Friday, November 21, 2014

Learning Spanish (or any language) quickly

I'm now in Quito, Ecuador studying Spanish intensively, and I want to share some language-learning methods I've developed that are really helping me. I've tried learning Spanish on-and-off before, but I couldn't say anything outside of the present tense before about 2 weeks prior to arriving in Quito. By the time I arrived, I got slotted as an intermediate student and was speaking in several past and future tenses. I was making lots of mistakes and forgot the words for 'black' and 'white' on the first day, but I was still able to speak intelligibly about relatively complex ideas.

This post describes some resources and techniques I've been using. Besides the ideas from the book and 'fan-fold', which I learned in high school, all these are things I've invented to help me learn Spanish faster. Refining the learning techniques has been a fun side project as I learn the language.

How to Learn Any Language
"How to Learn Any Language" is a book by Barry Farber that I highly recommend. It's a short read at ~150 pages, but it has some pretty powerful ideas. Among them:
  • Throw yourself at the language: don't let the task overwhelm you; instead, commit to grabbing the bull by the horns and immersing yourself in it as much as possible. Commit to total understanding and perfect accent rather than half-assing and learning traveler-speak, and be excited that you're going to be so good.
  • Interact with the language: closely related to (1) above, don't just passively listen to audio programs or read text without trying to understand and really comprehend.
  • Always keep a flash card on you: Waiting at the bank, filling the car with gas, or waiting to pick up a family member? If you have flash cards, it isn't wasted time. And the honest feeling of growth is more meaningful than checking Facebook for the 10th time. Even if you have just 5 seconds, commit to learning 1 word really well.
  • Read real newspaper articles at adult writing levels: part of 'throw yourself at the language', print a newspaper article and highight the words you don't know and look them up. This'll take awhile, but if you stick to the same topic, eventually it'll take less and less time and you'll be reading real material in your target language within a few weeks-months rather than waiting 'til you've gone all the way through a 4 year course.
  • Use Visualization and Assocation to learn vocab: this is super cool, and I don't do it enough. There are lots of cool techniques for memorizing massive amounts of info quickly. One is the "method of loci", where you associate words/faces/etc with places in an imagined physical space like a part of house (read more). Another fun trick is to associate the sound of a new vocab word with the definition somehow, and the more meaningful or personalized the association the better. Making associations raunchy or funny only makes the memory stick better. (Read more)
  • Get a good audio program and use it regularly: Farber recommends the Pimsleur audio language guides, and I found the Spanish Pimsleur programs to be really helpful. They're very different than the standard 'hear a word, repeat the word' junk. They kept me engaged and I found that I remembered what I was learning pretty well. I definitely recommend them. Check your library before you go out and buy a copy. 
There are probably other techniques in the book, but these are the ones that have influenced me.
    My Additions to These Techniques
    Use "Fan Folds" to rock the vocab and even grammar
    To make a fan-fold, take a sheet of lined paper and write a list of 20-30 words in Spanish in a 1-2 inch wide column on the left side. Make another 1-2 inch wide column adjacent to it and add the English translation. This table below will represent the paper at this stage:

    comerto eat
    vivirto live
    hablarto speak
    irto go
    caminarto walk
    el colorthe color
    ... más ...... more ...

    Now fold the paper so the Spanish column is hidden. You should only see the English and the rest of the empty page. Now translate the English into a new column to the right so it looks like this:

    [folded back]to eatcomer
    [folded back]to livevivir
    [folded back]to speakhablar
    [folded back]to goir
    [folded back]to walkcocinar caminar
    [folded back]the colorel color
    [folded back]... more ...... más ...

    Once you've finished, go back and correct your translations. I mistakenly put cocinar (to cook) where I should have put caminar (to walk). But now this column is corrected, so I can fold the English column back and translate the new Spanish column into English. Eventually you'll have 7-8 columns of words on the page: a Spanish column, then the English column, Spanish, English, and so on. If you use the back, you can get ~15 columns on one sheet. I like this better than flash cards for studying vocab at home for a few reasons:
    • Less clutter: 25 words to a page instead of 5 to a card means 1/5 the paper
    • Practice writing: flash cards are read-only after they're created. Writing helps with memorizing both the definition and spelling.
    • Make themed fan-folds: I have a fan-fold here for all the verbs that are irregular in present tense by changing a vowel from 'e' to 'ie', for example 'pensar' changes to 'yo pienso' (I think). Likewise I have an opposites list: hot, cold, big, small, cute, ugly, fat, skinny.
    I like to do the first 4-5 columns in one sitting to really begin memorizing. Then I put away the list and do another column before bed and then another column every day or so. That way I spread the memorizing out over days and really get the words into long-term memory. Combine this with trying to use the words in daily life or in your readings or writings, and those words are yours!

    Treat grammar like vocab
    The perfect tenses are the ones with 'have': I will have eaten, I have eaten, I had eaten, etc. To learn these tenses, all I needed to know was how to conjugate "have", how to form the past participle for verbs, and how to put the two into a sentence. That means I need to learn 3 sets of conjugations for 'haber', one rule for making participles, and one rule for making simple sentences in perfect tenses.

    Rather than learn one tense at a time, I put all the conjugations of the Spanish word for "have" ("haber") into a fan-fold, and practiced them just like I practice any other vocab. Within a day I could speak very simply but intelligibly in the 3 perfect tenses that I care about.

    Get excited about small wins and share the excitement
    When I learn a word one night and it comes up in conversation the next day, and I get it right, that feels really good. I dance a little jig inside. Sometimes, after finishing my sentence, I'll even jokingly tell the person, "Hey, by the way, I just learned that word last night!"

    Never ever ever grind at meaningless vocab or grammar!
    Learning things you don't care about sucks. Bottom line. I've avoided this in a few ways...

    Write out in English what you want to say in Spanish and translate
    I've written out several conversations in English that I realllly wish I could have in Spanish, and then I've tried to translate them. I have the luxury of bringing my translations into my Spanish teacher here to correct, but even if I didn't, translating things at night that I really wish I could have said earlier in the day means that every word and grammatical construct is totally relevant - as I learn the grammar/vocab/idioms I am actively relieving the frustration I felt recently at not being able to say something. I don't know how better to motivate learning than that.

    In addition to conversations, I have also written and corrected several emails in Spanish, and I'm thinking of writing a short story to help practice some past tenses with irregular verbs. I pretty much told my teacher to stop assigning me homework because my 'exercises' were helping so much more.

    Find News Articles or Essays that Actually Matter to You and Have Translations
    I tried Barry Farber's "read newspaper articles" trick and was bored out of my mind, mostly because most news articles are boring and hide more than they illuminate. Then I realized that I follow several writers whose works are translated into Spanish to help them reach a broader audience. The two authors I used for this were Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges. Their work is translated and posted all over, but I used this site to find Spanish versions. Depending on my mood, I translated Spanish to English or English to Spanish.

    Their essays are about as challenging as clearly-written essays get. By the time I was finished with one article from each author, my "social activism" vocab was way bigger than my "kitchen" or "how to shop" vocab, but the articles sustained my interest since I was actually learning meaningful things, and I started to understand grammar students don't normally get 'til their 3rd/4th year. And yeah, I didn't know how to shop when I got to Quito, but I knew a little about how to tell people why I'm here - again, only the vocab that is meaningful to me.

    Learn what you're interested in, don't learn in some arbitrary order
    For me, keeping the studying relevant is necessary for keeping it fun, and keeping it fun is necessary to sustain interest and energy.

    As you can tell from the social-activist translations, and other exercises, I'm learning super out-of-order by the standards of most curricula. People ask me why I'm here and I want to tell them I want to study how to live within an ecosystem, and they ask what I've done so far in this journey and I end up talking about living in an ecovillage in the woods of North Carolina. So my vocab includes "ecological community" and "neo-indigenous", and I barely know the words for common clothes or the names of furniture pieces. But guess what - I'm having really interesting conversations with interesting people, and my interest in the language and how it will help me is only growing as I study and meet people here. I can't overemphasize how helpful it's been to "grab the language by the horns", as Barry recommends, and learn what feels right at each step.

    Even immersing myself here is more easy and fun with this system: I'd probably not be finding such interesting people if I could only talk about shopping, furniture, clothes, and other 1st/2nd year vocab. And the folks I'm finding wouldn't think I was as interesting a person, and our connection would be weaker.

    It's not just the vocab though. Instead of plowing through a textbook chapter of "LEARN ALL THE IMPERFECT PAST TENSE RIGHT NOW", I learn tenses as I go. That means I don't learn irregular verbs until I need them - that is, until I stumble across them in reading or I'm corrected by someone. This is also like a child's learning their first language: don't learn a whole tense at once, but words and rules as you go. It means after 3-4 weeks of decently intense study I can speak intelligibly if often incorrectly in each of past, present, future, conditional tenses. And that means immersing myself here is easier, since I can express complex thoughts and have interesting conversations. Sometimes I get frustrated at only learning by reading/speaking, so as I mentioned earlier, I'll make a fan-fold out of a whole class of irregular verbs and learn it once and for all.

    Sometimes I've found myself limited to simple thoughts because I only know simple words. Being able to express all the tenses and conditionality has helped me avoid this.

    Laugh at mistakes
    Mistakes are a great chance to build repoire with someone. Mistakes are learning opportunities and they're often funny, or can be with the right attitude. When I have this attitude, I'm letting the person I'm talking with know that I can accept constructive criticism, I'm a fun person, and... in general, I'm not an asshole. So I get corrected more, learn more, and feel less frustrated during this phase of intense learning (and mistake making).

    I've even caught my (relatively new and pretty cute) Spanish teacher making a mistake 2-3 times since arriving, and we have as much fun with her mistakes as we do with mine. So yeah, have fun.

    Side note: In Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin, he describes how Franklin and another American assigned as ambassadors to France both tried to learn the language. The other American learned the details of the language better but was very stodgy and not very popular. Franklin was extremely personal, and though he didn't learn French as well, he developed such strong relationships and influence that he was instrumental in bringing the French into the Revolutionary War on the side of the US. The lesson to me is that the whole point of learning a language is to communicate and develop relationships, so while you're learning, don't let the details of the language get in the way of making relationships!

    Go for 'functional' over 'perfect'
    As I've said several times probably, I still mess up a lot, and probably a lot more than I know. I'm purposefully avoiding irregular verbs and minor rules in the beginning while I get the main rules down pat. But I'm learning a framework of rules to which I can add exceptions, and I can have complex conversations already, which is really important because I'm only studying at this school for a few months. I don't need to be perfect when I leave, but I need to be functional and I need to be able to self-teach effectively.

    Don't overplan and don't stress about procrastinating
    Just as I don't let textbooks determine the order in which I learn, I don't let "me from 2 days ago" decide either. If on Thursday I think it'd be great to review future perfect tense on Saturday, and Saturday comes and I don't give a shit, I don't study future perfect tense.

    Emotionally this can be a trap. If I study what I'd planned, I get frustrated, bored, and anxious. If I don't study what I'd planned, I can have feelings of disappointment, guilt, and anxiety. Faced with this, I use some meditative techniques I've learned this year to calm down. Among other things, I remember why I'm doing this: to have fun, to be able to talk to a few hundred million people more, and to enable me to explore a new lifestyle I'm passionate about. So long as I maintain my vision and energy, all I need is to listen to my body, heart and mind and rest when that's the healthy thing to do. This way I'll have the energy to go full blast other times.

    One interesting thing I've heard before, and which I'm confirming for myself now, is that procrastination is often a sign that the task isn't important or reasonable in some way. If I'm too tired or I care too little, I'm likely to procrastinate. Instead of feeling guilty, I ask whether the task matters or whether I need to take a break. Then if I avoid the task, I have no feelings of guilt - I know I can either ditch the task entirely or come back to it when I'm ready.

    Be fearless in conversations and seek opportunities to practice
    I'm hoping to study martial arts, improve at salsa dancing,make friends with locals, and go hiking a few times with a local hiking group while I'm studying in Quito. Among the multitude of reasons I'm interested in these activities, they give me lots of chances to listen to and speak with locals.

    The first step to being fearless in conversations, even with near strangers, is to emotionally accept that the worst thing that can happen is that I make lots of mistakes. Often as not, those mistakes will lead to laughter and make it a more memorable conversation than it would have been anyway - so the worst thing that can happen ain't that bad! And when the worst thing that can happen ain't that bad, you know you're doin' it right.

    Still, I couldn't be fearless if there were truly no way to express the ideas I have. Besides emotionally accepting I'll make mistakes, I have to have some way to express the thoughts, so the other techniques I've used have helped make the immersion much more meaningful. Some Americans I've met have confirmed that merely being in Ecuador and getting 20 hours of private Spanish lessons per week is not enough to really become conversational.

    In Summary
    • Be passionate and reinforce the passion: if you lose interest in your project, how important was it in the first place? Either rekindle your passion or wait 'til it rekindles on its own.
    • Study what you care about when you care: don't waste your time and emotionally energy on things you find boring or meaningless. You won't remember them as well anyway.
    • Don't overcomplicate things: don't learn a rule and 10,000 exceptions at once; learn the rule, practice a bunch, even mis-learning a few irregular verbs, and then correct yourself over time once you're comfortable with the basics. I've found that re-learning irregular verbs is very easy.
    • Sprint to get to past, present, future, and conditional: If you're stuck in present tense, you're stuck expressing incredibly simple ideas no matter your vocab. Learn the main grammar quickly and you'll love dropping in new words to fill the grammatical structures you have.
    • Have fun and don't stress: beats the alternative, right?
    • If immersion or conversations aren't working, find other techniques: Even being immersed, it's easy to not practice large chunks of grammar or vocab. Be creative about finding other techniques like making up conversations or finding meaningful articles online to supplement.

    A study in natural learning
    Before 'formal education' and when humans lived in smaller, more self-reliant communities, they learned incredible amounts about navigation, plants, medical care, animals, ecology, astronomy, weather, geography - you name it, and without curricula and textbooks. Using a mix of personal exploration and various kinds of mentorship, they learned these things as they needed to, because they needed to or because they were naturally curious. Not to make it sound like it was all fun-times and super easy, but humans have evolved to learn well and rapidly under certain circumstances, and we can learn really poorly if we try to learn under very alien circumstances. So this Spanish-learning experience is actually a chance for me to experiment with and practice a different kind of learning than I experienced in school growing up - experimental, self-directed, self-aware, fun. I expect the techniques and attitudes I'm learning will pay dividends far beyond the actual Spanish.

    I'm also very excited to explore "Coyote Learning". If you're interested in alternative forms of learning, check out short introductions here and here.