Language Learning: Work or Play?

If you were to jump down to the numbers section for this week’s blog, you would see that last Saturday was rather abnormal for me.  I had the day that was unusually free and could spend it basically however I wanted to spend it, and it turns out that what I wanted to do was spend five hours reading Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix.  It wasn’t the only thing I did, I got some speaking practice in, watched one show, did my Anki reviews, and went through a couple of Duolingo lessons alongside the huge marathon of reading, in addition to all the not-Spanish-related activities of the strangely free day, but it was certainly the primary thing I did on Saturday.

It’s sort of funny to consider that for most people, spending five hours reading Harry Potter is normally a sign of intense, professional-level slacking off, but for me it was a good use of my time.  Of course, the thought of, ‘this is so much Spanish practice I’m getting in!’ was not at the front of my mind as it was going on.  I have a sort of complicated relationship with The Order of the Phoenix, compared to the rest of the series.  If I were to stack rank each entry against each other, Phoenix would end up near the middle.  It has a lot of problems, with its characters, with its length, with its plot-threads, and with some of the things that happen in it, to a point where it is definitely brought down to the middle of the pack for me.  But that said, I also find it possibly the most engaging book of the series to read, despite its problems.  Which was what was going through my mind on Saturday.  I didn’t want to put it down.  I was, in effect, goofing off.

Part of the conversation that circles around language learning is heavily concerned with all of this.  Can someone actually be learning anything when goofing off?  I think a lot of people rub up against that question uncomfortably.  It’s kind of the antithesis of most schools of thought on education.  Goofing off is what gets you in trouble in school, after all.  And I must admit, there is a voice in the back of my head that raises doubts over these methods; can it really be working if I’m enjoying myself, am I impeding my own progress by not being more focused and studious?  I think that’s a fairly common reaction to the notion, from teachers and from parents.

The other side of the coin, though, is that a lot of research shows that this is what actually works.  Led, focused instruction sessions with drills and vocabulary lists always show marginal improvements, while voluntary reading studies show heavy improvements, only occasionally overshadowed by TPRS methods, which are themselves just a slightly different delivery of what amounts to voluntary reading.  There is a strong suggestion that the reason why it works is because it’s goofing off, rather than in spite of that.  Since you’re having fun and are relaxed, your brain’s in a more susceptible frame of mind to absorb language than it is when you’re uptight and trying to focus.

When I first heard of input-based learning, I was highly suspicious of it because, frankly, it sounded too good to be true.  Early on in this journey before I started this blog, I did what I often do with subjects and hobbies that interest me: I nerded out and started reading everything I could on the subject itself.  When you dig into language learning, and input-based learning specifically, it becomes clear that it applies not only to learning a foreign language, but learning your first language.  And in its promises, it wasn’t really “too good to be true” at all.  It just stated that when learning one’s first language, you’re getting all the vocab, grammar, spelling, and elocution from comprehensible, compelling input, not from the classes that gave names to the concepts you absorbed naturally from reading.  And for learning a foreign language, there’s no get out of jail free promise on its face, it’s not offering some sort of magic bullet, instant shortcut where you can go from no knowledge to fully fluent in six weeks without needing to do a thing.  You still have to put in the time and the hours, you still need discipline and dedication, and you’re still going to struggle with it, it’s just a matter of what you’re doing and how you feel about those things as you’re doing them.  But it still felt too good to be true, because deep down, it’s what I’d always suspected was the way things worked, and I’ve learned to be suspicious of anyone telling me what I wanted to hear.

I don’t mean that, as I sat through those three years of Spanish in high school, I was convinced that they were teaching me incorrectly and I ought to be reading instead.  Honestly, at the time I just thought that learning another language was too hard and maybe my brain wasn’t equipped for it.  No, what I mean is that I’ve long held the belief that reading, and specifically reading fiction, was what actually taught me English, not any of the stuff in school.  I never minded English classes, and even liked them the most of any other classes I took in High School, but I was sure deep down that the schooling related to the mechanics and knowledge of the language were all just providing technical names to things that I already knew.  And the theories and research around input-based learning confirms all those suspicions.

So, I do my best to ignore that nagging worry that I shouldn’t be goofing off and always keep in mind that I ought to follow my whims.  Earlier it was binging Aggretsuko in Spanish, this week it was binging La Orden del Fénix.  I’ve been making a concerted effort to follow those random flights of fancy when they come, and will continue to do so going forward.  If only I had more days like last Saturday to do devote to Pro-level slacking and really get some good work done.

Mmkay, onto the numbers.

Tuesday 9/11

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 57 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 4 chapters of Harry Potter y el Cáliz de Fuego, ~120 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~20 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 9/12

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 56 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Cáliz de Fuego, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, 1 episode of No Hay Tos ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 9/13

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 50 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: Las Ruinas Circulares, 1 chapter of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~70 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Bojack Horseman, 1 episode of No Hay Tos ~50 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 9/14

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 80 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, 1 episode of No Hay Tos ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 9/15

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 70 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 7 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~300 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~20 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 9/16

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 80 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, 1 episode of No Hay Tos, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 9/17

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 60 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, 1 episode of No Hay Tos, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Anki: 940 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 453 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 12 tv episodes and 5 podcasts, 330 minutes
  • Total reading: 15 chapters read, 810 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 23 hours 40 minutes

Another great week.  In the same vein of following random flights of fancy, I felt like watching an episode of Puffin Rock on Sunday, even though I’ve already watched the show twice in Spanish at this point.  I might watch some more episodes of it here and there if the mood strikes me.

The reading out loud is getting easier, but it’s a slow-going process.  I’m trying to not expect too much out of myself, as I’m now at five or six total hours of time spent speaking Spanish, in comparison to the thousands of hours practice at English, and I don’t exactly sound like James Bond when I’m blathering about in that language.  There are a couple of Spanish phonemes that my mouth is utterly baffled by, usually involving the Spanish R when it’s in the middle of a word and coupled with another consonant.  I’ll get there eventually.

After barreling ahead as much as I have on La Orden del Fénix, it’s almost depressing how little of the way through the book I’ve gotten.  Though I have read more pages of it than there are pages total in the first or second of the series.  What can I say, it’s a thick book.

Well, that’ll do for this week.  TTFN.

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