Feeling The Stupidest, but also Smart

Over the last six months, I’ve become well acquainted with feeling dumb.  It’s a laughably easy achievement in language learning, all it takes is seeing a word that you know you’ve seen at least five times before and being utterly baffled trying to remember the definition, or seeing a sentence where every word in it is familiar but you can’t make heads or tails out of what it actually means.  Learning a language doesn’t mean finding these sorts of roadblocks here and there, it is a path constructed almost entirely out of these roadblocks.  You learn, forget, and learn your way up a hill, feeling dumb on each step.

That feeling of stupidity isn’t really a fair one, language acquisition is a slippery eel of a pursuit.  Words are by their nature arbitrary, and memorizing arbitrary things is always going to be hard.  The only words that aren’t going to be hard to learn are words that aren’t new (this might sound like a Catch-22, but really isn’t, depending on how related the language you’re trying to learn is to the languages you already know.  It’s easy as an English speaker to remember that the Spanish word for ‘excellent’ is ‘excelente.’).  But ultimately it doesn’t matter how fair it is when you’re banging your head against a word and failing to get it to stick, you’re gonna feel dumb.

I’m not really accustomed to feeling dumb.  I am accustomed to feeling ignorant, as there are plenty of things out in the world which I know next to nothing about, but that’s a different feeling.  When you feel ignorant, all you’re doing is sensing your own lack of knowledge.  When you feel dumb on the other hand, you are screaming at yourself, “This is SO HARD, but I know that it’s SO SIMPLE, so why is it SO HARD?”  It’s a frustrating, impotent feeling, where instead of noting down a lack of knowledge, you are witnessing the gears of your brain gnash and grind against each other, and still fail to spin.

This could all be rather depressing, and it likely is for a lot of language learners.  A lot of people hit the wall of dumb and think it means they can’t learn a language at all.  Maybe they were born without the language gene, or maybe their brain’s just wired for math and science stuff, or maybe they’d need to do something extreme like complete and total immersion in order to actually learn a language, which is infeasible, so it might as well be impossible.  None of which are true or how language acquisition works, but it can certainly all feel true emotionally.  But it doesn’t have to be depressing if you frame it the right way.  I find feeling dumb to be funny and fascinating.

It’s funny to me to look up acaso and be told that yes, once again, it means “maybe,” you idiot.  Nevermind that tal vez and quizás also mean maybe and you remembered those ones basically right away, just get stuck on acaso for three weeks straight, it’s fine.  Okay, maybe not ha-ha funny, but there’s no reason to be beating myself up over it, so why not just laugh at myself instead?  Cutting myself that slack and knowing that, as dumb as I feel now, there will be a day that I will get it takes all the sting out of it, and without any sting, without the emotional weight bogging me down, I get to experience feeling dumb in a situation with zero stakes.

Feeling dumb is a very odd sensation that normally gets overwhelmed with other feelings.  Shame, frustration, self-loathing, anger, resignation.  You’ve usually got something on the line, if only just your ego, which is the thing that’s really directing those reactions.  But without the stakes, it’s a bizarrely colorless feeling.  It’s a feeling that usually exists in an absence of thought; it’s the spot in your head where you forget that you put your keys down on the table, or the name of the man who is talking to you right this moment thirty seconds after he told you.  It’s a place between thoughts that can’t be directly examined, but only tracked by the ripples it makes, like some sort of quantum forgetfulness particle.  And most of the time you don’t even think about that space, because it happens relatively infrequently and gets overwhelmed by annoyance over locking yourself out of your house or embarrassment over calling your new friend Johnny instead of Roger.

Obviously I do still get frustrated with getting things to stick (stupid acaso…), but it really is interesting to be confronted by that Schrödinger’s Cat of knowing/not knowing something so regularly.  It reminds you how fallible your brain really is, and tempers your perspective of the world.

On the reverse side of the coin, I’ve also become well acquainted over the last six months with feeling especially clever without deserving it in the slightest.  For all the times I’ve felt dumb not remembering a word, when I finally do remember it (Quizás la palabra acaso…), it’s like I won Jeopardy.  I remembered a hard thing!  Language learning is such a slow process that any noticed momentum is a confidence boost.  I have in my life read hundreds if not thousands of books on all ranges of subjects.  I have never felt as accomplished from reading a book as I did when I finished reading Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate, at least as far as I can remember back.  And I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was seven.

The fact that it is as undeserved a feeling as the dumbness is also funny and fascinating to me.  It’s like my brain is a puppy, easily snubbed and easily pleased, so stupid it forgets things immediately after being told, and entirely too proud with itself for managing to not pee on the carpet.

So that’s all I got for this week, let’s get into the numbers.

Tuesday 5/29

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes
  • Reading: 14 pages of El Principito, ~20 minutes

Wednesday 5/30

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~60 minutes

Thursday 5/31

  • Anki: 110 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes
  • Reading: 18 pages of El Principito, ~20 minutes

Friday 6/01

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 11 pages of El Principito, ~15 minutes

Saturday 6/02

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes

Sunday 6/03

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes
  • Reading: 15 pages of El Principito, ~20 minutes

Monday 6/04

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes


  • Total Anki: 840 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 1300 XP, 420 minutes
  • Total  Watching/Listening: 5 tv episodes watched, 100 minutes
  • Total reading: 58 pages read, 75 minutes
  • Total Time: 11 hours 5 minutes

So when I said “hard” numbers, these are definitely the softest variety of hard numbers you can come across.  I have no patience for rigid time tracking, so everything listing how long something took is an estimation.  The Anki “cards reviewed” number is also rounded for simplicity’s sake.

I had an inordinately busy week, but despite that I feel good about the amount of time invested overall.  I did less reading that I wanted, because El Principito is in fact kicking my ass, so I haven’t been as on top of the ball with it as I was with the previous book.  It is a short book, though, and I’m now about halfway through it, so that might give me some momentum next week.  And for the record the dip in the amount of XP without the dip in time on Duolingo was because I finished up getting some earlier lessons to level three and switched to working on lessons further down the tree, which both contain more questions to answer and are more difficult to complete.

My hope for next week is more consistency on the non-Duolingo things.  I didn’t always have time to get to them, but I think that at this point in my learning they are more valuable than Duolingo is, so I ought to either make the time more consistently, or sacrifice time out of the Duolingo review stuff in favor of more content exposure.

Anyway, that’s my piece.  TTFN.

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