The Finite Nature of Language Learning Advice

If language learning's so simple, why do schools still teach it so poorly?

After spending a while paying attention to the online language learning crowd, at a certain point all the advice starts repeating itself.  Not everyone says exactly the same thing, as different people talking on the subject have different favored methods, but there is a sense that the amount of advice that can be given on any specific method is finite.  Everything always comes back to a few discrete talking points that get repackaged and restated again and again.

I’ve run into this problem myself when settling on blog topics here, despite this blog not really being about language learning advice.  I’m much further along into learning Spanish than I was at the start, but I’m still not a language learning expert, I’m just a guy working my way through it as best I can based on the sources out there available to everyone.  I’m documenting my progress and sharing what I’ve learned and how things have been working for me in less of a “This is how you do it,” way, but rather just a message of “This is what I’m doing and this is how it’s going.”  It’s more than anything an extensive self-documentation project.  People finding it useful is more of a bonus than anything else.

That said, I do try to keep this blog engaging in some fashion, and I’ve settled into this model of discussing a broad topic before breaking down my self-documentation and plans of action for the future, which means picking topics to talk about.  When there’s something notable about the week, I usually talk about that, but not every week is terribly notable.  I didn’t do anything particularly out of the ordinary this week, and nothing happened in the things I did do that suggested much of a blog topic.  As such, I’ve ended up covering a wide range of the talking points that advice-givers give for language learning, and sometimes I’m left scratching my head, saying to myself “Is there really anything specific left for me to cover?”

There are some talking points I haven’t touched because I don’t have an opinion on them, like I don’t have much to say on the subject of juggling learning more than one language at once since I’m not doing that, but most of the standard ones have become blog topics in the past year.  Questions of motivation, the general scheduling of language learning, different techniques and tools, dealing with burnout and discouragement, common pitfalls, stuff like that comes up all the time in a perennial way among the different advice givers out there.  It doesn’t really come across to me as something disingenuous, mind you, as the language teachers of the internet are all almost exclusively language learners as well, and the strength and nuance of their opinions will naturally grow and change with time.  Repeating topics isn’t a bad thing if someone has something new to say.  I haven’t had qualms about repeating topics that I’ve gained a different perspective on over time.  But the fact is, I’m just not sure how much there really is to say about language learning overall.

At the end of the day, I’ve come to the conclusion that language learning isn’t really all that complicated of a subject.  It’s very difficult, and requires a huge investment of time and effort, but that’s not the same thing as complicated.  Digging a hole isn’t terribly complicated, but it’ll take you an incredibly long time and make you super buff if you’re trying to get to the center of the earth with a shovel.  It largely comes down to setting the right expectations, making the right plan, and following that plan with an appropriate level of dedication.

Which I suppose is in itself a challenge to overcome when setting out to learn a language.  At least here in America there is a certain mystique surrounding people who can speak multiple languages, considering them geniuses and assigning a glamour to the pursuit.  I confess that at times I picture the ideal “language learner” as someone sitting in a personal library, looking through Beowulf or The Odyssey in the original text, wearing a smoking jacket and puffing on a wooden pipe.

It’s a nice (by some definitions of the word) image, but the reality is that language learning isn’t glamorous, even if you are reading the classics in their original language, or seamlessly switching between multiple languages at a party to impressed grunts of approval.  It’s just slow, methodical, plodding work that’s often isolated and frustrating.  It’s also often thankless, as the average person isn’t going to be all that impressed until you can speak fluently (or at least appear to speak fluently to someone who doesn’t know the language you’re speaking), and even then, they might not be supportive.  When I tell people about this project, I have more than once have been asked why I’m doing it.  And those people were not asking in a curious way, they wanted to know why I was bothering at all.

A lot of the language advice people work at dispelling the mystique while at the same time propagating it (because, this being the internet, most of them are trying to make a living off of their advice, and titles like “The ten secrets to learning a foreign language” attract more clicks), but at the end of the day, they just don’t have all that much to say on the subject.  Learning a language isn’t glamorous and doesn’t have any big, magical, secret life-hacks that Big Academia don’t want you to know about.  It’s just a lot of work.

Speaking of work, let’s look at the numbers for this week.

Tuesday 6/04

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

Wednesday 6/05

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

Thursday 6/06

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Carpe Jugulum, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~10 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 6/07

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of El Quinto Elefante, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 6/08

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/10 of El Quinto Elefante, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 6/09

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/10 of El Quinto Elefante, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 6/10

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of El Quinto Elefante, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of No Hay Tos, ~30 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 140 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 1 and 1/5 books, 1080 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 1 youtube episode and 1 podcast, 40 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 18 hours 40 minutes

So this week was a weird one.  The weekend proved to be a black hole for my time, as I hosted a banging birthday party on Saturday and then dealt with the resulting hangover for a lot of Sunday.  It still was a mostly productive week overall, so I’m not exactly beating myself up over it, and plus the party was a big success.  Life just gets in the way sometimes.

I finished Carpe Jugulum this week, and was left slightly underwhelmed by it.  I’ve been on a good tear through the Discworld books and have been loving most of them lately, but Cape Jugulum felt a bit like a rehash of Lores y Damas, which wasn’t my favorite of the Witches books, anyway.  The plot structure is about the same, and it covered a lot of the same themes and topics.  It was probably better than Lores y Damas, but that doesn’t give it much help.  I don’t know, it was fine, I just could have done with a newer angle for the characters.  El Quinto Elefante has been treating me very well so far, though, despite my weekend hiccough, and is further cementing the City Watch books as my favorites.

A new episode of Daniel San GMR came out this week, so I watched that, and Monday I found myself on a long drive, so I listened to an episode of the No Hay Tos podcast.  I’m still going a little lean with my listening practice while easing back into a good work/life balance post-illness.  I’d like to add more listening on top of my current stuff once time permits it regularly again.  Listening is becoming a bigger and bigger lack-of-confidence point for me, and I feel like the only way to get through that is by listening more.  Not necessarily to learn much through listening, more just to keep on top of my current level so I have a good picture of where I’m at and how I’m improving, and to get my ear more used to natural accents spoken at speed.  It’s amazing how big of a difference it is for me between watching something like Breaking Bad with dubbed over lines and something like Daniel San GMR with a native speaker in front of a camera.  It doesn’t seem like there should be that much of a difference, but there really is.

It’s not reflected in the numbers here, but I finally made some tentative steps toward adding more writing time in Spanish to my day-to-day.  I’ve been commenting in the forums at Duolingo to help answer English grammar questions for Spanish speakers learning English.  It hasn’t been a huge extra time commitment in my daily routine, but it’s been interesting thinking through explaining stupid stuff about English to people, and doing so in Spanish.  I haven’t been doing it very long, and I honestly have no idea how to quantify it here, so I haven’t been, but for the last half a week I’ve slowly added some extra writing practice that isn’t reflected in these numbers.  It’s hard to say if it’s had any effect so far, but I’ll be trying to pay attention to those sorts of things as time goes on.  I’ll have a better idea next week, I think, when I sit down to write a Spanish blog entry.

As a quick aside, I know I threw some shade in the featured image and main blog about schools and how they teach language without going into any real detail, and while I will stick to my guns that language courses in American schools are abject failures at teaching anyone a language, I do want to say that I don’t think that’s the fault of the teachers.  Teachers get a lot of guff in this current political climate, and I am not joining that dogpile.  All teachers, language teachers included, accomplish a ton of good with very little support and I have great admiration for the vocation.  That’s all, I just didn’t want to leave that unsaid, and there just wasn’t a lot of space to work that sort of thing in organically without pulling away from the main point of the blog.  Maybe that’ll be the topic for a future blog, ehh???

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

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