Efficiency in Learning Words

If nothing else, I am at least very efficient at revealing my stupidity.

Lots of people who are aspiring to learn a language take to the internet with a holy grail in mind: the search for efficiency.  Efficiency is a highly sought-after commodity in this sphere of education, because language learning is a slow process by its nature.  You can’t sit down, look through a list of words, and suddenly know all of them inside and out, and it’s not like memorizing the part of a play, where you can just hammer everything into your head with an intense few days or weeks of repetition.  It’s a slow process of absorption and exposure, learning words, phrases, and sentences from context first to a level where you understand if you think about it for a moment, then to where you recognize them without thinking, then to being able to recall them when thinking about it, then to being able to use them correctly, to finally being able to use them effortlessly.  Different stages and aspects of word knowledge overlap with each other, and it isn’t a linear process, but all of it takes time, and there are a lot of words to learn.

Something I came across a lot in the early going, which always struck me as sort of silly, was the notion of the “most common words” in a language.  If you search “most common words” plus the name of the language you’re learning, you’ll quickly find multiple lists of the 300 or 500 highest-use words plastered all over the internet to look through, or organized as flash card decks on spaced-repetition systems, complete with optimistically-written articles about how the first thousand odd words in a given language account for ninety percent of all communication, with plans and guides for working “efficiently” at language learning.  Cut down that time needed by learning the most important things first, they say, get those words as quickly to the ‘understand and use effortlessly’ level as possible, and you’ll know ninety percent of the language!

Yeah, no, it hasn’t worked like that for me, and I doubt it’s worked like that for most people.  I strongly suspect that, even if you know ninety percent of the words in a sentence thanks to working “efficiently,” it’s in the ten percent that you don’t know where all the meaning of the sentence goes.  Not to mention that knowing words in a vacuum and knowing them in context of usage are entirely different things, because even if languages are similar, sentences are going to be constructed differently, sometimes radically differently.  There are idioms to contend with, and different grammar rules, and favored structures to take into account.  Tons of those most common words are going to be the glue that hold sentences together, that might have some reasonable approximation in your native language, but which aren’t going to be used the same way.

You might feel like you’re making progress seeing de on a word list for Spanish, and learning that it means “of” or “from.”  Simple and easy to remember, you say, and you’ve probably seen de plenty of times in the bits of Spanish that have leeched their way into English parlance, like Día de los Muertos, so it’s almost a gimme word, you got it for free.  But then you hear a sentence like, Sí, se trataba de eso, and you’re left mystified.

Maybe you know all the words in it from word lists.  is another gimme, that’s “yes,” and eso is for sure on your list, as it means “that.”  And maybe you know the verb tratar as well, which means to treat or to try.  You aren’t going to know the conjugation rules from a word list, so you might not even recognize that as a form of tratar, but let’s pretend you’d looked at a verb conjugation table at some point and know that trataba is the past imperfect form for I/he/she/it.  Se is a bit confusing, because it’s a reflexive pronoun, which sort of makes sense to you in the concept of “myself, himself, herself, and themselves,” but you have no real idea of how it works in Spanish, you’re just going off your word lists.  You’ve already hit bumpy water at the start, but hey, you know all the words theoretically, all it takes is applying them to the sentence as written.  Okay, so, “Yes, it itself treated of that.”  Hmm.  That doesn’t make sense, you say, but using “tried” as the meaning of trataba doesn’t make it more sensible, and “from that” with either meaning of tratar doesn’t help, either.  Maybe you know word order can be different, especially with pronouns, and can correctly guess that you should flip the order of itself and treated/tried, but that didn’t really make it sensible, either.  What the heck?  You know all the words.  And then the sentence ends up meaning, “Yes, it was about that.”  But why?  And it has the word de in it, which everybody knows means “of” or “from!”

Spanish is full of stuff like this, where little construction words that have a dictionary definition totally disappear inside of canned phrases that mean something else, and just use that construction word as glue.  Tratarse de is one of those sorts of phrases, meaning, “to be about,” with the de only serving to give structure to the phrase, not mean its typical dictionary definition of “of” or “from.”  And when you’re going through word lists of the most common words, one of the reasons de is on that list is because it gets used like that in phrases all the time.

And Spanish isn’t the only language where stuff like that happens, it’s something true about basically every language on the planet, especially English.  If you’re busy thinking, “No, English doesn’t do that, words don’t just stop meaning something because they’re part of a phrase,” consider the sentence, “Yes, it was about that,” and then compare it to the sentence, “Yes, it was about time.”  Still mean basically the same thing, just with a more specific object?

So how do you learn stuff like that?  Well, from actual context.  Hearing or reading someone saying se trata de eso, learning what that means, then hearing or reading it again and again until you understand it effortlessly.  Those sorts of things are something a most common words list just can’t help you with, and there are too many of them to just make of list of that and work at memorizing it.  In a seemingly counterintuitive way, tossing the word lists and drills of the efficient things to learn first out the window, and going for bulk, extensive, context-rich input is the real path to efficiency.

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

Tuesday 8/20

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 9% of ¡Zas!, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of No Hay Tos, 1 episode of Danel San GMR, ~70 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 8/21

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 9% of ¡Zas!, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of No Hay Tos, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 8/22

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 9% of ¡Zas!, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of No Hay Tos, 2 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 8/23

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 9% of ¡Zas!, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of Arte Divierte, 1 episode of No Hay Tos, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 8/24

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 9% of ¡Zas!, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of PerNocte, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 8/25

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 5% of ¡Zas!, ~50 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of DinoCov, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~45 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 8/26

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 14% of ¡Zas!, ~140 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of No Hay Tos, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~70 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 140 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 2/3 books, 640 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 10 youtube episodes, 6 podcasts, and 4 tv episodes watched, 545 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 19 hours 45 minutes

A pretty good week considering.  Tuesday ended up being a little cramped thanks to my birthday, but it was Sunday that ended up being especially filled with other things that got in the way of Spanish time (also the time I try to devote to writing).  Other than those hiccups, it went pretty well.

I finished ¡Zas! on Monday, pushing through the last bit of the book because I felt weird stopping right as everything was wrapping up, and it was a good read altogether.  Not my favorite of the City Watch subseries, but hardly the worst of the series by any means.  Launching into next week, I’m starting La Corona de Hielo, leaving only six books left of the series, which is a total bummer for me.  I’ve been lamenting the arrival of the end of the series, and it’s closing in bit by bit.  I already have a book lined up for afterwards, as a friend is pressuring me to read The World According to Garp, and it just so happens that I should be able to get El Mundo Según Garp without much trouble or cost, but after that I’m going to be at loose ends.  I’m sure I’ll figure out another long form series I’ve been meaning to read or something that I can find to fill the time.  I’d read the Earthsea books, if they weren’t out of print in Spanish and therefore extravagantly expensive.  Who knows, still got time to figure it all out.

Watching and listening time are looking pretty similar to how they have been.  I’ve been trying to fit podcasts in more regularly, as I’ve started taking walks every day that conveniently fit in a podcast (in addition to working, studying Spanish, and writing every day, I’m trying to lose some weight, because one can never be too busy, apparently).  No Hay Tos is an easy choice, but I’ve been looking for more variety.  I enjoy PerNocte quite a bit, but the Argentinean accent of the host and guests makes it super difficult to follow.  I’m often left at loose ends, having no idea what’s going on for significant stretches of time.

This week on Duolingo, unfortunately I didn’t answer any questions that brought up something interesting about the differences between Spanish and English.  Mostly I answered questions I’ve already answered at some point in the past for someone else, like how the interrogative mood in English works (I’m still bewildered that Spanish, with its complex mood rules for subjunctive and imperative statements has no mood for questions, distinguishing a question from a statement solely by the raised tone inflection at the end when speaking or with a question mark in writing, while English, where people are often surprised that there is a subjunctive or imperative mood if they even know what the means, has rules for forming questions that are more complex than either the subjunctive or imperative moods in Spanish), or explaining weird phrasal verbs like “to try on.”  I suppose every week can’t be a winner.

Anyway, that ought to do it for this one.  TTFN.

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