Project 3 Week 4/4: Lo hice!

GOAL: Finish Language Transfer and practice conversation!

Goal done; I finished the Language Transfer course and I really enjoyed it. I’ll absolutely be listening to it again later as review.

Language Transfer is a totally free language resource built by one guy, Mihalis Eleftheriou. He offers multiple courses, some “complete” and some “introductory” in scope. “Complete” means that the course covers all grammar skills you would need in conversation. These courses are not focused on content in the sense of vocabulary or memorization, but they are about giving the learner the tools they need to understand and analyze the language. As he says in the second to last episode of this course,

“you are using this mechanism or this tool which as we’ve said a few times, permits and obliges you to perceive and express the world in a certain way. But before we can fully take advantage of that, we want to get over our technical difficulties and this is achieved not through memorizing what is correct, but analyzing and understanding what is correct and finding why.”

The approach is, essentially, to expose the learner to the rules of the language and give explanations of why those rules exist that help them stick in the learner’s mind. Then, with that knowledge, they can practice by engaging in the language.

I have no reference for how good the other courses are, but I learned a lot from this Spanish course. I’d say that in a couple months of listening to this course and exposing myself to the language, I feel more confident reading and listening than I did in my 12 credit hours of introductory French courses after 3 years of high school French. With each new rule, Mihalis provides context, clues, tips, “hook phrases”, and perspectives that help make Spanish grammar fun and engaging. Because of this course, language-learning feels more like a very rewarding thought puzzle.

Here’s a good example of how Mihalis contextualizes common errors to help the learner understand and avoid them:

“So, a very common error for people learning Spanish is to say la problema. Now, if we look at why these words ending ma are actually masculine, it’s going to help us internalize it. So these words that end ma actually come from Greek. Problema in Greek is provlima. System in Greek is systima. In Spanish, it’s sistema. El sistema. So it’s el. Now in Greek, these words are neuter words. In Greek, you have masculine, feminine, and neuter. And neuter words in Greek look like masculine words. They have a similar word for the. They look kind of like masculine words. So when they went into Spanish, or into Latin, they got mistaken as masculine words. So if we can identify them, there’s a key group of words we can avoid committing this error with. If it ends ma, it’s probably from Greek and probably masculine.

I could spend a while rambling about the course, but to be brief, I’m very glad I found this course. It absolutely changed the way I think about language, and now I feel completely confident continuing to practice through exposure and immersion.

That being said, as it turns out, I’m a very awkward speaker still. My “test” conversation was short, probably for 2 reasons: 1) it is inherently awkward to fabricate a conversation for school purposes and 2) I really should have been practicing conversation more the whole time. So, not as successful as I’d like to be in speaking. I certainly can put together sentences as a response, but it takes about a second between each word if the sentence is more complicated than the average practiced phrase.

But, I do feel a lot more confident in listening after this. For example, I listened to the song I linked in the last post, and discovered that I knew what the entire introduction meant and could follow along just by listening. I listened to some new music to better test this, and I’m finding that I can pick out a lot more phrases and sentences than I could before. This is likely because now I know a lot better what to expect in terms of sentence structures.

Overall, I’d call this project a 75% (full success in listening, half success in speaking) success in terms of what I set out to achieve. Regardless, I absolutely know so much more Spanish than I did a month ago, and I’m really excited to feel confident in learning more via exposure. At the very least, I feel less intimidated by practicing conversation, a confidence barrier that was keeping me from learning previously.

Project 3 Week 3/4: Actual reflections on Spanish

GOAL: Keep doing what I’m doing until my conversation “test”!

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been fitting my Spanish learning to my quarantine schedule. Now that I’ve got a good groove going (work a couple times a week on music, journaling, and Language Transfer), I don’t have much to report in terms of teaching myself. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to figure out what Spanish learning approaches work for me so I can keep this up after the semester ends.

I didn’t finish Language Transfer, but should by the time my project is over, so once again my thoughts on the course will be saved for next post.

This time, I thought I’d provide some thoughts on troubles I’m running into in regards to content. Reflecting on the past couple weeks of study, I’d definitely say my biggest problem is conjugations. This isn’t really surprising, as most English-speaking students learning Romance languages have this problem. (I certainly did while learning French.) I’m having such a hard time hearing and remembering distinctions between conjugations of verbs. I can guess at them with context, but it’s taking much longer than I’d like to really intuitively nail the tenses.

For example, I get confused by the difference between the conditional and imperfect for er/ir verbs. Comía (I ate) is so close to comería (I would eat) that it’s hard to keep straight. They all have the same endings, the imperfect just replaces the er/ir ending while the conditional is adding the ending to the infinitive. So when listening, or even reading, it’s kind of hard to process quickly enough. (Maybe now that I wrote this out in a blog post, I’ll remember?)

I think this is a repetition issue, but I am finding myself stumped at how to best get this repetition. Do I need to start taking a very typical classroom “busy work” approach to just memorizing these, so it becomes second nature? Or might it be better to let it come as I start speaking conversationally? Both maybe? I’m not sure how important it is right now, as more and more exposure to verb conjugations will certainly make things easier regardless of what method of learning I choose for this particular grammar skill.

I can tell that exposure is helpful because I’m starting to remember common irregular conjugations just from seeing or hearing them a lot. Specifically, the very irregular ser and ir conjugations come much more naturally to me now.

I’m glad to see that my efforts are paying off in some way. While I hope this means that I’ll feel comfortable holding conversation by next week, I’m feeling pretty confident that I’ll at least be much closer to it than before. I think I’ll try to hold conversation again in the next day or so, sort of like a practice exam, and then receive feedback and work on that specifically for my “final exam” on Wednesday.

Project 3 Week 2/4: Narrowing down

GOAL: Picking my favorite language learning activities

This week I decided to work in two sessions of about 2 hours. This was a lot more effective than trying to work an hour each day. It’s hard to get started on it each weekday, especially since my daily schedule is never the same. However, I am getting daily Spanish exposure outside of my tech learning studio time through music and playing video games in Spanish. The video game I am playing most is Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which features a huge amount of casual dialogue and vocabulary. I feel like I’m learning a lot about conversations and phrasing by working through the dialogue of the characters. Originally I would start my game up in English and switch to Spanish later, but I’m now just playing the game in Spanish exclusively. The game features a letter-writing mechanic, so I also try to write most of my letters in Spanish as well. It’s a fun, short-form version of journaling.

The music I’m enjoying a lot right now is Natalia Lafourcade’s Musas albums. They’re wonderful albums; the music is beautiful and incredibly relaxing, perfect for listening to while making breakfast or reading on the porch. The albums are also great for listening as a beginner Spanish learner. On a more personal note, during the semester I usually sing as part of a choir, which of course has been cancelled for social distancing. I’m enjoying listening to the music, listening for the lyrics, then looking them up and learning and singing the songs. It’s not the same as practicing pronunciation in conversation, of course, but it’s been a lot of fun for me and I think good for learning. A favorite band of mine for a while now has been the very popular Café Tacuba, but their music is lyrically harder to work with as a beginner.

I’ve found that the TV activity isn’t as helpful as I thought since what it turns into is me trying to Google Translate words I don’t know every 30 seconds or so. (Club de Cuervos has been pretty interesting though, I’ll definitely continue it in the future.)

Now out of the original set of activities, the ones I find myself returning to most are: working through music and lyrics, journaling, speaking with Cosme on occasion, and most of all working on my Language Transfer course. These activities still cover the breadth of my original intent and are the ones I’ll be keeping up for the rest of the project.

I really enjoy the Language Transfer class, but I think I’ll save my thoughts on that for when I wrap it up. I’d like to set a rough goal of finishing the Language Transfer class by next week! Then I can focus on speaking to achieve my final goal, holding more confident and competent conversation in Spanish.

Project 3 Week 1/4: Getting started

GOAL: Try out new Spanish plans!

In theme with my usual reflections on productivity and planning, I’ve found that my method is harder to do than I thought. Given that we’re all working from home during the pandemic, I figured it would be a good opportunity to split up my 5-hour sessions into daily 1-hour sessions. This is challenging because my schedule is never consistent due to work expectations and it’s hard to make the time for my planned activities every day. I do get daily practice through playing Animal Crossing in Spanish, but I haven’t done my activities consistently every day. I’ve decided, then, to go back to doing a 5-hour session whenever it works best in my week, starting this week.

I also am deciding to not “test” myself through conversation each week, or do the “read aloud” exercise. It just doesn’t work too well. Weekly is too often to really see noticable results, and the “read aloud” exercise is hard to do without knowing if I’m right or wrong. Instead, I’m prioritizing my Language Transfer class, which will help me with speaking.

So far so good in all other accounts, though! After two projects about coding, it’s nice to work on something that doesn’t require extensive set-up. And while I’m teaching myself independently, I do have to admit that it’s helpful to have an expert on the subject to reach out to if I don’t understand something. Despite being an expert as a native speaker, he’s not an expert as a language instructor, so some questions (like specific grammar differences between Spanish and English) are easier to take to other resources. Still, talking with him about Spanish is fun and makes the learning process more enjoyable.

Project 2 Week 4/4: End and begin!

Goal: Wrap up, reflect, plan

Admittedly, did not get much farther in the course over the past day. But I feel like I have a solid foundation in NLP and I can easily wrap up this course in the future. I do plan to, as I really would like to apply it to a set of text data that I have access to at work. I’d be excited to get a better count of who reported using specific tools and techniques by lemmatizing the data. The data set is just large enough to be analyzed that way, and small enough to use more computationally dense approaches.

I realized that NLP is actually more understandable than I thought it would be. Once I got past the hurdle of understanding and using NLTK, I found that a lot of the data skills I’ve learned at the iSchool so far make NLP really easy to understand. To be entirely honest, it’s validating to see what I’ve learned over the past 2 years be applicable to new skills. This familiarity also allows me to take bits and pieces of the NLP process and apply those techniques in different ways to my own projects. Because now I know and understand the basics of NLP, I can either use that entire established process through or “mix and match” the toolkit functions I’ve learned.

The end of this project marks the end of my non-physical technologies. I learned the basics of JavaScript and NLP for the first and second projects. Both these projects required familiarizing myself with an entirely new skill, so I found that it was much harder than expected to get started with each. However, now that I’ve done the more difficult part of getting started with a huge new concept, I feel confident in my ability to keep up these skills as I move forward in my career. In a larger sense, I do feel much more confident in how long it takes to teach yourself a new skill. Turns out: takes a while! But, now I can move forward with continuing these skills or starting new ones with a better idea of how to plan for it.

So even though after 2 projects I’ve finally figured out how to get the most of these self-teaching opportunities, I’m flipping the script a little with my third project. It’s a “physical”-ish project; I’d like to get better at listening to and speaking Spanish. While I’ve been working on Spanish grammar and vocabulary for about 1-2 months, I’ve been finding that I’m not really progressing in my listening and speaking skills. I want to dedicate my efforts to practicing Spanish in ways that does not just help me learn the language, but also helps me practice its use.

There are three components I’m focusing on:

  • Listening
  • Constructing sentences
  • Speaking

The first major difference with this project is now that we’re quarantined, I’ve had to switch up my schedule. I’ve decided to take this opportunity to move from a 5-hour studio learning session to daily 1-hour practice sessions. This is much more suitable for language learning anyway, since daily exposure and repetition are important.

The second major difference is instead of using one course or project, I’m using multiple activities to practice these three components. The most important of my activities is to continue my Language Transfer course. Language Transfer is an entirely free language-learning resource that, for Spanish, is a series of 90 short audio lessons. I’m around chapter 60 or so now and I can’t recommend it enough; I’ve learned so much in such a short time and the lessons are engaging and interesting. The instructor teaches by asking you to construct and speak sentences using whatever grammar rule or vocabulary he just talked about. Previously, I’ve been either just listening (there’s a person who he teaches in the audio and I listen to her answers) or writing down my answers. I’d like to finish up the course and start always answering aloud, practicing both the speed of my answer and my pronunciation. So, Language Transfer will help with all three components. 

Each weekday I plan to listen to one or two Language Transfer lessons and do one other activity. I have activities planned for each day, as follows:

  • Thursday: Journal (constructing sentences)

I want to journal in Spanish to help practice constructing my own sentences. I’d like to read it aloud as I go too.

  • Friday: Music (listening)

I’m going to listen to music, try to write down what I hear, and check. This hopefully will help me better identify words and sounds.

  • Monday: TV (listening)

I’m going to watch a TV show in Spanish with Spanish closed-captioning (not dubs with subs, since they don’t always match), listening closely to the words and slowly trying to rely less on the subs.

  • Tuesday: Read aloud (speaking)

I’m less certain of this one, but I’d like to try reading simple stories written in English aloud in Spanish.

  • Wednesday: Test (all three)

I have the added benefit of being quarantined with a native Spanish speaker, Cosme. Each Wednesday, I’ll spend my hour trying to speak with him, and listening and writing about the feedback he gives me. This will be a helpful metric for my improvement and how I should switch up the activities.

Because I do need to expand my vocabulary outside of my daily tech studio hours, I’m going to be immersing myself in grammar and more vocab. The biggest help right now is that I’ve started playing Animal Crossing in Spanish. I plan on keeping this up throughout the month, so hopefully that will expose me to a lot of words and phrases. So far, Cosme has been helping me by answering questions I have about phrases and idioms that pop up in the game.