Spanish Update: Stalled on Vocabulary, Memorizing Poetry

Could memorizing poetry be better than vocabulary flashcards for learning a language?

So here it is October, and I’d planned to learn Spanish by Christmas.

My original, rosy visions of success certainly haven’t come to fruition. On the other hand, I have gotten farther along into a foreign language than ever before.

Challenges of Spanish Vocabulary Card

I can’t quantify “how much” Spanish I’ve learned so far. I definitely can’t understand ordinary conversations. I catch words here and there, especially towards the end of those impossibly long and syncopated sentences, when the rolling waves of words slow and break. Spanish speakers do occasionally have to stop for breath.

I also have not stuck to my original plan to craft a picture-only Anki deck. Somewhat typically, I instead set myself an interesting technical challenge: generating vocabulary decks that include native pronunciations from I’m still excited that I got that to work.

But grabbing those audio files is automatic. Grabbing images is not. Every image is a painstaking hunt.

I found that the Spanish version of may be a great resource, because the images are actually tagged with Spanish words. However you need a subscription to (legally) download the pictures for your decks. Maybe there’s another royalty-free image site out there with a Spanish version, where you can download “comp” images for free.

(On the other hand, by the time you see the pictures, you’ve already downloaded them anyway. Otherwise you couldn’t see them. Part of me wonders whether it’s legitimate to use the public Internet to sell your stuff, but try to set rules about how people can look at it.)

Anyhow, even with tagged clipart, I lost motivation to keep hunting up images. Especially images for non-nouns. Maybe it reminded me too much of making mnemonics.

Memorize Poetry?

Instead, I got inspired to try memorizing Spanish poetry. Apparently, Heinrich Schliemann, the German chap who first excavated Troy, also gained fluency in several languages. One of his techniques was to memorize large chunks of text.

I started slow, one stanza a day. Here’s my first poem, a haunting 19th-century lover’s lament.

Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar,
y, otra vez, con el ala a sus cristales
jugando llamarán;
pero aquéllas que el vuelo refrenaban
tu hermosura y mi dicha al contemplar,
aquéllas que aprendieron nuestros nombres…
ésas… ¡no volverán!

Volverán las tupidas madreselvas
de tu jardín las tapias a escalar,
y otra vez a la tarde, aun más hermosas,
sus flores se abrirán;
pero aquéllas, cuajadas de rocío,
cuyas gotas mirábamos temblar
y caer, como lágrimas del día…
ésas… ¡no volverán!

Volverán del amor en tus oídos
las palabras ardientes a sonar;
tu corazón, de su profundo sueño
tal vez despertará;
pero mudo y absorto y de rodillas,
como se adora a Dios ante su altar,
como yo te he querido…, desengáñate:
¡así no te querrán!

Learning this by heart has been tough, but also a huge relief. I’m finally seeing how the words snap together into real sentences.

In theory, I’ve already been doing that for months with the Assimil lessons. But memorizing requires attention. As I examine the phrases over and over again, I see and hear them more clearly. Gradually, Spanish comes into focus.

Plus, I love how they sound. Try them.