Facing Defeat and Bouncing Back

So last week, I was soundly defeated by a book.  Things were nicely timed to where I finished El Maravilloso Mago de Oz on Monday, and would be beginning my next book at the start of this week: Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal.  Perfect!  I’d been working my way up in reading level more or less on a nice line, building toward this.  Harry Potter has been a perennial favorite of mine, and while the later books got more complicated, the first one I always remembered as being a breezy read.  A nice new step into bigger and longer books.  Perfect.

Yeah, didn’t work out that way.  I got through most of the first page and said “…Uh oh.”

It was just so much more dense than the previous books had been.  The vocab wasn’t too drastically outside of my comfort zone—I’ve spent over a month now practicing at reading books where I needed to look up words so I’m used to that, and it wasn’t like every other word was unfamiliar or anything—but the construction and flow of sentences was just so much more complex and involved.  Toward the bottom of that first page, I was finding myself reading a sentence and gathering zero comprehension, even though I knew most or all of the words I’d read.  I was totally out of my depth.  Comprehension just bypassed my brain and sailed over my head.

I wrote a few weeks ago about feeling stupid, but this wasn’t one of those times.  I felt bested.  I’d strapped on my armor, climbed into the saddle, charged with a lance held high, and got knocked squarely on my ass.

I’ve been bested a number of times on this language journey.  A few months ago I’d begun watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in Spanish and found it far too difficult to watch, basically incomprehensible without a transcript and still too difficult to be engaging with one.  I needed to pause and look things up just to find a thread of meaning, almost sentence to sentence.  I’ve seen the show before and I knew what the stories were about, but my ability to follow it was about as close to what it would have been were I watching it muted: I knew the gist of what was happening at any given time and knew what would be coming up, but with no idea what anyone was saying at any given time.  So, I admitted defeat.

Admitting defeat is hard.  With anything.  Nobody likes feeling bested, and unlike feeling stupid when challenged with something hard, there is no triumph at the end to make yourself feel clever, capable, and like it was all worth it.  It just sucks.

A lot of the advice I see when trawling the internet for people talking about language learning skirts around defeat as a topic.  People talk about embracing your mistakes and maintaining motivation pretty often, addressing some of the causes of defeat.  Discouragement is the big bad final boss for language learning.  It’s the thing that leads people to dropping out and letting their journey end as a self-fulfilling prophecy.  You feel like you’re never going to learn this language, and so you stop, and really the only thing out there that will keep you from learning a language is to stop trying.  Embracing your mistakes and keeping your motivation up is about shifting your frame of reference to the big picture, recasting the moments of defeat as just part of the learning process.  If moments of defeat never happen, the discouragement they carry doesn’t have the same weight to it.

That’s all well and good, but sometimes you will just get knocked on your ass anyway.  There was no recasting Harry Potter as a moment of learning.  It was just too hard for me.  The only thing I could learn from it was that I wasn’t ready yet.  So, that was that, I lost.

In losing, I had to make a choice.  There are really only three options for what to do when beaten.  Give up, duke it out, or do something else.  The first option is definitely the worst one.  It’s what all that aforementioned advice is battling against, after all.  And while I admit that at times there is a certain amount of allure in it anyway (I’d have a lot of my free time back…), it was easy enough to discount.  So, down to two.

So, what do you do?  Do you duke it out, or do something else?  The book was over my head, but it was not that over my head.  I hit a similar wall with El Principito in the early going and nearly gave up on it, but wrapped up my knuckles and punched my way through the first couple chapters until the book gave in.  It remained difficult and frustrating, but rather than it beating me, I was beating it.  I knew it would probably work out the same this time around, too.  On the other hand, it wasn’t like giving up meant the book would burst into flames, I could always come back to it, same as what happened with My Little Pony.  I resumed watching that at the same time Harry Potter decked me in the face, and found that I could now follow it without transcripts: proof that coming back to it later would be viable, even if it meant a few more months of work in the meantime.

As it turned out, with hindsight I know that either option would have worked.  I ended up putting the book down and returning to Roald Dahl for The Fantastic Mr. Fox/El Superzorro (current winner for least favorite name translation).  It was both a few steps down in difficulty and also rather short, so it took just a few days to read.  Feeling bold, and also like my on-hand choice of books to move onto was slim, I then picked up Harry Potter and tried again, ready to duke it out this time.

Maybe I was just extra tired that day it beat me, or maybe I needed one other book under my belt before I was ready, because the wall was gone.  The book’s still more dense and more complex than anything I’ve read in Spanish, but I can follow it well enough.  Probably better than I followed El Principito within the first chapter.

Obviously not all walls can be broken in four days of reading about foxes stealing food, but there’s zero doubt in my mind that all walls will be broken.  Language learning is a slow and often frustrating process where the hardest part is never the writing system, or verb tenses, or noun cases, it’s just sticking with it.  Discouragement is the final boss, not because it springs forth from a single event and delivers a decisive blow that ends your language learning, but rather because it’s always there.  It’s there in your head every day, waxing and waning in strength based on any number of things like your mood or how hard what you’re doing at the moment is, wearing you down.  And unlike most final bosses, there’s no finishing blow you can deliver, then get your ending where you save the princess and kiss the king.  You just gotta cope.

Next time I’m feeling that weight, I’m gonna do my best to remember that whatever wall it is I’m facing, if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that it will break.

Anyway, onto numbers.

Tuesday 6/19

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 100 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of El Superzorro, ~20 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, 1 episode of My Little Pony, ~40 minutes

Wednesday 6/20

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 100 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 4 chapters of El Superzorro, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of My Little Pony, ~40 minutes

Thursday 6/21

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1110 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 7 chapters of El Superzorro, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Magic School Bus Rides Again, ~40 minutes

Friday 6/22

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 380 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 4 chapters of El Superzorro, ~30 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, ~20 minutes

Saturday 6/23

  • Anki: 110 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 4120 XP earned, ~90 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of My Little Pony, ~40 minutes

Sunday 6/24

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1850 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, ~20 minutes

Monday 6/25

  • Anki: 110 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1542 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, ~20 minutes


  • Total Anki: 860 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 9202 XP, 450 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 10 tv episodes watched, 200 minutes
  • Total reading: 21 chapters read, 250 minutes
  • Total Time: 16 hours 10 minutes

So after complaining about a minor thing with Duolingo last week, as if in direct response, they implemented a new feature that allows you to test through levels on topics you’re already comfortable with.  This not only totally fixed my point of contention (though the stuff that I wouldn’t test out of because I don’t understand it well enough to be confident is still on the light side for content), it also made using the system more fun and engaging again in a way that it was at the start of using it.  And if the universe is gonna hand me things I complain about, something else that really grinds my gears is how I don’t win the lottery.  Worth a shot.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to utilize this new feature sparingly, so it doesn’t negatively impact the value of Duolingo in getting exposure and practice with specific concepts.  If I race through all that exposure just because I can brute force a test, the XP might look nice but I’m only damaging my learning.  I’ve spent a good chunk of time “tidying up” my tree by finishing off stuff I’m confident in, but I’m doing all the lessons on the vocab subjects and stuff that I’m less sure of, like subjunctive and imperative moods.

I’d also heard tale that it is worthwhile to fill in the “reverse tree,” if it’s available, in my case being the “Spanish speakers learning English,” tree.  I started it on a lark and ran through the ‘test out’ options to open it up a little.  Aside from the totally useless practice of listening comprehension in English it gave me, I think it will be rather worthwhile.  The primary Spanish tree is pretty robust, but the English by way of Spanish tree is quite a great deal bigger.  It likely will be a huge benefit.  Overall not going to worry about it until I’ve gotten everything I can out of the main tree.

Also, I tried out the Netflix original reboot of Magic School Bus, and…it’s bad, yo.  Spanish or English couldn’t salvage that mess.  Won’t be showing up on these blogs again, I don’t think.

Anyway, another pretty solid week, especially considering the near catastrophe at the start of it.  This marks the end of the first full month of tracking through this blog.  Overall, I’m happy with both my progress and with the choice to track all of this.  Here’s looking forward to another month of learning.

That’s it for now.  TTFN.

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