In my last post, I talked about how I laid out a plan back in November of 2016 to put me on a path to fluency in Spanish. My plan was to:
In mid-to-late November of 2016, I started keeping track of my hours and tried to do a minimum of 50 hours per month (starting December... November was already too far gone for me to reach 50 hours).
First let me just say that I did not jump into this plan with zero knowledge of the language. I had 6+ years of classes under my belt... and although that sounds like a lot, I really only knew basic vocabulary and grammar. My listening comprehension was terrible. I could hardly understand anything when I turned on the TV for the first time. Spanish seemed so fast and I could barely pick out a word.
One of the first things I did was to look at the Spanish language offerings from Netflix... ones that had subtitles. I looked for the shows and cartoons that I enjoyed when I was a kid (dubbed in Spanish of course).
I was disappointed...
First off, the selection was very limited. Secondly, the subtitles didn't even match what was being said! I thought maybe this was only an issue with the American shows I was watching, but then I looked at some of the natively produced Spanish shows and they had the same problem.
The rare times that the subtitles matched exactly, I noticed that I actually knew at least half of the words I missed when I was just trying to listen. This gave me a little bit of hope.
Since this wasn't working, I figured I'd try something else. I picked a popular, hour long, self contained telenovela to watch. First I would watch it with English subtitles so that I could know what's going on, and then I would watch that same episode over and over again with no subtitles.
This idea flopped too... First I watched it in English. The acting and plot were so sappy and ridiculous I almost didn't want to watch it again in Spanish. I forced myself anyway... I think I made it halfway through before finally turning it off. This experience turned me off completely from telenovelas.
As a side note, I remember reading this language blog somewhere... The author was saying how you need to stop watching English language TV. Then pick a show. Pick an episode. You will be watching that episode over and over again for the rest of the month. First watch it with English subtitles. Then watch it with the foreign language subtitles. Then watch it without subtitles. Then just watch the first 5 minutes in a loop ten times. Then the next 5 minutes... Next month you're finally allowed to move on the next episode. I really wish I could find this blog again. It must have either been a satire or the guy was crazy. After my experience with that telenovela, no way would I want to watch the same thing more than once. If I had to follow that method, I would give up after the first day!
I decided I was going to have to bite the bullet and do some grunt work. Giving up on subtitles and Netflix, I decided to look for my favorite childhood cartoons on Youtube. Although I would only watch the same episode once, I would stop and replay certain lines over and over again until I understood what was being said. Sometimes, I used the settings to slow down the speed. I looked up any unknown words in Google Translate. This was brutal... it often took me anywhere from one to two hours to get through a twenty minute episode.
I also noticed that some of the movie channels I had on my TV could be switched to Spanish. I took advantage of this. Although I couldn't stop and replay lines, the movies I watched were movies I already saw in English. Also, I watched mostly action movies, which meant dialogue was dispersed, giving me more time to process what was said.
For the most part, I stick to what I knew in the beginning. I avoided the stuff on the Spanish channels because I was unfamiliar with it. After a few weeks though, I decided to take the plunge. There was one show in particular that always seemed to be on...
Since the show was filmed in the 70's, the sound quality wasn't that great. Also, the show was about a bunch of kids (purposely played by adult actors), and the actors would talk in funny voices to sound childlike. Native TV shows were already hard enough for me to watch, but this made it even harder. I couldn't really understand what was going on. The show seemed entertaining though so I kept watching it.
I also wanted to make sure that I got exposure to many different genres. So in addition to comedy shows, movies, and cartoons, I eventually branched out to nature shows, cooking shows, kids' shows, the news, and game shows. I listened to music, and since it was football season, I watched NFL games in Spanish.
Not being able to understand everything (or even anything sometimes) was frustrating, but I persisted.
I'm glad I did because once I got past the first 100 hours, I noticed that my comprehension was starting to improve. As I got closer to 200 hours, I was finally able to get the gist of what was going on. In fact, I remember seeing the same episode of El Chavo that I saw some 100+ hours ago (back then the plot went over my head) and this time I finally understood what it was about.
Another example... I remember watching an episode from a cartoon early on in this process. There was this one snippet of dialogue that I must have replayed 5 times and still couldn't figure out what was being said. When I watched it again a month or two later, I managed to get a good portion of it the first time around!
In early February of 2017, I finally hit my 200 hours. With a quota of 50 hours per month, this was almost two months ahead of schedule!
This however, was the result of extraordinary circumstances. In December, I managed to get 107 hours because of a long stretch of time when I didn't have to go to work. I could've gotten even more, but there were other things I wanted to do besides sitting around all day watching TV.
In January, I was able to get just over 60 hours after returning to work. So on February 4, 2017, I reached 200 hours (including the almost 25 I got in November).
Based on my experience in January, I think 50 hours per month is a reasonable quota for me going forward.
The results from 200 hours of input
After 200 hours, I must say that my listening comprehension improved a good bit. It's still not great, but at least now I can usually get the gist of what's going on. Of course, there are still plenty of words I miss, but watching TV is a lot more enjoyable now that I can follow the plot.
If I'm watching something on the computer, I no longer have to replay the lines nearly as much (usually no more than once or twice during a half-an-hour show, if at all). It's now less of a comprehension issue, and more of just a lack of vocabulary.
Song lyrics are still hard. But then again, I don't always understand everything that American artists sing, so I'm not too worried here.
I can also now start to tell the difference between some of the regional accents. Spanish from Spain and Spanish from the Caribbean are the easiest for me to pick out if the accent is thick enough. Going forward though, I will prefer to get most of my input from the Mexican accent because that is what I've always understood Spanish to sound like (from all the classes that I took) and it's what I'm used to.
Lesson #1 - Variety is important
One lesson that I learned during my first 200 hours is that variety is important. If all you watch is the news, you'll only be good at watching the news. Input should come from all genres... Watch nature shows if you want to know what all the animals are called. Watch home improvement shows if you want to know what the tools and appliances are called. Watch comedy shows if you want to learn day to day vocabulary.
Lesson #2 - Once you can understand it, native content is better
By native content, I mean shows that were originally filmed in that language as opposed to shows originally filmed in English and dubbed.
The Spanish dubs of American shows/movies are just translations. If that's all you watch, then you are missing out on local idioms, slang, and culture (ie... how the native speakers act). I also worry about the quality of some of the dubs... Are they translating American idioms word for word? I don't want to go to a Spanish speaking country and repeat something I heard in a dubbed movie only to have people look at me funny.
The one saving grace of dubbed American content is that the dub actors are chosen because they speak clearly. This is what makes this type of content ideal for beginners. On top of that, especially with movies, the dialogue is more dispersed, giving you more time to process what was said. That was definitely my experience... dubbed movies were about the only thing I could understand in the beginning. But as I got better, I started shifting towards the native content.
In summary, I think that watching dubbed content, especially movies, is great for beginners... but if you really want to learn the language and the culture, you have to move on to programming originally made in the language you're learning.
Lesson #3 - Live language is different from scripted TV language
If you ever listen to a live conversation, it's actually pretty different from a conversation on a TV show or a movie. There are a lot more "umm's" and "uhh's" and "huh's?" and "what did you say?" The content of the conversation is also different. If you think about it, 75% of every day conversation is way to mundane and boring to put on TV. But you will miss this 75% if all you watch is scripted TV.
Actors also speak clearly in scripted TV. In the real world, things are different. People mumble, and slur their words. You need to train your ears to this, otherwise you'll go out into the real world and you still won't understand a thing.
To some extent, watching live or unscripted TV (like game shows) can remediate this problem, but I think you need to find a way to listen to actual live conversations...
Which brings me to my next lesson...
Lesson #4 - Skin in the game
There is something called skin in the game.
If you watch something on TV and don't understand what's going on, nothing happens. If you're in a restaurant and you don't understand what the waiter/cashier is saying to you, there are consequences (your order gets screwed up... they make fun of you... the people behind you in line get angry... etc).
When you interact with actual people, especially in a foreign language, your adrenaline goes up. As long as you're not overwhelmed, this little bit of extra stress helps you learn and remember things faster.
In my last post, I spoke about the concept of a language bank, which is something you pull words and sentences out of without having to think about grammar or translate back to your native language.
The words and sentences I picked up from the few times I had someone talk to me in Spanish went straight to this language bank and stayed there. Whereas there were plenty of times I had to look up the same thing over and over again when I watched it on TV.
Learning from the TV works, but not nearly as well as learning in a real environment.
Maybe this is the reason why people who move to a foreign country improve their language proficiency so fast.
My challenge is to find a way to get myself involved in live interactions without having to speak back.
Lesson #5 - Maintain a log
I think this is the most important lesson that I learned. If I hadn't kept a log of my hours, I would have given up trying to learn Spanish early on.
A few weeks in and I was already thinking ...
"I've been working so hard, putting in so many hours, and I still can't understand what they're saying! Maybe I'm just not cut out for this?"
And then I looked back at my log only to realize that I only had 30 hours...
"Oh, no wonder! It sure felt a lot longer than that... back to work!"
The problem with all of us is that we want something and we want it now. I heard somewhere that it takes thousands of hours to be fluent, so the 30 or so hours that go by from the last time you got frustrated is just a drop in the bucket. It's like running a marathon and wondering why you're not at the finish line when you're only on Mile 2.
Looking back at my log always gave me a reality check whenever I felt frustrated.
No, I didn't forget about this...
Part of my plan was to continue reading. I realize that reading is highly beneficial for picking up vocabulary and learning more complex grammatical patterns. The problem is that, unless I'm super interested in the topic, I don't really like to read (and yes, I realize the irony in me writing and editing this blog). This is why I didn't set a quota for it. I knew I wouldn't stick to it. As a result, my reading ebbed and flowed along with my motivation. When I was motivated, I read every day. When I wasn't, there were weeks that went by without me reading anything.
When I did read, it was mostly children's stories, Aesop's Fables, news articles, and the Bible.
I am still by no means fluent, but I do think I made some good progress. I spoke before about the concept of a language bank. I think I added a little bit to mine.
Going forward, I'm not expecting my progress to be linear. In fact, it will probably be a while before I report again, but for those of you who are also trying to learn a new language, best wishes in your endeavors and see you next time...