Week 3: Not Enough Words to Understand Anything

At this moment, by my count, I have studied 230 new words of vocabulary, which is more than a third of the initial 625 words I am setting out to learn, and is about the number of words an average 2-year-old knows. I get conflicting information about how much vocabulary you should have in order to be able to generally understand your language -- some say 1,000 words will allow you to understand about 70 percent of anything you read, others say that the most common 1,000 words are used in 89 percent of everyday writing, and others say we can't hope to be able to understand new words from context until we can understand 95 percent of the words used commonly in writing, which is about 3,000 words.

I suppose I won't know with Yiddish until I get there, and, if I keep up at this rate, I'll have a thousand words under my belt in a couple of months, and be up to 3,000 words in about a year of study. I'll tell you this: 230 words isn't enough to understand anything. I can figure out maybe 10 percent of headlines from The Yiddish Forward, which I have subscribed to on my Facebook page -- although, in fairness, that's about 10 percent more than I understood three weeks ago.

I have been reading a new book on learning language that insists that constant exposure to the spoken language is essential, even when you don't understand what is being said, because it teaches you the prosody, or the unique sounds and rhythms of patterns of a language. And so I recently started listening to MP3s of short stories written in Yiddish, available in MP3 form online.

Doing so has mostly communicated how very, very little I understand, and it's not a surprise, as I certainly didn't expect to understand the language after three weeks. But when you're starting with a language, you necessarily suffer from a bit of the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which you tend to overestimate your competence because you have no idea what real competence is. It's a little bit like climbing a mountain that is shrouded in clouds, and you think, if I can just get to the cloud line, I'll have gotten to the top of this mountain. But then you reach the clouds, and climb through them, and look up, and the peak is still miles above you, and the climb is going to get harder and harder as you continue.

I'm well below the cloud line now, and so I have no idea how much climbing this mountain of Yiddish is going to require. And there are different stopping points on the mountain -- after memorizing just a few dozen phrases and a few hundred words, someone can reasonably get along ordering food or asking directions. Multiply that by ten and they can get along in a lot of concrete, day-to-day interactions. Multiply it again and they can have complicated, abstract conversations. Each marker is an area of accomplishment, a place in which a certain degree of fluency has been reached. But if I know my Dunning-Kruger, each place is also a cloud line, and when you're reached it, you can see that more of the mountain still towers above you.

One thing I have noticed in the past week is that my ability to read Yiddish has advanced appreciably. I'm not fast, per se, but I am faster, and words that I have already learned I have started to recognize quickly, which is important -- otherwise you end up sounding out every single words syllable by syllable, and that's a slow process.

And I'll just mention that I have started to add in Yiddish phrases to my flashcards, which is a bit of a different process. The phrases come from an old Berlitz recording of basic Yiddish phrases, which is available now via iTunes and is missing all the supplemental printed material that originally came with it. This isn't so bad, as it means I must actively listen to what the phrases are and then figure them out. It takes some real effort, as Google translate is rather bad with idioms, and a lot of these are idioms. "Bon voyage" the English speaker will say, as though that's an English phrase. "Gay Gezunt," the Yiddish voice will answer, and that means "Go in health," which isn't what bon voyage means at all, and Google Translate refuses to help me with this. On the other hand, because I have to figure out the idioms on my own, they seem to stick more.

I'm adding the phrases in because even though I am only 230 words in, I can't stand not being able to say anything at all. Additionally, the flashcards, according to the word list I have been using, leave out parts of speech like "with" and "very" and "to," and you need these to be able to create sentences. It's very hard to represent these parts of speech the way I do flashcards, in which a concrete image represents the word, rather than the English translation.

The solution, according to Gabriel Wyner, is to write down entire phrases on a flashcard (often with a little image that sort of represents the phrase), and then drop the meaningful word. In English, you might have a phrase like "I went to the fair." You would create a flashcard that, on one side, had the complete phrase, and on the other you write "I went __ the fair." In this way, you learn that "to" is the word that fits in the absent space between the sentences, and you also learn a sentence, and both are useful. In this way, you start picking up grammar through usage, rather than spend years puzzling over declension charts and the like.

I haven't actually gotten to any of these flashcards yet. I've only learned about half of the flashcards I have created, so I won't eve start seeing these phrases for a few weeks, until I catch up on my vocabulary. So we'll see how it works then.

This is a break in the program, somewhat. Wyner likes people to learn vocab first and then move on the phrases taken directly from grammar books. But Benny Lewis, author of "Fluent in 3 Months," likes to get people talking as soon as possible, and recommends starting with phrase books meant for travelers, as they give people a lot of immediately usable sentences. So I have sort of merged Wyner and Lewis' approach, and we'll see how that goes. 

I've also added in a few vocab words of my own, even though they are relative uncommon words, but they are words that describe me and my life, and so I will need them sooner rather than later. I am a vegetarian, so I threw that in. I was adopted, and my biological family is Irish, so I added in the words for Irish and Ireland. I am a playwright, so I tossed that word in. I'll continue doing this when I think of words I need, regardless of whether they are among the most common 1,000. 

We'll see how this goes. I suspect the most effective language course is whatever language course gets you communicating, but maybe that's just the Dunning-Kruger speaking.