I haven’t posted about personal projects in a while, but I’ve updated a few people in my life about this recently and thought others might be interested as well. After finishing up my stats degree a few years ago, I realized I was almost certainly never going back to school again. That was fine for a while, and while I was dealing with some health issues some rest seemed to be exactly what I needed. However, a few months ago I started itching for a new intellectual project, and realized that I would love to become trilingual. Worldwide, speaking more than one language is the norm. I think it’s actually a little unclear what the percentages are, but the estimates seem to cluster around 40-50% of people worldwide speak 2 languages, and 15-20% more speak 3+. This leaves around 40% only speaking one language. In the US however, only about 20% of people can speak 2 (or more) languages, and this number represents a big increase from prior years. Now some of this could be the lack of regional language variation in the US (you can drive for 3000 miles without hitting a new language), but still, I thought it would be fun to be able to converse in another language. So I decided to do some research.
Because this was just a self driven goal, I decided a few things:
- I was going to start with Spanish (4 years of high school learning, but I was never comfortable with it)
- I’d give myself 5 years to get conversationally fluent in each language
- I’d give myself 3 months to figure out what method I would use
- I was really okay if I just became bilingual, so making as much progress as I could in one language was cool too.
The internet has a plethora of information about language learning, so I had a lot to read. Some of the most helpful stuff I came across said I needed to define my goals/reasons to help figure out my approach, so that led me to a couple other rules:
- I wanted to be able to comfortably watch Spanish language movies without subtitles
- Speaking immediately wasn’t important to me, as I am not planning travel any time soon
- I wanted something I could do on my own schedule, and that would be interesting enough for me to see the project through.
This led me to Comprehensible Input, or the input hypothesis. This is a language learning theory (or group of theories) that essentially states that at first, listening is more important than speaking. It’s based on the work of Stephen Krashen, who noted that listening before speaking is how we all acquire our first language, and maybe we should try to mimic that when we acquire a second language. There’s a lot of ins and outs to the theory from a linguistic perspective, many of which are on his website. While this method is a little hard to use in a traditional classroom, it’s exploded in popularity among independent learners. In the age of the internet, getting your hands on media in your target language is easier than ever and more fun than sitting in a classroom. I decided to go for it using a website called Dreaming Spanish, which makes videos specifically designed for adult learners looking to use this method. They specialize in videos that are easier than “native” media, to help you get up to that level. Pablo (the owner) explains the method here, along with the estimated number of hours of viewing it will take you to get to each level. Being numbers driven, I really liked the idea of being able to track hours to monitor my progress, so I decided to go for it. Most of the beginner videos are free, and once you hit the intermediate level it was $7/month (now up to $8/month) to get access to most of the intermediate videos. Less than $100/year to learn a language was a heck of a lot cheaper than grad school, so I went with the subscription.
Pablo estimates that you will need 1000 hours of input to be conversational in Spanish (based on being an English speaker), and 1500 hours to be essentially fluent. I decided to set a goal of 20 hours/month, which would put me at conversational in a little over 4 years and fully fluent in a little over 6 years. I decided to start September 1st, 2021, though I had already watched 40 hours during my investigation period. Here’s how I’m doing so far:
So far I have met or exceeded my goal every month. I started out 42 hours ahead of schedule, and now I am 64 hours ahead of where I thought I’d be. My new goal is to get to Level 4 by the one year mark, which I will meet if I continue to hit 20 hours/month.
More important than just the numbers however, I would say my progress is tracking with Pablo’s estimates. At level 3 (my current level) he estimates I should be able to understand topics adapted for learners, which I can. By level 4 (300 hours) I should be able to understand patient native speakers. At Level 5 (600 hours) I should be able to understand full speed native speakers, and a lot of media will be easier to use for learning.
Also important, the amount of time I spend on this has actually gone up in the last 6 months, which proves this method is engaging, at least for me! Here are my hours/month since I started, not counting the hours I put in before I decided to go with this method:
Interestingly, the jump in hours approximately correlates with hitting the first intermediate level, where I could watch faster videos with fewer drawings/hints for words. I did notice I was more excited to watch the more I felt myself improving in comprehension, which explains why February (one of the shortest months) was my highest number of hours to date.
I won’t pretend I understand all the linguistic debates over whether or not this method is truly superior, but I do have to think that having students get excited over their learning method is a key marker of success. I will never learn Spanish the way I want if I give up after a year, so any method that gets more exciting over time is a plus.
I’ll be updating periodically on my progress.
4 thoughts on “The Spanish Project – March 2022”
I found that even when I lived in Germany during my Army period that the immersive method works really well but once I came home and had no one to speak to I lost most of my German language. I can get around in Germany, Spain, and Italy but I am no way fluent.
My husband lived in Austria for a few years when he was a kid and said the same thing about his German. I’ve heard that’s the same reason most polyglots can’t acquire more than 8 or so languages….the upkeep is too labor intensive and something starts to slip.
Because I listen to linguistics podcasts and brought in sons who were not English fluent I have had a lot of time and reason to think on these things, and have picked up some knowledge. First, listening and speaking are quite different, which is why people who learned a language as a child can still go back to the old country and pick up understanding almost immediately, even though they are embarrassingly bad at speaking for a longer period – until it suddenly clicks. Both my sons identified that they gradually got into understanding Romanian, but the switch to speech a day or two later was sudden. The brain learns early to divide things up and to hear what is a word and what isn’t, so that it automatically makes the divisions even if you can’t remember what they mean at first. If you listen to a person speaking an unfamiliar language at speed, you can’t even discern where one word leaves off and another picks up.
Secondly, the Krashen advice was good, because people learn a language for a reason, and Americans don’t really have much of a reason. We are instructed to feel ashamed, because “The Dutch speak four languages, even though they smoke marijuana,” as Eddie Izzard says. But our reasons are mostly internal, as yours are. We learn what we need to, other things are optional.
An easy and fun way to build is to pick a novel that you really enjoyed as a teen and read it again in the target language. Don’t, or rarely, look up words. Just read it as you would any novel in your native language. In Spanish this is particularly easy, since so much of the vocabulary easily translates, the grammar has few exceptions, and the letters always sound like what you expect them to.
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