A Genius of Hard Work

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April 20, 2024

How I learned German.

There’s a great New Yorker profile about Larry Gagosian with the following quote from the art critic Peter Schjeldahl: “We think of genius as being complicated. But geniuses have the fewest moving parts. . . . Gagosian is simple. He’s basically a shark, a feeding machine.” I’ve thought about this quote a lot. What if genius is just doing the same thing every single day? 

My favorite fight in the anime Naruto is Rock Lee vs Gaara. Naruto is about a bunch of child soldier ninjas fighting each other, and in this Rock Lee, someone who is born without the ability to use any of the fancy ninja magic, goes against Gaara, a mentally unstable wunderkind with a range of terrifying powers. Without the ability to use any of the more advanced magic stuff, Rock Lee only trains his physical skills. Punching, kicking, fighting, the whole Rocky montage more or less. Due to a lack of talent in anything else, Rock Lee puts his focus all on these basics, and is able to fight evenly against the much more “genius” Gaara. He is dubbed, “a genius of hard work.” It’s I think the best kind of hustle porn.   

After 5 years in Germany, my German is at a B2 level or so (If I were to go on a language learning subreddit, this would likely be a pretty slow pace. Thank god life isn’t Reddit!). The key to my learning has been utilizing a tool called Anki to make interactive flash cards for vocabulary - I’ll detail my approach in this article. And I have months where I’m making no Anki cards, like the past 6 months for example, when I had other priorities. Language learning is hard. There’s good days and bad days. Within the past month I’ve spoken German and people have told me that I should really be a better immigrant and learn the language faster. And within the past month I’ve spoken German and people think I’m a naturally gifted language learner.

I think learning a language is all about working every angle, so reading, writing, speaking, listening, and as much of all of it as possible. However, for me personally, the hardest part has always been vocabulary. When a friend speaks to me in German, for example, I lose confidence as soon as there’s a word I don’t understand. It gets me out of rhythm, out of the flow of being immersed in another language. So keeping track of the words I don’t know and learning them has always been kind of the backbone to everything else I do. There is of course the classes, the workbooks, the movies, the living in the country, really, learning a language only through vocab words you do alone on your computer is depressing as hell! But without that backbone of vocabulary, I am not as motivated to do all the other things. I think I am also just a bit obsessive and want to understand everything 100%, some kind of tic that I have. I just feel rage when I can’t understand things. 

What I do was largely inspired by the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner, which was recommended to me by my friend Mathieu Rolfo. The book is great and has a lot of language learning tips, but the summary of it is to make Anki cards for vocabulary memorization. Anki, coming from the Japanese word for memorization, is a spaced repetition system, a way to memorize large amounts of information by doing flash cards on intervals. I won’t get into it too much, but it was developed by a former medical school student and is the most efficient way to memorize large amounts of information. When I use the app, it is a mix of new cards (vocab words that I’ve never studied before) and reviews (old vocab words that I “successfully” memorized earlier). In contrast to the studying I was used to from the school days, a bunch of cramming for the test and then a brain vomit for the exam (in German, Bulimielernen), this actually puts vocab words in your long term memory because the words come back just when you’re about to forget them. 

Here are the steps.

Step 1 - Download Anki

Anki is free on Desktop, and 25 bucks on iOS, which goes to pay the creator. I typically use my computer to create cards and study my Anki cards on the go, on the public transport or whenever I have a free moment. There’s a ripoff Anki called AnkiApp, which I downloaded by accident one time, but it’s not worth it in my opinion because there is a host of cool extensions you can add with the real Anki that you don’t have with this AnkiApp. It’s kind of the wish.com Anki. Note that you can always just use Anki decks other language learners have made instead of making your own cards, but I find that making your own cards is the best because you have a connection with the word, and you can really customize things for yourself. I tried the pre-made decks but it didn’t work for me, so that’s why I went to the trouble of making my own.

Step 2 - Have a big vocab list

I have a big list on my Notes app that I add to whenever I see German words I don’t understand, or someone says something in German that I didn’t get. A frequency dictionary or phrase book are good places to start if you need words.

Step 3 - Get your computer set up for Anki Card creation 

I usually have the following tabs open, in the following order:

1. Pomodoro Focus - 25 minute timers that implement the Pomodoro method of 25 minutes of focus followed by a 5 minute break.

2. dict.cc - English to German dictionary. I like this one because it has the case of the noun (neutral, masculine, feminine) and the plural of the noun (which can vary in German). For verbs it has multiple conjugations as well, like the past perfect. 

3. DeepL - General translator. I like having this in case I misspelled German words and I can’t find them on dict.cc, or I want to translate phrases, or I want to double check the definition of a word. dict.cc is okay for definitions, but sometimes I find it has a less common definition that is given more importance. 

4. ttsMP3 - This is to get the pronunciation of the word. This is the best part of digital flashcards! So for each word, I can download an MP3 using the website and add it to my Anki flashcard. I like the German voice Vicki. This has done wonders for my pronunciation. 

5. ChatGPT - This is for example sentences in German. This is the prompt I use:

When I give you a word in German, give me all the definitions of the word, the article of the word and the plural if it is a noun, the past participle and the Präteritum if it is a verb, and three sample sentences using the word in context. For example, if I give you the word Fahrstreifen, give me a response like this:

“Fahrstreifen” is the German term for "lane" in English, specifically referring to a division of a road designated for a single line of vehicles. It is used to organize and guide traffic, ensuring orderly and safe travel.

der Fahrstreifen / die Fahrstreifen

Example sentences:

German: Der rechte Fahrstreifen ist für langsamere Fahrzeuge.

English: The right lane is for slower vehicles.

German: Bei dichtem Verkehr sollten Sie den Fahrstreifen nicht häufig wechseln.

English: In heavy traffic, you should not change lanes frequently.

German: Der Fahrstreifen wurde wegen Bauarbeiten gesperrt.

English: The lane was closed due to construction work.

I have to often start a new chat and use this prompt, because if I only use the old chat with this prompt with the hundreds of words I’ve done previously, ChatGPT starts getting really slow. Example sentences are really great for understanding a word in context, and it used to be a pain to get example sentences, but with ChatGPT it works great. 

6. Google Images - Your brain can often remember images faster than words, so I like to add images for every card to speed up how fast my brain can memorize things. This also just makes doing cards more fun, I try to put in funny pictures from my own life too sometimes, personalize things you know? 

A good laptop set up for Anki card creation should look something like this:

Step 4 - Making Anki cards

Once the setup is there, it’s showtime. I take 25 minutes, following the Pomodoro timer. The final result of an Anki card for me looks like this:

Step 5 -Getting Creative with Anki and Other Resources

I’ve used Anki to memorize the case of prepositions (Ex. Mit ist Dativ), adjective endings (a beautiful house Nominativ - ein schönes Haus), the capitals of all the states in Germany, really this is the most powerful tool I’ve used for integration. Being an immigrant is hard, and I don’t think I would have survived in Berlin without this nifty tool. Other things that helped are German audiobooks, which there’s a free Spotify channel which has a lot, along with Libby that comes with my subscription to the Berlin library. I finished the Percy Jackson series in German and am now doing Harry Potter. 

To conclude, if you can manage to do this every day, or even every week, then I really do think you can learn German. Or really anything for that matter. It hasn’t been easy, but this style of repetition worked for me. My attention span and focus are better as a result as well. So it’s not pretty, but I am here trying to get better by doing the same thing every day. The strategy of a genius of hard work. 

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wow! wish I had your resolve 🙏🏾
May 11, 2024
legendary. maybe one day i will muster up the can do attitude
papi g
May 11, 2024
Loved this!! Sounds much more thorough than Duo...
May 10, 2024
💜 cool info
May 10, 2024
May 10, 2024
Great stuff
May 10, 2024
worth a read for sure!
April 2, 2024
thank you so much for this, really learned a lot
March 29, 2024
Insightful post! True genius
March 27, 2024
thank you
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