In search of language self-studying how tos
April 8, 2020 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Looking for best practices on structuring language self-study programs for an intermediate learner. Not looking for specific language learning resources so much as resources on how to study. (Spanish, specifically)

I'm an intermediate Spanish learner, probably b1ish level. I want to start spending a little more time each day studying, and I'm looking for resources on how to best use my time, particularly at an intermediate level.

I'm hoping to find some resources about how to structure self study. Some of the kinds of questions I'm thinking about-- how much time should I spend on listening vs reading vs speaking vs grammar study? Is it better to consume simplified materials or should I be trying to jump into media aimed at native speakers if I can understand some of it? Is slowing down audio a great learning tool or a crutch? Is there a "sweet spot" in terms of hours spent per day studying a language? If I'm not practicing speaking too much is that a big problem? Etc.

Anyone know of any blogs or anything that help address this type of question? Probably not looking for super academic texts so much as more practical how-tos.

Right now, I do a lot of:
-watching Netflix in spanish with spanish subtitles (I'd estimate I understand around 70% of words via the audio or the subtitles and can generally follow the storylines pretty well)
-using HelloTalk to text chat with spanish speakers
-using the Lupa app to listen to Spanish radio at .7x speed.

(While this isn't the focus of the question, I'm not against general study resources either if you have something you think would be a good fit! Focusing on Latin American accents/grammar vs Spain accents/grammar.)
posted by geegollygosh to Education (6 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking of this. I don't know of a good guide, but I'd be happy to share my thoughts with you. FWIW, I've reached advanced proficiency in Spanish and Mandarin, and am getting there in Japanese. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to chat more in depth.

At a very, very high have to have goals for the language. This will frame "what matters." Then everything else is just a question of how to incrementally build towards those goals, ideally getting the most "bang for your buck" for the time you spend.

> Some of the kinds of questions I'm thinking about-- how much time should I spend on listening vs reading vs speaking vs grammar study?

What do you want to do with the language? I find conversation rewarding, so I spend a lot of time on it. A lot of people want to be able to read, so they focus on that. My reading in Mandarin is much, much stronger than my reading in Spanish, and that was a choice. That said, all 4 of these are important, and will play off of each other, so I think you shouldn't neglect any of them, but it's a question of how much emphasis.

In my opinion, for most people, vocabulary is king. Vocabulary really is the limiting factors in getting from intermediate to advanced. And the beauty of learning a language without a difficult writing system is that you can train multiple things at once. At your level, consuming a lot of material will be very helpful. I personally like to use anki to review vocabulary, but I didn't do that for Spanish and I was fine (but I did keep a journal of all words I didn't know, etc). This really comes down to how much time you can dedicate to language study, and how much effort you want to put in. Other apps people like besides anki: clozemaster, lingq, among many others.

>Is it better to consume simplified materials or should I be trying to jump into media aimed at native speakers if I can understand some of it?

Views vary, but a commonly held opinion that I agree with is you want to read things that are just a little bit harder than your current level. The hard thing is finding such content, as it doesn't often exist. There are things called graded readers which are intended to provide just can search to see if there are any for spanish. They're quite popular for mandarin and japanese, but I think that's because the writing systems are so hostile. For spanish, it is much easier to make meaningful use of native materials.

I think part of this also depends on how disheartened you get. If you are pretty resolute, I would just start reading the things you want to read. When I was studying Spanish, a big goal was to be able to understand the I read a lot of news, and I looked up 100% of words I didn't know. I don't skim. This is controversial. I don't skim. I also tried to make notes of grammar that confused me and talked about it with a tutor.

>Is slowing down audio a great learning tool or a crutch?

I don't like this strategy. A strategy I like is to find a 2-5 minutes piece of audio that has a transcript. I then listen to the audio cold and try my best to understand. Then I read the transcript, ensuring I understand 100%. Then I listen to the audio while reading the transcript. Then I listen to the audio alone again. I've found this extremely effective. Gotta find the audio with transcripts, though.

> Is there a "sweet spot" in terms of hours spent per day studying a language?

The "sweet spot" is however much you can reasonably sustain long term. For some people, that is 15 minutes a day...for me, it's more than that. I believe that regular study every day is quite important, and obviously more is better than less. That said, there are things that you can do when you feel particularly motivated, such as the audio study I mentioned above, or reading a lot. For me personally, I try to have 2-3 hours of conversation a week, I do an ungodly amount of anki review every day, and then I try to use the language in ways that are oriented towards my goals.

In the case of Spanish, a well-structured hour a day along with 2-3 hours a week of conversation can get you very, very far in a year. Sigh. Mandarin and Japanese are bears, at least to get literate in.

> If I'm not practicing speaking too much is that a big problem?

This depends: is conversation a goal of yours? If it is, then yes, it is. The weird truth I've realized in my language studies is we tend to conceive of "language ability" as a binary thing, fluent or our native language it is so, so easy to take for granted the huge number of distinct proficiencies that make up fluency. At one point I could converse fluently at length in spanish about a range of complex topics...but then if you put me in an environment with a little bit of ambient noise, my comprehension went down to 0. Why? Because noise correction is a skill. Language is a bunch of little skills, all which need to be trained. Of course, there is interplay between them. But if you want to converse, you need to converse.

Conversation was always the cornerstone of my language practice because it requires significantly less vocabulary than reading a novel, and it's super rewarding. With conversation you can make new friends, travel, converse with people in your community that speak spanish, and so on. A novel is a much more solitary thing, and requires a ton of time spent building a vocabulary. Also, I found classes inherently having them booked in advanced, I knew that no matter how busy I was, at least I'd have my conversations keeping me involved with the language. On that note, is a great platform to find native speakers to talk with. An hour with a native spanish speaker can be as cheap as 5USD an hour.

The last thing I will say as a meta-point is that I believe the key to improving at language is creating feedback loops where you engage with the language, identify weaknesses, and then address them. For example, after every class, I add every word I did not know to anki, as well as every sentence I didn't get correct or didn't understand. This is a bit hardcore, and again I don't think is necessary for everyone, but it's just an example. When I was studying spanish, I would get a physical newspaper (Le Monde Diplomatique!), read it, and circle every word I didn't know. I would then look up every word, and then add them to my vocab journal. To improve at writing, you need to write...and then have a native speaker whose editing abilities you trust correct it. You need to tell your teachers to be cruel. Ok, well, not cruel...but to correct you! If they don't correct you, you won't improve. So you write something, they correct it in depth, then you study those corrections in depth -- nothing will reveal your weaknesses like writing. Then you discuss with them the corrections you don't understand, and you try again. You always want to create opportunities to challenge yourself, then focus on the things you don't know.

If I am not scaring you with this wall of text and you want to talk in more depth, MeMail me. I love this stuff.

Edit: I just saw this

Right now, I do a lot of:
-watching Netflix in spanish with spanish subtitles (I'd estimate I understand around 70% of words via the audio or the subtitles and can generally follow the storylines pretty well)
-using HelloTalk to text chat with spanish speakers

This is really good! I am less of a fan of listening to things at a reduced speed, I much prefer the transcript approach, but I don't think it is bad. 70% is a lot! That said, I think if you're at that level, your main limiting factor is going to be vocabulary, so you need to be aggressively building vocabulary. When it comes to language, vocabulary is god-emperor. Seriously. It's the most critical thing by far. Bar none. And you're advanced enough where you'll benefit from it. The best way to build vocabulary is to read a ton (writing also helps, in my experience). Read read read read read!
posted by wooh at 8:48 AM on April 8, 2020 [16 favorites]

My experience is that you will get good at what you practice. If you practice running through fixed dialogues, you will get good at day-to-day social interactions like hi-how-are-you-fine-and-you-I'm-ok-what's-new-etc-etc. If you practice reading the newspaper, you'll get good at reading the newspaper. If you practice speaking spontaneously in unfamiliar situations, you'll get good at that. If you practice sitting down with a dictionary and a reference grammar book and writing polished prose, you'll get good at that.

These are all great skills to want, and no judgment against whichever ones you're interested in. But they do mean, in particular, that if you want to talk to people you really do need to spend a lot of time talking to people, despite that being a thing that's often inconvenient and scary.

The thing to balance that against is, you're more likely to practice what you enjoy. (It's often said that the best way to learn a language is to fall in love with a monolingual speaker. You will enjoy the hell out of practicing it for hours a day.) So if your goal is to make small talk, but you've only got the patience for half an hour of conversation practice a day, and meanwhile you love movies and will happily watch them for hours? Okay, don't make yourself crazy trying to practice conversation for two hours a day, especially not if that will just burn you out and make you quit. Practice it for the half an hour that's sustainable for you, and then go watch a movie.

So I'd say the right plan is "Spend as much time as you can sustain on the thing that's closest to your real goal, and spend the rest of your time on things that are fun for you and make you want to keep going."
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:05 AM on April 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

Great responses above. It doesn't directly answer your question, but I'll add: I learned to speak Spanish pretty well with a combination of watching TV in Spanish, deciphering news articles and reading novels in Spanish and seeing a good Spanish tutor weekly. Having the tutor was the crucial key to glue it together. We would spend most of the time in conversation, with her making corrections when necessary, and then some time at the end on points of grammar. Practicing like this with a native speaker worked so well not only because, as wooh explains so well, to learn to speak you need to practice speaking, but because having to actively apply rules of grammar and items of vocabulary brings your knowledge into consciousness more fully than when practicing merely passively, so you can 'see' the language structures much more completely. So: are you sure you don't want to go beyond self-study and work with a tutor? Especially for Spanish it's not hard to find affordable ones who teach via skype. (And memail me if you'd like the contact info for the tutor I used, who is excellent.)

For consolidating knowledge practicing writing is a second best to speaking, and is nifty web site that supports doing that.

A language learner's forum is a good site for advice and comaraderie.
posted by bertran at 4:44 PM on April 8, 2020

Oh, also, try watching the TV shows without subtitles. You won't understand as much at first, but you'll be forced to listen much harder, which will pay off in a deeper familiarity with the Spanish sound world, which is good for both speaking and reading.
posted by bertran at 4:49 PM on April 8, 2020

bertran: sadly, lang 8 does not accept new signups. They want people to use Hinative instead.
posted by wooh at 1:11 AM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

This comes from a talk from a polyglot conference, Lýdia Machová - Ten things polyglots do differently:

1. Polyglots don't have a special talent
2. Every polyglot has their own method
3. Polyglots learn languages mostly by themselves - or using 1:1 lessons
4. Polyglots create their own language material
5. Polyglots learn one language at a time
6. Polyglots spend much more time listening & speaking
7. Polyglots are not afraid to make mistakes
8. Polyglots simplify
9. Polyglots learn in small chunks
10. Polyglots enjoy learning languages

1,10, and 5 don't really help you although they are useful to note.

2 means that even the most obsessed language learners don't have a consistent language that they all use, even though there are things they have in common.

3 is for efficiency reasons. Travel to and from classes and being in groups of people who may not be as dedicated to progress is not an efficient use of time. I find that I rather spend the money on intensive 1:1 Skype lessons than share the attention of the only native speaker (the teacher) with others.

4 I'm not sure I wholly agree with but it depends on the method you're using. Certainly if you do anything that involves creating flash-cards you should make them yourself.

6 is something that I've personally seen as well. There is a tendency to spend one's learning time on the easiest activities which inevitably means very little speaking. This one really depends on what you want the language for though and when. I enjoy reading so I will always push my reading level as far ahead as I can at least until I get to the point of being able to read books for older children.

7&8 together mean that it is ok talk like a child when that is your language level. It is hard and embarrassing for an adult, especially the kind of hyper-literate educated adult who learns languages because they want to, to sound like an absolute doofus trying to buy a sandwich but if you want to learn to speak you will have to do this.

9 is more about scheduling than how to use your time.

Some other things I have observed across people who learned multiple languages as an adult successfully:
Lots and lots of "comprehensible input". That is, exposing yourself to things in the target language that you can just/almost understand.
At first, that can just be vocabulary. I try and learn about 20 new words a day. Once I can manage it I move onto graded readers as mentioned upthread.

I will then go on to Harry Potter, cliché I know, since I know the story very well. My preference is to read and listen to the audiobook at the same time. I typically read/listen to a chapter, then go back and look up any words that I didn't get from context. If I have to look up words in every sentence, the text is too complicated. If I know every word in a chapter, it is too easy.

I also use any available resources that cover the news in a simplified way in the language (for example, News in Slow French).

Any words I don't understand go onto a flash card but I tend to stop making new ones by the time I've got a few thousand words of vocabulary as at that point I can read actual text quite effectively and I figure that I will naturally continue to encounter words in proportion to how important they are.

I do not learn grammar formally until relatively late. I never drill it, once I've learned a bit of grammar I will keep my eye out for it in the target texts to make sure I've understood what's going on. Again, there are people who will do this much earlier but I don't like grammar.

I practice pronunciation by reading a sentence from the book out loud, then playing the audio, then saying it again. If I totally fuck it up I might repeat it.

Contrary to what some do, I spend little time practicing conversation until a few months in. That's because my interests are usually literary rather than social though. I practice conversations with online tutors or language partners. When I do this I spend all my time on basics. That's because I would rather be super-confident in being able to order and pay in a restaurant, ask for directions etc. rather than have my competency spread thinner in order to be able to discuss broader topics. In my personal experience, when I reach competence in basic social tasks I will actually be confident in using the language socially which I might not otherwise.

I never practice writing and despite being able to read adult level news and novels in several languages I am basically unable to write more than a brief email in any that I've learned as an adult. That's a personal preference and makes sense for me giving the languages that I've learned, the reasons I learn them, and my professional context (where brief emails in German and French are useful but all longer outputs are expected in English). YMMV.
posted by atrazine at 6:07 AM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

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