Reading in a Foreign Language Vs. Reading in one of MY Languages

There’s been an aspect of language learning that I’ve been worrying about in a low-grade way for a long time now, because it’s a common concern/idea that gets bandied about when the subject of language learning comes up, related to the age you are when you start learning a language.  It’s commonly said that it’s much easier to learn a language as a child, that if you’re over a certain age you’ll always have an accent or not be able to get your ability up past a certain level, that you’ll be stuck in a place where you’ll always stumble through the language a bit because you need to actively translate your thoughts from your native language into the new language before being able to use it.  There are plenty of counterarguments to this, not the least of which being that it’s all more or less an excuse mill for not doing something that’s hard to do, but it’s easy to worry about it anyway, especially that last part of it.

For a long stretch of feeling myself improve day by day, as things I worked on got easier and my comprehension jumped up and up, as I got more confident that this project was totally possible, I’ve had lingering doubts about whether or not I’d ever be in a place where when using Spanish I wouldn’t have to translate things in my head from one language to the other, because ultimately, that’s exactly what I have been getting better at doing.

Most of that improvement has been in the form or recall speed, where I recognized a word’s meaning faster, so the translation became more and more passive.  I think people have a wrong idea about what’s meant by ‘translating in your head,’ and think it’s something more severe than it actually is.  They have the image of, say, reading a sentence word by word, thinking about what those words are, converting them from one language to another, and then putting those words together in order to figure out what it means, like they’re decoding a cipher.  And, well, if that’s how reading something is for you, it is too advanced and you need to jump back a few steps to get a better grasp on the language, because it’s a lot less of an ordeal than that.

Instead, it’s more that as you read the words, you are instantly translating them as you see them, and once you’ve finished you more or less have that whole sentence in your head in your native language.  “Words” is probably the wrong unit of measure, mind you, it’s more like you pick up sentence fragments and auto-translate, but still, the basic idea is you read in one language and understand it in your native one.

Which isn’t the end of the world to be the final result from learning a new language, I’ve been doing that for months now and am fast enough at it that I can listen to a pretty wide range of samples of Spanish and be able to follow it at speed, so it wouldn’t be a crippling handicap.  If I could get my speed up to where I could comfortably follow the hardest things I listen to and have a close to perfect level of instant-comprehension, I’d still be very satisfied with that result.  It would just be nice for it to extend further than that, and I’ve had enough glimpses of the other side of the gap over these months that I can see the difference.

So, I said in a blog quite a while ago that I had started thinking in Spanish to a limited scope.  That specific limited scope is something in language learning that’s called The Din, which is basically a state of thought where your brain sort of spouts word-salad at itself like it’s a processor trying to compile new code, and you find yourself having bits of sentences and words jump into your thoughts out of nowhere.  It wasn’t really a conscious process, but it was indeed me thinking in Spanish.

Additionally, there are a number of the most basic words where the meaning is so ingrained and so understood, that there wasn’t a process of translating back to English, because those Spanish words were already wired in my brain to the core understanding of what those things are, rather than to a an English word which I then had a mental definition of.  Stuff like when I heard the word manzana, what popped into my head was the image of an apple, the smell, the taste, specific memories of apples, those sorts of things, rather than the word “apple.”  At that point, the whole middleman of translation is gone because those words were just simply understood.

I’m talking about all of this in the past tense, because I’ve been noticing as time’s gone on that there has been a very gradual but steady conversion of more and more words and phrases to the same level of root understanding as manzana (‘root,’ geddit?) as I get more exposure to the language.  Like a lot of things on this journey, it would have been much more satisfying if all at once it changed over, like someone flipped a switch in my brain from one language to the other, but life doesn’t actually work like that.  Instead, I’ve just been noticing more and more often reading or hearing a phrase or sentence and just knowing what it means innately, and if I then wanted to consider that meaning in English, I would have to make the effort to think about the idea in English specifically.

It’s been especially noticeable this week, because I went and impulse bought a book called Yo No Soy tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana from a Barnes and Noble, which is a YA novel that is several steps down in difficulty from the books I’ve been reading lately.  As a result, there isn’t a ton of unknown vocabulary in it, but instead is very followable.  In fact, as I’m reading it, I feel I’m not spending very much time at all working through it in English in my brain.  It isn’t entirely a seamless lack of brain-translation, but overall it has a different flavor to it than reading other books has had for me.  This whole thing feels like a transition between reading in a foreign language, to reading in one of my languages.

I’m still iffy on whether or not it’s possible for me to get to a point where my internal monologue functions in Spanish as well as English, but it certainly seems more possible than it used to, and it feels like it’s all a matter of time and degree.  I can picture getting to a point where I’ll be able to speak and write with the same instant-translation ease as reading has mostly been for me, but it’s a lot harder to consider doing that without my current “substrate” of English lying underneath, where I’d formulate the idea of what I wanted to say in English and then more or less effortlessly convert that to Spanish as I spoke.  If instead I could operate entirely inside of concepts and ideas formulated in Spanish from the get-go, I’d be happier, but it’s hard to know if that’s even reachable.  Time will tell, I suppose.

De todos modos, let’s take a look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 12/04

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 60 pages of El Alquimista, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 12/05

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 50 pages of El Alquimista, ~70 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, ~130 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 12/06

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 60 pages of El Alquimista, 1 chapter of Yo No Soy tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Kulipari: Dream Walker, 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 12/07

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Yo No Soy tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, 1 episode of Kulipari: Dream Walker, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 12/08

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 4 chapters of Yo No Soy tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Hero Mask, 1 episode of Kulipari: Dream Walker, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 12/09

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 5 chapters of Yo No Soy tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Hero Mask, 1 episode of Kulipari: Dream Walker, 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 12/10

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 4 chapters of Yo No Soy tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Hero Mask, 1 episode of Kulipari: Dream Walker, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 1400 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 12 tv episodes, 1 movie, and 4 YouTube episodes watched, 490 minutes
  • Total reading: 16 chapters and 160 pages read, 580 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 20 minutes

Another solid week of progress.  I decided that I ought to walk the walk after the big reflection period last week, so when I had some extra time, I opted for watching a movie with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I enjoyed quite a bit.  I don’t know how often I’ll find myself able to do that sort of thing, but I’m going to keep trying to do it when I can.  I am still finding it sort of hard to curate a list of movies on Netflix that I’m both interested in watching at a given time and that are also available in Spanish, so there’s an extra wrinkle to it.

Part of my problem right now with my watching/listening time is picking stuff to watch, because I’m kind of in-between having a show that I’m really set on watching through, like I was with She-Ra, and a few other shows before that.  I have a sort of wealth of shows to choose from, but nothing that’s jumping out and grabbing me hard.  I’ve kept going with Kulipari, which I’ve settled in on liking okay but not loving, and this week I started in on Hero Mask, which I’m not positive I’ll be finishing.  Part of me wishes that one of the old sitcoms that I liked, like Seinfeld or Roseanne was available with a Spanish dub, and there was a way to set it to watch an episode at random, like I was watching something in syndication.  That would be a neat feature to have, but I doubt Netflix would ever set something up for a play-at-random approach to picking episodes.  They’re all about the binge-in-order model.

I finished El Alquimista this week, which I really liked overall.  It reminded me a lot of a book called Jitterbug Perfume, one of my all-time favorites, which I have been trying to track down in Spanish, but with no success so far.  The current book, Yo No Soy tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana, is also treating me rather well.  The subject matter is highlighting in an interesting way that thing I talked about a while ago of how a translation can change the verisimilitude of a story.

The main character is the daughter of Mexican immigrants living in Chicago, so the subject of speaking English versus Spanish comes up pretty often.  The main character, Julia, is a little embarrassed using Spanish because she doesn’t have as good a vocabulary in it as she does English (which I feel so hard, Julia, seriously), and the book makes mention of how she knows her folks don’t understand English super well so she can sort of use it when on the phone as a way of talking around them and the like.  Which, of course, is a bit of a brain-bending thing when the book is then written entirely in Spanish.  It’s a case where the work feels very front and center that it is a book that is in English, and I am reading a translation of that language.

Anyway, it’s going well, but I’m nearing the end of it and I’m still waiting on Ubik to arrive in the mail.  I’m hoping it didn’t get lost or something, because I am about to be super out of books to read here soon.  Might have to panic-buy something right away if it doesn’t show up in the next few days.

Well, onward to next week.  TTFN.

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