What and Why Deeper Dive

Two weeks in, and I am finding myself struggling with trying to figure out how to start these blogs off.   I haven’t quite nailed down the voice I’m aiming to strike in them, or have a pictured “audience” that I could project to, so there’s a bit of stumbling to fall into a tone I like for it.  I should probably come up with a standardized salutation to kick things off that I can just hit the ground running on.  Maybe something like: Howdy and ¡bienvenidos!

Bleh, don’t like that, sounds cheesy.  We’ll call it a work in progress.

Let’s go into a little more detail about what my language learning routine looks like.  I’ve explained it a bit already, but not to a robust level, so let’s do that now before we get enough entries in that it might be weird.  So we’ll take an example work day and break it down.  We’ll go with last Friday as the base to look at, and start with the first thing I do in the morning: Anki review.  I reviewed 130 flashcards, both old and new, in about 10 minutes.

Anki, if you are unfamiliar, is a flashcard app that uses a Spaced Repetition System to automate when you review information to help you store that information in long term memory.  I have a deck loaded on my phone with the top 5000 most common words in Spanish (this one), and first thing in the morning, I load ‘er up and go through it.  I have it set to add 20 new words a day and to allow up to 150 words per day to be reviewed.  Early on I would “overstudy” regularly, since looking at twenty words a day is kind of a snail’s pace, but at this point it’s a fairly stable 110-130 words old and new to look at every day, so I just let it do its thing.  I’m currently about a quarter or so through the deck of 10k cards (each word has two cards, one where the Spanish word is the “front” and one where it’s the “back”).

Some people swear by flashcards.  I am not really one of those people.  They aren’t useless or anything, I am using them, but they definitely are a tertiary tool.  I find a lot of the words that I come across in the app don’t enter into my active or passive vocabulary until after I come across them in something else that does have context, and until that point they have trouble sticking, and even if they do stick a little, they are tenuous at best.  My whinging last week about acaso was from it showing up in Anki and just never getting past the ‘review tomorrow’ stage for weeks.

That all said, there’s a lot of vocab that I have come across in context and ‘got’ quickly, but then after not seeing it for a while just had it drop out of my head, which the flashcard review has greatly minimized.  It’s unusual for me to have forgotten the vocab that shows up in it that’s seasoned, and the odd word that I have forgotten gets re-remembered quickly.  The Anki deck is a great hands-off way to manage that sort of thing.  Were it a custom deck I built for myself and added to directly from the context of books and shows I’m watching, it would work even better, but that is less hands-off than I want for the tool, so I’m happy with the general 5k words deck for now.  I could easily see people with more patience and more affinity for flashcards building a system for themselves that works gangbusters, though.

After Anki, we come to Duolingo.  I am currently level 19 on the English Speakers Learning Spanish tree.  I have up to the first checkpoint maxed to level five, the second checkpoint to level four or five (mostly four), third checkpoint to level three, and I’m about a third of the way through the last checkpoint getting everything from level two to three.  I tend to do one or two lessons per subject at a time, then do the next subject, that way I can touch on a wide number of subjects in a day, and work in little batches to level things up.  I find just leveling up one subject at a time monotonous, and fear it’ll work kinda like cramming and I’ll forget details of whatever the subject is faster were I to do it differently.  I work on lessons for an hour a day thereabouts, going for a total XP amount that roughly matches that goal, depending on the difficulty of subjects I’m tackling at a given time.  Friday it was 150 XP, as I was in the last checkpoint section.

Duolingo has its proponents and its detractors, and while I fall into the former camp, it’s from a place recognizing its limitations.  Duolingo is not going to get anyone fluently speaking in any language.  What it is going to do, is help a bit with vocabulary, get you used to a variety of sentence structures and the basic mechanics of the language, and do so in a way that’s rather fun and engaging.

That all works for me.  A lot of people cast aspersions and joke about the weird sentences it throws at you (and it totally does give you some weird stuff, I don’t know how many times in the early going I was asked to translate Soy una niña, como arañas, or I am a girl, I eat spiders), often citing that those sentences are ones that a speaker “will never use.”  Which I think is missing the point.  I don’t think learning languages by way of memorizing whole “useful sentences” will get anyone all that far.  That’s more a tool for navigating abroad, when you absolutely need to ask and receive basic information in a setting.  Nothing about that suggests comprehension or fluency, it suggests survival.

Some whole phrases are both good and necessary to batch-memorize like this, as some things are said in other languages in ways that just don’t operate the same way English does.  You need to just memorize that the way you say ‘you’re welcome,’ is de nada, which literally translates to “of/from nothing,” or that if someone asks you your age you are not ’thirty-one years old,’ but rather tengo treinta y uno años, or “I have thirty-one years.”  For stuff like that, well, that’s what Anki is for.  Most of the time, though, I think it’s more useful (and funny) to come across the weird sentences, even if they ultimately won’t be useful to use.  It’s comprehension practice, and needing to understand weird stuff forces you to think more, and be more versatile.

Then we come to reading and watching/listening.  Friday I read one chapter of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz and watched one episode of Puffin Rock.  Both activities were roughly 20 minutes.  I have less to say about these, because I’m not sure what more can be said about what I’m doing when I’m reading or watching a tv show.  I do have a quick reference Spanish dictionary available when reading (Google Translate and SpanishDict.com typically), and when I come across a vocab word that I’m unfamiliar with, I look it up.  At this point I can usually parse sentence structure and only need help with vocab, but when I do hit a sentence I can’t follow (after spending a while trying to figure it out on my own), I will look that up whole, too, and from the translation try and figure out why it means that and what it was that I couldn’t puzzle out on my own about it.  With listening it’s difficult to do stuff like this, so I’m usually much more lax looking stuff up and rather just do my best to follow along from context.  I’ll look up words here and there, but overall the goal of the two activities are slightly different and I’m much more focused on trying to follow the flow of conversation when listening than I am with all the vocab.

There is some contention between experts on whether reading in a foreign language is good for learning, or if it is the best for learning.  I personally think it’s probably closer to the latter.  As I said earlier, the out-of-context memorization of stuff is difficult for me, and the alternative is the context, which is typically reading, at least to get the most quantity quickly.  I felt myself make a leap in ease during and after reading Charlie for everything else involving Spanish; reading got easier, listening got easier, Duolingo lessons got easier, it was like I’d leveled up.  And while it hasn’t been as steep a climb reading El Principito or Oz, it is several times over more rewarding than Anki or Duolingo on a motivational level and seems to feed into and fuel the efficacy of the other things I’m doing.  On the one hand, part of me thinks I might be best off dropping or severely minimizing the other things I’m doing in favor of more reading.

On the other hand, boy, reading in Spanish is exhausting.  Not only am I much slower than with English, averaging about a half to three quarters of a page a minute, but the amount of concentration and focus it takes wipes me out.  I can’t do it for a sustained hour, I can barely do it for fifteen or twenty minutes at a stretch without taking a break.  This is seeming to get easier, at least easier with a given book I’m reading after a chapter or two of getting used to the flow and form that it’s in, but it’s still nothing like reading in English for me.  This is what is holding me back from diving whole hog into reading, for now.  I’m excited for when I can really make that switch in focus.

Watching TV is about the same reasoning and benefit as reading, though less so.  Since the lookup is less feasible, it is a lesser source, and largely gets relegated to listening comprehension on ‘stuff that I’d have no trouble with written down,” which is a steadily growing pool, but one that the watching isn’t doing much to help grow.

I’ve tried to watch stuff while having a transcript in front of me, so I could both work on the listening and also read, but I find that frustrating, since I end up pausing so much.  I dunno, I haven’t tried it in a while, so maybe I’d find that easier at my current level.  Something to aim for next week.

Anyway, I hope that’s illuminating.  I’m sure some people out there might balk at my total lack of mentioning structured grammar lessons and the like, and the truth is, I don’t do that regularly.  I have a grammar book (The New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish, 5th ed.), which I have as reference when I need it.  It has been useful, so I’m not going to sit here and proclaim the uselessness of grammar study or anything, but it’s an “I am stuck on this thing and need an explanation,” tool, not a day-to-day learning tool.

In my experience, language acquisition is like digging a tunnel through a mountain, and grammar references are fine picks and brushes.  When you’re trying to dig out a fossil of complex and refined comprehension, the picks and brushes are the go-to tools, but when you’re digging your way through a mountain by hand, you’re not getting anywhere with a tiny pick.  What you need is a shovel, and that’s what reading and listening are.

That’ll do it for this week, let’s get to the numbers round.

Tuesday 6/05

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 28 pages of El Principito, ~40 minutes

Wednesday 6/06

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes
  • Reading: 27 pages of El Principito, ~40 minutes

Thursday 6/07

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 13 pages of El Principito (finished), ~15 minutes

Friday 6/08

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~20 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes

Saturday 6/09

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~40 minutes

Sunday 6/10

  • Anki: 110 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~40 minutes

Monday 6/11

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes


  • Total Anki: 870 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 1050 XP, 420 minutes
  • Total  Watching/Listening: 3 tv episodes watched, 60 minutes
  • Total reading: 68 pages + 7 chapters read, 235 minutes
  • Total Time: 13 hours 5 minutes

I thought I was being so clever when I worked out how I’d log my work day to day, settling on a page count for reading.  Easy to track, easy to compare, it was perfect.  Until I got to the first ebook and remembered that Kindles scoff at your puny hu-mon concept of page counts.  So, for now, ebooks are listed as chapters read.  Thus far, El Maravilloso Mago de Oz has been fairly uniform in chapter length, with each chapter taking roughly 20 minutes to read, so each chapter is probably around 12-15 pages were it in a paperback.

Anyway, this blogging is already paying dividends.  Seeing everything written out last week, the patterns were clear that I wasn’t averaging enough reading per day compared to what I wanted, so I focused on that.  This week was better.  I’m overall much happier with how things are being split up right now.  It isn’t perfect, and if I could get over the difficulty hump with reading to where I could flip-flop it and Duolingo, I would.  Also, I think it’s clear that I’m maybe a little bored of Puffin Rock and I maybe ought to switch to something else for a while, just so I get to watching/listening more regularly.  As mentioned up in the main post, maybe I’ll try watching with a transcript in front of me again, see if that’s more engaging.

Well, that’s enough for this one.  TTFN.

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