Spanish Adventures Part One

As a resident of North American, and yes, as a U.S. citizen, I was somewhat ashamed that I never learned Spanish.  During my youth, I took the standard Spanish class just to graduate from my small town Pennsylvania high school.  I am pretty sure I got a “B” and exactly zero people beyond my teacher, presumably, cared about my grade.  I didn’t really use any Spanish since that time.  Despite it becoming more and more prevalent in our culture, it did not seem important as I traveled a lot overseas and the places I traveled didn’t require Spanish.

Honestly, it seemed to me that doggedly pursuing Spanish would make me seem a little smug about my intellectual capabilities, especially for a Caucasian with no Spanish family ties.

However, I missed the point of learning languages, especially those found in my home nation.  It is not really to impress yourself or others, although that can be an effect.  It is to reach across cultural boundaries and tap into shared humanity.  It feels good to be kind, friendly and meet people on their terms.  It is to communicate with people and any pride you might feel from your achievements is going to get in the way of that pure pursuit.

A lot has changed since my youth.  The United States now has the most Spanish speakers in the world, after Mexico.  Spanish is the most studied foreign language in the U.S. with roughly six million students.  There is always going to be some tension as to whether Spanish could contest with English as an unofficial language of the U.S.  However, by and large, if you want to be a real U.S. citizen it seems like having some knowledge, even passive, of Spanish is a requirement.  After all, there are so many loanwords from Spanish to English to make all of us a little bit fluent in Spanish.

Spanish is more similar to English than other languages.  Therefore, it is commonly accepted that it could take as few as 480 hours of study to gain proficiency.  However, I always want to know what exactly proficiency is.  I think it is important to have a specific test or event that lets you know that you have achieved proficiency or fluency.

Please join me this year as I embark on my Spanish adventure.  The DELE is administered by the Cervantes Institute and measures Spanish proficiency.  My goal is to score a B2 on the DELE no later than November 2019.   B2 is usually considered sufficient for entry into a Spanish university and as much as I like to think a drive for C1 or C2 would be brave, I have some experience with those levels of fluency in other languages.  It would be extremely difficult.

Self Study and Efficiency: Why the Flow State is Best

Many students have wondered how they can best use their time while studying.  This can be thought of as efficiency; you want to use less energy to learn more in the least amount of time possible.  This is understandable since energy and focus are limited resources that need replenishment and time is a resource that can be marginally increased but ultimately not replenished.

My favorite state is that of “flow.”  I want to be able to enter a productive state where I am so blissed out by the work that time does not seem to be a factor.  I am engrossed in solving a problem that is just beyond my abilities.  I have an ideal state of energy times focus, which equals productivity.  This state is best utilized in conjunction with deliberate practice if you are learning a new skill such as coding or a foreign language.

There are tactics, techniques, and procedures that can help you get to flow quicker and stay there longer.  One of my favorites is to time everything so that I can avoid distractions.  Often I will use 25-minute blocks of time with a physical timer so that I can focus on one task and one task only.  Then I alternate 2-minute and 17-minute breaks between these 25-minute blocks.  I think it is important to say that I hold these blocks of time sacred, whereas if I find myself distracted from that one task I gently guide myself back.  If I have to use the internet related to my work at hand, I will be very specific about what I check then quickly return to my task.  This is all because I actually do get distracted very easily, and my own experience is that a more focused person is a more successful person.  I avoid loud music, although I have used many different genres in the past to get into a state of flow.  Honestly, my current favorite thing to do is play a video with logs burning in a fireplace.  I have no idea why this works for me at this point, but it does.

A question we all want to answer is how flow state applies best to language learning.  There are several ways.  It can be as straight forward as using Duolingo, Memrise or flash cards for immediate feedback and efficient tracking of what you have learned.  You will find yourself so absorbed in getting to the next level or pushing past the latest plateau that you can become driven and almost obsessed about doing so.  This can be thought of a state of “flow.”

If you are lucky enough to have a partner (treat them well) then you should probably discuss the approach with them for optimal results.  You don’t want them taking a break just as you are cresting on a certain subject.  Study at the same time every day.  There is always a physiological aspect to our learning, and at least your body can become accustomed to the routine.  Flow can be rather addictive, and your body will respond well knowing that it is going to get its “fix.”  Your brain will not always respond well if you are truly learning and progressing in your language.  This is normal.  The brain wants to avoid suffering, which is natural and not necessarily a weakness.  This can mean pulling the covers back over your head at 5 a.m. or finding a way to learn a really difficult word so that you don’t ever have to encounter that flash card again.  Flow helps you cope with such suffering by at least removing most cognitive realization that it really is suffering.  It feels pleasant and answers seem to come from outside of you as if you are receiving a sense of inspiration from beyond yourself.

Maybe you are curious as to where to go for more information.  There are courses that help you achieve this flow state.  I have never tried them, but if you are particularly prone to distraction or just love to analyze psychological phenomena like me, then maybe they could be a good idea.  Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s seminal work on the subject is a must.  Although, honestly, it is not an easy read and he has in fact given some talks on the same subject which may help you ease into the subject.

Good luck on your learning journey.  A final thought is that this state is not something that can switch on and off.  You have to transition from an unfocused state to one of deep focus.  This is not always an easy task.  You are “fumbling towards ecstasy” (an album by Sarah McLachlan) and some days will be easier to find this than others.  However, anything, with regular practice, becomes markedly easier.

Complex versus Complicated: What is the Difference?

Often people will talk about complexity and complicated things as if they are the same thing.  They are not, and the difference is important.  Once you understand the difference you can find many useful applications to your own thinking and actions.

‘Complex’ as an adjective describes complexity.  It can be defined as “having parts that go together in complicated ways.”  They key word is ‘parts.’  It may have several relatively simple components that fit together.  The system as a whole, that is to say how they interact and behave together, can be what it makes it complex.  Indeed, if you own an “apartment complex” then it consists of several units that may or may not require integrated heating, plumbing, and electrical service.  Each apartment on its own is relatively straightforward but taken as a whole it becomes complex.  One tenant may use all the hot water and that affects everyone else.  Another tenant may not pay his rent on time and that affects the management system that maintains and keeps the system healthy in the first place.  If a good manager understands all the components well, the apartment complex may still be complex but he can keep it functioning.

‘Complicated,’ in contrast, is hard to understand by definition.  The problem, activity or person is difficult to comprehend and/or deal with.  It is probably more accurate to describe that co-worker or adversary that you must handle as complicated.  If you truly understood the person, then it would probably not be considered complicated.  A personal situation can indeed be complicated and a complicated person is likely the reason why.

Perhaps something can be complex as well as complicated.  Not everyone is going to have a perfect understanding of a situation or system and this leads to people perceiving something as complicated.  My car is inherently complex.  I may think that it is complicated as well and bring it to my mechanic for even an oil change.


It’s Not That Hard to Remember Its Proper Use in English

At the risk of ruining your motivation to read this entire post (as short as it is), I am going to give you what the U.S. military and others call BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front).  You could argue that I actually already did that in the title of this post.

When you mean “it is” or “it has” then you use the apostrophe.

When you are expressing a possessive then you do not.

This is a very commonly misused English pronoun (or noun from another point of view).  Maybe less so in the days of autocorrect, but it can be bedeviling.  What happens when you have a corporate statement such as:

“It’s becoming clear that during Q4 the firm has increased its revenues by 25 percent.”

It may actually be less clear why the firm doesn’t seem to have ownership over “it’s”own revenues.  The addition of the apostrophe by a well-meaning person leads to further confusion on the part of people who know the rule and use it correctly.

Here is another example:

“Its own shortcomings led to the demise of the Soviet Union.  It’s come to pass.”

Aside from the complex, if not overly complicated, socio-political controversy that statement could cause we have to pause and wonder why a colossal nation-state doesn’t seem to merit an apostrophe while a short unambiguous sentence does merit one.  That’s the rule.  Possessive is not denoted by the apostrophe in this particular case.  Maybe the contrast between the two sentences, one a very commonly used English idiom, can be a decent mnemonic.

My gentle advice is to use one of these examples, or better yet write your own, to always remember the difference.

Limits of the Remote Teaching Life

As a relative newcomer to remote work, I was attracted to the flexibility and freedom that such a professional life has.  I can set my own hours and scale the business to work as often or as little as I need to.  If required, I can avoid the fixed cost of a workspace.  Despite attractive options such as WeWork, if you don’t have to pay for a dedicated place for work, why would you?  Nevertheless, there are always some drawbacks to being a professional nomad.  You need to carefully prepare yourself in practical ways to avoid hang-ups and problems.

Limit #1: Loud music in Starbucks.  I was attempting to teach a class to a student in Brazil.  He was at home in his own private room and his children are playing in the other room.  On the other hand, I had really wanted to go for a hike that night.  I went to one of my favorite state parks far from my house.  I had just run into this particular, unfamiliar Starbucks to ensure we could do the class.  You tend to take it for granted that there will just be cool, quiet, jazzy background music in Starbucks or Panera Bread.  Two cafes that I prefer for the free WiFi and ambiance.  Not this location.  It actually turned out to be quite small and no matter where I sat, there was a speaker almost directly over my head.  My student noticed.  My student was not happy.

Solution #1: Reconnaisance.  I could’ve had my hike and my lesson too by simply knowing more about this special Starbucks and doing a simulated lesson ahead of time.  It could’ve been a Skype call to my mother or to my lawyer and anything but a real lesson for which I was getting paid.

Limit #2: Wires get tangled, devices don’t always work.  I immediately jumped up and attempted to run around the Starbucks looking for the least noisy (and still free) spot.  My power adapter is trailing me like Satan’s tail and my thin headphone wires are tangling everywhere as I move.  I was getting yanked left and right as I snagged on chairs and almost on some people.  My poor Brazilian student still can’t hear me well so I switch to my monster headphones (complete with TED talk microphone).  I actually only use these when trying to zone out into a state of monoidealism.  That was marginally better but my upgraded microphone was picking up most of Limit #1 and my voice.

Solution #2: Test external and internal devices beforehand.   This specifically refers to your microphone and your camera.  I usually find my built-in microphone and camera on my laptop work perfectly well for almost any lesson.  When you conduct a “recon” of the location you can take the time to consciously test these devices.  I would advise to always have a secondary device that can make-up for unexpected shortcomings.

Limit #3: Weak WiFi signals.  All WiFi is not created equal.  While I was attempting to communicate with my Brazilian student we were constantly hampered by a “weak connection” message in my hastily chosen and poorly surveyed Starbucks.  I gazed longingly outside of the Starbucks because I knew it could solve “Limit #1” (otherwise known by this point as crappy loud music) but knew the WiFi signal just outside the cafe could be questionable.

Solution #3: Data usage.  Today’s data plans on smartphones are pretty remarkable for how much you actually receive.  If you can afford a refurbished smartphone and at least keep it for work, now you have a back-up for your computer.  I was ready to run out to my soundproof car and conduct the rest of the lesson via Skype on my smartphone.

What actually happened is that my student gave up and amicably asked if we could reschedule the session.  We did and I made sure to conduct it from my strongest, safest and choicest location with the best WiFi.  As you can imagine, that is my house.  This is not as flexible and remote as I would like, but at the end of the day, there really is one more ultimate limit.  The satisfaction of your students.  Everything you are doing is for their benefit, and if you keep on giving to them you’ll find they give you all the flexibility you need in terms of time and location.



The Top Four Worst Accents in the English Speaking World.

Foreign language learners can find themselves in a fix if they encounter a local accent that is difficult to understand.  It can definitely feel as though months or years of language study was done in vain, and in general be a frustrating experience.  The fact is that English is spoken in many parts of the world, and native speakers themselves may not always understand a speaker whose origins are far removed from their own.  There are ten accents you have to aware of, and perhaps with some practice, preparation, acclimation, you can feel more confident in your locale.

To be perfectly clear, when I say worst, it is somewhat of a sensational title.  I really mean “hardest to understand.” I may be biased, but I am going to also state that neutral American, British and Canadian accents can be understood with relative ease.  The difficulty arises when the language is adapted to local needs and the language tourist is unfamiliar with the area.

4. Australian.  This depends.  It can be a soft. pleasing, rounded accent not unlike your small town neighbor.  If the person is not particularly well educated, it can be so broad and imprecise as to be a hindrance.  The accent can be rough and tumble with some liberties taken with the vowels, like a ranch hand dancing just a little rough with a local girl at a barn dance.  Overall, there is a happy medium, and it is not particularly difficult to adapt to, which is why it is only number four.

3.  Indian.  The common complaint is that this can seem stilted and artificial.  What I personally love about the accent is that it is unfailingly correct.  Indians, maybe one can even say, a broad sample from an entire subcontinent, unfailingly use good grammar and syntax.  What I hear from others is that it can still be difficult to understand because of the clipped nature of the speech.

2.  Cockney English.  This is difficult in a legendary manner.  There is an entire book, musical and movie devoted to this subject.  Most famous is the movie adaptation of “My Fair Lady.”

1.  Scottish.  We love the Scots.  We really do.  However, if you plan on doing an immersion English class in Edinborough, be advised that this could be an exercise in frustration.  Often difficult for even native speakers and Artificial Intelligence to understand, it can present some problems for the student of English.

English wouldn’t be half as fun without these variations.  Take some time from your studies to enjoy them and try a few out for yourself.



The Best Time of Day for Language Learning

The best time of day for language learning depends on two factors.  What you are trying to accomplish, and what time of day you find that you have the most energy.  The task is really to simply decide on your immediate goal, and match it with a block of time in your day when you are most productive.

Let’s select a simple goal for an example.  I want to understand how I can order in a restaurant in English.  Once you have this goal (something I often refer to as an “end” or “objective” because of my military training) you can sketch out some sort of plan of action.  I am going to do it during the time when I most alert and attentive and when language partners are available to roleplay with me.

You have to observe your behaviors and energy levels and record the results on paper or on your computer.  This really helps you key in on what time of day is best.

If you are memorizing a certain number of words, perhaps 500 in a month, you don’t always need to be sharp as a tack.  Sometimes shallow tasks such as using a certain number of Anki cards you can do with low energy reserves and willpower.  Sometimes doing these things with low energy can actually increase your confidence as you add experience bit by bit, day by day.

Now it is time to address the question of “time.” What time of day do you feel most alert, rested and are less likely to be distracted?  If you did keep a journal even for three days or so, you are going to get into the ballpark with a reasonably good guess.  Select one time and go for it.  I personally know that I would love to be an early morning person.  I watch all sorts of videos telling me how important it is to literally get started at 4 am because it would give me an advantage over the competition.  However, I am most lucid and clear between 3pm and 7pm.  Hard workouts also do not charge me up or give me energy.  It is actually the complete opposite, where I often feel drained.  Needless to say, I do not exercise right before my language study times.

Attempt to work for an interrupted block of time.  Even as much as four hours with regular breaks.  If you do this every day, you are bound to see excellent progress.