I’ve studied spanish off an on throughout the years, sometimes here at home, other times in Latin America. I’ve approached it a lot of different ways, but one of the main ways I learned was through Fluent Forever, a book about language learning that evolved into the highest-earning app ever on Kickstarter.
Much of the solution in Fluent Forever is based on flashcards, specifically making use of the open source ANKI app.
But recently I’ve discovered Ultralearning and which offers even more ideas on how to learn a language. It breaks what you have to learn ingo three categories:
Facts are the smallest component of understanding. ANKI helps you learn a lot of facts quickly. This word means this. That words means that.
Concepts are how facts relate to each other. ANKI is not very good at this. Ingraining concepts take reflection and exploration and really isn’t something you can put on a flashcard very easily.
Procedures is the actual doing of the thing. It’s when you go out and apply the facts and concepts. Ultralearning says that this is the fastest way to learning. Just go do it. Fail and keep trying.
With this model in mind, I’ve examined what has worked and failed for me in spanish over the years and concluded:
- I know a lot of facts.
- I know an ok amount of concepts. (conjugations, how to structure sentences, grammar, etc)
- I lack some procedures. I can speak pretty OK. But I can’t hear very well.
This likely happened because it’s easy to learn words. Listening takes more risks and more struggle and more failure. And it’s not exactly a clear road with a lot of easy measureables. How do you know you are hearing better? It’s not that easy to measure.
My new plan is:
- Catch up on the flashcards. (Admission: this is a sort of procrastinating on the listening).
- Once I’ve gotten through all the flashcards then I can start listening to shows and talking to people in spanish.
Which brings me back to Anki. Over the years I have painstakingly created flashcards by hand. You learn by making the cards because it takes so long to make each one and it is very deliberate process.
I have 6589 cards for spanish. These are made from 3382 “notes”, which you can think of as a small Anki document from which the cards are made from. Each note can be multiple questions. Since I’m sort of bragging, I’ll also mention that I use Anki to learn other things and have 8980 cards total.
Anki has an algorithm that controls what cards you are reviewing each day based on how well you knew them the last time. You self-rate your competency each time you see a card and that sets the next review date. Over time, the cards are spaced out further and further. (This is known as spaced repetition, one of the cornerstone strategies used by competitive memorizers and learning nerds like me).
I’ve gotten the pile of cards down to nearly zero per day, which took many months to do.
If I don’t do the cards one day, they are added into the pile for the next day. When I set Anki aside for months as I have done for the last year, it takes many many hours to dig myself out of the hole.
For every card that comes up now, if I forget it I have to do it tomorrow. Since you get new reviews every day PLUS the ones you missed yesterday, it’s possible to end up with more cards on a day than I reviewed on the previous day.
So on 11/17/2020 I began to review the cards again. Anki shows stats like this: [0, 26, 4454]. The format is [new, learning, review]. It estimated I had another 21 hours and 59 minutes left to get through them all. Yikes. Today, 8 days in I got it down to [0, 30, 3084] with 8 hours and 43 minutes left.
That’s a great decrease but it took me about 8 hours. (ANKI’s estimate is just an estimate. There are many factors in how long it will take me that are outside of ANKI’s ability to measure.)
But I’m still stoked that I have burned through that many so far!