Perhaps my issue with languages was around expectations?

I said last time that I’m generally a fast learner, so I always viewed my painfully slow and limited progress with languages as a sign that I simply don’t have the language-learning gene. However, it may be that, where languages are concerned, I’m simply a normal-speed learner …

I’ve kept up the Duolingo for 37 days now, and just completed Unit 1 of 10. Occasionally I’ve been lazy and just done a single (2-3 minute) lesson to maintain my unbroken daily record, but most days I’ve done significantly more. The app gives you about 10-20 points per lesson, plus various bonuses, and I’ve averaged 197 points per day.

If I were to assess my own progress based on my ability to say in Spanish things I’m likely to want to say, I’d rate it ‘fairly hopeless.’ However, Duolingo tells me I’ve completed and mastered 4% of the course, and that my scores are above average. I’m able to either recognise or figure out a surprising amount of written Spanish, and can do the same with spoken Spanish when it is s-l-o-w!

Steph tells me that things which frustrate me (like being able to recognise words but not remember them when I want to say something) are a perfectly normal part of the language learning process.

I’m still using Duolingo as my primary form of learning, but am dipping into a few other resources, and there have been occasional lightbulb moments. Such as the knowledge that if an English word ends in ‘–ant,’ then a good guess at the Spanish word would be the same word, but ending in ‘ante’ and pronounced accordingly – so ‘important’ becomes ‘im-port-ant-ay.’

Which is another thing. I’m a perfectionist. Generally, if I can’t do something well, I’d prefer not to do it at all. So the idea of just taking a guess at what a word might be and trying it is anathema to me! But it’s also an effective strategy, because some of the time it will be correct, other times it will be incorrect but people will figure out what you mean, and the rest of the time you’ll at least know a word you need to look up.

Gendered words likewise. Sometimes you can work it out, but a fair number of Spanish words seem randomly gendered to me. A Spaniard’s advice is simply not to sweat it: native speakers know there’s often no logic, and people will still understand you when you get it wrong.

So I’m trying to let go of my perfectionism and simply try things. Much like my tango.

The biggest surprise to me has been how addictive it’s become! I usually do at least one lesson as soon as I wake, and many time I’ll do ‘just one more’ and then ‘just another one’ …

The real test of all of this, of course, will be my month in Buenos Aires. How much will I be able to understand? How much will I be able to say? How much will my Spanish improve while I’m there?


7 thoughts on “Perhaps my issue with languages was around expectations?”

  1. One thing that I found is that learning a language can be an asymmetric process in that one can quickly get to the point where you can understand much more than you can say or write

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  2. Ben, ¿cómo estás? Hablando como someone who speaks several languages I have thought a lot about how I acquired and continue to acquire them. Formal teaching/learning in my opinion is overrated and there is a basic hubristic element on the part of teachers and learners, based on a premise that language can be tamed and spoon-feed in grammatically organised chunks to hungry intellects. Self-teaching with AV tools requires a lot of self-motivation but is poor at providing subtle feedback. One-to-one private lessons are tiring for teacher and pupil alike. Small groups of learners (small enough so that everyone gets to contribute) provide a more productive environment, as there are plenty of opportunities for lightbulb moments when you notice others mistakes and learn from them and progress as a result. Schoo-class-size groups are a waste of time for learning to speak (speaking is the role of the teacher at school!) and marginally better for learning to read,
    I once did two years of Japanese evening classes, but learned very little. Working hard and having a young family left little time to do homework between lessons and I missed a few of those with the occasional work trip taking me away. The teacher, Keiko, was a personal friend.
    I later did an intensive course in Japanese over two weeks with a teacher who practiced an approach called the Silent Way, developed originally by Caleb Gattegno, so called because the teacher never ever speaks (really) but the class learns and is constantly engaged. I learned more in two weeks than I had in two years of evening classes. When I went to see Keiko on my return she could not believe the progress I had made.
    Gattegno’s approach was inspired by the way a child learns its mother tongue, basically by trial and error, getting it progressively less wrong over time, learning individual sounds, combining them, learning the meaning others attach to those combinations, lots of lightbulb moments, learning to produce those sounds in order to communicate and so on . Grammar is an overrated a language learning tool. It’s an interesting intellectual adjunct for those who already know a language, but of limited use as a way in. The key to speaking a language fluently is that is comes from within. There is no time to analyse grammar rules as you get your point across
    Listening is key to understanding. Why are the Dutch and the Swedes and the Czechs so good at English and other languages? In part in order to survive, but also because they are exposed to English (etc.) daily by subtitled TV programmes (is TV still a thing?), so kids in Poland learn to read their own language while their ear gets used to the “music” of the broadcast language in the background of the cartoon they are watching. Once you get used to the “music” you start to pick out individual words in people’s sentences. If you recognise them you learn to place them in context and you find you start using them when the opportunity comes. By the time they come to formally “learn” they are well on the way.


  3. When I first moved to Spain many years ago I didn’t speak much Spanish, but I had the advantage of speaking French, some Italian and having done Latin at school . One thing that helped me to learn really fast was buying paperbacks from second hand booksellers of pulp fiction (might that genre appeal to you?) with easy plot lines and translations of things I had already read in English, such as Brighton Rock. I just started reading, without worrying too much whether I understood every word. While I was focused on the story more than the language, I was absorbing loads of new words and elements of sentence construction through context, which subsequently found their way into my own “production” without me understanding where they came from. It just builds and builds.

    I also realised early on the value of going to the market, where I had to ask for everything, to buy my food and avoiding supermarkets where I didn’t have to even open my mouth. As with a young child learning to talk it really is about trial and error and realising the value of the correction that may (hopefully – people hold back) follow the error far outweighs the embarrassment of using the wrong word or expression.


    1. Thanks, Mark. I think being willing to make mistakes – knowing they are inevitable – is a huge part of it. I’m not at the stage where reading books is remotely possible, but I am trying subtitled videos to see whether I absorb anything that way.


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