Reevaluating Methods

At the start of the new year, I outlined some of my yearly themes that I’m keeping in mind, not resolutions per se, just general courses of action I’m trying to take for both this language project and my life in general.  The theme of The Year of Striving was the new one I added, with the idea of working toward pushing outside of my comfort zone with Spanish, because I am aware that I’ve put off working on actually speaking Spanish out of a sense of discomfort.  I’m a shy person normally, and actually speaking to other human beings can be a chore for me in the best conditions.  And speaking Spanish, even with a tutor who would be very supportive and understanding of my stumblings, could never be considered the best conditions.

With the goal in mind of pushing past that discomfort, I felt that I needed to finish putting in the groundwork first of getting my listening comprehension up to snuff.  It’s struck me as silly to worry too much about how clearly and accurately I can say something to someone, or whether I might be mistaken as a native speaker if my accent is good enough, if after having said the thing, I then couldn’t understand the response.

I can already understand a lot of what I listen to in Spanish, but in certain circumstances I get lost very easily.  This is no more apparent to me than when I overhear conversations in Spanish in real life.  I’m confident, and have been for a few months now, that if I were put in a position where I had to talk to someone in Spanish only, I’d be able to make it work.  I have a large enough vocabulary I could make myself understood, and if the other person were charitable enough to slow down for me like they were talking to a child, I’d get out the other side.  But while that’s true, well, I’m not in a position where I have to do that to get by.  If I was living in a country where Spanish was the primary language it would be another thing, but I don’t, I live in the US.

So since then, I’ve been fiddling with my studying goals to try and level up my listening comprehension skills.  I’ve upped the time spent on listening to even it out with my time spent reading, and I’ve put effort into choosing more complex shows to listen to.  I’ve been seeing a steady growth in my listening comprehension over time, as more shows that I couldn’t follow without subtitles, or could only get the gist of, grew easier to understand over time.  I have dozens of examples that I can think of for shows, where after some time away from listening to them, I’ve gone back and have been able to say, “Wow, that’s so much easier now.”  I have good days and bad days, but overall there has been a consistent uphill movement, and I have a specific hurdle in mind that I’m training for.  The show Club de Cuervos, a Netflix original that’s written and filmed in Mexico, is currently too hard for me to follow in more than snippets, at a difficulty that feels similar to my comprehension with the native conversations I sometimes overhear and fail to follow.  I think that once I’m at a point where I can comfortably follow the show, I’ll be able to comfortably follow most real life conversations I stumble across, too.  I don’t know how long it will take me to get my comprehension up to that level, but it’s what I’m aiming for.

Now having said all of that, it’s important for me to ask myself if my plan of attack for getting there is the most efficient way to go about it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I’d get there with what I’m doing now, but reflection and reevaluation are always good things to try and do when working on a project.

It seems rather intuitive to me that what I’m doing now is the best course of action to take: my ability to understand spoken Spanish needs to be improved, spending time listening to more and harder Spanish is what will improve it.  It seems right, and I have my own experience there backing me up with my traceable progress, so it hasn’t been something I’ve really given that much thought to lately.  But in the last few weeks, I read a couple of case histories covering people improving second language skills through extensive reading.  A common feature in them was a marked improvement in the subjects’ listening comprehension solely from reading, not from listening practice.  It wasn’t the only feature, the subjects reported improvement in a variety of areas, but the fact that the common theme of reading improved all of the subjects’ hearing abilities made me doubt my plan of attack, and I’m left second-guessing whether it wouldn’t be a better move to double-down on reading at the expense of pretty much all other activities I’m doing for language learning.

Maybe that steady improvement in comprehension I’ve noticed has been largely aided by all the reading I’ve been doing.  Maybe my decision to switch on and off my focus on reading vs. listening day to day is causing more harm than it is helping me.  Maybe the best course of action I could take would be to forget about listening to things at all for a while and throw all my eggs in the reading basket.

Which isn’t to say that I’m thinking that the listening work I’ve been doing has been worthless, or that it’s harming my learning or something.  I’m sure it’s helpful.  It’s input.  Comprehensible input is the key in all the studies to advance language ability, and the mountain of television I’ve watched is definitely that.  The question is if it’s as good a source of input as reading is, and those studies are making me think that it might not be.  Spending twenty minutes watching a show will give me plenty of dialogue to hear and understand, but in those same twenty minutes I’d be able to read far more words in a book.  I’ve been thinking that the listening practice has been good with helping me more quickly recognize the words that I already knew by giving me experience hearing them said out loud.  But maybe the reading has been helping me understand the words more automatically, so when I hear them there isn’t as much thinking about it that I have to do.

I’m considering running a bit of an experiment with myself.  Rather than keep on with what I have been doing, it might be interesting to set aside all of my watching time, pare down Duolingo to a five minute, keep-my-streak-going daily thing, and just muscle through a huge bulk of reading all at once.

If I did that, it would be with a plan to set aside most of my usual daily entertainment stuff, whether that’s English or Spanish, and burn through a ton of reading instead.  Which is something I’m well accustomed to doing in English, reading for six or so hours per day instead of the one and a half that’s pretty normal for me now, though it’s been a while since I’ve done that.  I’m confident I could without getting burned out or anything, it’d just mean putting some of my usual daily routine on hold.  In the past, that’s usually been for a few days while I got through whatever book I was devouring.  In this case, were I to do it, I’d be better served having a series of books to work through.  Not necessarily a book series mind you, just a pre-planned, pre-purchased collection of books to hammer my way through in short order.

I think it would be interesting to see, after spending, say, a month or so reading at a hardcore clip, what it would be like coming back to my usual listening things.  Most of what I’m watching these days is perfectly followable, to where I understand what’s being said and know what’s going on, but there are still plenty of gaps where I’ve just gotten enough of the gist to keep from getting lost, rather than knowing every word or sentence structure cold.  I’d be curious to see what could change from just reading alone.

Regardless, that’s all a hypothetical, I’m not really sure I’d have the time to do something like that.  I’ve already pared down a lot of my daily goof-off time in favor of this language project, so I’m really not sure how much blood I could squeeze from this stone.  I could say pretty confidently that I’d be able to transfer all the time I’m currently watching Spanish over to reading it instead, but beyond that I’m not so sure, at least in the long-term.  As I said, my experience of reading at that sort of rate is usually with individual books, which only tend to last a couple days at most.  I’m not sure how well I’d manage it over an extended period of time.  The last time I did anything like that was back when I read all of Harry Potter after the final book came out, and that was 12 years ago.

Either which way, I am giving it some serious thought.  I even have a book series in mind to attempt it with: I’ve read the first few Discworld books by Terry Pratchett already and have long meant to read the whole series, but never found the time to really work on it.  This would be a good excuse, and that series is very, very long, I’d be able to keep up a reading marathon with it for basically as long as I cared to.  I don’t know, still considering everything.  There’s a chance, considering those case studies, that even just eating up my watching time in favor of the reading might be worth it.

Well, let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 1/29

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 5 chapters of Latidos Mortales, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Violet Evergarden, 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 1/30

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 5 chapters of Latidos Mortales, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Violet Evergarden, 1 episode of Black Mirror, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 1/31

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 4 chapters of Latidos Mortales, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Violet Evergarden, 1 episode of Black Mirror, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~100 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 2/01

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 6 chapters of Latidos Mortales, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Hilda, 1 episode of Violet Evergarden, 1 episode of That ‘70s Show, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 2/02

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of Latidos Mortales, 4 chapters of Culpable, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Violet Evergarden, 2 Little Witch Academia OVAs, ~100 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 2/03

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 6 chapters of Culpable, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Violet Evergarden, 1 episode of That ‘70s Show, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 2/04

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Culpable, ~70 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 Violet Evergarden OVA, 1 episode of Black Mirror, ~80 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 1400 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 15 tv episodes, 3 OVAs, and 1 YouTube episode watched, 550 minutes
  • Total reading: 30 chapters read, 620 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 23 hours 0 minutes

No complaints from me about these numbers.  I even had a good day of it on Superbowl Sunday, though I didn’t get any fiction writing done then.  You can see I kind of aggressively finished Violet Evergarden this week, which was a rather heart-wrenching show.  I also tried out Black Mirror, watching the first short season, and I gotta say, I don’t really think it’s my thing.  Maybe I’ll come back to it, but eh.  I also tried Hilda again, which I was left a little cold on the first episode back when I first tried it, and the second episode didn’t fare much better.  I also discovered a few OVAs (Original Video Animations, it’s an anime thing) for Little Witch Academia and Violet Evergarden that rounded out some of my watch time.  Interestingly, the LWA OVAs predated the show, and it’s kind of apparent in some regards.  The show is better.  The OVAs were fun, though.

I finished Latidos Mortales and moved onto Culpable in The Dresden Files, which puts me at about the halfway mark for the series.  Though I haven’t yet found the last few books available in Spanish, so I might have to stop short in this reread.  This is a very vexing idea to me.  Hopefully I can find the last few books, even if that means coughing up a little extra cash to get some hardbacks or something.  I’m in a bit of a money squeeze at the moment, so that doesn’t exactly sound appetizing to me, either.  We’ll see.  The more I’ve thought over the idea of trying out the heavy-reading experiment this week, the more I’d like to try it, and it might be worth trying to get the rest of the books together sooner rather than later.  Also worth noting here, despite this being a week with more days focused on watching, I still ended up reading for longer, as a combination of chapters being less happy fitting into clean hour/half hour blocks and me not wanting to put books down.  Maybe I should just give in to my clear desire to read these books as quickly as I can.

Now let’s look at the numbers for all of January.

  • Total Duolingo: 6,200 XP, 930 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 73 tv episodes, 1 movie, and 8 YouTube videos watched, 2,090 minutes
  • Total reading: 164 chapters read, 2,870 minutes
  • Total Speaking: reading out loud, 930 minutes
  • Total Time: 98 hours 10 minutes

And here’s the breakdown for money spent.

  • El Caballero, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $3.24
  • Máscaras de Muerte, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $5.40
  • Derecho de Sangre, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $8.65
  • Latidos Mortales, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $6.49
  • Netflix Subscription Standard HD Plan, Television and Movie Streaming, $10.99 per month, $10.99
  • Amount Spent on Fiction Books: $23.78
  • Amount Spent on Services: $10.99
  • Total Spent: $34.77

So here we go, the best month so far, threatening to hit 100 hours instead of hovering around 90.  Not only was watch time much higher thanks to starting in on the extra focus, but reading time was also higher.  It’s those Dresden Files books, I swear.  The amount spent wasn’t too bad, either, considering me feeling like I was buying Ebooks left and right.

I’ve also made mention of how much writing I’ve gotten done in the month, since I started tracking that in November as part of my NaNoWriMo challenge, and January is a bit weird to look at on that front.  I wrote 14,449 words of fiction and 10,634 words of blogs, for a total of 25,083 words.  This is a bit lower than December, largely thanks to one fewer blog written inside the month of January than there was then, but also for reasons that make those numbers misleading.

I finished the novel I’d been working on since the NaNoWriMo challenge about midway through month and took a break for a few days.  After that, I picked up a different unfinished novel to work on for a while, but that second one was left in a much larger mess than the previous one had been.  As a result, there were several days that I didn’t really have word counts to record due to editing and shuffling things around.  Overall I’d say January was far more productive than December had been, just not in the raw number department.

Going forward into February, I’m expecting a somewhat meek month for no other reason than the missing days off the end.  There’s a chance it’ll look radically different if I decide to go whole-hog on reading over the other things, but otherwise, I feel pretty happy with how things are going right now.  No need to try and make any major adjustments, just need to see if I can maintain this level of dedication going forward.

Well, I think that’ll finish up this one, let’s have a good February.  TTFN.

4 thoughts on “Reevaluating Methods

  1. The idea of doubling down on reading is a really interesting one, and is something I’ve been thinking about myself to develop my formal vocabulary. The more I think about it though the more I can see some serious drawbacks using it as the primary or only means of language learning. I think listening helps with 3 aspects of language learning that most people struggle with: speed, accents, and street usage of the language.

    The reality is that when you read you’re able to go at a pace that feels comfortable to you, but only focused listening to native speakers forces you to digest the language at a natural tempo. Sometimes speakers go so quickly that words start to blur together—I occasionally have moments during iTalki lessons where I have to ask for my tutor to repeat herself only to realize that she was saying two words so quickly that I thought it was just a single word that I had never been exposed to.

    Accent is the next issue that extensive listening is better suited for addressing than reading. My reading skills in my native English, for example, are strong and have been developed over the course of thousands and thousands of pages of reading since I was a kid. That doesn’t mean I don’t find myself confused listening to certain British accents or a strong Scottish accent. I’m sure I could comprehend them more fully if I listened to shows featuring those accents, but I don’t, so sometimes I need to turn on subtitles during movies like Sean of the Dead (Sean has a coworker in that movie that is almost incomprehensible to me). In Spanish, I find that I can barely understand the Spanish spoken from people from Cuba, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic. Even listening with subtitles only shows me how what I’m seeing is not computing with what I’m hearing. Again, I feel like the only solution to that problem is more listening.

    Finally, there’s the street usage of language that differs from books to a very significant degree. The slang, the cursing, the tone, the shortcuts in language use (for example, porfa for por favor)—all of these make spoken language so much different than the more formal language of books and dubbed shows. It’s hard to find that style of language used extensively in books.

    Sure, a reading binge would probably have a lot of benefits—but I don’t know how helpful in addressing those three issues. You would probably be better able to understand news shows where the language is clear and grammatically similar to books, but I doubt it would help in understanding a show like Club De Cuervos, which is a great example of how the combination of speed, accents and informal uses of the language can all combine to suddenly make a B2 learner feel like they’re A1s wondering how to order a beer. I’ve plowed through that series—originally needing the subtitles for just about every single scene. I still have no idea what the hell Potro or Fede are saying (they’re Argentinian), but I’ve picked up on a lot of the slang that is dropped in every line of that show (chingon! no mames, güey!, etc) and definitely felt as though I understood much more of Season 4 without needing the subtitles as much. I actually want to rewatch the show from start to finish—not only is it amazing, but I feel like in terms of informal speech it’s the final boss of listening comprehension.

    Anyway, just my two cents 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those concerns were by and large the things that I had in my head for why listening comprehension practice was important on its own. I’ve been less directly concerned with slang, as I feel like slang is not only something that you’d get a large benefit of the doubt on when talking with a native speaker, but it’s also something that can be really culture and region-specific. Were I currently planning to live in a specific Spanish-speaking country, I’d probably make a focused effort to be learning and paying attention to the regional slang, but as it is right now it feels more like something that I’ll pick up as needed. The speed and accent thing, though, have definitely been a front and center concern that has driven a lot of the listening comprehension practice.

      But in saying that, as I’ve thought about it, I’m not sure that working on reading WOULDN’T do as much or more to help with either of those than listening does. The issue comes down to things like if the problem of having trouble separating words from each other when spoken at speed is driven by: a lack of experience hearing them spoken at that speed to where they sound wrong enough compared to what you were expecting that they become unintelligible, or by a shaky enough grasp on understanding to where it’s easy to lose the thread of the sentence, get overloaded with information all at once, and things blur together? I imagine the answer is both to different levels depending on the circumstance, but I feel like the stronger the listener’s grasp is on the latter, the easier it would be to more or less guess in cases of the former and be right. The same with accents to a point, where it’s more about learning the rules of the specific accent and how they change the way the language sounds, and then being able to apply those rules to the base of language knowledge you already have. I’d think in both cases that getting actual listening practice in is absolutely necessary for full fluency and competency, I’m just left wondering about the level of priority they should be given.

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  2. I was thinking about it and I think you’re right about how reading can boost your ability to comprehend spoken Spanish in regards to speed and preventing yourself from getting overwhelmed. When you do have that shaky grasp of words or phrases or sentences it does have a significant impact on comprehension—not just in that moment, but in the seconds afterwards when you’re trying to break down what you just heard.

    I was taking out the trash this afternoon and listening to a YouTube video in Spanish when the speaker used the phrase “mano a la obra”—I spent about 10 seconds figuring out the meaning from context and half-forgotten times I had heard it before. By the time I put it together I had missed out on the rest of what the speaker had been saying. I heard the words correctly—I just couldn’t parse the meaning quickly enough. Maybe after reading a dozen books or so I’ll have phrases like that so ingrained in my memory that recalling the meaning will be immediate, like when I hear the word cat in Spanish or hear someone say “uno, dos, tres.”

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