Wrapping Up My Mini Add1 Challenge Pt. 1

tenpo ni la mi ken ala ken toki kepeken toki pona? mi sona e ni: ala.

With week four wrapping up, that means this mini Add1 Challenge for Toki Pona is coming to an end.  It was a strange and wild month, and before getting back into the swing of the Spanish grind, I think it’s only appropriate to go through a post-mortem on the experiment, what I learned from it, how I’d try to approach it were I to do it all over again, and where I plan to go from here.  In the broadest strokes, I think this experience was well worth it, if a bit frustrating at times, and I’m ultimately glad that I did it, but as this blog has always about providing more information than is necessary, let’s dig a bit deeper than that.

Going into this project, I was completely unsure how things would end up.  Toki Pona is a subject that gets bandied about now and again among both language learners and conlang enthusiasts, and with those conversations often come some boastful claims about how easy it is to learn.  Those sorts of claims—which aren’t exactly unheard of for learning real life languages, either—always leave me skeptical, because the promise of ‘learn a language in twelve days’ just comes off as a sales pitch.  Learn a language in twelve days, if you buy my book and take my learning course!

On the other hand, we’re talking about a language with only 120 words in its lexicon, so, y’know, maybe that isn’t all smoke and mirrors?  If just knowing what all the words mean counts as ‘learning the language,’ then I think it would be hard not to learn it in twelve days of concentrated effort, because there’s just so little to learn.  Of course, knowing what a word means and being able to understand a language in situ are different things, but if the vocab part would naturally be that accelerated, I was curious how the rest of the language learning experience would go.  On the whole, it seemed like it was worth a shot just to see where things would be after a month.  I’ve embarked on a handful of other single month experiments with this blog before, changing up my learning methods to see what would happen, with mixed results, so this wasn’t an unprecedented thing for me.  And if it was a success, hey, that means I learned a third language over the course of a single month experiment.  If it was a failure, well, then, it’s just time to get back to work on Spanish, using the methods that were getting results before, right?

It’s interesting how odd and uneven this month has been in how I’ve felt about the project over time.  It started off almost exactly how I expected it would, going through the language nerd discovery and exploration period with it, learning the vocab, learning to wrap my head around the grammar, and moving from the opaque, outsider perspective of knowing nothing to the point where I could understand things.  It went quickly, so much so that in hindsight, I think I spent too long on that lesson-reviewing stage and ought to have moved onto input faster—and I spent eight days on the lesson phase, that’s how quick this all goes.

That sort of work building a foundation can be useful and necessary, but it’s easy to fall into it as a crutch for too long, simply because “I don’t remember all of it,” feels like a compelling excuse when you say it in your head.  The reality, though, is that lessons are a terrible way to learn languages, so of course you don’t remember all of it.  You just need some toehold first before you can begin to learn through input, because the only thing worse than a lesson for language learning is translating text one word at a time.  As soon as you can move past that stage and into one where you can figure out what you’re getting through, even if it’s rough and tumble here and there, the better it’s going to go.

Dawdling or not, in week two I moved into input and was blown away by the progress.  There isn’t a ton of Toki Pona out there to consume, considering it is a conlang and is limited to the whims and projects of the enthusiasts out there who are willing to put in the work, but it isn’t a barren wasteland, either.  The fact that jan lawa lili existed, a translation of not only one of my favorite books but one that I’d read before as part of this blog, was kinda wonderful to me, and it was the first thing I tried to read.  I approached it expecting to get some amusement out of it before trying something else, considering how difficult it had been in Spanish, and lo and behold, eight days in, I could read the damn thing.

I’m being, perhaps, more charitable than I ought to here in calling it reading, though.  I’m familiar with the source material and could “follow” the Toki Pona version with a decent helping of optimism and tolerance for not understanding things, because not understanding things is what I spent a long time doing with it.  I could pick up bits and pieces of what sentences meant as I went—after all, I recognized the words, and I could figure out that soweli meli, literally ‘female animal,’ meant ‘sheep’ when the little prince demanded the narrator draw it, but there was a lot of background noise between the parts I did understand.  Really, I was just excited to be there, week two of a language learning project, actually reading The Little Prince to a level where it was familiar for me as I went.

The following week, and reality came crashing down.

Okay, so I’m adding to the melodrama here, because of course I am, this is a blog about learning languages, gotta find my excitement somewhere.  What I mean is that without the same familiarity of material and moving into something with more complicated ideas behind it, I found myself adrift in a sea of not understanding anymore.  jan lawa lili had been followed by nasin suli pi jan Melin, a brief retelling of the Merlin story in plain language, which felt like a nice building-on point from the previous.  It was something I wasn’t so familiar with I could fill in the details on, but it was straightforward and I could figure it out pretty well.  And then I got to sike mama, a translation of The Egg by Andy Weir.

I’d read The Egg before, but it isn’t something that I’m that familiar with, and it was translated to a higher level of complexity than my previous forays had been.  This proved troublesome to tackle, and I spent a long while reading it and going back over it and its English version, because even if I had trouble reading it in Toki Pona, it was set up well for me to reverse engineer the translation from its original form.  This is helpful work, but it is frustrating work.  I cleansed my palate there with some children’s stories that I could follow pretty much perfectly.

Then I hit Winnie the Pooh and the wheels fell off.

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced having to give up on something I was reading because it was too hard, I think the last time might have been Harry Potter of all things years ago now.  I muscled through several books that were ostensibly above my reading level in Spanish after that, because even though they were perhaps too hard to be all that much fun, they were still followable enough for me to get through them.  I only gave up on things where I might as well had to read them by translating one word at a time.

Which is how soweli Wini Pu en jan pi ale ale ale felt for me.  I’d forgotten how conversational and digressive Winnie the Pooh’s prose was, and the translation was going for maximum fidelity rather than simplicity, which was a recipe for me to just be utterly lost.  After a day’s struggle referring back and forth with the original source material, I gave up the ghost and did other things.  It was the right call, but it left a sour feeling behind it, and I went into the final week thinking that four weeks just wasn’t going to be enough for anything with Toki Pona to really stick with me in the long run.

For this final week of the project, I started off going back through jan lawa lili, and—much like the second reading of El Principito—was pleasantly surprised by how much easier it was to read.  The final week continued on in that vein, with a mixture of new attempts and revisits to previous things, including soweli Wini Pu, and being pleasantly surprised by how well it was going.  I wanted to end on a high note, and somehow, miraculously, I made it.

This play-by-play is starting to get a little long in the tooth, so I’m going to wrap things up for now at this point.  Overall it was a good experience that I’m glad I attempted despite the rough patches, because those rough patches made the victories feel that much more earned.  Next week we’ll get to a part two of this post-mortem, because now that the project is finished, the question is what it really accomplished, and where to go from here.

Now then, let’s take a look at the numbers for the week.

Tuesday 7/14

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Reading: 9 chapters of jan lawa lili, ~90 minutes

Wednesday 7/15

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Reading: 6 chapters of jan lawa lili, ~60 minutes

Thursday 7/16

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Reading: 7 chapters of jan lawa lili, ~60 minutes

Friday 7/17

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Reading: 2 chapters of soweli Wini Pu en jan pi ale ale ale, ~90 minutes

Saturday 7/18

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Reading: 2 chapters of soweli Wini Pu en jan pi ale ale ale, ~90 minutes

Sunday 7/19

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Reading: various subreddit threads, ~90 minutes

Monday 7/20

Spanish:

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes

Toki Pona:

  • Reading: various subreddit threads, ~90 minutes

Total Spanish:

  • Total Duolingo: 140 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total Time: 0 hours 0 minutes

Total Toki Pona:

  • Total Reading: 26 chapters and various social media posts read, 570 minutes
  • Total Time: 9 hours 30 minutes
  • Combined Total Time: 9 hours 30 minutes

You’ll notice a gradual uptick in time as the week went on, and that’s largely because work’s calming down again—I think we were deep in the throes of the extended tax deadline landing like a sack of bricks on top of everything else going on in the financial world, but that’s all over now—so I had some more free time to devote to using my brain.

I didn’t delve into all the specifics of this week in the main blog, so aside from the successful returns to jan lawa lili and soweli Wini Pu en jan pi ale ale ale, I also think it’s good to mention the tail end of the week.  In order to try and wrap things up in style, on Sunday I ventured out from the more structured world of prosey input in search of actual usage, delving through some Toki Pona-based subreddits.  I ain’t much of a redditor, but I managed to fill up a decent chunk of time just reading through conversation threads, resulting in possibly the only time in my life where I felt like social media was a good use of my time.

Anyway, I’m going to save talking in detail about ‘what’s next’ for part two next week, so for now I’ll just say that I’m excited to return my sights to Spanish.  Me siento como han pasado cien años, y no me gusta ese sentimiento.  Bueno, ya es suficiente, hasta pronto, until then, mi tawa, and TTFN.

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