Saturday, June 1, 2019

Benefits of SLOW STUDY with memory-enhanced, language flashcards

Ajijic artist Efren Gonzalez hanging papel picado for Día de los Muertos
(This is how I often feel about learning Spanish ... 
I want to learn it and know it's going to be beautiful, 
but right now, it's a mess ... 
Anki is helping me bring order out of the chaos.)

  • Study a list of 200 words ... it might take you 30 minutes, then you would be off to other endeavors.
  • Make 200 memory-enhanced, spaced-repetition flashcards and it might take you several hours spread over several days. 
So, what's the payoff in investing so much time in language flashcards? 
Basically, there are three solid advantages to using a system such as Anki
 (an app I hated until I fell in love with it):
  1. guaranteed retention of words (Anki repeats them until you are sure you know them.)
  2. studying sentences creates a deep understanding of language: word order, grammar and repetition of all the ancillary words in the sentence. Even simple sentences reinforce a complex of words and grammar. Example: He estado muy ocupada y un poco estresada. (I have been very busy and a little stressed.) It's almost like a tiny learning capsule. One example: the gender of the speaker hasn't been identified, but you automatically know that it's a female.
  3. immersion. We talk about immersion all the time, but Anki flashcards are a microdot experience of immersion. In one tiny package, you are reading, listening, speaking and writing. You are immersed in the language, albeit a tiny segment of it.
Passively studying a list leaves you with a handful of fog, 
wondering why your memory is so poor. 
It's not your memory, it's the process.
What does memory-enhanced flashcards even mean?
You can make flashcards by hand, but it’s much harder and doesn't give you access to sounds and the full memory-enhancement process. This posts assumes you are using, or going to use, Anki, a system that I tore my hair out over until Real Fast Spanish taught me how to use it. Now it’s my foundation for learning Spanish.

Flashcards are flashcards, right? No ... wrong!

Remember those long boxes of a 1000 flashcards? ... Oh ... you’re not that old? 

Well, once upon a time there were these long boxes of business-card-sized white cards. “Apple" on one side; “manzana” on the other. Boring. Mind-numbing. Forgettable. A tree slain for nothing since these cards had little effect on our long-term memory.

Old style flashcards
We’re now in a new world where we understand more about how memory works and we can easily create flashcards that make words stick in our memories. There are a lot of flashcard systems available, however, the most popular seems to be Anki, my new best friend.

Anki is a free (almost), spaced-repetition (more later) flash card and study system. Anki is completely free except to iPhone users who pay a one-time fee of $25 for the phone app (although you could just use the computer version ... but then what would you do while waiting in line? 
Apparently, we iPhone users are the only source of income for Anki, so if you use an android phone, say thanks to all of us on the other side of the electronic divide for making this app free for you. 

You will need to set up an Anki account, a simple process and there are a lot of YouTube videos. to help you, if you need it.

So, what can Anki do? It gives you many ways to enhance your memory ... here’s the one that made me fall in love with it ... adding images of my choice.

Flashcard with image
Suddenly, your powerful visual memory is engaged. Plus you aren’t linking an abstract symbol (the word manzana) to another abstract symbol (the word apple). You are now linking a new word to something real, something that has meaning, a complex of meaning, to you.

Now, take it a step further and remember the time your mom baked you an apple pie for a special occasion and it was the best pie ever. You can even smell the cinnamon. You’ve now related the word to something from your own life. You’ve taken an abstract symbol and made it live in your own reality. 
Flashcard with image and personal memory
You can now see and almost smell, taste and touch this real thing represented by an abstract symbol. Another brilliant aspect of computer flashcards is that you can hear them. Here’s a man in Mexico saying manzana for you ... and he will say it to you every time you review the card ... he never gets tired.
Image result for man speaking cartoon
 (click to hear)

Does this sound like a lot of work? 

It's actually fast, fun and effective with Anki and two brilliant online friends. Plus, you won’t make flashcards of ALL words … just the ones that may slip out of your memory if you don’t anchor them there.

Two amigos: Google Images and Forvo

Here is something you may not know: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people and companies out there figuring out ways to help you learn a new language. Sometimes they charge a fee, but often, their wisdom is free, like these two.

Google Images — go here and type in the word “manzana,” you will see pages of beautiful apples. Copy the image that appeals to you and paste it into your Anki flashcard. Words that are more abstract may be a little harder to find just the right image. Ser is about as abstract as you get … this image spoke to me about being alive and joyful.

Because you are picking the image that is meaningful to you, it builds a stronger connection ... imagine millions of little synapses in your brain building a web around the new word or phrase to keep it readily available by your brain. Knowing how a word is pronounced is key to understanding and being understood. Set up an account at this site and plan on using it a lot! All you do is enter a word you want to hear and you'll be given several options recorded by people from all over the world. If you happen to find a word that hasn't been recorded, there is a process to add it to the system and you'll be notified when someone records it.

And, what’s that spaced-repetition thing

Image result for spaced repetition graph
After a lot of studies, it has been proven that you forget almost everything you’ve ever learned within minutes of learning it. WHHHHHAAAAATTTTT???!

Relax. It also turns out that if you renew that learning within a certain space of time, it comes back … only to be mostly lost again. It’s not Alzheimer’s … it’s the way our memory works. It throws away everything that isn’t important. If you’re only exposed to something once, it will probably be thrown away unless it’s uniquely memorable and useful. 

Trying to remember a new language presents you with a constant flow of mostly forgettable words. Adding images and connections help make those words memorable. Additionally, when information is repeated at specific times after the first exposure, it will gradually become part of your long-term memory. Systems such as Anki carefully return information to you again and again at the right intervals until it becomes wired into your memory.

Since there are a lot of YouTube videos about how to set up Anki, I’m going to focus on how to use it and what information you should collect about each entry.

Focus on Listening and Shadowing

Focus on listening: Everyone who learns a new language has to learn to hear the language ... even babies spend a year or so listening before they begin speaking. Anki offers a “recall + listening” card style to emphasize the sounds of the language. The front side of the card looks like this: 

It looks blank, but it sounds like this: 
When you click the answer, you see: 
And, when you press R, the sounds are played again so you can repeat along with the recording until you can mimic it. That’s called “shadowing."

Flash card template used for "recall + listening."

What to put on your card?
Phrases and sentences are more important than learning unrelated words. Often phrases are idioms with no direct translation and sentences incorporate word order, verb tenses and points of grammar the way they are actually used by native speakers. A great source for real sentences is: … great for verb conjugation and making sentences with any word or phrase you’re interested in. 

Gender and nouns: When you use nouns, you will always need to know if they are masculine or feminine, so add the appropriate article after the word. (Putting it in front would mess up the alphabetization.)

Verbs: Regular and Irregular: When you enter verbs, knowing whether they are regular or irregular will help your usage. Since regular words have regular conjugations, I only enter verb forms for irregular verbs, entering 1st person conjugation in present, present perfect, preterite, imperfect, and conditional.

Sounds: Every card should have two voices ... that of a native speaker and your voice! allows you to quickly download a tiny sound file to with your flashcard.

Sentences are easy to find but somewhat hard to find native speaker recordings. Use this as an opportunity to record your own. You can even do that right on your Anki card ... there is a little, round, red record button on the right side of the tool bar on the flashcard. This is great practice and you can re-record the sentence as you grow in your ability to hear correct pronunciation.

An additional benefit of recording your own sentences is that it makes a bigger memory impression.

Instant feedback: At the bottom of each card, you evaluate yourself on how well you know the word or phrase. This triggers the space-repetition aspect of the system. Depending upon how you rate your understanding of the card, Anki will set the timing for the next appearance of this particular word or phrase. The goal of the system is to present it to you again just before you forget it. Once you've indicated you know the word, it may not show up again for six months or a year.

This spaced-repetition flashcard system puts the power of learning in YOUR hands. You are reviewing words YOU chose to learn and evaluating YOUR own level of understanding them.

More information:

ANKI cards [LEARN VOCABULARY FAST] by Gabor’s Projects

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Acquiring Spanish: The dance and deception of immersion

Within three days of each other, two language experts offered new videos with seemingly diametrically opposite advice. This is an example of what a language learner is faced with on an almost daily basis: conflicting directions from the experts such as the two above. 

Turns out there is a difference in how they each define immersion and each one has valid points so there will be notes from their videos at the end of this post, but first a story … my story of searching for immersion.

Masks from San Miguel de Allende
In 2014, I flew to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with stars in my eyes. 

After a long list of false starts attempting to learn Spanish, I had been listening to Pimsleur for several months and was ready to make my language breakthrough by going in-country, diving into the deep end of immersion. I had a plan: two weeks in a language school in SMA, then three weeks of practice and warm water in Playa del Carmen.

San Miguel window
Within days of landing in Mexico, my plans began washing up on the shores of reality. The San Miguel school put me into a beginner’s class with a lovely couple from Australia. They had no background in Spanish and its sounds were completely foreign to them. I was from California and had a mishmash of sounds and vocabulary from my many previous dabbles at learning the language. It wasn’t a good match.

I switched to one-on-one coaching, the equivalent of a one-hour class three times a week and decided I would learn primarily from the workbook and self-study in the streets … the real-world of immersion I assumed. 

San Miguel mural
San Miguel is lovely and my long-walks through its streets delighted my eyes and ears. However, it didn’t take long to realize that talking to waiters and taxi drivers wasn’t going to get me far … and that people were more than willing to speak English when I needed it. At the end of two weeks, I had worked through a bunch of workbook pages, picked up some words, and fallen in love with Mexican wall art murals. Spanish progress: close to nil.

I needed a new plan and decided that I would rework it in Playa del Carmen, chosen because I wanted warm water and cenotes. When I stepped off the bus in PDC after the flight to Cancun, I knew I had made a mistake. It was late September, hot and muggy, and Playa del Carmen seemed like a touristy mess after being in San Miguel. To make matters worse, my tiny Airbnb was stifling, noisy and ugly. What now, fair child?
San Miguel de Allende security
Someone had mentioned a trendy new place in the mountains. All I heard was “cool,” and immediately forfeited my pre-paid rent and  boarded a plane to the  Tuxla-Gutierrez airport on the way to San Cristóbal de las Casas, where I expected to find the Shangri-La of immersion. 

That turned out to be half-right. SCLC was a wonderland of charm and beauty. I immediately met an English-speaking local resident, an English-speaking Mexican woman, and a travel companion from England. All of these new friends spoke Spanish; however, our conversations were all in English. 

San Miguel alligator
I studied hard while I was in San Cristóbal and paid for a few coaching sessions but soon came face-to-face with the fact that I didn’t know how to learn a new language. Soon, a lot of my study time was devoted to theories of adult learning and how to learn a new language. 

By now, I knew classes weren’t the right approach for me and decided to split my time between study and exploration. That plan faded as I fell more in love with the exploration part. Study time was minimized as I wandered through San Cristóbal, slowly absorbing the culture of Mexico and taking side trips to Tonina, Merida and Guatemala. Three weeks stretched into four months and I went home immersed in Mexico but still an outsider to the language.

I assumed I would continue my language studies, however, life interfered and time passed until 2017 when I moved to Ajijic, the small town on Lake Chapala where English may be edging itself into the position of first language. There was no delusion about this being a place of language immersion; however, I still had the belief that immersion was the answer … I just had to get ready for it. Self-study would be my new plan.

After a rigorous slog through the four workbooks of the Warren Hardy Spanish program (600 pages of a well-organized, if boring, offering of grammar and verb tenses), I was NOW ready for immersion. I chose a three-week home-stay program in Cuernavaca. My home-stay family was amazing, kind, funny, and disciplined about speaking only Spanish. 

Soon, I began to limit my time with my wonderful family because the language challenge was so frustrating … and I dropped out of the class portion of the course on Day 1!  
San Miguel roof view
The class started with grammar 101 and was like they handed me a size-2 dress … it just didn’t fit. I was devastated. This was supposed to be my bridge into conversational Spanish and I just knew I couldn’t make myself sit through classes about things I had spent the last year learning. Should I just give up? Maybe I just didn’t have what it took to learn a new language.

Finally, after long walks and a sleepless night, I found a compromise: participate in the fascinating program they had designed about the culture of women in Mexico and do self-study instead of the classes.

The self-study part worked well as I found incredible study aids online, many of them free. The cultural offerings presented another issue. I still couldn’t hear the language offered by Spanish-speakers, some with translation and some without. I was lost most of the time. 

This turned out to be a gift as I realized I needed much more time listening to Spanish, more than I could get in coffee shops or eavesdropping on the street. 
San Miguel dove

Comprehensible Input 

I went looking for listening resources and discovered the second-language acquisition concept of “comprehensible input” developed by the linguist Stephen Krashen who says it is the only way we acquire language. British Council’s Teaching English describes comprehensible input as: 
Comprehensible input is language input that can be understood by listeners despite them not understanding all the words and structures in it. It is described as one level above that of the learners if it can only just be understood. According to Krashen's theory of language acquisition, giving learners this kind of input helps them acquire language naturally, rather than learn it consciously.
That concept and the discovery of some truly amazing 
online resources changed everything. 

It has been five months since that Eureka moment … and … no … I’m not fluent and probably won’t come anywhere close to that for another year or two. However, I am in love with the language and the learning process again. 

A couple of months ago, I started a learning blog … like a giant, electronic notebook … to hold all my resources and learnings on this journey. Titled Aventura Español, it’s a constant reminder to stay balanced on this journey … I deeply want to learn the language … but also want to experience the beauty and culture of this amazing country. 

I invite you to use the blog in any way that works for you. Many of the resources are free and I have no financial ties to any of the paid resources … except for the money that has come out of my own pocket. 😉 

If you’re just getting started … or having difficulty making progress or knowing how to use your time and efforts most effectively, I suggest clicking on the “Start Here” button at the top of the blog. 

P.S. This isn't the end of the discussion on immersion ... next up The Myth of Immersion in Today's World and lessons from Pátzcuaro.
Notes from the videos. (If you only have time to listen to one, I highly suggest Richards’. After listening to several of his videos, I subscribed to his)

Olly Richards has taught himself to speak eight languages while traveling the world.
Steve Kaufman is a well-known polyglot who speaks 16 languages and continues to learn new ones.

Richards opens his video by stating that he believes that chasing the idea of an immersion experience can be less than helpful and has opportunity costs since there are other activities that could be more effective. He defines immersion as “surrounding yourself with native level content,” such as books, movies, podcasts, being with native speaking people, living abroad, or taking immersion courses in countries that speak your target language. "For most people it is very difficult to create a genuine immersion environment.” The bottomline of Richards’ video is that the only way you learn a language is through “comprehensible input.” He recommends finding materials that you can enjoy and understand most of while still pulling you into greater understanding.

While Kaufman begins by saying, “… beginners should immerse themselves in the language,” he goes on to say he means immerse themselves in real language, not getting lost in the grammar. He recommends not staying fixed in repetitive, beginner texts unrelated to everyday life. Describing his own process of learning, he says he studies stories, reading, listening, and speaking one sentence as a time. He doesn’t like children’s stories or folk tales; preferring stories about everyday life. It takes time and repetition to absorb a language.