The Starting Line Mirage

There’s this thing that a lot of people do to themselves when setting goals that leads to a self-defeating cycle.  They don’t actually set a goal at all and leave their plans nebulous.  This causes a whole host of problems, first and foremost being that it’s difficult to come up with a plan for how to get somewhere, when you’re unsure on where that somewhere is.  Big, undefined things with unclear steps and hidden complexity are also naturally kind of icky to think about, so they have a tendency to scare people away from even starting to work towards them.  This is a trap.  It’s like the logical fallacy of shifting the goalposts, where one group redefines the goal mid-race to negate the achievements of another group, except that the game has a chance of never starting and the only person playing it is you.

Considering the level of vagueness I used to define my goals with Spanish at the start of this blog, it would be easy to assume that this has been a big problem for me.  And it’s true that my ultimate goals are rather vague, which is due to the fact that I’ve never really done this before.  I don’t know what being “done” with Spanish would mean, as I don’t have the experience to have a point of comparison, and I am a little suspicious of the few “official tests” of fluency, like the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.  Not to say that I think they’re wrong or anything, just that I have heard conflicting ideas about what the levels for the CEFR mean.  Some say that C2 is fully fluent, while others say B2 is, and still more claim that the scale doesn’t actually reach fully fluent, with the top end of C2 being closer to “fully competent” than anything else.  To say nothing of the fact that “fully fluent” definitely means different things to different people.

As such, I am hesitant to stake a finish line at C2 and discover that I’m not anywhere close to where I want to be at the point where I’m “done.”  Conversely, I also don’t want to get to what would test as B2 and find myself totally satisfied with my level, but yet still be ages away from hitting the overkill level of C2, and be left feeling torn between dragging my feet through focused and intense learning or “failing” at my goal, at least on paper.  Neither option is appealing, and it is far more likely for my personal finish line to be somewhere along the scale in either of those directions than it is to be perfectly at ‘C2.’  But at the same time, I wouldn’t know where on that scale it would go, nor how to go about figuring that out.

So, I’ve left my finish line vague, out of inexperience, ignorance, and caution, but that has not left me without a plan or with an icky sense of hidden complexity.  The final goal is hazy, but I’ve been setting myself concrete, plannable, achievable goals from the beginning.  I don’t have any experience with language learning, but I do have experience working through projects that have unclear finish lines.  In the absence of the big picture, it all comes down to the little steps, which I can set, follow, and achieve, one at a time, and the final step can figure itself out once I get close enough to really understand it.  The goalposts can shift because they’re designed to shift, and instead of running a marathon towards a point I can’t see on the horizon, I’m running a series of relay races.  The relays are quick and easy, and as I hand my baton off to myself, the next leg is just as clear.  The only part of it that isn’t clear is that I’m just not sure how many legs there actually are.

Curiously, though, there is an entirely different way I find myself falling into this trap, consistently and subconsciously, but it doesn’t have to do with the finish line.  It has to do with the starting line.  As I said, one of the reasons that defining my end point is difficult is due to ignorance; I just don’t know all of the things that I don’t know.  I know a language, obviously, but English is basically a map without reference points, so there’s a mountain of guesswork trying to define a concept like “fluency.”  Well, that ignorance goes both ways, because there’s a mountain of guesswork trying to define my original starting point.

I touched on this a little in the introductory blog, but I didn’t start in on this project with zero knowledge of Spanish.  I’d taken a number of years of Spanish back in high school and I’ve grown up around a sizable population of Spanish speakers here in Denver, for one thing, but also there is quite a bit of Spanish that’s bled into American pop culture.  Phrases like me gusta, ¿cómo estás? mucho gusto, and a huge grab bag of random vocabulary like sí, bueno, hola, burrito, dinero, cerveza, and tons more are easily recognizable just from watching regular old American TV and, like, existing in this country.  Most of the high school stuff was so far gone from my head that it would be difficult to try and count any of it, but altogether my base position was blurry from the start.

The real problem is that my mental frame of reference for what the starting line had been keeps shifting on me.

It’s nice when going through something as slow and complicated as learning a language to look back and take stock of how far I’ve come already.  Especially with the end goal still too unclear to be looking forward and saying, “Almost there.”  Progress builds on top of progress and drives motivation, so it’s a natural habit for me when I’m frustrated or discouraged to try and couch things in the perspective of, “Look how far I’ve come, this is a minor setback at worst/I’ll be able to figure this thing out in no time/I wouldn’t want to give up now/maybe you’ll be proud of me now, dad,” which usually makes me feel more on top of things.  But it doesn’t work that well when I go to look at how far I’ve come and am left second-guessing that distance.

My starting point was hazy to begin with, and I’ve found that all throughout the journey I’ve been stumbling across things that I already knew.  And I don’t mean I knew it because I’d learned it recently, I mean stuff that I had down as part of my base level knowledge of the language, which I could just breeze by without any effort.  This happened a lot in the early goings, but it has kept happening, often deep into this journey.  Just this week I read the word pulmones and knew that it meant “lungs,” without needing to look it up and without having any recollection of coming across it and looking it up before.  The word was just in my head.

Though, that’s the thing, was it really in my head already?  It could have been, maybe it was there from high school and seeing it again was enough for me to remember what it meant.  More likely, I came across it weeks or months ago in another book, looked it up, and I just can’t remember doing that.  I don’t strictly remember looking up a lot of words that I’ve looked up, and the only reason pulmones stood out to me was because it’s a kind of rare-use word that I’d think that I’d remember coming across earlier.  Heck, maybe it was an entirely new word that I hadn’t come across before, but I knew that “pulmonary” in English meant something related to the lungs and the context made it immediately clear to the point where it felt like prior knowledge.

On the one hand, this sort of event feels very positive.  There are a lot of words that I know now when reading, I can go pages without needing to look things up, and I can read well enough now that I can forget that I’m reading at all, let alone in Spanish, and just become engrossed in the story.  It’s a great, accomplished feeling.  But on the other hand, looking back, would I have known pulmones a month ago?  Eight months ago?  Did I know it then?  Does everyone know it, is it a word like hola, where if I were to turn to someone and say, “That means lungs,” they’d look at me like I’m a condescending jackass and reply, “Well, duh.”?  What are all the words and phrases like that?  I don’t remember anymore beyond the simplest, clearest set of gimmies, like standard greetings, common foods, counting to ten, and catch-phrases from television shows and commercials.  Anything beyond that level is up for grabs.  Maybe it was from before the starting line, maybe it’s new.

And while I try to be realistic about things (pulmones is not gonna be a gimmie word that everyone knows, regardless of where I learned it), my natural proclivity is to rank things conservatively and give myself less credit; if something feels second-nature and effortless, the more likely it is to be a gimmie.  This was probably a very fair and very accurate way to view things eight months ago.  The thing is, the pool of stuff that feels second-nature and effortless grows bigger every day, and my gut reaction is to still think those things must be gimmies.

The starting line was already on shaky ground, and now it chases me as I go.  Always behind me—I don’t lie to myself that pessimistically—but not that far behind me, downplaying and discrediting my progress as nothing all that special.  I did just start after all, the flags are only a few feet back that way.  And hey, if I gave up now, it’s not like I got anywhere significant, so who cares?

This is the Starting Line Mirage.  It’s something I’ve experienced before, but it’s surprising how strong and insidious it is with this project in particular, and surprising that it’s having a negative effect.  Most of the time it distorts things in a positive direction.  You look back on yourself with rose tinted glasses and see yourself further along, more competent, more mature, and more put together than you actually were, and you quietly redraw your starting lines.  It takes a lot of practice and self-reflection to get good at recognizing those redraws and correcting them, and half the battle of that is even wanting to do it in the first place.  That problem isn’t here this time, but it’s harder than ever to correct since I don’t know where to properly place the lines.  Maybe it’ll get easier as it goes along, and maybe it will provide wisdom if I decide at some point to add a third language.  In the meantime, the best thing I can do is be alert and aware that it happens, reminding myself that I have come a long way, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.

All right, let’s get into the numbers for this week.

Tuesday 7/24

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1540 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of El Odio que Das, ~120 minutes

Wednesday 7/25

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1570 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Cámara Secreta, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Magic School Bus, ~60 minutes

Thursday 7/26

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1620 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Cámara Secreta, ~45 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Magic School Bus, ~60 minutes

Friday 7/27

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1480 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Cámara Secreta, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Magic School Bus, ~60 minutes

Saturday 7/28

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 890 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Cámara Secreta, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode, of Miraculous 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Magic School Bus, ~60 minutes

Sunday 7/29

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 168 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Cámara Secreta, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Magic School Bus, ~60 minutes

Monday 7/30

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 182 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Cámara Secreta, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of My Little Pony, ~40 minutes
  • Total Anki: 890 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 7,450 XP, 420 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 17 tv episodes watched, 340 minutes
  • Total reading: 15 chapters read, 445 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 15 minutes

This was a fantastic week.  I knew going into the reflection part of last week’s blog that what I really needed to do to try and fix my lack of watching/listening practice was come up with a concrete plan of action for how to do that instead of just wishing myself into doing it week to week, so I did that and started in on it.  Well, Tuesday I decided to get the rest of the way through El Odio que Das since I was pretty close to finishing it, but Wednesday I started in on it by adding a couple of shows to round out an hour or so of TV.  I added the original Magic School Bus, since I’d found that enjoyable when I tried it as a bit of something different, and a show I’ve never watched before that I’d heard was fun called Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir.  Aaaand…Miraculous is some crazy batshit nonsense, but I think I like it?  I dunno yet, it’s far too weird to know, but for now it’s in the block.

I very much enjoyed El Odio que Das and have zero regrets about reading it, but I am happy to be back aboard the Potter Train.  I’m going through La Cámara Secreta at a pretty brisk pace and expect to be onto El Prisionero de Azkaban by next blog.  Gonna need to be prudent and order El Cáliz de Fuego pretty soon, lest I run out again.

Also, it was long coming, but I ran my way through the new categories on Duolingo and thus am out of things to test out of.  In hindsight I’m a little disappointed with the change, as the new stuff was pretty much all beginner level topics.  After all was said and done I have five categories left that aren’t maxed to level five, and they’re all on level four.  Those five topics are the ones that I’m still struggling with, so there’s gonna be no more testing out, just daily lessons.  This means that XP balloon I’ve been riding is cratering back down to what it was a few weeks ago.  The time commitment is still the same, I’m just using that time for tiny chunks of XP instead.

Speaking of time, I’m unsure how sustainable a schedule like this week will be in the long run, as I happened into some extra free time on Thursday and Friday, which gave me the chance to have a lot of consistently heavy days in addition to boosting my energy level. You can see that I didn’t finish my TV block on Monday from lack of time, but that was mostly because I spent that time reading to finish a couple of extra-long chapters.   I don’t know if I’d spoken too soon with last week’s blog and three-ish hours per day is my new normal, or if something’s gonna give and I’ll end up sacrificing time from one of my focuses and bring the daily commitment back down to the two or so hour range (which at this point would likely be Duolingo, as I’ve basically squeezed that lemon dry).  Or maybe something entirely different than either of those options.  Time will tell.

Well, that’s it for this week.  TTFN.

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