Two Things That Are Helping Me (Finally) Learn Spanish

Kristi and I are in Costa Rica for the month of January. We spent two months in Buenos Aires this summer. That means in the space of six months, I'll have spent three months in a Spanish-speaking country, yet I've not made significant progress on my spanish.

That's not to say I've made no progress, just that I have not made as much progress as I'd have liked. I've got a big list of excuses ready to go for why I didn't improve, but those are meaningless to you and I.

Two things made a difference for me slowly making progress in the language:

  1. Anki.app's Spaced Repition Software
  2. Memorizing only what I understood, but then memorizing it well.

Anki.app

Anki.app is "Spaced Repition Software". It just works. Here's others arguing it more persuaviely than I:

I accepted the premise that SRS works, but I made a stupid mistake. I downloaded someone elses spanish deck, and started memorizing it.

This was a mistake because I was trying to memorize a collection of disperate words not connected to my life. Hard to drum up motivation for that, and then I never had occasion to practice the words.

After a month in Buenos Aires, I threw away the downloaded deck and started building my own. It was tedious, and slow. Not because creating cards is tedious and slow (it is. Anki's User Interface leaves LOTS to be desired) but because I had to figure out a few things for every card:

  1. What was I trying to understand?
  2. What didn't I understand about it?
  3. How can I now understand this thing that I didn't understand before?
  4. How can I distill this new understanding into a short card?

I'd then create a "card", and add it to my deck. I know I'm doing it right when most of the cards feel easy, if I stop and think about it. As I see the same card again and again, I can recall the information quicker each time.

Memorize only what I understand (and a note on circular reasoning)

So, when I came across a word I wanted to learn, like "dispertarse", I had to make sure I knew several things about this word:

  1. The meaning of the infinitive. (Dispertar = to wake up)
  2. all the conjugations in the present tense (five conjugations)
  3. meaning of the ending "-se" (reflexive singular, but I need to know all the reflexive conjugations, so that introduces another six individual verb endings, at least)

So, "dispertarse" means "to wake oneself up" but to really understand it, I chose to build a web of understanding that touches on at least twenty individual data points.

The good news is once you've built a small web, it's way easier to expand it piecemeal. It's a heck of a lot of work building it the first time, but thats what I did, and it helped enormously.

This all felt a bit circular at first (and still does). I want to memorize only what I understand, but since I don't understand much, I'm doing rote memorization. I'm not discouraged, though. I know I'm attacking the problem from two directions, and I'll get it eventually.

A small win under "memorize only what I can understand" is that I feel happy to delete cards as I see fit. If I have not learned the card, am not learning it well, and don't want to learn it, why should I learn it?

Misc resources: