Reading-Only Experiment Postmortem

So after spending four weeks limiting my language study time to reading only, the big question I had left was how my listening comprehension fared from the experience.  This experiment was prompted by some case histories that I read, covering a variety of people at different levels of fluency in a second language who improved their abilities purely from extensive reading.  Those histories featured a commonality in that the subjects’ abilities improved across the board, while the effort put into it (which often wasn’t effort at all, rather just something they were doing for pleasure) was almost exclusively in reading.

I’ve always enjoyed reading a lot, and I’d been heavily weighing my time working on Spanish with reading, but I’d also devoted a significant amount of time to listening to it as well.  I operated under the assumption that the listening practice was necessary for improving my listening comprehension.  The thought process seemed logical to me: reading would help the most in new vocabulary acquisition and enforcing fundamentals, while listening practice would help the most in me getting used to the speed at which Spanish is spoken, and how it sounds in the context of people speaking it.  I figured both sides of the coin were as necessary as the other for really grasping the comprehension piece of knowing a language.

Well, those case histories suggested that thought process was wrong.  If, instead of needing practice to get used to a language delivered at a natural speed, a listener just needs a stronger grasp of understanding for that speed to not matter, then practice at listening is just another form of receiving input in a language.  And if that’s the case, is listening practice really worth it?

So then, I spent four weeks reading extensively, more or less doubling the amount of time per day I was spending on reading and neglecting everything else, barely listening to Spanish content at all and just plowing forward on reading as many books as I could.  At the start of this week, I spent a day watching a nice variety of shows that I’ve watched recently to see how I’ve come along in the listening department.  It’s all well and good to experiment with my learning, but if the results aren’t favorable, it’s worth taking a step back and reevaluating things, for the same reason I ran the experiment in the first place.  So, how did it go?

Better than I was expecting, honestly.

I set my expectations rather low, as my listening comprehension hasn’t been doing much growing up until the start of the experiment.  I’ve been noticing improvements over time, where I’d catch more and more of what was being said over the course of starting and finishing a show, and when I came back to something I hadn’t watched in a while, I often found them easier.  It was definitely always a slow burn, though, where only the simplest of content like Puffin Rock had become fully comprehensible, while everything else was just good enough for me to not get lost while watching.  And additionally, I’d had a benchmark for myself set with the show Club de Cuervos, a native Spanish show aimed at adults that I could mostly follow with subtitles, but which was totally incomprehensible to me without.  I’d spent a couple months trying to break through the barrier on that benchmark, going back and trying to watch it without subtitles every few weeks, and giving up after a few minutes.

On Monday, I watched episodes of She-Ra, Carmen Sandiego, Bojack Horseman, and Club de Cuervos.  I picked those four for specific reasons and watched them in that order.  She-Ra first, because it was a show I had watched and could mostly follow at the time, but hadn’t seen in a while.  I also wanted to start off with a bit of a softball, expecting myself to be able to handle it pretty well, maybe notice new stuff than I had the first time, and know right away if I’d just wasted my time for a month in case I didn’t notice much in the way of improvement.  Carmen Sandiego was next because, while I had understood it to a similar level as She-Ra, I finished it much more recently.  If I noticed an improvement with She-Ra, but not with Carmen Sandiego, I’d know that the improvement had come in the meantime instead of from the experiment.  Bojack Horseman after that, because it was a show that I’d watched entirely with subtitles and knew I had a really lousy grasp on when just trying to listen.  And since it was aimed at an older audience, it was naturally more complicated to understand in general, just as the nature of the thing.  And, of course, I wanted to try out Club de Cuervos to see if I’d had the breakthrough I was looking for.

Starting with She-Ra, I found that not only could I understand it better than the first time watching, I could just understand it.  To the same level, if not better, than I could Puffin Rock the last time I’d tried that.  It might as well have been in English as I watched it, every sentence was clear and immediately understood, with no need to think things through or make any guesses.  I also got to enjoy the episode I watched more.  Jokes were clearer, I could appreciate the way things were delivered more, and I could pick up on not just obvious things that I missed, but also subtleties.

Feeling really good about things, I started up Carmen Sandiego, and found I could understand it to the same level as She-Ra.  I probably had a better grasp on CS going into it, but it was still starkly clear how much better I understood it.  No need to just deal with the gist, no need to think about what was being said, just pure, effortless comprehension.

Satisfied that the experiment was already a gangbusters success, I moved onto Bojack Horseman.  And, well, if I was perfect at BH, too, I would have been over the moon, but I was completely satisfied to find that I was damn near close.  There were occasional parts that I just caught the gist on, but overall it was very clear.  It was about where I was last time I’d watched an episode of My Little Pony.  Comfortably watchable without any frustration, but understanding that I was going to miss the superfine details here and there.  Not perfect, but more than enough ability to work with.

So then I came to Club de Cuervos, something I’d been prepared to not even try depending on how the previous shows had gone, and tried to watch it without subtitles.  And, to my delight, I could mostly follow it.  Mostly.  It’s still very, very hard to follow with just listening, for reasons that were much clearer to me on this attempt than they had previously been.  Part of it’s just the total complexity that I’d assumed was my problem: characters talk quickly, there’s a mix of different varieties of accents, characters talk over each other frequently, and there’s a healthy mixing in of slang.

Somewhat to my surprise, though, is that I discovered a big part of the problem was just with the sound mixing, which uses a composite of sound recorded in-camera, and re-dubbed lines after the fact, to middling results.  The sound quality ended up a bit muddled, with some lines more understandable than others and background noise occasionally overwhelming what’s being said.  I’m not a filmmaker by any means, and I might be mis-identifying the exact mistakes here, but that’s what my big takeaway was from it.  Couple that with the overall complexity, and it makes a hard-to-understand show damn near impossible without subtitles.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that some native Spanish speakers might prefer to watch Club de Cuervos with the subtitles on, just to compensate for the sound quality.

All that said, Club de Cuervos is still a healthy step above my comfort level of really understanding things.  It’s now operating in a similar space to understanding as Daniel San GMR videos have been, where it’s content I can mostly follow, and be able to watch without feeling like I have no idea what’s happening, but where I am leaving a lot of the details on the table.  It’s something where instead of fully understanding most and getting the gist of some, it’s the other way around, and I get the gist of what’s going on with only fully understanding a sporadic collection of sentences throughout.  A definite improvement, but not quite all the way there for where I want it to be.

I’ve been pushing on my listening comprehension out of the desire to start working on speaking soon, feeling like it’s silly to worry about speaking until I’m capable of really understanding what’s said back to me in response.  Club de Cuervos was the benchmark I set as feeling like if I could follow that, then I’d be able to handle most folks in real life comfortably.  And while there’s marked improvement, I’m not quite at the point where I feel like I can really follow it.

So after Monday, I went back to just reading.  I have some really compelling evidence starting at me that it’s what works, so I’m not going to change something that isn’t broken.  I will be occasionally breaking the streak of just reading, probably with more frequency than I did with the experiment, to try and measure how things are shaping up with my listening comprehension.  I’d still like to work on speaking soon and start really pushing myself, but I want to know I’ll have a good handle on the listening portion of that task first.  At this point, this isn’t a reading experiment anymore, it’s just my approach to learning.  Reading 4 life, y’all.

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

Tuesday 3/05

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/10 of Mort, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of She-Ra, 1 episode of Carmen Sandiego, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, 1 episode of Club de Cuervos, ~120 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 3/06

  • Duolingo: 10 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Mort, 1/20 of Rechicero, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 3/07

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Rechicero, ~140 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 3/08

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Rechicero, ~170 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 3/09

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Rechicero, ~160 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 3/10

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Rechicero, ~170 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 3/11

  • Duolingo: 10 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Brujerías, ~170 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 930 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 1 and 1/2 books read, 1,050 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 4 tv episodes watched, 120 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 19 hours 30 minutes

So overall a just-okay week.  Things started out strong with my aforementioned listening test, but Thursday ended up being a bit of a mess for me.  I ended up reading less than my usual goal, and not really getting anything else done, either.  The rest of the week was a little bumpy, too, because the Discworld books, which had been polite and fairly uniform in length for the first couple, have started growing longer.  Rather than reading to the time-goal of the day, I’ve been reading to the percentage done-goal, which resulted in a bit lower overall time spent per day reading.

Maybe not the best option, but it’s been easier for me to set as a goal and commit, so I’ve gone ahead with that despite being not as good of an option overall.  I like putting up nice numbers on these blogs because it makes me feel like I’m really committed, but in the end this isn’t really a race or anything, if it takes me an extra day to read a book because of a dropped half an hour here or there, it’s not like I’m ruining things for myself.

Anyway, I finished Mort, read Rechicero, and started in on Brujerías this week.  I’ve gone past where I last got when I started in on Discworld in English a few years ago, and I’m enjoying myself with them quite a bit.  It’s pretty nice getting to them, as they’ve been one of those blind spots that I always knew I wanted to get to, but hadn’t done so yet.  Me reading them now is pleasing some of my friends who are big fans, though I imagine my ability to quote lines from them will be less than ideal for what my friends have in mind.

It’s also noticeable this week that there was a dip in my XP on DuoLingo, even beyond the drop-off from cutting it back to a token usage during my reading focus.  DuoLingo changed the way XP is awarded for testing out of levels, which is largely what I’ve been doing on it for a while, reducing it to a flat 20 XP.  Based on the forums there, lots of people are flipping out about it, but it’s not exactly hit me hard.  I’ve ended up testing out of a few things this week despite the change but have also started messing around with doing other things, like single lessons for some of the harder levels rather than “filling in” all the stuff I already know super well.  I don’t know that the change is all that valuable, but frankly I don’t think DuoLingo is all that valuable for me anyway, so it’s not like it matter much.  Still, though, you’d think the site caught fire from some of the reaction to the change.  I’m mostly just glad that the test out option is still there, regardless of the XP given for it.  I still really don’t understand why the really easy lessons on there have around fifty individual lessons to get through, while the hardest ones have less, often significantly less.  People like big XP numbers and leveling up, I suppose.

Beyond that, it’s been a fairly standard week for me.  I’ve settled on a schedule for keeping tabs on how my listening comprehension is coming along.  I don’t see much of a point in doing it super often, because I can’t imagine it growing that quickly, but based on the growth over the actual experiment, I should be checking on it more than once a month.  My plan is to have a listening day around the start of a month and again in the middle, the exact day depending on what my schedule’s looking like.  I’d rather have the watching fall on a day during the week instead of the weekend, because I usually do better with reading over the weekend than during the week anyway.

As such, I’m gonna be watching stuff again either this Thursday or Friday, depending on the sort of days I have.  Not expecting a ton of difference, but I’d rather get on the schedule preemptively than wait for longer than necessary.  The goal here is still to get to the point where I feel like it makes sense to start looking for tutors to work on speaking, and I’d like to strike on that as soon as I’m ready, in keeping with the spirit of my yearly theme of striving.

Speaking of striving, something I’ve long wanted to do with this blog is to have entries that are written in Spanish.  I think that blogs like this one are well-served by being presented in multiple languages if the blogger is up to the task, and if I had my way, I’d be putting out both Spanish and English versions of every blog I write.  My way, in this instance, being defined as me having the confidence to write Spanish versions of these blogs as they are, which I don’t have, and the time to devote to writing that alternate version, which I also don’t have.

The former problem is self-correcting over time, but the latter makes it much harder to manage, because I just don’t have any give in my schedule to add on ‘rewriting a blog that takes me two days to write the first time in Spanish’ anywhere, without sacrificing time spent on other things that I’m unwilling to sacrifice.  In a perfect world, I might have that time, but this world ain’t perfect.  I’m already stretched pretty thin.

That said, I think I could write blogs in Spanish to a limited level.  They’d probably end up being far less detailed and likely shorter at the start, and also likely riddled with errors, but I think they’d end up legible at least.  I’ve toyed around with some possible options of things to do, including setting one blog a month as an entrada en Español and not worrying about making an English version, but I don’t really want to make some blogs unreadable for English speakers on the site.  If I could swing having the English version, too, I’d be okay with that, but then I come back to the problem of needing to generate more time.  Maybe I can justify cutting time out of my reading to write the Spanish blog.  That would mean I’m sacrificing time still, but I wouldn’t be carving more time out of writing, which might be enough for me to not feel bad about it.  And really, it would be fair to count writing blog in Spanish as study time, so I wouldn’t be cutting down on my study time, either.  I don’t know, I’ll be thinking on it.

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

5 thoughts on “Reading-Only Experiment Postmortem

  1. I found the results of your experiment really intriguing and I’ve been scouting books written by Mexican authors that I plan on making the backbone of my own version of this. I’ve been reading regularly using LingQ (it’s pricey, but I like that I can import my own e-books and track my “known” words) and I definitely feel that my comprehension of Spanish has gone up over the last 8 months. I have no idea how much of that is due to reading, however.

    Have you watched this presentation by Professor Arguelles?\

    Around the 16 minute mark he brings up a statistic (I wish he cited where it was from) where he claimed that reading 3 hours a week would allow a learner to make 12-months worth of progress in just 9 months. Very intriguing.

    He also strongly supports the use of audiobooks, which he believes are harder to follow than traditional books, and he makes a really interesting argument for why learners need to read the literature of the culture.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That was an interesting presentation. There were a couple of things he said that I disagreed with, some of which I disagreed with rather strongly, but overall it was an interesting watch. I’m a little leery of that ‘three hours of reading a week equates to 12 months of progress in 9 months,’ because it feels like there are two many undefined factors in the statement. Is that 3 hours extra time in addition to a traditionally taught classroom setting language course? If so, what does 3 hours a week extra translate to as a percentage of total time spent learning? Does getting 6 hours a week have a similar shortening effect? How does it compare to other forms of language learning, like TPRS courses, or self-selected free voluntary reading? In general it sounds like a nice sentiment that’s coming from the right place, but I can’t help but feel like it’s more of a sound-bite figure than anything else, like that saying about it taking 10,000 hours to become a “master” at something.

      As for him saying audiobooks are harder than reading on your own, I tend to agree with him, because I don’t do too well with audiobooks that are in English thanks to getting distracted. I need to be doing very specific sorts of activities for listening to an audiobook to really be feasible for me, and at this point it doesn’t really seem worth the effort with Spanish, but I imagine I might end up relying on audiobooks with more regularity on a different language that wasn’t phonetic, where pronunciation of words was something you just had to be told, rather than being able to figure out based on spelling. If that was a direction I went, I imagine that I’d need to stay closer to his “98%” thing that I otherwise flat-out reject, at least when it comes to me. I regularly read and have read things that have significantly lower percentage of ‘words I already know’ than 98% without getting bored or losing the thread of the story. I think it’s much more vitally necessary to have an INTEREST in what you’re reading than it is for the percentage of words known or whatever to match up perfectly, and what you can tolerate and still be interested in varies from person to person and can be trained to a certain extent.

      I also strongly reject his advocacy for “artistically important” novels over what he refers to by “trashy novels” as snobbery which actually goes entirely in counter to the research. The research suggests that going for “trashy” things results in better improvements than reading the important literature.


  2. I agree that reading at a level where you understand 98% of the material would be incredibly limiting. It doesn’t interest me at all, especially since I don’t think it accounts for how helpful reading on a Kindle or an iPad can be. I can literally click on any word or phrase I don’t understand and pull up it’s meaning when reading using LingQ on my iPad. I’m almost through Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy and while at first I think I only understood about 80-85% of what I was reading I’m now at the point that just a few words per page require me to tap on them for a definition. Going through that more intensive reading phase is what got me to a level where I could read at a comfortable phase and with little struggle.

    What he was saying about reading literature did strike a chord with me, however. I don’t see anything wrong with reading “trashy novels” (it’s one of my favorite pastimes, actually), but I think he has a point regarding literature as being a means to understand the culture. Maybe I’m misremembering, but I think he compared reading the literature of a country as being akin to taking an immersive trip to the country. That struck me as being insightful, since I think one of the great advantages to language learning is that it allows you to get out of your comfort zone and experience different peoples and cultures. Club De Cuervos, has become one of my favorite shows, and there’s absolutely no way I would have watched it if I hadn’t started learning Spanish.

    So far, I’ve mostly stuck to reading novels that are translations of English works, and I’m starting to think that I might be missing out if I continue just to do that. However, I don’t think it has to be literature necessarily—any text from a specific culture is going to be informative about the culture itself. I have a book on personal finance that’s written by a Mexican author that I want to dive into next—I feel confident that besides picking up on some Mexican sayings/slang I’ll get a feel for some aspects of the culture as well. I eventually want to jump into some Mexican literature as well, at least so I can see if I’m missing out on anything. And if I’m not … well I’ve already picked out another sci-fi trilogy translated to Spanish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If all he was saying by it was that they could give a real understanding and appreciation for a culture, I could appreciate the sentiment, although it feels misguided to me to champion those types of books over others, and might not even necessarily be in service to something true. The Grapes of Wrath is considered an eminent work of American fiction, but—while I think that reputation is deserved—I don’t think it gives much of a valuable insight into American culture to someone who is outside that culture looking in. I mean, it can give a lot of context regarding how the western US was shaped over the 1930s, but it isn’t going to tell anyone what it’s like to be a Californian NOW. Meanwhile, The Dresden Files, which are definite genre-literature and would get described as “trash,” stars a main character who I’d argue is an excellent example of how a lot of Americans talk and interact with pop-culture, and would give far more insight into what Americans are “like” than Grapes of Wrath could give.

      That said, it felt like he was busy pushing the whole idea of the “literary novel” as the end goal of reading focus, favored over other types of books, with a view of those other types as necessary evils, sort of stepping stones to help you bridge the gap in understanding before you can read the “good stuff.” I might be assigning some negativity that wasn’t actually there in the talk due to personal biases, because I come up against prejudice toward genre literature quite often and I have very strong opinions about the subject, and that’s without even discussing language learning. As such, I might just be expecting an old argument that isn’t actually there, just from having seen it too many times.

      I definitely do appreciate the concerns over only reading books translated INTO Spanish as being rather “culturally limiting” in terms of exposure that you could be getting from language learning, it’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit. If nothing else, it feels a little bit culturally insensitive of me, like I’m implicitly REJECTING Latin American/Spanish culture as less valuable in favor of cultural artifacts that belong to the culture I already have. I’ve had that feeling mollified to a certain extent, after having a few conversations where I was told that the stuff that a lot of Spanish-speaking folks grew up consuming WAS the same stuff that I grew up consuming, too, and it isn’t exactly inauthentic of me to be reading Harry Potter in Spanish when they were doing that, too. I do plan on eventually expanding my horizons more and try to be less limited to translated works over time, anyway.


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