Reflections on Yearly Themes

So far, the 'theme' of 2019 seems to be "the same ol' crap as 2018."

At the start of the year, I wrote a blog establishing my “Yearly Themes” for 2019, the overarching ideas I’ve been keeping in mind for making decisions in my life.  I’d originally planned to touch base on those themes at the beginning of July, as a mid-year point of reflection, and as you can see, I’m about a month late on that, though with good reason.  When July was rolling around, I was just about to start in on the watching/listening experiment, and I felt it was reasonable to hold off on reflecting until after that experiment was finished.  And so, here we are.

That blog outlines what yearly themes are and what I settled on for 2019 in more detail, but the short version is that I am currently about 20 months into The Year of Spanish that I’d established in 2018 (as yearly themes are not confined to actual year lengths), which has dictated a lot of the actions I’ve taken in that time, from my focused study efforts to starting this blog, having that theme in mind has shaped a lot of how I’ve spent my time and interacted with the world.  I also started a new theme, The Year of Striving, which has had multiple applications outside of language learning, but has the direct application of pushing me to move outside of my comfort zone and not just trap myself forever in only working on “safe” things in Spanish, potentially stalling out my learning and leaving me forever in an intermediate level of comprehension with no real ability to use the language.

Despite its front-and-center focus in my life, there isn’t a ton to say about or reflect upon for The Year of Spanish theme.  It’s a pretty basic theme, and largely serves as a point of reaffirmation, where if I’m feeling worn down or having doubts, I can remind myself that this is something that’s important to me, and something that I get value out of.  Fortunately, that hasn’t been much of a problem for me, so I haven’t needed that affirmation.  Plus, most of the groundwork for pursuing the goal was established in 2018, so all I’ve really needed to do to keep the theme going was to keep doing what I have been doing.  It’s something I’ve kept in mind when making decisions day to day, as I’ve turned down the occasional social activity because I knew I was going to miss study time (but certainly not all social activities, because the rest of my life is still an important thing to not lose track of), but it’s more a background thing, which at this point I barely need to be mindful of at all.

The Year of Striving, on the other hand, has had a lot more of an impact on me.  I’ve had a number of successes and failures at trying to stick with it in applications outside of language learning, but looking back at it here, I think it’s doing its job with language learning.  Which is a somewhat curious statement for me to be making, because the thing I cited first and foremost in that establishing blog was pushing myself toward speaking, which is something I haven’t done yet.

Speaking is, obviously, a huge part of what it means to know a language, and is a skill I want to develop in Spanish before I’ll feel satisfied with my skill level.  I’ve been putting it off until later because I don’t feel that forcing yourself to speak early pays many dividends in learning and having a solid foundation of comprehension first will greatly lessen the learning curve on communication.  Being able to say something isn’t terribly useful if you can’t understand the response and knowing a few canned phrases might let you order dinner or find a bathroom, but it doesn’t give you any versatility for organizing and expressing your thoughts with others.  Meaningful communication requires an immense amount of base knowledge, and the way to amass that is through input, not output, so I’ve been perfectly happy biding my time before finding some online tutors and working at speaking.

I haven’t been entirely silent this year by any means, as I’ve spent a great deal of time reading to myself out loud, which doesn’t really do much to build a speech skill, but has gotten me to sound more natural when speaking.  I have an okay accent (not perfect, but I don’t really care about having a perfect accent, and I don’t do any of the really embarrassing accent things, like use the American alveolar approximant R), I don’t slip up on words very often, and I can speak in a fairly natural cadence (albeit slower than most natives).  The phonemes of Spanish are different from my dialect of English, and to speak it naturally I have to hold my mouth and jaw in a slightly different way than when I speak English, and I’m now used to doing that, thanks to the reading practice.  It doesn’t cost me much to slip into Spanish speaking, and my mouth doesn’t get tired doing it.

Additionally, I have had a number of minor conversations in Spanish, too.  Some have been successful, like the time I helped direct some tourists to the Denver Mint, and others have been failures, like when I totally froze up trying to explain to a poor woman that a donut shop at the airport was self-service (I ended up needing to resort to my phone to get through it and I felt like an idiot, though I now have the word autoservicio laser-cut into my memory).  Success or failure, those handful of conversations have been anxiety-inducing and stressful, which is pretty textbook ‘out of my comfort zone.’  None of those situations were planned, and I haven’t worked to plan any of them then or going forward.

But, well, I still am not feeling bad about that in regards to The Year of Striving, because I’ve been pushing myself on other fronts, and the theme has shaped how I’ve been working week to week throughout the course of the year.  Working on speaking hasn’t made sense to me until after I was confident I could understand the other side of a conversation, so listening comprehension has been my current target weak point, and boy have I worked on that.  I’ve changed up my studying multiple times, increasing listening practice, decreasing listening practice in favor of reading (which sounds counter-intuitive, but there is research that supports heavy free voluntary reading as increasing all language skills, not just reading comprehension), up to the start of this month’s switch into heavy listening.

I haven’t made any of those changes on a whim, they’ve been informed by me stopping for a moment, assessing what I was doing, checking my results against the goals of the yearly theme, and adjusting accordingly.  I wanted to increase my listening comprehension, so I started listening to lots of things that were on the high end to slightly above my then current level.  That frustrated me, so after some research, I pushed whole-hog into reading to try and boost my overall comprehension.  I had good results after that first month, so I kept going with that, with check-ins to assess how I was doing.  I was frustrated by a lack of upward growth, so I adjusted what I was using for my check-ins to include lower level things, and felt better about it, not only because I was seeing an increased depth of understanding but also because I wasn’t setting myself up to constantly be struggling.  After a few more months, I saw diminishing returns on my listening comprehension, so I opted to push heavily into listening practice for a month.  At the end of that, I thought the system not only gave me good results, but also fit better into my life, and was worth sticking with.

I’ve been fairly constantly readjusting my expectations for how this learning project will go, because there isn’t really a roadmap for language learning, you just have to stumble your way through it mostly blind.  Part of the reason I’m able to make those adjustments is from looking back and reflecting on the actions I’m taking and where they’ve led me.  I see through a lot of the steps I’ve taken and the blogs I’ve written about them a steady growth that’s often tinted by a lot of overconfidence and optimism.  I always seem to think I’m almost there to the next big thing, but then a while later I am both well-improved from the previous point, but still not there yet.  Fortunately, none of this is a race.  All I can do is reflect, reassess, and move forward, so I’m happy to say that so far, The Year of Striving has been a success.

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

Tuesday 7/30

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 8% of Un Sombrero de Cielo, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~120 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 7/31

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 8% of Un Sombrero de Cielo, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~120 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 8/01

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 12% of Un Sombrero de Cielo, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 8/02

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 12% of Un Sombrero de Cielo, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, 1 episode of No Hay Tos, ~100 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 8/03

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 12% of Un Sombrero de Cielo, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1 episode of AlambrixGaming, 1 episode of She-Ra, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 8/04

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 12% of Un Sombrero de Cielo, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: End of Evangelion, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 8/05

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 4% of Un Sombrero de Cielo, 7% of Cartas en el Asunto, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of She-Ra, 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, 1 episode of Los Simpson, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 140 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 3/4 books, 570 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 7 youtube episodes, 1 podcast, 1 movie, and 7 tv episodes watched, 700 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 10 minutes

A nice and solid week all around.  As soon as the month ended and I switched over to the 90 minutes reading, 90 minutes watching planned schedule, I knew I’d hit the sweet spot for how I’m spending my time.  The schedule during the listening experiment itself worked out pretty well, but I often felt like I could have stood to be reading more in general, and just wasn’t because I was spending enough time with watching stuff that it was pretty tiring as it was.  Cutting back the little bit of watching in exchange for the more reading feels better on all fronts for me.  I don’t feel like I’m overstressing myself with what I’m expecting each day, and I feel better about the rate that I’m getting through books.

Speaking of books, I finished Un Sombrero de Cielo this week, and am enjoying the Tiffany Aching subseries quite a bit.  I like the character, and having more of a focus on Granny Weatherwax, one of the witches from the Witch subseries, was a welcome addition.  The fact that I’m through another book means that I’m that much closer to finishing Discworld, though, which is making the whole process kind of melancholic.  I started in on Cartas en el Asunto on Monday, which is another sort-of-one-off, but it appears to have some of the City Watch cast in it, which is a definite positive for me.

I also finished Neon Genesis Evangelion this week, concluding with the film, End of Evangelion, and while I’m glad I watched through the series for its importance and place of influence on anime, I can’t say that I really liked it.  It has some interesting ideas that are even more interesting in the context of the time it came out, but a lot of it was pretty unpleasant.  I’m glad I’m finished with it, even if it does make choosing what to watch each day a little more difficult.  Fortunately, another season of She-Ra just came out, so I have that to watch for a while.  Not very long of a while, though, the seasons have been short to have a fast turnaround.  I’ve also returned to some older regulars, like A Series of Unfortunate Events and Los Simpson, so it’s not like I’m really starved for content.

I do wish I had more binge-able youtube choices than I have right now, because I’ve run through the major part of the archive of streams and let’s plays from Daniel San GMR.  He unfortunately doesn’t stream super often, and his let’s play channel hasn’t been updated in a while, so it isn’t something that constantly renews its content.  I tried AlambrixGaming, another game streamer, but wasn’t that engaged by the stream.  I’ll be keeping my eyes open for other channel possibilities in the future.

On Duolingo this week, for a sentence that translates as “I like love stories,” a common question was asked about how to tell the difference between the words story and history.  As it happens, in Spanish there’s only one word, historia, and it means both things.  It’s a common enough question on Duolingo, I’ve taken to copying and pasting a quick response to it, and it’s something I find pretty interesting.  I would think the confusion would come the other way around, from an English speaker struggling to make heads or tails of meaning in Spanish sentences that use the word historia, and being unsure which definition to use, but for me, it almost always seems pretty clear from context if we’re talking about a story or history and I don’t have any trouble parsing it.  I would then assume that for someone more used to the dual meaning of the word, that separating it out into its two meanings as different (and obviously related) words would be relatively easy.  Maybe it’s just a common question for beginner learners who don’t have that great a grasp on English yet, but it’s interesting that the opposite seems to be true.

Now then, as the month also ended, let’s take a look at those numbers.

  • Total Duolingo: 656 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 33 tv episodes, 72 youtube videos, 7 podcasts, and 1 movie watched, 3,215 minutes
  • Total reading: 2 and 2/3rd books read, 2,070 minutes
  • Total writing: 1300 words written, 180 minutes
  • Total Speaking: reading out loud, 930 minutes
  • Total Time: 91 hours 5 minutes

And here’s the breakdown for money spent.

  • Los Pequeños Hombres Libres, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $5.99
  • Regimiento Monstruoso, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $5.99
  • Un Sombrero de Cielo, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $5.99
  • Netflix Subscription Standard HD Plan, Television and Movie Streaming, $10.99 per month, $10.99
  • Amount Spent on Fiction Books: $17.97
  • Amount Spent on Services: $10.99
  • Total Spent: $28.96

So a pretty normal looking month, in terms of totals, especially considering that rough week in the middle when I was in Chicago.  The really heavy week following my return when I watched a bunch of 3-hour-long stream archives helped, but in general things stayed pretty stable throughout.  The ratio of time spent watching/listening to reading is a lot closer to even than it’s been for quite a while, considering I didn’t entirely cut reading out to devote all of my time to listening, which I think is probably for the best.  I also ended up spending a lot less than I normally spend each month, thanks to not getting through all that many books.  I can’t say I’m sad about that.

For my writing during the month, which I expected to be abysmal, since I started the month off on a bit of a rough note and then had to steal time away just to get a blog done while I was out of town, I am actually pleasantly surprised.  I wrote 15,834 words of fiction and 12,119 for blogs, for a total of 27,953 words, just barely under my soft goal of writing per day on average and just barely under my total word count in June.  July’s a day longer, so it’s a bit more under than it should be, but for such a rough mess of a month, I am happy it wasn’t derailed all that much at all.

As August picks up speed, I’m hopeful to keep up the general trend.  Things seem to be going pretty well, and I like this current time allotment plan.  My birthday’s this month, so I’m guessing that there is going to be at least one bad day upcoming, as I’m told that I’m being shanghaied to a bar by some friends or something, but we’ll see how productive or not I fail to be that day before the bar shenanigans happen.  I meanwhile am going to be keeping an eye (or perhaps an ear) on my listening comprehension over the next few weeks, because although I’ve declared the listening experiment a success, that’s more because of what it’s done for my mood and schedule than any sort of major effect on my listening comprehension that I’ve noticed, and I don’t want to drop the ball on this process just because my study time is slightly less stressful.

Anyway, that’s enough for this one.  TTFN.

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