSource.)

The Motivation: Reading on a Kindle

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I got excited about reading foreign-language novels about a year ago, when I discovered that I could use the bilingual dictionary on a Kindle to read a Spanish novel in four days. That was remarkable because I had spoken Spanish for forty years without ever managing to read four pages of a Spanish novel. I felt this proved the Kindle lets students beat the "beginner's paradox," and I wanted to get more people excited about it. Trouble was, my Spanish was too good in the first place--to be really exciting, this would need to work for people who didn't start off with C1 fluency in a language.

I had studied Italian on and off for about ten years, but I had never had better than A2 competence, so I brushed up my Italian for a few months and managed to read an Italian novel. As I expected, this was more work than reading the Spanish one, but still reasonable, and the effort improved my Italian dramatically.

But for a really strong test, I started studying French in January 2014, with the goal of showing that I could read a novel in a language I had never studied before at all. Moreover, I wanted to show that the mere act of reading could itself greatly boost one's ability with the language.

Elsewhere on the blog I've discussed my method for learning French. I use Duolingo as the core, and supplement that with other resources. I have invested about two hours per day for almost 300 days now. I estimate I'm somewhere between B1 and B2 French, which is about right for that level of effort. It's where someone should be after two years of college French, and those are exactly the people I'm hoping this will work for.

Reading the Novel

To read Cinq semaines en ballon, I carefully followed my own suggestions for learning a language by reading a novel. I was able to buy the original French text plus an English translation for under a dollar. The translation wasn't very good (it contained a lot of rather unnatural English sentences) but that didn't matter, since I only intended to use it as a last resort.

In a number of ways, this wasn't really the ideal first novel to pick. I chose it partly because I had really loved reading Verne novels as a kid, and this was one I'd never read before; I thought it would be cool to say I had read it in French. It was a little longer than I'd have liked--the first Spanish novel I read was about half as long. I also worried a little bit that French itself might have changed in 150 years, but that doesn't seem to have been a real problem.

A more serious problem is that like a lot of nineteenth-century literature, Cinq semaines en ballon starts slow and doesn't take off until you're more than 25% of the way into it. It's an adventure story about three men who ride a new kind of balloon across unexplored parts of Africa, but the balloon doesn't leave the ground for a long, long time. This is terrible for the first-time foreign reader, because those first chapters are unavoidably difficult, frustrating, and slow. It helps a lot if they're exciting, but that's definitely not the case with this book. From reading in the other languages, I knew that my reading speed would build with time, and that was motivation enough to get me through the first quarter of it.

After that, there's plenty of excitement.

A different kind of problem is that I started the novel before I finished learning the French grammar. I was comfortable with newspaper articles, but French has a verb tense called the passe simple which is almost unused in day-to-day speech but is very heavily used for narration in novels. It corresponds to the Spanish preterito and the Italian passato remoto, so I had a solid understanding of what it meant, but I still had to learn to recognize it. Since the narration is third-person, I only had to learn the third-person forms, and that turned out not to be too bad.

By the time the balloon finally lifted off, I had discovered another problem. The book is hopelessly racist. Given the era, that shouldn't be a huge surprise, but somehow I expected better of Verne. It's also not very environmentally conscious; the elephant in the picture above is eventually shot and killed, and the heroes eat just a single meal from a piece of the trunk. To be fair, there's not much else they could do given their circumstances, but neither the killing nor the waste bothers them one bit. This sort of thing doesn't turn up in every chapter, and it's not enough to spoil the book; it just jolts you every now and then.

That aside, it's a fun adventure with a satisfying ending. It turned out not to be such a bad choice after all.


My reading speed climbed from under 1% an hour to over 5%. It's hard to say what that means in pages or words, but toward the end, I could comfortable read two or three of the little chapters (44 in all) at a time.

At the beginning, when I found an unknown word, I consulted the bilingual dictionary first and used the monolingual only if that failed. By the half-way point, I had reversed this. The Kindle's built-in monolingual French dictionary turns out to be pretty good. Not only does it have a much bigger vocabulary than the Collins French-English bilingual dictionary, the definitions are written in simpler language. By the end of the book, nine times out of ten, when I needed to look up a word, the monolingual French dictionary was all I needed. It felt really good to stay immersed in the language and the story.

In the first half of the book, I made heavy use of the English translation. I always made myself read at least a paragraph before resorting to it, but all too often there was no other way to make sense of the text. Toward the middle, though, I was usually able to finish a whole chapter in French and then quickly reread it in English, looking for any big mistakes in my interpretation. There were quite a few to start with. For the last quarter of the book, though, the rereading didn't turn up any big surprises. That is, my reading in French was accurate enough that in the last quarter of the book, I didn't really need the English translation at all.

As with the other languages, I felt this really improved my ability across the board. For example, I'm comfortable reading most stories in Le Monde now without using a dictionary at all. I haven't attended a French meetup lately, but I should do that soon to see if there's a difference with my listening ability, as there was with Spanish.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile experience. I think I'll try Voyage au centre de la terre next.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Flirting with French

I just finished William Alexander's wonderful Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart, and I highly recommend it to anyone with any interest at all in learning another language. In his thirteen-month quest to learn French, the 57-year-old author tries everything short of marrying a French woman, and he describes it all in hilarious detail. It's a story about a language, it's a story about people, and it's a story about not giving up.

I bought this book after reading an excellent New York Times review. Building on that, I'm going to go through the various things Alexander tried and comment on how effective I think they are for others trying to learn French. Since I taught myself French during the past nine months using many of the same materials and yet pretty much the opposite philosophy, I'm in a good position to compare and contrast.

Given the nature of his book, I don't think it's possible to have "spoilers," but it's possible some people might want to read the rest of this post after finishing the book.


What did he know to start with?

Alexander had studied French for two years in high school, and even though that was 40 years ago, it still seems to have given him a head start. He took an online college placement exam which said that he almost qualified for "entrance into first-year college French." Since the qualifications for entrance into first-year college French are tuition and a pulse, I assume he really means he almost qualified for placement out of the first semester. That's not bad at all.

Unfortunately, he hated his high-school French teacher and as a result had nothing but contempt for the whole concept of learning a language in a classroom. He intended to teach himself using the latest technologies, but without a teacher or even a tutor.

For my part, I had never studied French before at all, but because I speak Spanish and Italian, I had something of a head start of my own.

Why did he want to learn French?

Motivation matters, and his motivation was that he loved France and and all things French so much that he wanted to be French.  Obviously that meant learning to speak the language and not just read it; he wanted to attain conversational fluency in French.

My own goal for learning French was to be able to read books in it, and as a side-effect, to prove out my ideas that devices like an Amazon Kindle can make it much easier to read books in foreign languages.

What did he do?

In thirteen months, Alexander put 900 hours into active study, he spent "hundreds" of hours passively absorbing French movies, TV, and radio, he practiced with French people locally and online, and he spent at least five weeks in France. I estimate he spent at least $20,000 in the process.

If nothing else, one has to salute the power of his motivation.

For my part, I invested about 500 hours in active study. I also practiced with French people locally and online, and I spent about $100.

What was the outcome?

Using the levels from Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, I'd have expected that much investment to make him a strong B2 speaker, verging on C1 in some areas. Instead, he seems to have barely managed to reach B1. You can do a lot with B1 French, but given that given that he dreamed of being a C2 speaker, he missed the mark by a long shot.

I estimate that I'm also speaking B1 French, but I'm reading at between a B2 and a C1 level.

What went wrong?

Since we had very different goals, we took very different approaches. He shunned formal training, books of rules, tables of verbs, etc. Obviously those are things you cannot use in conversation; everything must come to you naturally. He was drawn to approaches with little or no written component, and definitely to those with no English component.

I bought grammar textbooks (my only actual expense), drilled vocabulary with flashcards, and used a free online program called Duolingo, which essentially trains you to translate from French into English. I used some of the other resources Alexander did, but only as a supplement to my main program. I do want to speak French (not just read it) but that's not my top priority.

Given, then, that we had very different goals, it's comparing apples to oranges, except for one thing: I think he picked the wrong goal in the first place. My opinion is that if you build up strength in reading and writing, you can leverage that to improve your ability to converse and to listen. Learning to read a language is not sufficient by itself to make you conversant--there are many, many people who can read English and even send e-mails but who can't utter a comprehensible sentence--but I think it's a necessary first step. This is backwards from how children learn, but adults are not children and do not learn the same way.

I should note that my view on this is rather old-fashioned, and a great many people don't agree with it. Alexander certainly didn't. Draw your own conclusions.

Tools for Language Learning

In this section, I'm going to go through all the resources Alexander writes about using, in the order that he mentions them. I'll summarize his results and then give my own opinions.

Rosetta Stone

What draws him to Rosetta Stone is the promise of teaching you the language "like children learn"--i.e. not with the methods of his hated high school teacher. Instead, it tries to immerse you entirely in French--spoken French--and get you to learn by osmosis.

Alexander's hilarious account of what it's like to actually use Rosetta Stone is in the chapter titled "First-Person Shooter." It's priceless. He never comes out and says so, but it appears that he got very little of value for all the hours he spent with it.

I am amazed that he had the determination to complete Rosetta Stone. Studies I've read suggest that almost no one does so. I won't go into depth on the problems with the package, as others have done so at great length. Since it's so far away from my own philosophy of language learning, I never even considered it, so I have nothing to contribute first-hand.

Vacation in France

A two-week bike vacation in France may not seem like a language-learning technique, but according to some research, a pending trip to a foreign country motivates people to do language study more than almost anything else, so as a technique, it's not to be underestimated. In terms of price, it certainly makes Rosetta Stone look cheap. That said, it's not clear how much you really learn on a vacation. You read signs and talk to waiters, mostly. A business trip where he'd have had to use the language all day long would have likely been much more effective.

I didn't visit France this year, although I have been there before, but all this French study has definitely given me a powerful desire to go back!


He spent an hour a day watching this famous international French cable network, but apparently never discovered that you can get it online. The free online version has an excellent set of lessons, which are targeted at making it easier for students to learn how to watch their shows, but he either didn't discover them or else decided not to use them.

Since he speaks about "enduring" the shows, I gather he didn't get a lot out of them. No surprise. Nation claims that you need to know about 6,000 word families before you can watch a movie, and that's two or three times what someone knows after two years of college study.

I made extensive use of the lessons on TV5Monde, even though they are really targeted at listening comprehension, because I didn't want to develop bad pronunciation habits. Their lessons are graded, and I advanced from A1 to B1 over the months. That means I can watch a French news broadcast and pick out a lot of it, but movies are still hopeless.

Online Immersion Class

Breaking a bit from his idea that he would learn French entirely through osmosis, he signed up for an online class complete with video and a live instructor in France. He appears to have done only a single lesson this because they expected such a high level from their students that English wasn't allowed even to ask for the definition of a word.

This is something I've never even considered doing. It's something that might make sense to try next year--once my reading is better. It does bring up another point; once you are strong enough in a language, you really can study it without using English. That is, people can teach you French in French. However, I think you need to reach level B1 before you do that. In my opinion, Alexander did this in the wrong order.

Fluenz French

He only mentions this $500 product briefly to share the fact that he didn't like it, although he later tells us he completed the whole thing. Fluenz is quite different from Rosetta Stone: It uses English in the lessons to explain some of the grammar, although it stops short of giving detailed rules for things like verb conjugations.

Alexander's complaints were more to the effect that he wanted more focus on speaking and that he found the videos distracting. It does seem that Fluenz should have been an improvement on Rosetta Stone, but apparently not much of one.

I hadn't heard of Fluenz before, so I searched the web for "Fluenz Problems." Apparently Fluenz only tries to bring people up to about the A2 level. Great for a traveler--A2 French is enough to get a lot done and it'll impress your friends and family--but it's not what Alexander was seeking.

Vocabulary sticky notes

I only mention this because it's something a lot of people talk about doing. Alexander and his daughter used sticky notes to label everything in the house in French. He only mentions it once, so I have no idea whether it worked for him. I have a suspicion that his wife didn't put up with it for very long.

I have never done this myself, but I can see the merit in it. Household vocabulary is important for reading, since many scenes in novels take place inside houses. You can also practice the language by making up sentences that use the words as you bump into them. The biggest limit is that it only covers a faction of the words you need--and none of the verbs or adjectives.


Frustrated with Rosetta Stone and Fluenz, Alexander decided to give social networking a try, and he enrolled in MyLanguageExchange. Oddly for a man so focused on speaking, he opted to use MyLanguageExchange strictly for e-mail correspondence with a pen-pal named Sylvie who lives in Orléans, France.

He used Google Translate, WordReference, and a printed dictionary to help compose messages, and he maintained a correspondence with Sylvie for months. When he finally met her in person, she was appalled at how bad his spoken French was, considering that his e-mails had been so well written. Alexander doesn't make a big deal out of it, but this is actually his one big success with French; he clearly developed decent reading and writing skills, even though that was not his goal.

There's a lot to be said for using social networking to help people learn languages. It lets you practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking with real native speakers. I practice writing using Lang-8, which is a bit more limited than MyLanguageExchange, but follows a similar principle. For example, I can write something in French, submit it, and get critiques from native French speakers. In return, I critique their attempts to write English. It's a great way to learn.


Alexander used Meetup.com to find a local group of French speakers who meet regularly for practice. He describes it as like attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, with twelve people sitting in a circle taking turns talking. Worse, his group had only a single native speaker. It's not clear whether he attended more than once.

It's a pity this didn't work out for him, because I've found Meetup.com an excellent way to practice conversation. Here in Seattle, there are French, Spanish, and Italian groups with a mix of learners and native speakers. There are weekly meetups, and when I go, I force myself to speak only my target language for two hours. If the goal is to be conversational, this is the best way to get there.

Memory Palace

A memory palace is the trick Sherlock Holmes used to quickly memorize lists of things. You visualize the words you're trying to memorize as lying in some physical location you're familiar with. Alexander says he successfully used it to memorize the entire 1,000-word children's English-French dictionary with 98.5% recall. Since the largest barrier to conversation for most intermediate students is lack of vocabulary, I really would have expected this to make more of a difference that it appears to have. Perhaps the memory palace is just too slow to use in conversation, but I would expect it helped him a lot with his reading and writing.

I've personally never managed to make the memory palace trick work, and I'm not sure it's really the best idea for anything other than lists that you need to recite in order.

French Movies

He watched at least one movie: Les herbes folles (Wild Grass). Since his wife watched it with him, it must have had English subtitles. I personally find it impossible to hear much of the foreign language in a film if I'm also reading the English subtitles. Subtitles in the foreign language work much better, but are harder to find. As I mentioned earlier, it takes a very big vocabulary to enjoy most foreign-language films. My bet is that he understood only a handful of words.


Reading is my favorite way to learn. Alexander casually mentions reading "the Respectful Prostitute" by Jean-Paul Sartre with the help of a dictionary and a translation. The "and a translation" is what worries me. It's very easy to half-guess at a paragraph, read the English, tell yourself "oh yeah, I got that," and keep going. You finish the book and imagine that you really read it. The same concerns apply to the dual-language book he read. Depending on how he read it, it might have helped his reading ability a lot, or it might have done little or nothing for him.

A disciplined person can make this work--someone who makes a detailed study of sentences they didn't get on the first try--but you have to really push yourself to do that. If you're enjoying the story and want to get on with it, it's hard to make yourself stop. If you're not enjoying the story, it's hard to do this at all.

I have my own ideas for learning a language by reading, and I feel I've been very successful with that approach. Given Alexander's success with his pen pal, I suspect he was more successful than he lets on.


On Skype, Alexander found a 50-year-old woman who wanted to practice her English in exchange for helping him with his French. Unfortunately, her English was so much better than his French that she couldn't even be bothered to try to correct his mistakes. This sounds like another one-time experiment, and, if so, I think it's another missed opportunity. Real-time conversations on Skype had the potential to make a really big difference to his conversation ability, especially since he had no luck with a local Meetup group.

Because meetup.com works so well for me, I haven't bothered with Skype, although I've thought of doing it to get exposure to more kinds of accents.

French Language Immersion Class: French on the Go

Eventually he broke down and decided to take an actual class. Run by the New School in New York City, this was a one-time, 16-hour immersion class with only four students (him included). The instructor wasn't a native, but that didn't seem to bother him.

In this class, he learned that he wasn't distinguishing nasal vowels at all. No wonder people couldn't understand him! I'm surprised he didn't find a way to get some sort of intensive training just in pronunciation.

French vowels have been, for me, the hardest part of learning French. French has lots of vowels that English doesn't have, but making the vowel sounds is only half the problem. English is rather sloppy with its vowels, and we tend to slur them all in the direction of "uh" in unstressed syllables.  To speak French, you must fight this habit and pronounce each syllable clearly and distinctly. It's like fighting with your own tongue.

Boot camp: Millefeuille, Provençe

Finally, he invested about $5,000 in a top-notch, two-week intensive-study program in France. This included room and board, 30 hours a week of classes (no more than four to a class), after-dinner talks, and group discussion. His description of his interactions with people during this period makes it seem as though he were actually speaking French at the B2 level or better. Given the level of individual attention that Millefeuille offers, I would have expected them to really work on his accent. He certainly finished up feeling really good about his French.

I did something like this for Russian back in 1992, when I spent six weeks in St. Petersburg. I do think two weeks is too little time, but I also think it was good that he did this last, since it would have been wasted had he tried it before he had a reasonable grasp of the language.

Real Life: Conversation with Sylvie

Remember the French pen-pal? After all this, fresh from boot camp, he met Sylvie and her fiance in Orléans for the very first time. It was a disaster. He couldn't understand their French, and they couldn't understand his, so they ended up speaking English.

This is why I evaluate his conversational French as B1. A B1 speaker can manage a conversation with people who are willing to indulge him, but the way he describes the afternoon, they weren't in the mood. A B2 speaker should have been able to manage it, even if it was a struggle.

Real Life: Bribing the Taxi

You'll have to read the book to learn why Alexander needed to bribe a taxi driver, but he managed to argue with the guy and get what he wanted all in French. For me this reinforces the B1 rating, since an A2 speaker would be unable to cope with a non-routine setting. At least, I hope it's not routine.

Miscellaneous Resources

At the end of the book, Alexander summarizes the resources he used during his 13 months of study, three of which hadn't been mentioned before:
  • Coffee Break French. These are podcasts, of which he listened to 100. It looks interesting, but I know nothing about it.
  • Pimsleur Audio Courses (2). I used Pinsleur Mandarin before a trip to China. It's an all-audio course, with no textbook. For my purposes it worked quite well--when I got separated from our group I was able to tell a Taxi driver how to take me back to our hotel. Pimsleur is generally thought of as a very elementary package, though, targeted at travellers.
  • French In Action (all 52 episodes). I like FIA. I haven't finished it, but it's fun, it's free, and it's 100% in French. It's an attempt to teach French in French, although there's a textbook that you can buy. As a supplement, I think it's a great way to get used to hearing French people speaking naturally but using few enough words that you have a hope of understanding them.

The Road Not Taken: Tools Alexander Didn't Use

Formal classes

"Classes are a sore point for me," he tells us, owing to that bad teacher he had in high school. He claims he couldn't find any nightly classes in his area and dismisses the idea of once-a-week classes out of hand--even though his wife claims to have learned Spanish that way.

I didn't use classes for French either, but I'm a linguist with an interest in second-language learning and I already spoke five other foreign languages. I think a good class (or at least a proper textbook) would have helped him a lot.

Alexander never mentions Duolingo at all. It might have had too much typing for his taste, or perhaps he thought it was too similar to Fluenz. It's also possible that he did most of his studies before Duolingo really took off.

I personally like Duolingo a lot, as I've described elsewhere. Duolingo is not a panacea, but I have to think that had he put hundreds of hours into Duolingo instead of Rosetta Stone, he'd have been better off. Richer too: Duolingo is free.


Perhaps he felt his memory palace eliminated the need for flashcards, but I think flashcards are the secret to learning lots of vocabulary, and I think Anki is the best flashcard program out there. The closest he comes to flashcards is his post-it notes experiment, and that's doing most of the work without gaining much of the benefit, in my view. Failing all else, I think flashcards would have been a good way to manage and maintain his memory palace, but he never mentions the concept at all.
Given that his focus was speaking, it's not a surprise that he doesn't mention this site where users help each other improve their writing ability. However, since it appears reading and writing are the two abilities he really did develop, it's the sort of site he ought to be looking at now. He seemed to have a strength there--perhaps not a surprise, since he's a writer. He should build on it.


Alexander's goals were different from mine. For me, reading is #1 and everything else is a distant second. For him, conversation was #1. Conversation practice is difficult to arrange, and the various programs that promise to "immerse" you really don't seem to deliver. Reading practice, especially using a Kindle, is easier than it has ever been. So I set myself a much easier task than he did.

Even so, he didn't really fail. B1 French is nothing to sneeze at, and, as I said elsewhere, I suspect he reached B2 or better in reading and writing. It's only that he set his sights so high and worked so hard that it seems like failure.

I do think he'd have gotten better results if he'd used his time differently. In particular, if the backbone of his study program had been a more traditional weekly class of some kind, then he could have augmented it with some of those other resources he used. If he had recognized that the written language came easier to him, and if he'd trusted that progress in that area would eventually help him with conversation, I think he wouldn't have wasted so much time bashing his head against the wall. Of course, that would have taken a lot of the fun out of the book!

I'm very, very impressed both by his dedication and his positive attitude. In that spirit, I'll close with Alexander's own words--my favorite passage from his book:
I may not have learned all the  French I wanted to, but what I did learn has enriched my life immeasurably. Yet perhaps the most important French lesson learned over the past year is this: you can love a thing without possessing it. Even as French has eluded me, my ardor for the language has only grown. I love, and will always love, French. Whether it loves me back, I have no control over.

Je ne regrette rien.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Using Anki Flashcards for Vocabulary Drill

To read effectively, you need to learn thousands of words, mostly by rote. Flashcards are the tool par excellence for rote memorization, but, unfortunately, they become unwieldy beyond a few hundred cards. Anki is a free computer program that lets you comfortably manage the thousands of cards you'll need if you want to comfortably read books in foreign languages. This posting discusses how I use Anki, and shows you how to set up decks the same way I do.

What are Flashcards?

In its simplest form, a flashcard is a 3×5 index card with an English word or phrase (e.g. "to walk") written on one side and the corresponding foreign word (e.g. marcher) on the reverse. Make cards for the vocabulary you want to learn, shuffle the deck, and voila: instant random vocabulary quiz. Deal the cards one at a time and try to guess what's on the other side. Ones you get right go into a discard pile. Wrong ones you stick back into the middle of the deck. When you have discarded all the cards, reshuffle the deck and repeat until you can make a pass without any mistakes.

The astonishing thing about flashcards is how fast you learn. On the first pass, you typically get up to half the words because the simple act of creating the cards has taught you that much. On the second pass, that jumps to 90% or more. On the third or fourth pass, you get all or all but one or two, and by that point you're zipping through the cards just as fast as you can deal them.

Drilling with flashcards is fast, effective, and immensely satisfying. It's hard to imagine mastering a language without them. But you really don't want to do this with paper cards.

What's the Problem with Paper Flashcards?

If you just keep adding new words to the same deck, you run into a number of problems
  • Beyond one or two hundred cards the deck becomes impossible to shuffle.
  • No matter how fast as you are, a quiz with hundreds of cards takes a long time.
  • The deck fills up with words you know really well, and you start to feel you're wasting time reviewing them over and over.
You can avoid this by making multiple decks. That works to some degree for a language class, where you make a new deck for each new lesson and you don't review the old ones until exam time, when you dump them all together for a few marathon study sessions. If you do it that way, you'll find you retain some words pretty well, even after weeks, while you forget others almost at once. That may be okay for passing quizzes, but it's not what you need if your objective is to actually use the language. What you really want is a system that separates the "easy" cards from the hard ones.

In other words, you want the computer to organize it for you.

How does Anki work?

The Anki program lets you create decks on your computer and it handles running and scoring the drills. He's an example card from my English/French deck:

It's showing me the English side of the card and prompting me to type the French translation of "to walk" in the box. The phrase "move on feet" is a hint which I put there to remind me that this does not mean "walk the dog," which would require a different verb in French.

When I type marcher and press enter, Anki shows me the answer:

The green highlight on the word I typed means that my answer completely agreed with the expected answer. Below it is the content of the French side of the card plus the pronunciation of the word.

I can press any of the three buttons below that to indicate whether I got the word wrong ("Again") or got it right ("Good") or thought it was really easy ("Easy"). The numbers above the buttons indicate how long Anki will wait before showing me this card again. Cards that you get right over and over are rescheduled further and further into the future so you don't waste time going over them again and again.

Unlike a physical flashcard deck, Anki treats the French-to-English cards as being separate from the English-to-French ones. That makes sense because, for example, it is much easier to guess that extrême means "extreme" but much harder to remember that the French word needs a circumflex on the second 'e'. Whenever you do a drill, Anki mixes both kinds together. That is, some cards will show you English and expect French while others will show you French and expect English.

Anki is smart enough not to give you the same word in both directions on the same day, but here's what the French side of the card above looks like:

In this case the hint, "French," is there because otherwise I couldn't tell if this was the French verb "to walk" or the English noun for "a person who marches." I'll answer with just "walk" and not "to walk." Here's the result:

Anki shows me how my answer differs from the desired answer, but it still leaves it up to me to decide if my answer was good enough or not. In this case, I'd clearly mark it "Good" or even "Easy." Obviously that means I could just skip typing the words entirely, but I find that typing them keeps me honest. (I use the US International Keyboard layout to input characters that don't exist in English, by the way.)

Notice a couple of things about these cards: First, I only have to type the words, not the hints. Second, the pronunciation never appears with the question--only with the answer. That's very helpful because if it appeared with the English question, it would give the word away, but if it appeared with the French question, then I couldn't use it to help practice pronouncing the word. Always having it on the answer side means I can pronounce the French word out loud before I flip the card and then check myself. As always, it's up to me whether I count a pronunciation error as a serious enough error to call the card wrong.

Every day, Anki decides which cards you need to review (again, counting French-to-English as separate cards from English-to-French) and sets up a drill for you. It limits the drill to 100 cards (even if you skip a day), and you can stop in the middle of a drill and resume later (or not) if you need to. When you're done with the drill, every card will have a new review date, and Anki can show you some cool statistics to help you track how well you're doing.

For complete information, as always, read the manual. Anki has lots and lots of features.

How Do You Set it Up?

Download the app

The first thing you need to do is go to the Anki Website and download the program. Yes, this is a program, not a web application, so you actually have to install it on your PC. Don't worry--it's worth it.

Once it's installed, start the program. It should look something like this:

Yours won't say "Test Profile," most likely. There's no reason to name the profile until you want to have more than one, so don't worry about that for now. I didn't need a second profile until I wrote this article.

Creating a Deck

Downloading the Sample

The Anki User manual gives you lots of options for configuring a deck, but none of the defaults was quite what I wanted, and I went through a good bit of trial and error before I had something I was happy with. To make this easier for others, I have created a trivial sample deck. You can download it from here. The file called Sample.apkg is the one you want. If you've already installed Anki, simply download Sample.apkg and open it. That should cause Anki to import the Sample deck. Or you can just copy the file to your PC and import it manually. To do a manual import after you've downloaded Sample.apkg, run Anki, click on the File menu and select Import.

Either way, once you've imported the Sample deck, Anki should look something like this:

We've only downloaded the Sample deck so we can use the card type "Vocabulary," which is inside it. As soon as you have created a deck of your own, you can delete "Sample."

Creating your own deck

Click on the "Create Deck" button at the bottom of the dialogue box. Give your deck a reasonable name like "French Vocabulary."

You should see this on your screen now:

Click on your new, completely empty deck.

This is Anki's way of saying that you have no more cards scheduled to review today. Not a surprise, since you don't have any cards at all yet. Up at the top in the middle, find the "Add" menu and click on that. It should pop up this dialogue box:

You may need to resize it to get it all to show. Be sure it says "Vocabulary" in the upper left-hand corner (after the word "Type"). If not, click on whatever type is does say and select "Vocabulary" from the list. The whole point of downloading my Sample deck was to get you the Vocabulary type because it describes the layout of the cards and defines the fields.

So let's create a card. As you can see, we have five fields to fill in. Let's take them one by one.

Front: This is where you put the English word. I follow the rule that I always put "the" with nouns and "to" with infinitives, which helps me distinguish "to walk" from "the walk". Use a word from the language you're actually studying. This time I'll use "the leaf."

Back: This is where you put the word in the language you're studying. In this case, I'll put la feuille.

The next three fields are all optional, but when you need them, they're very useful.

Comment: This field that always shows with the answer but never with the question. I'll put the pronunciation here, but you can put anything you want there. I get the pronunciations from WordReference. In fact, to be safe, I like to copy the text from the Back field and paste it into WordReference just to be sure I didn't mistype it. That also tells me if the word has multiple meanings. Then I can click on the English word (still in WordReference) and see if that has multiple meanings. When there's ambiguity, I use the next two fields to clear it up.

FrontHint: This is shown with the English word, but it isn't part of the answer when you're drilling from French to English. I use this for three purposes: first, as in the "to walk" example, to clarify which meaning of the English word I want. "move on two feet" clarifies that I don't mean "e.g. walk your dog." For "leaf" I can say "e.g. on a tree."

The second reason I use a hint is when the target language has synonyms and I want to be clear which one I want. For example, cependant and pourtant in French both mean "yet" or "however". The difference is that cependant augments the first clause while poutrant contradicts it, but this is way too complicated to express in the hint. Instead, I just put "not pourtant" or "not cependant". The long explanation can go into the Comment field.

The third reason is when an English word and a French word have the same spelling and I need to specify that this is English. If the word and the translation are identical, I usually won't bother to create a card at all, so this doesn't happen very often. (E.g. "intelligent" in English is intelligent in French, so I don't bother to create a card unless I'm concerned about the pronunciation.)

BackHint: This field works just like the FrontHint, except that you see it with the French word. It's very important not to give too much away in this field. I want to memorize the French words--not my hints. I in this case, I feel safe saying "not sheet," and I add a bit more explanation to the Comment field.

Here's what it looks like all filled out. Again, don't bother with the three optional fields unless you need them; there's no reason to make extra work for yourself.

Now click the "Add" button. This actually adds two cards: an English-to-French one and a French-to-English one. In Anki terms we have created a single "note" which comprises two "cards." You create and edit notes but you drill on cards. If you realize you have made a mistake, you can click on the "History" button and it will let you edit the earlier notes (and this will fix both cards). If you look back at my examples of what a quiz looks like, you'll notice there is an "Edit" button in the lower left corner. That lets you edit notes in the same way even in the middle of a quiz.

Enter ten or so of your own vocabulary words and click the "Close" button when you're done. You should see a screen like this one:

Press the "Study Now" button and see how you do!

In a future post, I'll offer some tips and tricks to get the most out of Anki.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

French Prepositions with Geographical Names

Is it à, de, en or something else?

As students of French, especially on Duolingo, we're often confused about what preposition to use when we need to translate phrases like "He comes from France," "He goes to Brazil," or "He lives in the United States." Some places seem to have an article (e.g. "France" is La France) and others do not ("Paris" is just Paris), and the articles combine with the prepositions in what seem to be unpredictable ways.

There is an excellent explanation at about.com, but it's a bit lengthy. For my own study, I have found it helpful to reorganize the explanation in terms of broad rules followed by a sequence of exceptions.

The Main Rule

Use à for motion to a place or location in a place. Je vais à Paris. (I am going to Paris.) Il est à Paris. (He is in Paris)

Use de for motion away from a place or origin in a place. Je viens de Paris. (I am coming from Paris.)  Elle est de Paris. (She is from Paris.)

Clean and simple, and it works for anything that doesn't have an article in the name, which includes most cities.

Cities and Islands: Exceptions we already know about

We already know a set of rules for how á and de combine with articles. You should already be very familiar with this table of contractions:

le la l' les
à au à la à l' aux
de du de la de l' des

So, for example, you should not be surprised to learn that "I am going to Le Havre" is Je viens au Havre. Or that "We are coming from the Cook Islands" is Nous venons des Îles Cook.

We're also used to de becoming d' in front of a word that starts with a vowel. It should seem natural that "I am coming from Hawaii" is Je viens d'Hawaï.

This is precisely how it works for cities and islands, so the good news is that there is nothing new to learn for those kinds of location, even when there is an article as part of the name.

Countries and Continents

What's the Gender?

For whatever reason, these larger regions take an article in French, even though they do not in English. So "France" is La France, "Brazil" is "Le Brésil," Germany is L'Allemagne, and the United States is Les États-Unis.

Our first problem is to learn what these articles are. Fortunately, there's an easy rule: everything that does not end in the letter e is masculine. No exceptions. All but six that do end in e are feminine. The only challenge is to memorize the masculine ones that end in e.

The most important one is le Mexique (Mexico). The others are le Belize (Belize), le Cambodge (Cambodia), le Mozambique (Mozambique), le Zaïre (Zaire), and le Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe). (List taken from About.com.)

All continents end in e and all are feminine, so the rule works perfectly for them.

A new table of contractions

Having gone to all this trouble to figure out which article goes with which country, it really seems like a shame that the next rule says that we always get rid of the article in expressions involving motion or location. The set of contractions that we learned before still apply, but there are new rules for the middle two columns. Notice that these are exactly the columns in the standard table that weren't really contractions in the first place, so there are really only four new contractions to memorize.

le la l' les
à au en en aux
de du de d' des

So "I am going to France" is Je vais en France. "He is coming from France" is Il vient de France. "We are going to Germany" is Nous allons en Allemagne. And "She is coming from Germany" is Elle vient d'Allemagne. 

States and Provinces

US States and Canadian Provinces all take articles, just like countries and continents do. They use the same table of contractions, so there's nothing new to memorize there. The only problem is learning the genders.


Most of the US States have the same name in French as in English. My mnemonic is that "those states don't have real French names." They are all masculine.

For the ones that do have real French names, the ones that end in e are feminine and the ones that do not are masculine.

The sole exception is Le Nouveau Mexique (New Mexico), which is easy to remember because Mexico the country is an exception too.


Everything takes a masculine article except the three western provinces la Colombie-Britannique (British Columbia), l'Alberta (Alberta), and la Saskatchewan (Saskatchewan) plus the three Maritime provinces l'Île-du-Prince-Édouard (Prince Edward Island), la Nouvelle-Éscosse (Noca Scotia), and Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador (Newfoundland and Labrador). This last one is actually masculine, but unlike all the rest it takes no article and follows the same rules as a city would.

The obvious mnemonic would be to make a Newfie joke, but I'll leave that to the reader's discretion.

Exceptions to the Exceptions

A few countries (e.g. Israel) don't take an article at all, so they behave like cities and islands. A few large islands (e.g. Corsica) take a feminine article and behave like countries or continents. These just have to be learned individually.