February 22, 2017

Spanish Lessons


Recently I was going through some old books deciding if they should be given away before my next transcontinental move in a few months. At the bottom of an old storage box lay my university calculus textbook. “Oh no, I can’t get rid of this, it might be useful!” Then I remembered I had not even opened it in over 20 years. Then I remembered I barely opened the book when I was studying calculus 25 years ago (maybe that is why I nearly failed). So instead of putting it back in the box, I looked up similar textbooks online. There are many calculus textbooks online, and a few are free. I decided that I no longer need a large physical maths book and can just use electronic copies instead.

The conclusion from this episode is there is good stuff on the Internet. Hence when it seemed possible I might end up in a Spanish speaking country (it turns out I won’t), I turned again to the Internet to help me learn Spanish. No textbooks for me, just online resources. About 7 months later and 10 minutes per day, nearly every day, and I have a vocabulary of around 1000 Spanish words. Not bad, but not that good. Small children have vocabularies around the 5000 word mark. Although I’m already beginning to reach the limits of the original websites – time to find some new ones. Before I do, here is what I have learnt about learning Spanish online.

The two language learning websites that seem the most popular are Memrise and Duolingo. I have been using both and they are very similar, with some slight differences. Both break down the learning into 5 minute chunks of lessons or reviews. Both teach using small sentences at most. Both offer some minor gamification and attempts at community-building.

The short learning times are great for me. I am usually quite busy, so 5 minutes at a time is just right. If there is more time available, then just do more lessons or tests. The sites remind you to continue daily and keep a record of how many days in a row this has been achieved and what should be reviewed next. For me, this is the biggest benefit of using websites to learn a foreign language. Previous attempts have foundered on not regularly studying, but both these sites help you with reminders and a small time commitment. It has worked for me!

Beyond that there are some issues. The core mechanic of Memrise is memorising lists of words and sentences. There is little information about how these fit together or if slight variations are also acceptable. For instance, there are three words for “that” in Spanish depending on word gender (or lack thereof): eso, ese, esa. However, if you type that in as the answer to “translate ‘that’”, you will be marked wrong! Clearly the correct answer is “ese, esa, eso”. This is not an isolated example. Although the constant repetition does mean the specifics are learned quickly. Duolingo does a little better, as it allows a range of correct answers. It also asks for translations of sentences not previously provided in lessons – rote memorisation is not enough. Although I find learning with Duolingo to be slower since reviews occur less often and there is a tendency to dump huge amounts of verbs (with their conjugations) over a short period, diluting the likelihood of longterm remembrance of any particular verb.

The biggest problem is shared by both sites. Neither teach Spanish grammar well. On Duolingo it is almost an afterthought, with small notes on grammar at the end of certain lessons. Still, much better than Memrise, which just doesn’t mention grammar issues at all (just memorise it!). At the 1000 word vocabulary range, learning some grammar is now one of the two main roadblocks to progressing (remembering verb conjugations being the other). Issues like how to use direct and indirect pronouns in various circumstances can be quite confusing, but there is little information on these sites other than a list of the possible pronouns. The rest the student has to work out from examples. Another instance, both sites have taught the verbs acabar and terminar as meaning “to finish”, yet both mark me wrong sometimes if I use acabar with no indication why this is incorrect. I had to search on the Internet to find the issue. Yes, both mean “to finish”, but if the subject initiated the event to be finished then terminar should be used, otherwise they are interchangeable.

To help with these quite important grammar points I have found Study Spanish and SpanishDict to be invaluable. Now I am overwhelmed, but finally learning some grammar (for the first time in any language). Also I think it is time to try reading and listening to real Spanish speaking people. The voices on the websites tend differentiate their words clearly and use very particular language. Unsurprisingly, my experiences online show this is not the case with real-world Spanish (just like real-world English). Anyone recommend and decent online resources for this next stage?

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