I'm Learning Spanish by Christmas

I’ve wanted to learn other languages for as long as I can remember. But wanting doesn’t get you far. Neither does making big Anki vocabulary decks that have critical flaws. But thanks to my recent finds in both language learning and self-motivation, my time has come. I’m learning Spanish by Christmas.

Goal: I attend the Spanish Mass on the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2012, and I understand everything.

It’s nearly June now, so that gives me six months. I don’t expect to read Don Quixote by then. But I do expect to make the trans-dimensional leap into a world where my brain can think in another language.

Why Spanish?

When I think about learning a language, I often gravitate towards books, especially ancient texts and poetry. My long-term plans include Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew, Aramaic, and Old and Middle English. I love the idea of finally experiencing major works in their original rhythms and language.

However, I’ve been spinning my wheels for enough years to know that I have to start easy. I need to conquer any language first, and Spanish has major advantages:

  • Intrinsically easier and simpler than most languages
  • Close to English in many ways
  • Wealth of resources, especially audio resources, for learning it
  • Most importantly, I can talk with native speakers in my town

I have cultural reasons too. For one thing, I really like the Spanish Mass. And as an American Catholic, I’m eager to escape my English heritage, and visit a culture that wasn’t traumatized by Henry VIII and the horrors in Ireland. Of course, Hispanic Catholic culture has its own scars. But at least they’re in different places.

Besides, as an American under the age of 70, who’s planning to live here for awhile, I should probably know Spanish anyway. A lot of the fear that drives the immigration debate might evaporate if we would all just take six months and learn basic Spanish.

Why Document My Efforts Here?

Learning a new language, especially my first new language, will work my memory like nothing has before. I’m hoping for major insights that will carry over into other memory work.

Plus, everyone knows that your chances of success skyrocket when you commit to your goal in public.

Spanish Will Take Memory Work Beyond My Head

So far, my memory work has centered on visual mnemonics and flashcards. Even though I undertook huge text memorization projects, like the Gospel of Mark, and tried to look for the Bible rhythms, I still gravitated towards the familiar read-and-test feelings. Even though I recited the texts out loud, my voice would often sink to a mumble; I was focusing on the recitation in my head.

But memory needs as many connections as possible. Whenever I made the effort to speak the words out loud, feel the rhythm, shape the words with my lips, I could feel myself come more alive. Now I was doing this, experiencing it, not just thinking it. And I would remember those parts much better.

What Have I Done So Far?

Unfortunately, I often didn’t make that effort. As I look back over my attempts to learn Spanish so far, I see the same pattern. Although I did try to hear proper pronunciation, I still tended to treat Spanish as a puzzle to be solved, not as a language to be heard and spoken, felt in the mouth.

  • I downloaded a huge Anki deck with several hundred words of Spanish vocabulary. I worked on this deck for months. Unfortunately, I was memorizing English translations, instead of connecting the foreign words to things directly. Worse, I never really learned proper pronunciation, so my “Spanish” was more like “Billish,” my very own lazy, annoying dialect.

  • Since I’ve memorized the Gospel of Mark, I wanted to leverage this knowledge by trying to read it in Spanish. I made a deck for Chapter 1, where each card shows a verse in Spanish, with one word highlighted. You also hear the verse, from a free recording I found online. Unfortunately, the answer is still a definition in English.

Besides, I’ve read at least one author say that you should not read a text in another language that you’ve memorized in your own. I can see their point: you’ll basically be thinking English, and you don’t want any English.

On the other hand, it might help at the beginning.

  • I also tried memorizing verb conjugations. That didn’t get far.

In short, I tried to take the “easy” way. Yes, I used Anki, but I was still basically following the old school model of staying centered in English.

What do I have to show for all that work? Not much. At the Spanish Mass, I catch a few words here and there. And translate them into English.

Different This Time

What’s different this time? I’ve discovered Gabriel Wyner, an opera singer who has worked out his own method for learning languages in six months or so. His method includes Anki, but doesn’t stop there. I’ll be writing all about it as I work.

A Half Hour a Day, With a Seinfeld Chart

And I’ll be working on it every day (except Sunday), thanks to a new goal chart I learned from Seinfeld. I’ve got a calendar on my wall that shows six months on a single page. Every day, if I study Spanish for at least a half hour, I put a big red “X”. Soon those X’s will make a chain that I don’t want to break.

I’ve already tried this charting technique for a few weeks with other goals. It works. Really, really well. You don’t want to break that chain.

So, I’ve got a new method, and a new way to stay on track. In six months, I’m going to speak Spanish.