I am pleased to report that last month (June), I reached the 500 hour mark of my Spanish project.
Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly), the progress I made going from 200 to 500 hours was not as impressive as it was going from 0 to 200. And even though I ran up against the law of diminishing returns, I still have plenty of things to say about my experience.
My listening comprehension did improve a bit, but not as dramatically as it did in my last progress report. That time I went from understanding next to nothing on the TV to being able to at least follow the plot. After 200 hours, I could understand the big picture and some of the details... Now, after 500 hours, I could understand the big picture and a little more of the details?
The only thing I can really brag about is that (I noticed this at around the 300 hour mark) more often than not, I can now make it through a whole TV show without going to the dictionary and still be able to follow the plot. I still need one if I want to understand some of the "extra" words though.
And when it comes to music, I still can hardly understand anything they're singing/rapping about (outside the chorus).
I'm sorry to disappoint you if you were expecting me to be fluent by now. I know I read somewhere that according to the CIA or some other fancy US agency, an "easy" language like Spanish can be learned in as little as 600 hours. Well either that's wrong or I'm really slow, because there is no way I see myself being fluent in another 100 hours.
Overall, I would say that the improvements I did make came equally in vocabulary, and in my ability to process what I'm hearing. These are two different things (more on this later).
Another thing I'll say is that this process has been a roller coaster so far. Sometimes, I'll be on a roll... watching a TV show (or overhearing someone speak Spanish on the street) and picking up a lot more than usual. I'll marvel at my progress and think that fluency is right around the corner... only to have something go over my head and leave me to wonder if I'll ever be fluent.
Reading and speaking
As far as reading went, it ebbed and flowed with my motivation and with my ability to actually find something interesting to read. When motivation was high, I was more open to reading. When motivation was low, I just worried about meeting my TV quota and then moving on to something else. My problem is that I just don't like to read unless I'm really interested in the subject. I did find this one blog written by an Argentinian guy who went to work in a sweatshop style tuna factory in Japan. That kept me going for a while, but after I finished reading (the whole thing), it was tough finding anything else.
And just like with my last progress report, I haven't been doing much speaking. I do try to parrot some of the sounds I hear every now and then when watching TV by myself, but I don't go to any language exchange or anything like that.
A few interesting observations about speaking though...
For one, I used to think that my accent was pretty good. Now I'm not so sure. The letter L is what's been giving me the most trouble, but it hasn't been the only thing. It's funny, because either I regressed, or I never realized the extent of my incompetence. I guess it's true what some have been saying, that the more you listen and less you talk, the more you know what you're supposed to sound like.
The other thing is that when thinking, sometimes the Spanish word for what I'm thinking about pops into my head (normally this used to only happen in English). I can't pop out complete sentences yet this way, but I can spontaneously form parts of them (even if they're only three words long). Although still too early to tell, it's starting to look like a validation of the silent period approach I'm following.
The few times I actually did speak, I only said in Spanish what came to me spontaneously (without translating or conjugating in my head), and the rest was in English. I basically spoke Spanglish.
I'm hoping to use spontaneous thoughts like that as the basis for my output. When the language bank has enough in it, I'll be able to have full Spanish conversations.
Lesson #1 - Make sure you are actually interested in the content you're learning from
When you're first learning a language, everything is great. You don't mind putting in work to learn because you're excited and motivated. You are having fun.
At some point the honeymoon is over.
My motivation went through peaks and valleys. During the peaks, everything was exciting. I even had fun watching the boring stuff.
Then there were the valleys...
I'm glad I found shows I could enjoy. Because my reasoning during those times went something like...
If not for shows like that, I probably would have taken a day... week... month off... only to realize... "I haven't studied Spanish in months and I forgot everything I learned... Starting all over again is too hard... Forget this."
I also mentioned before how at the 300 hour mark, I no longer had to go to the dictionary in order to understand the plot of a TV show. This couldn't have come at a better time because my motivation to learn Spanish was pretty low around that point. Looking up words has always been a pain in the you know what. My dictionary (or should I say computer with internet access and Google Translate) was in another room, so looking something up meant getting up, missing parts of the show, and trying to look elsewhere if Google Translate gave back an answer that made no sense.
When times were good, I didn't mind doing all that... but that got old fast, and at that point I didn't really feel like putting any effort into learning Spanish. I just wanted to enjoy my shows, meet the quota, and get out of there.
My point is... you need to find content you like. Because when times get tough (they will), you're not going to want to do anything that feels like work.
Lesson #2 - Reading is a great way to improve your vocabulary
I picked up a lot of vocabulary from the Argentinian blog I mentioned earlier. I would say that you could definitely learn more words in an hour spent reading than in two hours spent watching TV.
Lesson #3 - There's more to language than grammar and vocabulary
In my first post I mentioned that although my main/native language is English, my heritage language is Russian. As I'm learning Spanish, I can't help but compare and contrast my competency in Spanish to my competency in Russian.
Let me just say that I grew up speaking Russian at home. I suppose I could say I'm fluent in it, but I'm fluent the way an 8 year old who never went to school is fluent. My listening comprehension and and accent are native-like. My weaknesses are a limited vocabulary and an inability to produce complex output. Anything more advanced than what an 8 year old would talk about, and you'll see me struggle to find the right words, and use shaky grammar.
At some point I realized that I may actually know more words in Spanish than I do in Russian.
But my competence in Spanish is nowhere near what it is in Russian.
If I'm listening to something in Russian, I can perfectly process what I'm hearing. I may not know a word here and there, but my brain makes sense of what I'm hearing almost the same way it does with English... and on top of all that, I know nothing about the rules of Russian grammar. I only know what sounds right and what doesn't.
When I'm listening to Spanish, it's different. Unless it's a common phrase I've heard hundreds of times, what my brain hears is a bunch of gibberish randomly sprinkled with words I know. My brain takes those words, along with the visual cues from the TV show or whatever I'm watching, and pieces together a meaning for me.
Sometimes I can keep up and sometimes I can't.
I think it's this ability to process what you're hearing that separates the fluent from the not. And I think that the only way to improve this ability is to put in the hours.
So see you next time...