I took several Spanish classes in my teens. I hated them all and didn’t do that well with anything besides the pronunciation.
I also took half a dozen trips to Spanish speaking countries in my teens. I did incredibly well making basic conversation in Spanish.
I got to thinking about this while listening to an episode of Praxis participant Ryan Ferguson’s The World Wanderers Podcast. Language is one of those things that is really dumb to try to learn in a classroom. The incentives are all wrong. When you really want something – to get to know a person, or to find a bathroom – you’ll engage your cognitive capacity at a high level. Learning to navigate another country is a great way to grapple with the language and gain some proficiency. When your only incentive is a test, how will you rewire your brain to say “The apple is green” in another language? More important than how is why? Why would you want to say that anyway?
Here’s the thing. It’s not always easy to get to another country and learn a language by necessity. You can try other hacks, like pick a day of the week where everyone in your house is only allowed to speak Spanish, but this can be pretty tough too. So if classroom learning is subpar and you can’t immerse yourself, what can you do?
I downloaded the free Duolingo app on my iPhone. I love it! Yes, it’s basically glorified flash cards, but it’s very fun, quick, has cute animations, easy progress tracking, and lets you practice pronunciation (my favorite part) using the phone’s mic. I also love it because it works well with a breakthrough discovery I’ve made about other aspects of my personal growth in the last few years: tiny daily challenges work better than big goals.
I blog every day because there’s no excuse to not push out at least something. I do one form of exercise every day because there’s no excuse to not do at least a few push ups.
Since my family is embarking on an Ecuadorian adventure early in 2016, I decided I wanted to brush up on my Spanish. I added an activity to my daily tasks spreadsheet that just says, “Spanish”. I do 10-15 minutes a day on Duolingo. Some days I do a lot more, some days I barely hit it. I’ve done it every day but two in the last 60 days.
For me, this pattern is vastly superior to taking a one hour class twice a week. By getting Spanish bouncing around in my brain every day I find weird things happening. I’m beginning to have a few random thoughts in Spanish. Just a word or phrase, sometimes apropos of nothing, but it means my brain is being primed. It’s like listening to a song every day. Pretty soon it just comes out all the time. My ears are being trained to hear things and my tongue to form new words associated with old concepts.
Of course, upon arrival in Ecuador I will realize how little Duolingo prepared me for fast-paced real world conversation, but I can’t realistically do anything about that. The daily Spanish is fun, totally doable in my schedule, and it’s making some kind of progress. The power of the compounding effect comes in to play. If I improve my Spanish by only a fraction of a percent every day, it begins to get serious before long.
In case you’re wondering, Duolingo tells me I’m currently 10% fluent. On the one hand, that’s probably a huge exaggeration. I’d fail any Spanish test. On the other hand, that’s probably a huge understatement. I know from experience that once I get into a place where I need it, I’ll get where and what I want more like 2/3 of the time.
What other things might you learn better by doing a little every day instead of setting some big huge goal or taking some formal class?