Update to German Learning Morning: FSI

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In the past few months, as part of my German morning reading, I’ve read several full books of comics in German including three Asterix books and one giant Lucky Luke volume. In the past week, I’ve pivoted back to using the Foreign Service Institue German course.

However, it’s not just reading. These are courses developed by the US government for diplomats and which are now in the public domain. The course comprises dialogues and then exercises where you alter sentences or just try to say the translation as quickly as possible. Each accompanying audio track is between 20 and 30 minutes, and if you want to feel like you’ve worked your brain to exhaustion, then this will do it.

This is a tedious way to learn to be sure, but I did this faithfully before moving to Germany, and it was invaluable. When you begin speaking the translations fluently without thinking too hard and without pauses, then it can feel very good. The course is brilliant at drilling sentence structure and flow into your mind, and the vocabulary is usually very useful. I also find that it makes certain concepts, such as the cases (nominative, dative, accusative, genitive), feel instinctive in a way I never got from other learning methods. I can also use their pre-made vocabulary lists at the end of each unit for my morning journaling. Any extra words still get added to my monthly Evernote note.

There are a few negatives about using the FSI German course, of which you should be aware:

  • They use some outdated words, and you have to be careful using them. I’ve never heard anyone refer to a bus as an “Omnibus” or a taxi as a “Taxe”, even though those are legitimate words. And I would never refer to anyone as “Fräulein”, even though the speakers of the FSI course do regularly. This is Mad Men era German, and you should have other sources to provide you with more modern language.
  • The audio quality is very degraded, and sometimes it can be hard to understand what the readers are saying without reading along, which sometimes defeats the purpose.
  • Again, because this is Mad Men era German, it’s very male dominant. It’s usually men speaking to other men about business. When women are around, they tend to be secretaries or housewives.
  • The vocabulary is very tilted towards diplomatic relations. There’s lots of talk about embassies and consul generals and such, which is irrelevant to most people.

Nevertheless, I still find them valuable. Even with the limitations listed above, most of the situations are still situations you’ll find yourself in in modern Germany.

A Morning Ritual for German Learning

It's not just for German though.

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This photo represents one of my better ideas. As part of my miracle morning, I’ve created this routine that allows me to do my German study right away. If you’re trying to learn a new language and want to systemize your study, then give this a shot.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Journal in German. Right now I write one page by hand every morning. This was very hard when I began, but it’s become progressively easier, and I keep my computer nearby to clarify grammar or look up words when I get stuck. If a page is too much, then just write a few sentences.
  2. Save new words. If I look up a word, I write it down within a monthly note in Evernote beside the definition, and then I’ll highlight the word in orange.
  3. Read. In this case it’s Calvin und Hobbes. It’s lighthearted, and the vocab ranges from truly child-like (“Mami” “Vati”) to advanced. Again, any words I look up are written into Evernote, though I don’t highlight anything. If you’re not really ready to do serious reading in German, then you might consider studying a blog like German is Easy.
  4. Review. The next day, I can look at the highlighted words, and I have a list of words that I’ve looked up. When I journal, I can then try and use the words I learned the day before. I can also try to incorporate new words into what I say during the day.
  5. Listen to German podcasts. When I move on to my mobilization exercises, I’ll pop in my headphones and listen to a podcast in German. On weekdays, this is usually Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten, though I subscribe to several others as well.

In total, this lasts about 40 minutes, and it happens after I’ve done my meditation.

Three 2014 Habits to Take into 2015

Omnifocus Windows

Although I learned early on that my New Year’s resolutions are bound to fail, I do like making small habitual changes throughout the year. Especially with some semblance of stability in my life, I want to adjust my routines to be as effective as possible at keeping me healthy and happy.

Here are the three that have made the biggest difference this last year. I plan on continuing and expanding all of these through 2015, and I can recommend them if you’re looking for some new habits.

Morning ritual

This year, I made it a rule that I do a physical warmup at the beginning of my day. For the first three quarters of the year, that was the yoga sun salutation, which is a series of poses that gently stretch and open the body. I still like doing these, but I’ve switched it out for a series of mobilization exercises. These are movements that also stretch and open the body, but they work particular joints more directly, and I find them gentler.

Now I’ve folded these into a “miracle morning”, which is a series of little rituals popularized by Hal Elrod. These include meditation, journaling, my exercises, and some other steps.

Look, I’m incredibly skeptical of self-help stuff. The claims for the results are often so ludicrous that to go in believing that waking up at five will lead to millions of whatever-currency-you-have, then you’re bound to be disappointed. So I’m not doing this thinking that doing it alone will solve all my problems.

I do like the basic idea of it though, and I’ve gotten up every morning a little bit – about an hour – earlier to do this.

Results? My joints are happier with me. I wake up with fewer little aches and pains. My mood has improved. I wouldn’t say that it’s a “miracle”, but it’s the obvious result from starting the day in a healthier way. There are all sorts of ways to expand this in 2015, and I’m looking forward to more experimentation.

If you don’t do any of these, then you might try finding some morning ritual that gets you moving and active. The sun salutation is good. So is a walk. If you’re curious about my mobilizations, I’ll eventually write them out.

Calorie Counting and Health Tracking

When iOS 8 for the iPhone came out, it included a health application that listed a bunch of health data. Since it was empty, I decided to actually feed it some data. The phone already tracked my steps, so I started counting the calories in the food I ate using My Fitness Pal. I also began using RunKeeper again to track my exercise sessions.

I will probably stick with this for the long haul, though counting calories is especially tedious at times. What compels me is how informative it was. I was amazed at how high-calorie some foods are, and by elimintating some things from my grocery list, I’ve lost a few pounds (bye bye sliced bread at home). At the very least, this keeps me aware about what I’m eating.

Results? A few pounds lost, and I exercise more consistently. I’m mostly curious about how far this technology combined with good habits can go. I don’t have any extreme fitness goals, but I do want to maintain a basic level of fitness consistently. I also don’t have any plans to buy further technology to track more. Rather I just want to keep the habit and strengthen it.

I won’t lie though: this is a pain. I bought a scale to weigh foods at home, but when we’re out, I just have to guess the weights and the ingredients. MyFitnessPal does do some great work with branded foods and barcode scanning and all that, but it’s still work. Step tracking is about to become ubiquitous in our phones and watches, but calories counting? That takes some effort. But the clarity that comes from actually tracking this stuff is eye-opening.

Weekly Review

I’ve been doing some form of GTD for years, but I always skipped out on the weekly review part of it. That changed in the latter half of 2014. I’ve set aside some time on Sunday mornings for reviewing my projects and tasks in Omnifocus.

This doesn’t take very long since my life is not super complicated. Mostly my complications are of my own making (this website, for example, is a personal choice rather than externally-imposed), but using GTD and Omnifocus does help visualize it all. The review is important for maintaining a big picture of it all and seeing what I’ve let languish or what needs to be taken care of soon.

Results? I do consistently use the system more to do my tasks, and I think I’m more productive. There’s nothing really gamified in Omnifocus, so it’s hard to see exactly whether I became more productive or not (unlike Todoist). but I do feel like I’m more on top of the tasks of my life more. This has also been useful for building these new habits, since I can send myself daily reminders to do certain things.

If you don’t use GTD, I still think it’s a good idea to set aside some time to evaluate the previous week and begin planning the next. What went well? What didn’t? What do you want for the next week?

Other Atempted Habits

Here are some other things that I think are still good ideas, but which I didn’t consistently apply:

  1. Sight singing/interval practice: I actually did practice sight reading a lot using a variety of sources, so I did improve substantially. But I can’t claim to have created a real habit yet.
  2. German podcasts: I listened to a lot of German podcasts, so again, this isn’t failure, but I didn’t find a consistent habitual time to do this.
  3. Updating the budget: I did update my budget spreadsheet when I needed to, but I need to habitualize this somehow. Otherwise piles of receipts form, and math errors start to creep in.
  4. Consistent bed-time: ::Sigh::. Total failure. This one is hard when you work late and inconsistently. I’ll give this one another go though.

Upcoming Habits for 2015

What habits do I want to add this year? I’m going to be vague here, because sometimes good ideas come to me later:

  • I do want to change some habits around buying food. German cantinas are one of the best and worst aspects of German theaters. They’re the best for socializing and feeling comfy in one’s working environment. They’re the worst if you want to save money since another Brötchen or Kaffee or Cola Light or Kuchen is just downstairs.
  • I also want to develop a more consistent practice routine. A “miracle practice” or something like that. I practice plenty often, but I’d like to ritualize it a bit more.
  • Likewise for weekly and nightly rituals. I’ve recently heard/read some interesting ideas for these. The GTD weekly review is one such ritual, but there are others I’d like to try additionally.

And then… who knows? The year is long, and six months in I could have an epiphany.

In any case, wish me luck, and I hope some good habits became a part of your routine in 2014 and that 2015 is a year of growth and happiness for you.

The Stages of Becoming a Contributory Expert

Part VI of Singing Expertise series

Collins lists 5 stages that someone must travel to become a contributory expert:

  1. Novice
  2. Advanced Beginner
  3. Competence
  4. Proficiency
  5. Expertise1

Rather than describe each stage in detail, let’s just paint a broad picture.

As someone moves from novice to expert, they move from entirely conscious operation to unconscious. The novice requires rules, because they don’t understand the tacit information required to make unconscious and intuitive choices. The expert, on the other hand, acts in such a way that rules are mostly irrelevant because the expert has internalized knowledge. The expert can act without self-consciousness.

Remember learning to drive? Rules rules rules. And once you’ve been driving awhile, the rules become unconscious impulses.

Consider singers. A novice or beginner must consciously decide to do everything, and often times this is done clumsily because it’s based entirely on rules. A true novice looks and sounds clumsy and is almost wholly self-conscious the entire time they’re singing.

That’s not meant as an insult, by the way. I was absolutely like that too.

An expert singer singing their best repertoire, on the other hand, can summon technique and voice seemingly at will in order to serve a piece of music. Dynamics, phrasing, legato and so on come more or less unconsciously from an expert singer to serve the emotional needs of a piece or whatever other artistic goal the singer has set. The expert singer moves and acts in unconscious ways that they themselves are often unaware of but are nevertheless important for the piece.

The expert can achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow”. It is goal-based rather than rule-based. He writes:

Although the flow experience appears to be effortless, it is far from being so. It often requires strenuous physical exertion, or highly disciplined mental activity. It does not happen without the application of skilled performance. Any lapse in concentration will erase it. And yet while it lasts consciousness works smoothly, action follows action seamlessly.2

This is what we’re after.


  1. Collins, Harry (2007-10-01). Rethinking Expertise (pp. 24-25). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. ↩

  2. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.) (p. 54). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.  ↩