Thursday, January 17, 2019

Love Letters to my life #7: Confronting hubris

There is a line ...
by Joyce Wycoff

(This love letter to my life is written on my death day and reminds me to be grateful for my deslumbrante life.)

There is a line between insanity and genius. 
It is a wide line, perhaps a field ... a field I like to play in.

Four years ago I did a deep dive into learning Spanish and quickly decided that something was wrong somewhere. 

Because of a multitude of past failures, I had deliberately decided to do an immersion in a San Miguel de Allende language school. By day two, I asked to move from the group class to a private coach. My coach was a lovely person and I was learning stuff, pieces of grammar and words, but they weren’t creating a picture, nor coming together into language. On the whole, our sessions were like a foggy mountain range. The peaks were individual words or phrases I could hear and understand but the vast range was obscured by the fog.

In between the hour-long coaching sessions, I walked the streets and discovered a new school …. la escuela de las calles. In that school, words started to come to life. When I noticed that many businesses were identified with words that ended with -eria, I began to take pictures of them … and learn from them. This continued as I moved on to San Cristóbal de las Casas and the list of -eria words has now grown to almost 100 ... such as: 

For a few weeks of the almost four months spent in San Cristóbal, a coach worked with me with with almost the same result as San Miguel. I was “learning” words and grammar but not really connecting with the language. And, I definitely wasn’t speaking in spite of the fact that everyone kept telling me to just start talking. I wasn’t sure how to do that. It wasn’t particularly that I was afraid of making mistakes ... more that I didn’t have enough words to make mistakes with.

This tossed me into researching how other people were learning a new language. Suddenly a whole new world opened up. If you google, “How to learn a new language,” almost 4 BILLION results will show up … ranging from academic research to hundreds of resources, and uncounted classes that promise you fluency in 3.4 minutes. 

It was a relief to see so many other people having similar problems, reporting the same failures ... long series of adult ed classes (dropping out because they were so boring), big boxes of flash cards (disconnected and boring), tiny labels all over the house, cassettes littering the floors of cars, and, for me at least, an expensive set of Pimsleur CDs. 

A lot of what I was reading connected with what I had learned in my years of creating workshops for adults: learning needs to be relevant, engaging, and related to our own life and goals. The first aha! I had on this path was that no one was asking me why I wanted to learn Spanish or how much of it I wanted to learn. They just started in, generally, right after "Buenos dias, Señor," with grammar and verb conjugations. 

I realized I had never gotten clear about why I wanted to learn Spanish. So, I went back to the streets, taking pictures, falling in love with Mexico, wishing I could speak Spanish, realizing it was going to take more than being in the country or attending a few classes to make it happen.

As I was trying to find my way through the forest of a new language, I started thinking there must be a better way, a thought form drilled into me by years in the world of innovation. This was immediately followed by: 

Who am I to challenge the way language is learned?

After I left Mexico, the idea of learning Spanish took a back seat for two years, until one day I was living on the largest lake in Mexico, surrounded by English, suddenly determined to learn Spanish.

I had volunteered to be on the board for the Feria Maestros del Arte, the premier Mexican folk art fair, and I desperately wanted to talk to the artists about their work and their lives. I wanted to explore Mexico, the parts of Mexico where the ability to speak Spanish was critical. I truly needed to speak Spanish.

What to do? I knew the Spanish class route wouldn’t work for me, so when I discovered Warren Hardy’s Self-paced Home Study program, I thought that was it. For a little over eleven months, I worked my way through 600 pages of grammar workbooks. Well-organized but tedious and boring workbooks. I felt like I had built the foundation for language and I was ready to step into spoken Spanish. 

I knew why I wanted to speak Spanish and I knew my goal was conversational Spanish. It was time to find an immersion program that would provide a bridge into spoken Spanish. I found a highly rated one in Cuernavaca that offered a sub-text of women’s issues in Mexico. Perfect. I would learn more about the Mexican culture and have a two-week immersion in Spanish, including a home stay with a Mexican family.

Spoiler: mid-way through day one, I dropped out of the class part of the course.

Claudia (home stay mamá) and CD (class mate)
It wasn’t the school. The people were delightful and caring. The activities they had planned were enticing. It was that class thing again. I had learned along the way that classes can only go as fast as the slowest student in the class. Because of all the Warren Hardy work I had done, I wasn’t the slowest person in the class even though I still sounded like a first-year high school student.

Dropping out and having to tell the people at the school that I didn’t want to take their carefully planned classes was one of the hardest things I’ve done, especially because of the language gap. While their English was good, talking about abstract learning concepts was difficult. However, I knew that if I didn’t take charge of my own learning path, I might give up the entire idea of learning Spanish. 

I knew they wanted to help me. One of the things I had discovered about learning a language and my own progress to date was the importance of the sound of the language. Most of the Spanish I was hearing was falling into a chaotic chasm of meaninglessness and it was clear that my ears and mouth needed to be trained to hear and speak the sounds of Spanish. I could stay with class and play nice or I could take responsibility for my own learning.

Sounds good, except for the fact that I had no Plan B in place.

Two new resources appear

Pollito Tito
That night as I was sitting in my casita wondering, "What now?" when I recalled a delightful retelling of the Chicken Little story I had found online a few days before. The story was produced by The Spanish Experiment, and combined audio with the story.

The main character of the story was Pollito Tito and that alliterative phrase had played across my mind many times. Now it prompted a new idea:

What if I used that story as a learning aide ... read and study it until I knew all the words, practiced the sounds since it included an audio version, and had a coach listen to my reading it and give me feedback?

I asked the school if they would help with this process and they generously agreed. Since The Spanish Experiment is from Spain, the pronunciation is slightly different and required using different pronunciation guides but it started me on a process that is proving helpful.

The second resource appears.  

Pollito Tito gave me one process study process I needed but didn't address the need to build vocabulary. I had tried flashcards more than once, but couldn't get past the boring routine of them.

Flashcards are a staple of language learning. Turns out, however, there’s also some basic flaws with them … the first (after being boring) is that they are translations. One side is an English word, the other side is the Spanish equivalent. Sounds fine but it means your brain is translating from one language to another, slowing it down and limiting connections.

Words are actually abstractions of objects, actions, feelings or thoughts so the brain is going from one abstract concept to another, a process of translation, boring at best. Plus they are someone else's ideas of the words you should be learning. What if you don't want or need to learn the Spanish for helicopter? (Which was actually in one of my early workbooks.)

Gabriel Wyner in his book Fluent Forever, taught me a new process similar to flashcards but which eliminates English and substitutes an image chosen by the learner. Thus, the bridge between the two languages is an image common to both, taking the learner out of translation mode. Being a primarily visual learner, this process appealed to me and I began to make "flashcards" using Apple Keynote (PC Powerpoint).

Suddenly, learning was fun … and it should be fun. It shouldn’t be a chore.

Wyner has created an app that I’m just starting to use. The benefit of the app is that it has a built in spaced memory repetition system that works with the brain's pace of forgetting in order to create long-term retention. Apparently you can create the same type of cards with Anki. For me, however, using Anki was not an easy, intuitive process.

The Fluent Forever app (still in Beta ... I'm using it since I supported it in Kickstarter) also has a sound-training process that I'm just starting to use and think it will be a powerful aid to making better Spanish sounds.

Connection slides 
In the process of making what I'm calling connection slides using Keynote, I discovered that each slide was webbing a connection to other words and images. Each image found in Google Images also has a subtitle that suggests other words which can be built into slides ... or ignored if it doesn't seem relevant.

It's an engaging and fun process that pulls me further and further into the language.  Google Images makes it really easy to see how words are used in a new language and to pick an image that connects to your specific experience.

For instance: I have had trouble remembering the word for knee. When I looked at Google Images, I found a lot of choices including:

Looking at the possible choices reinforced the concept of knee. I chose the last one for my slide because, to me, it was the most purely "knee" and it echoed the word in the subtitle.

Because words are related to other words, the connection slide process makes it easy to connect with cousin words, such as in this example. Because I chose each connection between words and images, the words are becoming "mine," creating a level of engagement that I believe will help me remember the words more easily ... and permanently.

Note there is no English used. And, in choosing an image, the subtitles of each image offer other words that can be added to your vocabulary. Some of my connection slides are getting fairly complicated like this one for the five senses:

At some point, I will work with a native-speaking coach to make sure I've interpreted the words properly.

In the beginning of this journey, I thought my challenging the status quo in language learning was sheer hubris. (Is hubris ever anything except sheer?) 

Now I'm grateful that I listened as it has led me into finding processes that work for me. I'm grateful for the trials along the way and for the abundance of resources available to every language learner. I'm grateful for finding resources that speak to me. 

For the first time on this long journey, I feel confident that I will be conversational at some point in the not too distant future. I am already hearing more words on the street and having more complex conversations in my head ... and even a few more basic conversations with other people!

The best advice I can give on learning a new language is to know why you want to learn it, what you're willing to do to learn it, and what will make it fun along the way. After that, I agree with this Spanish Experiment quote:
Ultimately, the best Spanish course for you is the one that you can stick with. Getting bored or discouraged and giving up is going to hurt your learning more than anything else — so whatever course keeps your enthusiasm burning is the best one for you! — Spanish Experiment


  1. Your perseverance is so inspiring. Thanks for sharing your journey. I'm considering learning Spanish or revisiting French in retirement. I may be reaching out to you...

    1. Becky ... it's a great adventure. I'm about to set up a blog to collect the resources that I'm finding. Would love to chat about them and what you're doing.

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