In which I devised a better system for my language learning

Oaxaca Weeks 9-10.

It's been one of the toughest fortnights since leaving London. I'm doing my best to keep my head above water by focusing on my Spanish.

This has been by far my longest stint since leaving London without a visit from any of my close people. Much as I love having a lot of silence and time to myself, I definitely need regular 'close people time' too. It seems I've taken hermitting a bit too far in recent weeks and I'm a bit out of whack as a result. (Fortunately I have a compensatory run of people coming in the very near future!)

I'd really like to make Spanish-speaking friends here but my Spanish isn't good enough yet (double-bind!) to have the kinds of conversations I'd want to have, and I wouldn't want people to feel like I was just practising on them. I just can't think what would be in it for them at this stage.

Several of my buttons have been pushed lately, by the relationship that ended, in other relationships, and by my own lack of progress in Spanish. You may recall I said in my vagabondaversary post that I don't usually feel guilty about 'doing' bugger-all. What I've noticed is that when I fail to do the thing/s I personally want to do (learning Spanish in this case), that feeling does start to kick-in. I even start to fear external judgment, which again I don't normally.

Week 9

You'll recall I was frustrated by my lack of language progress in weeks 1-8. I'd been 'taught' a LOT of grammar but when speaking I was still unable to string together with any accuracy sentences about anything I might actually want to communicate about. They say one ought not to focus on accuracy at this stage but... argh.

I was surprised by the absence of any sort of objective-setting exercise or programme from either of the language schools I'd attended. It transpires, my experience is not unusual.

As I mentioned in my last post, my frustration led me to Olly Richard's Fluent Spanish Academy, a spin-off from his blog I Will Teach You a Language. Now, I'm normally wary of cults of personality, but I'm really taken with this guy. Having learned about eight languages to fluency he has made it his mission to teach others HOW to learn. I know that behind the scenes he has begun to 'monetise' his content - no complaints from me; it's good value! - but vast quantities of his ideas and materials are available at no cost.

In week 9 I decided to take a hiatus from attending classes and instead spent a good deal of time trawling and digesting Olly's advice and devising a new, auto-didactical, hopefully more effective and more sustainable approach to my language learning.

Some key aspects of this are:

  • I'm now focusing on one grammar point at a time (using a textbook and a small selection of other quality resources), learning/revising it (but not to perfection), seeing it in use through reading, then practising producing it.
  • I need to learn a lot more vocabulary, for which I now have a system of adding new phrases (rarely single words) to a FlashCards app that uses 'spaced repetition' to help me memorise them.
  • I'm doing more reading and listening to things that actually interest me, in Spanish, which helps with both grammar and vocabulary.
  • I'm meeting my teachers Isa and Jacob twice a week each (total 6 hours) to practise speaking, about topics determined by me. I'm happy to report they've both been really responsive to the new approach, as I anticipated.

While I'm here in Oaxaca with internet access and lots of time I want to work my way right through my grammar textbook and lots of the Fluent Spanish Academy materials.

Some of Olly's other ideas I want to try out include:

  • Making a list of the things I most often struggle to say, and identifying patterns.
  • Writing a monologue in English, translating it, getting it corrected and recorded by a native speaker, then rehearsing it. The idea here is to get a 'glimpse of mastery', by being able to speak really well about something of relevance.
  • Reverse translation. The idea here is to translate into English (to test comprehension), then back into Spanish again without referring to the original. This part tests first whether I can convey the gist, and second whether I can get the grammar right.
  • Using more authentic filler words. Literally the equivalents of 'um' and 'well'.

Once I'm on the road again in the New Year I will seek to improve my fluency and vocabulary by listening to lots of podcasts, reading, and talking to people more (Claire I might ask you to push me a bit with the latter!). Then the next time I stop somewhere for a period I will return to grammar textbooks in order to take my accuracy to the next level.

Something else I did in week 9 was a small amount of research into my onward journey from Mexico. I'm excited about riding through Central America with Claire (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama). From Panama City we'll have to fly to Cartagena in Colombia as there is an impassable section of dangerous jungle known as the Darién Gap. I'm expecting to want to spend as much time as possible in Colombia, especially Cartagena, Medellín and Bogotá. Unlike my 180-day stamp for México I'll only get 90 days in Colombia unless I can apply for an extension. Obviously I'm also looking forward to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia if I make it there, Chile and Argentina, as well as Uruguay which I have a particularly great feeling about. All being well I shall probably return to Europe - eventually! - from there.

Week 10

In week 10 I put my new system into action. From Tuesday to Friday my schedule in the morning is: coffee, actively study grammar according to the schedule, listen/read/analyse the scheduled source material, prepare for 'class'. From 16:30-18:00 I meet Isa or Jacob for conversation at one of the stunning local libraries. In the evening I do more Spanish but 'easier' things like watching YouTube videos, reading and doing my FlashCards. Occasionally I stay in the city for a screening or concert or something.

'Many perceived difficulties with Spanish grammar can be solved simply by reading a lot. When you see the grammar being used in a real context, it intuitively starts to make sense. I believe this is a much better way to learn grammar than trying to study it in an isolated way in a textbook. Treat reading as your main Spanish study each day.'- Olly Richards

Jacob invited me to join some of the teachers and some 'estadounidenses' (US American students) for a night out. It was interesting to hear their very strong accents; Jacob says my accent is not very strong, though of course my inability to roll my 'rr' is a big problem. Need to work on that.

This past week one of the things I focused on was this 2016 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, which uses lots of different tenses but especially the present and past tenses. It was very motivating to find I could understand a huge amount of it, and to imagine a time when I'll be able to understand nearly all of something like that.

For most of the past week I have been taking a break from Facebook, which for various reasons I was finding toxic as well as utterly time-wasting. Facebook is a useful tool for me to keep in touch with the world, but I think it might be better if I limited the time I spend on it to about an hour per day, more like when I'm on the road. It's interesting to observe how different it feels not being logged in to Facebook, what a relief it is, and how much more of other things I can fit into the day!

For example this past Friday evening and Saturday I read two books from cover to cover. I don't remember the last time I did anything like that! Check out what I had to say about them here.

Last night (Sunday) as I was preparing for bed I caught myself thinking 'I wish I had a bit more weekend', only to remember that I have cleverly only arranged my conversation classes Tuesday to Friday!

I am really looking forward to this week's Spanish learning. I will try to cram in as much improvement as possible before Caroline arrives next weekend! Week 12 will contain Mexico's famous 'Day of the Dead' festivities, which I know we're both very much looking forward to along with lots of talking (about) Spanish, mooching and eating. I know Caroline likes tequila; I wonder if she has tried mezcal before...