When I started this blog to study and analyze menus in Spanish I had no “required” activity; I could pick and chose what I’d look into and when. Then I decided to actually try to learn Spanish. It’s been fun but now it’s become a chore.
See I don’t really have any knack for languages. I can manipulate symbols, find patterns in raw data, analyze and comment on findings – that’s easy. But none of that requires actually committing anything to long-term memory.
OTOH, learning a language means practice, practice, practice. And more practice. If you stop for a while you start forgetting what you learned. Use it or lose it – progress is easily lost if you don’t constantly refresh your memory.
Now learning your first and initially only language is easy. What else do you have to do. Every waking hour you’re exposing the that language, listening, even if purely passive in the hearing range of some conversation (as a baby would), reading (what else could you read except that language), writing and speaking. But when it comes to a second language, especially one you don’t actually ever need during your waking hours, except in the context of study, you don’t get that constant repetition.
And here’s a tough thing. When you start learning a language and don’t know anything, it’s actually pretty easy. Most of the online learning systems depend on this, starting from scratch in a few weeks you think you know something.
But here’s the bad news. Even you learn faster than I do you’re looking at years before you even approach fluency. And worse, the more you learn, the more you forget. You learn a lot of words and some prose constructs you rarely use, a variant of the 80-20 rule. IOW, 20% of the language you use 80% of the time. I can’t even do anything without seeing y or el or para, so naturally that’s easy. But how often do I use pasillo or pizarra or patines. Even if you only look at menus or recetas, how often do you see berza, cebollino or remolacha?
If you don’t repeat what you’ve learned you will forget. I use two primary techniques to learn Spanish – Duolingo (self-study, online) and now my live class. I’ve done Duolingo for almost 600 days, faithfully every day, through now 98 of the lessons. I’ve done nearly 90,000 individual drills and have accumulated at least 5000 word forms. My real classes are now nearly 50 hours of immersion (Spanish only conversation and lessons).
I’m quite pleased with the progress I’ve made, given three times before I failed to make any headway at all trying to learn Spanish. But now it’s becoming an ordeal. It’s not just my age, as it is commonly believed that learning another language is harder as one ages and much harder in one’s twilight years, but I got nowhere with this language, that half a billion people can easily speak fluently, even when I was younger.
So, of recent I’ve gotten a bit tired of my routine I’d developed over 1.5 years and began to try other things. Also I decided to focus more on learning new material than repeating old material.
What are the consequences?
My error rate has skyrocketed. Constructs that were once easy and I now miss in stupid ways. It is inevitable that repetition, given the same amount of study time per day, is going to decrease. If you’ve done ten lessons and you do 5 lessons per day, half new material, half repetition, it will only take you four days to repeat all previous drills. But push that to 100 lessons and more than half the study time to newer material now the average duration (I keep tons of records to analyze) between repeating a lesson is now over 15 days. And that, being a statistic means a classic Gaussian (bell curve) distribution which means some lessons are repeated every 30 days and some others every day or so. In fact, the program I wrote for myself to schedule what lessons I should do now has a bias to almost force me to repeat lessons I haven’t done for 30+ days. That bias is now slowing down my time devoted to lessons in new material.
And I’m only 61.6% done with Duolingo lessons, about 40% done with vocabulary from various “stories” I used for reading practice and only about 20% done with the vocabulary at least mentioned once (that I can record) in my immersion lessons. Despite working really hard it feels like I’m just falling further and further behing.
And then every now and then I go try to read online real-world stuff (not the graded materials for learning, like CERF A2 stories which is about where I’m at). Discouraging. As much as I feel I’ve learned trying to deal with real world Spanish makes me feel like I’m a baby, hardly able to communicate at all.
But, and the point of this post, is the more I learn, the more I forget, plus the more I realize I need to learn. Almost every day, certainly every week I learn something (not just more words) that I hadn’t seen before, so, por ejemple, now I just learned what se vende queso really means, i.e. using the passive instead of active voice (I’d muddled through this before, catching most of the meaning (simple) but not the actual phrasing).
So now, every day I feel like doing something else than just drills, I end up feeling guilty. If I don’t do drills there another something I’ll forget. Go a week without drills and my error rate (which I record and analyze diligently) noticeably increases. And that’s on top of the fact that many mistakes I made months ago I make again today. Try as I can and the usual difficulties, ser vs estar, preterite vs imperfect, por vs para, I still make almost as many mistakes as I did when I first learned about these things.
I feel like if COVID weren’t stopped me, now if I went on a vacation I’d forget everything I’ve learned.
So this is turning out a bit like my exercise routine. Almost every day I do miles on my stationary bike and my treadmill. If I skip one day, it’s fine because I’ll actually have rested a bit and the next day doing exercise is easier. But skip a couple of days and then it’s hard to do the same workouts I routinely did. And try as I do to avoid the ravages of age, my obsession with record keeping and programs shows my steady decline even when I manage to keep it up.
So when I realize how much more I have to learn losing any progress I’ve made feels awful. And that makes me a slave to all this. Simply put: a) the language learning isn’t fun any more, and, b) I’m not even doing the things I originally wanted to do, i.e. reading menus and recipes. Just trudging along every day.
And, por cierto, I’m retired and don’t even have the time conflicts of work, plus now stuck at home due to COVID, even much of any other activity to do. I clearly have the time but now I’m really losing the motivation.
So I really hope the COVID thing gets over (as almost every other person does) so I can have a goal. If I were headed to Spain next April or even Oaxaca in December there is a reason I need to be able to have some Spanish fluency. Sheesh, even something locally available, shopping in the Latino grocery stores, would be an incentive, but unfortunately the highest local infection rate is in that part of the state. I’ve love to ask a grocery what the difference is between jitomate and tomate (not just one is used in Latin America and the other in Spain).
I started all this because I had extra time and I had just doing nothing as all my life I’ve worked hard on projects. It was fun, now, I’m not so sure.