Beyond Duolingo, bridging the gap: listening, watching, reading (my experience so far)
This is a long post; if you don't want to read it all, just suggest intermediate-level books for me to read in Romanian please! :)
First off, let me say that I hope that this isn't too self-indulgent and navel-gazey. I'm going to describe my process and the results I've seen from it; hopefully this will help someone in some way, but I'm also looking for suggestions and advice myself. Here goes:
Duolingo, to me, is a great way to get started with learning a language. It provides users with a well-balanced, engaging, and comprehensive way to establish a foundation on which to build a working, fluent command of a language. What this means, though, is that there's a pretty big gap to bridge between that foundation and actual conversational fluency. And with a language like Romanian, it can be hard to find real-life teachers or practice partners, without actually being in Romania (or Moldova). There are apps that allow you to find partners for text-chatting, voice-messaging, and video-chatting (HelloTalk is a good one, minus the video-chatting), and Duolingo has brought me, personally, to a decent comfort level for these lower-pressure and slower-paced situations. But I want to keep learning in an independent and zero-pressure environment until I get the chance to immerse myself, to make that transition smoother, and reach fluency efficiently.
Around the time when I finished the Romanian tree (a few months ago), I went looking for examples of spoken Romanian to test my comprehension. Whether I was watching interviews, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries with voice-overs, or watching cartoons for literal drooling babies, I was consistently disappointed and frustrated to find that I couldn't really follow the gist of a conversation, and was lucky if I could understand more than just a few words here and there.
So, I started with the easiest, almost embarrassingly easy material that I could find: children's picture books. I read every book on this list: http://goo.gl/2CDM4Q
I looked up and wrote down every word that I didn't know from Duolingo (there were a lot of them), and entered it as a flash card in the program Anki (I haven't actually started practicing the deck yet; I'm waiting til I have the Duolingo vocab deck mastered). It took maybe two months. At times the process felt painfully laborious, but it was a necessary step. How can you speak a language if you can't even understand a book written for 5-year-olds?
Around this time, I downloaded some episodes of the Romanian-language podcasts "Sceptici în România" and "CityPodcast". (They're recommendable for practice.) Listening to them, I could understand bits and pieces, especially if they were talking about a subject that I was familiar with, but it was still pretty opaque to me.
I sought out a kid's book that was a step up from those baby books I had read. I decided on "The Little Prince," aka "Micul Prinț", by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It is one of the most translated books in the world, so I figured that I could find a copy in Romanian, which I did. I also found the audiobook in Romanian. I did the same thing as before, entering every new word into my flash card app. I read chapters in Romanian, then in English, then in Romanian again, sometimes along with the audiobook. It took me about a month to reach the end of this seventy-something page book.
Now something kind of strange happened: I could listen to the audiobook, in the car or on a bus or whatever, and understand what was going on, and catch most of the words, although some parts would slip by. This felt like an accomplishment, but at the same time, if I went back to those podcasts, or tried a different audiobook, I was still pretty hopelessly lost.
After finishing Micul Prinț, I looked for another step up. I chose "The Alchemist" (Alchimistul) by Paolo Coelho. I'm about halfway through now. This feels about the same reading level as the Little Prince, but less childish and less quirky. Same process: write down all new words, read in English and Romanian, listen to the audiobook.
So, that's where I am now. I tried listening to an unfamiliar audiobook recently: hopelessly lost. I listened to a podcast episode: I could follow the gist, but missed a lot of details. I tried reading an adult-level book that was originally written in Romanian ("Pădurea Spânzuraților"): uhhh no way. Super hard. I could barely understand any of it. Damn.
As grueling as it may be, I'm committed to taking these baby steps until I can read a novel comfortably, or listen to a podcast and follow along relatively smoothly. Actually, I'm at a point where I can often read a page of the Alchemist and only have to look up 3 or 4 words. I couldn't have done that a month ago, and it is pretty satisfying.
Now, the last thing I want to address is this: reading books and understanding a conversation are very different things. I'm functionally fluent in Spanish. I am from the US and English is my native language, but I have a degree in Spanish and I have lived in South America for about 3 years of my adult life. I've made friends, had relationships, and spoken in front of crowds in Spanish. I'm comfortable speaking and people generally say my Spanish is good. But reading Marquez or Borges or whatever can be a tedious chore of an experience. It's not so important to me to be able to handle their equivalents in Romanian, but I'm not sure what books I might be able to read that will strengthen my conversational, casual Romanian more than my, let's call it "literary" Romanian. Suggestions are more than welcome.
OK, if you've read this far, awesome. I don't know if I would have, hahah. Anyway: would you have done things differently? Do you have any thoughts on how I should continue? Can you recommend me some books at around my reading level? Questions, comments, insights, observations?
Try to choose from here... There are free ebooks in romanian https://www.bestseller.md/ebooks/carti-gratis.html?limba=130 Choose a category that you like (Carti pentru copii, Actiune si aventura, Literatura clasica, ...) click and download a free book you already read in English. I think "Carti pentru copii" and "Actiune si aventura" are intermediate-level
Ok, let's get serious.
About reading and studying kids' books: you shouldn't feel embarrassed at all. I've only scanned over the one called "I wouldn't tell a lie" (N-aș spune nicio minciună) and I can tell you it is actually not that easy. You learn quite a lot from these books: vocabulary (you yourself said there were many new words) and various grammatical/language constructions, i.e. ways of expressing things. Duolingo is like playing with firecrackers compared to those big guns. Seriously, I wouldn't tell a lie... :-)
About the "Sceptici în România" podcasts: you should put them aside, at least for now. The way that guy from "Sceptici in Romania" speaks is too fast and especially too unclear, for a learner of Romanian to be able to follow along. It's no wonder the podcasts seem opaque to you! You have to be aware that there are accents, some of them easier, some of them harder to understand, but this is further complicated by how different individuals speak, in terms of speed and clarity. You need to listen to people who, regardless of their accent, speak clearly. Now, a better audio podcast would be Neagu Djuvara's "A Short History of the Romanians Narrated for the Youth" (O scurtă istorie a românilor povestită celor tineri). To me, this guy is the embodiment of eloquence in Romanian. (link)
I also think that, instead of podcasts, you are in general better off with some sort of video interviews, where you clearly see the speakers' faces and mouths moving, and where they don't speak too fast. Something like this, this or this.
For learning the basics, some Duolingo users have mentioned Nico's channel on Youtube. The quality seems okay(ish) to me. YMMV. (link)
Like someone else said in this thread, pay attention to the big four: reading, writing, listening and speaking, with vocabulary sprinkled over all of them. You need to make a self assessment of your current language level in each of these four categories. There could be discrepancies between them. Then you need to practice within your level for each of the four categories, and generally aim for the next higher level. Don't try to "cheat" your way up by jumping over a few levels; you won't make any real progress, and you'll become frustrated in no time! As a general rule, if something you're doing feels too hard for you, like those podcasts, then you've aimed too high. Go back to "bridging the gap" first.
About learning vocabulary: it may sound obvious, but focus on the common and useful words first. That means you should ignore the more obscure words for now. A good way to learn vocabulary is to picture yourself in various situations from your daily life: greeting and making small talk with a friend or neighbor, asking someone for directions, talking to the clerk while at the store, talking about a favorite topic of yours and explaining some details to a layperson. What would you say in those situations? What would the other person say? What about your speaking style in English? What words, expressions and ways of phrasing things do you often use? All of these should be part of your Romanian vocabulary. Which leads us to the next point...
Considering the dearth of Romanian language resources on the internet, you should find a native who is willing to help you with the language, who is able to give you (good!) translations of words, expressions and ways of phrasing things that YOU often use, who can explain parts which you find tricky, who can clarify conflicting information you have from different sources, and so on. Try to make good use of the various language exchange sites, and be aware that not all native Romanian speakers on those sites are (equally) helpful. A good way to train both your listening and your writing skills is to watch a short video (or listen to a short podcast) of someone speaking in Romanian and then write the transcript for that video. Watch it as many times you need to, pausing and writing along the way. Have the native speaker correct your transcript and fill in the gaps. Watch the video again, knowing these new bits of information. Train your ear.
Last but not least, remember that language acquisition is a slow process which takes a lot of sustained effort. You simply cannot rush things when you deal with a new way of not only speaking but also thinking!
Thanks, great post! In the time since I posted this I've felt my listening skills improve substantially, and I've made progress in basically all areas. I've found some other podcasts, it's weird how some I can understand very well and some I can barely understand a thing. I'll definitely be listening to the History of the Romanians one, and checking out those video links.
I'm definitely lagging on my speaking practice, but I think that'll catch up quick. I have nobody to speak with in person here in the USA, but I'll be traveling to Romania in the next few months. I'll see how it goes then.
Some excellent advice from Lurch_M. I ran into one of the only two Romanians who live in my Japanese town at the grocery store. Much to my chagrin, I discovered how much I have neglected my Romanian speaking practice. Hard as I tried, I must have babbled like some idiot. I used to be relatively fluent in Spanish, but intensive learning of Romanian made my attempts at speaking Spanish a bunch of gibberish. The same thing has happened to my Romanian, a mixture of Japanese and Romanian!
Hello Steve, congrats on your drive and determination. Digi24 is a TV station with news in Romanian. It is sometimes too hard to follow and there are too many commercials. But YouTube has a wealth of old movies from the communist era which are not propagandistic.
Achieving fluency in a language means mastering reading, writing, listening and speaking. Reading is perhaps the easiest skill. It's great for acquiring new words. However, many of the free books online are written in very old Romanian which makes looking up the words very slow going. I prefer Google News which I set for Romanian language. It has more contemporary Romanian. I personally have great difficulty listening to Romanian. There are many Romanian dialects and accents. Younger people seem to have their own slang which I can't understand. Some adults speak very fast. I find myself having to ask them to repeat themselves. I am sure they find this tedious. I have to hope that listening to YouTubes will reduce my listening anxiety level.
That brings us to speaking Romanian. It has been very hard to find a native Romanian who is willing to exchange conversation with me in my Japanese time zone. The seven hours difference with Romania is very inconvenient. I have a friend in Romania who I write letters and emails to but he tends to only write emails back.
The language is very beautiful and I plan to keep working at it. Good luck with your language learning!