What I Know Now About Starting

As I round the first year of this language project, I’m feeling pretty good about where I’m at.  My reading ability is at a high level and I’m continuing to feel improvements, with my listening ability catching up at a steady pace.  My output abilities are still left rather undeveloped, but more and more expressions and ideas in Spanish are popping into my head without any underlying effort, so I feel like those things can develop quickly when I’m ready to really work on them.  I feel like at this point if I had to survive in only Spanish, I would be able to, which feels like a pretty good place to be inside of a single year of study.  I spent multiple years of high school and didn’t get nearly as far or as comfortable with Spanish through formal instruction, and while I don’t feel like I’m “done,” or in the home stretch of how far I want to take my level in Spanish in this focused way, I feel like I’ve progressed a respectable amount inside the timetable.

That said, I feel like I’ve made some mistakes and missteps in the past year, in how I’ve spent my time and what things I tried to focus on at different stages.  I spent a long time languishing inside of a Rosetta Stone program, bashing my head against the boredom of it and letting my procrastination habits stretch things out, and a long time focusing on things that were helpful at one point but came along with diminishing returns that I ignored for too long.  I got through the year with results I’m proud of, but I can’t help but feel like if I had a chance to redo that year, knowing what I know now as far as how to approach language learning, I’d be even further along.

That hard won experience may come in handy for me later, if by chance when I’m happy with my Spanish level I decide I want to learn a third language on top of that and start the process over.  It also might come in handy for someone else, who is about to try and learn a language on their own and is unsure where to start.  And so, to crystalize some of the thoughts and ideas I have on the subject into more actionable steps for my future self, and for any curious onlookers looking for advice, here is how I would approach starting in on a language journey from nothing.  I have never claimed to be an expert on language learning, so this is all general advice from an amateur who’s done this once and knows what mistakes he made that ought to be avoided or mitigated as much as possible.

Step one: focus on the basics as comprehensively as possible for as little time as possible.

At the very beginning, with nothing but an interest and maybe a handful of random vocabulary, there is a tremendous amount of unknown to stare down with a new language, and those things make it very, very hard to jump straight into absorbing comprehensible input.  You hear stories all the time from people who wanted to learn a language and decided to sit down with something like Lord of the Rings and a dictionary, looking up word-by-word and hoping that they’ll start picking things up after a few days.  That stuff doesn’t work, because there is just too much for it to possibly be bearable.

Things need to start small.  You need to get a hold on how the language functions in general, what sentences look and feel like, what parts of it mechanically do what, and start cultivating a modest vocabulary of the simplest building-block words.  Without the beginnings of a foundation, there’s no place for that new information from a book like Lord of the Rings to end up sticking in your head, it’s just a spray of formless, contextless information.

For this, if there was a Duolingo tree for the language I was learning, it would be my first stop.  That is colored by my previous experience with Duolingo.  I know that I find it an enjoyable program to use (which is very, very important; it would lose basically all of its utility if one found it unenjoyable), and it covers a lot of bases in introducing the real nitty gritty of the way the language works on the simplest of levels, without getting bogged down in the academics of the language.

Which leads to the latter part of the step, getting through the ultra-basics in as little time as possible.  Stuff like Duolingo or alternatives, like Babbel, or a well-constructed SRS/Anki deck, a textbook, or even tutoring lessons are there to serve a very important purpose of getting you to a point where you can grasp the way the language works.  You don’t need all the vocab, you don’t need all the rules, and you don’t need full, academic explanations of the grammar, you just need enough of a skeleton to start hanging the meat of the language off of later.

This was my big stumbling block with learning Spanish, because I stayed on this stage, and only this stage, for far too long.  Part of that was the fault of Rosetta Stone, which while filling this role, is far too slowly paced to be worthwhile.  Rosetta Stone is built around an idea of getting every bit of vocabulary hammered into your brain as you go through it, with lots and lots of repetition of a very small number of things, with heavy penalties for failure and lots and lots of review.  It ends up being a boring slog, and while the information in it probably does end up sticking well, you’d get that information to stick without all that slow boringness.  I was also reluctant to move onto step two, thinking it would be harder than it was and feeling frustrated by the gaps that I had, when in reality I would have progressed so much faster and more smoothly if I had just …

Step two: start reading and listening to real versions of the language as quickly as it starts to be comprehensible.

It goes a little without saying that I follow the Input-Based language acquisition method, which means getting input.  This can be pretty tough at first, because when you have very little that you know, there’s very little that you understand, and worse yet, very little that’s particularly interesting.  There isn’t much to be done about the last part of that until you have enough of a grasp of the new language to tackle more interesting things, but there are things that can be tackled at a really low level.

Dr. Seuss books are a great place to start, as well as other picture books aimed at really little kids that have only a tiny amount of vocabulary.  Those things can be a bit expensive to get, but there are some sources out there, like the International Children’s Library, which offers a ton of picture books in a variety of languages for free.  There are also lots of television shows that are aimed very young, stuff like Blue’s Clues or Sesame Street, and some Netflix originals (I have a soft spot for Puffin Rock), to start developing an ear for the language when spoken aloud and begin picking up more understanding and vocabulary.

At the early going it can be a pretty monumental task to get through a picture book if you don’t have enough vocab to really follow it, and there can be chunks of television shows where about all the understanding you get is from the context, but it’s all a piling on, snowball effect.  The best course of action is to take things slow, put the focus on those sources of learning over the basic things like Duolingo, don’t get frustrated over not understanding everything (or even most things), and trust that the knowledge will accumulate over time.  Repeating stuff is also helpful, but only if it doesn’t feel like a chore.

In addition to taking too long to get to this step, I was struck hard by frustration when going through it.  I would read a picture book, feeling annoyed by every word I didn’t know, and then reread it and get angry at myself when there were words that I’d forgotten.  I felt like it was taking too long, and that I was probably getting more out of fiddling around on Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, but really the turning point in my progression came after I got over that and eventually …

Step three: keep adding harder stuff until you can get to full blown native content.

What the native content is isn’t important, the important thing is getting yourself up to the point where you can start going through large quantities of content.  It should start out simple, with things like children’s novels.  Stuff like Roald Dahl’s works, or The Wizard of Oz, or Captain Underpants.  A lot of the new vocabulary won’t stick right away from them, but so long as the sentences are decipherable and the stories can make sense without needing to look up every other word so you can get invested in the reading, things really can start snowballing.

TV and movies can be slowly stepped up at the same time, but the comprehension level is going to be lagging behind compared to reading.  Start out with captions if the language is hard for you to parse out into individual words, but try to not use them as too much of a crutch.  It’s better to listen to things you can understand most or all the way then it is to end up reading the lines and only half-hearing the dialogue, as far as getting something out of the listening-specific practice.

Conversely, if reading gives you a hard time and you find it boring or a chore, embrace movies and shows with captions early.  I think it’s a little harder to pull new information from visual media than it is from written, but that’s me.  I’ve always been very engaged with reading and find it one of the most enjoyable ways to spend my time, but if you’re a movie buff or a big fan of sitcoms, go whole hog into that, because enjoying yourself is the most important part of this step.  Enjoy yourself and absorb as much content as possible.

This step is about where I started blogging, and it’s really where my comfort and ability began to grow and strengthen more quickly.  This is, I think, the real threshold toward developing in a language, where you’re at a point that you can actually sink your teeth into things.  It’s a shame, too, because from what I remember of the three years of high school Spanish I took, I was left at a point where I couldn’t even think about reading something like Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate, let alone the sort of things I’m reading now after all three years, let alone one.  And I don’t think I’m alone in that, from what I’ve seen of how a lot of people take to language learning.

Everything gets tied up in the basics, and in perfecting them, but those explanations and the perfection don’t really do much for you when you can’t understand anything you see or hear and have no tools for saying anything beyond the canned phrases that have been drilled “perfectly” into you.  And the rules of perfection don’t matter when after enough exposure you start understanding them on an intuitive level, to where the explanations aren’t telling you anything new but rather just giving a name to a rule you already understand.  That’s the point where learning actually happens.

Well then, let’s get into this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 11/20

  • Anki: 80 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of American Gods, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of She-Ra, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 11/21

  • Anki: 60 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of American Gods, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of She-Ra, 1 episode of Disenchantment, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 11/22

  • Anki: 80 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of American Gods, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of She-Ra, 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~75 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 11/23

  • Anki: 60 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of American Gods, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of She-Ra, 1 episode of Puffin Rock, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 11/24

  • Anki: 60 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of American Gods, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of She-Ra, 1 episode of Wakfu, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 11/25

  • Anki: 70 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of American Gods, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of She-Ra, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 11/26

  • Anki: 60 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 1.5 chapters of American Gods, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of She-Ra, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Anki: 460 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 1400 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 14 tv episodes and 7 YouTube episodes watched, 420 minutes
  • Total reading: 9.5 chapters read, 590 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 30 minutes

Overall, a nice and solid week.  I will, barring something crazy happening, be finishing American Gods on the day this blog goes up, and then be starting in on one of the other books I have lying around.  Probably Fahrenheit 451 first, as it should be a fast read and I’d like to go something quick as a change of pace compared to the relatively long time it’s taken to go through American Gods.  Despite it being a bit on the long side, I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit.  I’m tempted to get ahold of the pseudo-sequel, Anansi Boys, in Spanish and read that at some point, but we’ll see.

I’m nearly out of She-Ra, which has become a new favorite as the season has gone on, and I will be sad when I’m out of it.  I checked out Wakfu this week, and boy, did I ever hate that, so it won’t be showing up again, I don’t think.  I’ll find something else to add on soon.  One of the YouTube channels I follow in English, Binging with Babish, recently started putting out Spanish-dubbed version of his videos, so those might show up here and there, too.

I still haven’t done much or given much thought towards working at speaking aloud with people, but at this point I’m not really stressing it.  I’m feeling like the more I read and watch, the more things are solidifying in my head, and that if I work at what I’m doing now for long enough I’ll hit a point where speaking will be something that’s easy to pick up.  I’m already significantly better at speaking than I used to be, without really any practice.

Well, let’s finish up November.  TTFN.

2 thoughts on “What I Know Now About Starting

  1. Is it wrong that I want you to put off speaking as long as possible? I’m incredibly fascinated by the idea of someone just putting in hour after hour of input consistently and then one day being able to speak coherently. The more I read about comprehensible input the more I wonder about that transition from input to output—the way it’s described is often vague. If a person puts in 1-2k hours of pure progressive input (with some reading out loud to develop pronunciation, which you seem to do) what happens when they transition to speaking? When they’re floundering for a phrase or a word do they instinctually choose the correct way of expressing themselves? Do they more effortlessly mimic the grammatical patterns of the new language? Is there an initial period of struggle and frustation with constructing the language followed by a very rapid increase in fluency as words and phrases become “activated?” Or is it like a dam breaking and it just comes pouring out in a rush?

    Before you start speaking regularly with a tutor or language exchange could you list how many total hours you’ve put into Spanish since becoming serious about it? Or even record some of the audio from it (I know that might be too wierd, but consider doing it for SCIENCE)? I’m far along enough in my Spanish now to see light at the end of the tunnel and one day I’d like to move and begin to learn Italian to a conversational level. I think I’d like to try your approach when it comes to learning a third language.

    I’ve always put in consistent work on my output through regular iTalki lessons, but I often wonder if my occasional stumbling through conversations leads me to rely on understandable, but incorrectly constructed, phrases and ways of expressing myself. I also wonder how often my Spanish mirrors English in a way that makes it sound unnatural. I try to use an SRS program to work on that (for example, I find it unnatural to use llevar to express time) by memorizing and recalling sentences that use grammatical constructions I find odd but in the midst of a conversation I think I tend to slip back into using expresssions that make more sense to people who are native English speakers.

    Anyway, I find your blog motivating. I’ve been reading in Spanish daily as a result of seeing how quickly you churn through books (I’m working through Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson right now) and I’ve seen many of the Netflix shows you’ve mentioned (I watched Castlevania twice recently—once with subtitles and once without). If you’re looking for some native content that’s good I strongly recommend Club De Cuervos on Netflix—it’s hilarious and well-acted and plotted. For “extra” Spanish you can even turn on audio narration, which doesn’t show subtitles, obviously, and still have the subtitles for dialogue (which I needed due to all the slang—“no mames, guey!”).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Duran,

      To be honest, I kind of am interested in putting it off as long as possible, too. I remember reading (or hearing in a talk, I don’t remember) an account of a person who was born with physical disabilities leaving them totally unable to communicate for a long stretch of their life, but during that time they were talked to by their family, shown television, read to, etc., and when technology came along to where they COULD communicate through some form of a typing rig despite their disabilities, they already knew English (or whatever their family’s native language is, I’m unclear) from that exposure and didn’t have to “learn” anything, just how to use the machine. Which to me says that someone pretty much could just one day start speaking from nothing, if they’ve already learned the language through input.

      In truth, though, I do end up using Spanish all the time in bits and pieces, because it’s kind of hard not to. I end up talking to my cats in Spanish all the time just because I can, and I’ll say random, disconnected sentences to myself that are bouncing around in my head (something else I’ve read an article on, which is called the Language Din). I think it’s sort of a natural part of engaging with a language to play with it and test it out here and there. I can’t really log that sort of practice, though, because there’s no real way to time it, and also it isn’t particularly focused or intentional.

      As for how many hours I’ve put in, I’m afraid I have no idea how much I spent in the time leading up to starting these blogs. I could barely even hazard a guess from what I know of my logged time since then, but it wouldn’t even be a particularly informed guess. MAYBE 100 hours? And I have no idea if I’m selling things short or long with that, I know I was wildly inconsistent the first several months and was also spending less time on it. So far on this blog I’ve logged about 322 hours of time, not yet counting the time spent in November.

      I may end up making a recording of myself saying something or other in Spanish before I start in on online tutoring, that might be fun to have as a point of comparison. In fact, I think I probably will. And I’m glad you’re finding these motivating, they’re motivating for ME already, so it’s good that I’m not alone in that. 😀 And I’ll check out Club de Cuervos, I just finished She-Ra today and will need new stuff to watch.


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