Efficiency in Language Learning and What it Doesn’t Mean

A big topic of discussion when it comes to language learning is the goal of efficiency.  Efficiency comes in lots of forms for language learning, to varying effect.  It’s obviously something to strive for in general, because if you’re working hard, but on something that isn’t efficient, you’re going to have less to show for it in the same amount of time as someone working more efficiently.  It’s the principal reason I decided to run this four-week experiment I just wrapped up of devoting all my time to reading, not because I thought the other things I had been doing weren’t helpful at all, just that they might be less efficient uses of my time.

Outside of the general, there are lots of specifics at play as well, which in a variety of ways impact someone setting out to do something as complicated and far-reaching as learning a new language.  Many people have made a career out of giving advice on maximizing the use of one’s time in the day.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m far from perfect in that regard, I spread out my threeish hours of learning per day over the course of at least twelve hours, and only some of that is by design.  I could stand to work with better focus, and if I did, I could probably reclaim several hours that I otherwise waste, either for more learning or for doing other things.  I think that pretty much everybody would say that’s true about themselves, unless they are hardcore devoted to personal time-tracking.  And even then, they probably would say it, they’d just have a lot of raw data to back up their failings.

There is another side to efficiency when it comes to language learning advice that I’ve always been distrustful of, and as time has gone on that feeling’s gotten worse, and that’s with the idea of learning a super tiny horizontal slice of a language first.

This notion takes many forms, from word lists of the most often used verbs, to drills of canned phrases, where the concept is to really streamline the things you learn to a pinpoint of the things that will be the most “useful” to know.  Often times, the advice comes with the suggestion of personalizing the list, with words that relate to you specifically, like words to describe your job, hobbies, etc.  On the surface, this idea has a lot going on for it.  If they’re the most common words or phrases you’re going to hear, see, and use in a language, they’re going to be the most important to learn.  Getting them into your head and getting lots of practice saying them will give you a jumpstart on the learning process, right?

I’ve been distrustful of this idea from the start, because it always struck me as the Travel Phrasebook method of language learning.  By which I mean, it’s not learning a language at all.  I know what I think of when I’m picturing a tourist using a phrasebook for a language they don’t know, where the raw volume of their speaking voice substitutes for comfort and confidence in the language, and most importantly, the goal of the exchange is less communication than it is a transaction.  The tourist isn’t speaking to have a conversation, the tourist is speaking because they want something, and shouting a string of words they don’t really understand which they’ve been assured means the sentence they actually would like to say is the only means they have at their disposal for getting that something.

Why yes, the tourist I’m picturing is indeed an American wearing a fanny pack, why do you ask?

Now of course taking the time to memorize and drill yourself on the contents of what amounts to a Travel Phrasebook will both make a trip overseas easier and also make you come off as more thoughtful, but at the end of the day it’s the same variety of transactional communication.  You might not just be repeating the thing that’s written down slower and louder until you get what you want, but you are still equipped to deal with things to the same level.  Knowing those super common words and canned phrases isn’t going to make understanding the native-speaker responses you get any easier after all.

But that’s of course in the short-run, the bigger question is the long-run.  If you’re working on getting your level in a language up to a workable fluency, you can still start with the efficient high-volume words first.  Putting in that time at the start will pay off in the end, right?

Well, as I’ve gotten more comfortable with Spanish and my understanding level has increased over these last 15 months, I can say right now that I don’t think there’s a benefit in the long-run, either, at least in the way I see the Travel Phrasebook language learning advice used.  And the reason for that is, well, you’re going to get plenty of practice with the high-volume words regardless of what you focus on, they’re the ones that show up that much.

That can sound a bit like I’m splitting hairs, but my point on it is that drills and memorization for those common words is both a lot of mental work and really rather hard, because you’re learning in a vacuum with no context.  Learning words that way is always a huge mental load that takes a long time to accomplish.  Doing that at the start for the words that are going to be the fastest at sticking in your head naturally is a total waste of effort.  Why go through the heavy drills to learn a word cold, when you’re going to know it cold anyway in a month or two just from reading and hearing it over and over again?

Of course, everyone needs to start somewhere, and the place where everything from Duolingo, to textbooks, to toddler-aimed tv shows are going to start is going to involve a lot of those high-volume words.  Also, at the very start, there is naturally going to end up being a lot more battering-it-in style memorization as you start to build a basic framework level of understanding, in order to really start learning anything.  But that step and that stage of learning should be handled and moved on from as quickly as possible, to the point where you’re getting new words and reinforcing the ones you know through authentic content, with a high enough quantity over a long enough period of time to where you’re memorizing words cold without even realizing you’re doing it.  At the point where you no longer are operating in the transactional Travel Phrasebook style and can start to actually communicate with other people, the memory of all those old common verb lists and words related to your job will be laughable.

Perhaps in the absence of something to guide your hand in the very beginning like Duolingo would, those ‘efficiency tools’ would do well as a good place to start.  But that’s all they should be, the place to start to where you’re able to take in the raw quantity of content that’s actually necessary to learn a new language.  Until then, you’re just shouting ¿Dónde está el baño, por favor? while wearing a straw sombrero with sunscreen on your nose.

Now then, let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 2/26

  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of La Luz Fantástica, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 2/27

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of La Luz Fantástica, ~190 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 2/28

  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of Ritos Iguales, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 3/01

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of Ritos Iguales, ~190 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 3/02

  • Duolingo: 90 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of Ritos Iguales, ~170 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 3/03

  • Duolingo: 80 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of Mort, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 3/04

  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of Mort, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 930 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 2 and 1/3 books read, 1,270 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 10 minutes

Wow, bats, those sure are some numbers, you might say.  And boy howdy!

Anyway, it was a pretty solid week to finish out this reading-only experiment.  As these Discworld books don’t have chapters and so far only the first one even bothered splitting things up into ‘parts,’ there’s been a general adjustment to my usual process of reading, with me paying closer attention to the percentage complete information on my kindle than I have been in the past, just to know where I’m even at in a given book.  They’ve also all been fairly uniform in length, so it’s been easy to divvy it up into even chunks.  I’m a little shaky on exactly how accurate my recorded times per day with reading actually are, but they’re pretty close, so I’m fine with listing them.

As I’m just finishing the experiment this week without having done any watching/listening to see how well I do, I can’t say for sure what next week is going to be like.  I’m feeling pretty good about the reading, and there isn’t an issue of burnout creeping up on me or anything, so I’d be happy to keep going with it, but if I find myself not getting any better at listening comprehension, I’m going to need to try and make further adjustments.

And as February came to its usual abrupt close this week, let’s also look at the numbers for the month as a whole.

  • Total Duolingo: 3,080 XP, 120 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 8 tv episodes, 3 OVAs, and 2 YouTube videos watched, 335 minutes
  • Total reading: 240 chapters, 4 parts, 1 and 1/3 whole books read, 4,905 minutes
  • Total Speaking: reading out loud, 840 minutes
  • Total Time: 89 hours 20 minutes

And here’s the breakdown for money spent.

  • Culpable, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $7.99
  • El Trono Blanco, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $5.99
  • Un Pequeño Favor, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $7.99
  • Renegado, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $6.55
  • Cambios, Fiction, Ebook, Nosolorol, $7.07
  • El Color de la Magia, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $4.99
  • La Luz Fantástica, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $4.99
  • Ritos Iguales, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $4.99
  • Netflix Subscription Standard HD Plan, Television and Movie Streaming, $10.99 per month, $10.99
  • Amount Spent on Fiction Books: $50.56
  • Amount Spent on Services: $10.99
  • Total Spent: $61.55

Overall a rather solid month, considering the relative shortness compared to other months.  Rather slim for some of the things I track, on account of the reading experiment, but the overall amount is still where I want it.  Total money spent is higher than normal, which I was expecting.  I read a lot of books this month.

And as it has become customary for me to include my writing totals with these month recaps, in February I wrote 16,824 words of fiction and 11,190 words for blogs, for a grand total of 28,014 words.  Which, despite the shortness of the month, was the highest month for writing since my NaNoWriMo challenge thing in November.  I haven’t changed any or my daily goals or anything, but I was very consistent and have overall been exceeding my daily target more often than not.  I’m hoping that trend continues into March.

On the topic of the month changing, I’ve been giving some thought to my yearly goal of striving, and while all of this reading has been pushing me in a certain regard (mainly because Discworld is written with slightly more complex language and has been a small step up overall in difficulty), I’m beginning to get a little unsatisfied with myself in the overall scheme of pushing forward.

I don’t usually spend much time worrying about things like what CEFR level I fit into, because I figure there’s no way to really test it aside from, y’know, actually testing it, and I don’t see a point in sitting a test to satisfy curiosity that I don’t even particularly have.  That said, I’m reasonably sure that I’m well entrenched in the intermediate levels and am beginning to move toward advanced, at least as far as my reading ability goes (listening ability remains to be seen tomorrow, but it’s not been lagging too far behind).  I’m feeling like this is the appropriate place to be working on output a bit more.

I can understand the vast majority of things I read without problems, and I think that spending some effort in “activating” my vocabulary would result in some quick growth into reasonable comfort and success with speaking to people.  The big part that’s been holding me back the last two months from trying to make that switch has been my listening comprehension, and I’m still reluctant to push forward until I’m more comfortable that I’ll be able to understand the other side of the conversation.  The hope is that I’ll see some positive results from my reading experiment and will have pushed through that barrier, at least enough to where it doesn’t feel like working on speaking is a waste of time.

Though even if I have mixed results and don’t notice much of a change, I think it’s maybe time for me to start pushing the output, anyway.  I haven’t given much thought to writing as an output method, and I know that if I were communicating through text I’d have a very solid grasp on the other side of the conversation.  Might be something worth looking into, if I could find the right sort of community space to join.  I dunno, worth a thought.

Anyway, that’ll do for this one.  TTFN.

7 thoughts on “Efficiency in Language Learning and What it Doesn’t Mean

  1. Out of curiosity, have you considered doing a month of listening/watching extensively without subtitles? It’d be very interesting if you did a day of listening to a wide range of shows/videos/podcasts while recording your initial response, then listening extensively for a month before finally revisiting the same materials.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have considered doing something like that, as possibly a follow-up to this reading thing, depending on the results of the reading. If after the month of reading I found myself not really any further along with my listening comprehension, it’d be worth trying it the other way around, you know?

      But I know how the reading experiment turned out, as I’ve spent about two hours today watching various shows, and (spoilers for next week’s blog) it was more of a success than I was really expecting. It isn’t quite to the point where I want it to be, but it’s much further along than it was a month ago, and the growth is much more substantial than it was over the month before. For now I’m going to keep up the focus on reading, because I have some really compelling evidence that it’s working for me.


  2. Really?? Wow, that’s awesome. I’ve been following along with this this experiment because I’m interested in doing a similar challenge. While I previously relied primarily on SRS/conversations to learn I realized last summer that I needed to incorporate reading into my daily studying or I’d never develop my vocabulary/grammar sense to a proficient level. One thing that’s holding me back from going on a reading binge is that I want to find some reading material that makes use of a lot of Mexican slang and informal dialogue. If I can find a handful of books that fit that profile I might just put all the SRS/iTalki/YouTube to the side for a month and see what an intense month of reading can do.

    When you read, do you tend to stop and use your kindle to look up the definition of unknown words? Or do you power through and wait for the word to “click” over time?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A little bit of both. If there’s a word that I don’t quite know what it means, but I understand what the sentence is saying without that word, I’ll just keep going instead of breaking the flow to look it up. But if I lose the thread because of something I don’t understand, I’ll look it up (and as I’m often either at my desk or out of wifi range, I look it up on my laptop/cell instead). I sometimes feel like I err on the side of not looking things up more often than I should, but it overall seems to be working for me.

      I’ve considered maybe picking up an additional thing to be reading at the same time as whatever book I’m on to go through more slowly and carefully, looking up everything that I’m not positive on and rereading several times until I don’t need to look anything up, but I’m not sure if doing that would be helpful or just annoy/frustrate me.

      And I totally get wanting to look for books that are written with Mexican audiences in mind. It seems like the vast majority of books translated into Spanish come out of Spain, and I always feel like I’m wasting my time every time I read something written in the vosotros form. I know that however far I take this right now, there’s going to be a learning curve for switching over to using culturally appropriate terminology with the people who actually speak Spanish around me. Of the books I’ve read, Yo No Soy tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana was translated for American Spanish speakers, and Nocturno de Chile was written in Chilean Spanish. I also know off the top of my head that Como Agua Para Chocolate was written by a Mexican Spanish speaker.

      It might be worth not looking for specific books, but rather looking for PUBLISHERS that are based in Mexico, and looking through their catalogs.for something that interests you. Might be a bit of trouble to get ahold of anything that way, but you’ll at least know that it was written and published with Mexican Spanish in mind.


  3. How do you think your language proficiency increases after just reading vs. vocab/textbooks (traditional ways)? This is an interesting experiment. I myself have shifted my focus from textbooks and studying for the language test to just reading fiction/magazines/newspapers and listening to the news. I find my vocabulary grows a bit more slowly but I do enjoy the reading aspect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s harder to measure the increase in proficiency from pure input, since there aren’t really any built in ways to track what it is you end up learning from the input, but in my experience it’s worked much better than the traditional studying methods. I took three years worth of Spanish classes in high school taught in the traditional way, where I didn’t learn very much, never really had a good grasp on the things I did learn, and ended up forgetting close to everything after I graduated, anyway. Using input learning almost exclusively over the past 15 months, I’m significantly further along than I ever got in high school, with a much stronger understanding of the things I do know.

      Liked by 1 person

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