Sunday, July 10, 2016

Spanish through (in)comprehensible input

I believe it's time to learn some Spanish. I intend to follow the "incomprehensible input" approach I also undertook with Italian and German. By that I really mean I will first watch and then read whatever I please. I don't intend to study any grammar or engage in any other kind of explicit study.

I acquired Italian in similar manner.

One of my early language acquisition devices:

There was no method involved and I believe that the process was mostly subconscious. My earliest memories of hearing a foreign  language are linked to pretty images and sounds and not to words and concepts like "French," "Italian," "grammar" or "studying". I like to have fun with language and through language.

My favorite cartoon at the time:

Lamù, la ragazza dello spazio

What I'm watching these days:

Lum la chica invasora

The Youtube links may disappear.

Linguistically, the material is close to perfect however I would like to make it clear that I am not watching this stuf for the sake of getting sufficient "input". Spanish is a convenient medium to rewatch these childhood favorites and maybe pick up something useful along the way.

Thanks to Italian I have plenty of comprehensible input to work with right from the start.

1/9/2016 Completed the free vocabulary test at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language: Prueba de vocabulario
"En función de tus resultados, estimamos que conoces 63% de palabras del español. Este es el nivel aceptable para una persona nativa." Yay! I am native level and I haven't even started learning the language.

1/15/16 I completed the Cervantes online placement test. The results suggest I could be placed at C1.3-C1.4 levels. This is why Italian and Spanish speakers can make quick progress in each other's languages. It's also why some people think they know more Spanish or Italian than they actually do: it's real knowledge and yet it's not...

1/17/16  As of today, there is still no such thing as "my Spanish". I have never studied this language and the little I know is from short bursts of casual listening. I don't know how to conjugate basic Spanish verbs. I don't think my C1 placement rating was a fluke though since the test is passive and for all practical purposes I can follow the gist of fairly advanced stories, I can read newspapers and follow TV programs. I can recognize moods and tenses, habitual action and many other grammatical forms and patterns. The degree of transparency is almost random. I don't know a fair number of basic words that don't have a readily recognizable equivalent in other languages.

Z Nation temporadas 1 y 2
Spartacus ep 1-6
El Chavo del Ocho 6 episodes
Rome ep 1-4
Lum la chica invasora 1-15 (toughish)

1/25 Candy Candy (español) 1-14
1/26 Candy Candy (español) 15-24
1/27 read a number of online reviews
1/28 Rome ep. 5, Candy Candy ep 25-28

2/1-2/3 a lot of cartoons; Rome 2 episodes

2/15/16 I look words up only when I am especially curious. Currently that means less than once per week. I picked up Italian watching TV as a kid. By the time I studied it at the university I was reading books without a dictionary. I picked up German as a teenager in a similar manner. I opened the dictionary in each case maybe a few dozen
times. I do own several visual dictionaries and vocabulary builders that I never use. "Mastering Spanish" has created a dent in my ottoman.

I studied French in school. Through Italian, French and English I can understand thousands of Spanish words. I probably understand north of 10,000 words. I understand words, phrases and expressions that have very approximate equivalents in other languages. I am currently mapping between these languages. Given that I have a wealth of cognates at my disposal, I am mapping more than Magellan. While I'm internalizing the cognates I am also learning new words. Stopping to look up one word would break the magic and slow things down.

On the list of the most common words in Spanish ranked from 9,001-10,000 I understand easily more than half. Of the other half, I partially understand many words. I may recognize that a word is a a verb, that it has something to do with a negative emotion etc but I cannot provide the exact meaning. Maybe I'll just end up knowing these words. Some I may learn in a single eureka-type discovery. Half-learned words may be forgotten or half-forgotten, relearned...

I just finished watching an episode of a lengthy anime series. We learn that the main character, a girl, is sick. Her grandfather calls her in sick at school, the teacher mentions it to other pupils, her schoolmates discuss her illness, they go to visit her, they say hi, offer remedies... During the first 3 minutes "resfriada" was repeated 10 times. In the latter half of the episode the word occurs 3-4 times. In the next episode the key developments from the past episode will get summed up. That's all the spaced repetition I need.

2/18/2016 Today I clocked in 100 "sterling" hours of listening to Spanish. To celebrate, I decided to read my first book. I first grabbed Ficciones, but I settled on something more colorful:

"El lobo que quería ser una oveja" by Mario Ramos:

2/21/16 I'm almost finished with the first Torpedo album. In my memory "Torpedo 1936" has always been a super-cool cult comic. Upon second reading, I have discovered themes that may not be appreciated by all the readers. I looked up some vocabulary. I was especially curious :) Gangster vocabulary and some very colorful expressions keep getting repeated in other albums.

2/27 Animé: learned puente (computer jumper) and huella from two different cartoons. "Huella"was hard to miss with all the characters standing around a giant footprint. I heard the word again in a TV segment about an actual crime. I learned a lot more, actually. I "heard"for the first time a lot of the slang I picked up in Torpedo. While looking up resources I scanned a lot of book and DVD titles and I learned plenty of words this way. Titles stick in one's memory. El clan del oso cavernario was easy to recognize. Oso is not far from Italian orso but I believe I could work out the words in most European languages.

 I learned "cueva" from cartoons. It's very hard to miss the big gaping hole as is the very word for "hole", which is "agujero." "Entregas a domicilio" was easy thanks to Kiki's Delivery Service. I heard these words several times since. "Garras" or "claws" were easy to figure out, as this is a common word in animated shows. In a cartoon about car racing I learned that neumáticos agarran... I forget the word for the racetrack tarmac. I heard agarrar many times. I just double checked the spelling for neumáticos as I was tempted to write pneu...

2/28/16 Breaking into a European language without paying attention to what I was doing was never an issue for me. For at least two of my languages I have always only sought pretty pictures and pretty sounds, pretty words and then pretty thoughts - language learning was an afterthought. With others, the first thought I had after coming out of the textbook stage was: "I can't understand what the heck they're saying". I don't remember my second thought about the language or language learning after that.

03/07/16 One of the first expressions I heard watching Nación Z an eternity or so ago
was "rueda pinchada". I didn't have to look it up. After some 220 hours of listening I heard it again. RAE'S CREA lists "pinchar" at 31,329th place and "pinchada" is much lower than that. I have traveled over 1.2 million words in between.

I am mostly watching cartoons. Last night I was watching Chicho Terremoto, better known in Italy as Gigi la Trottola. I am currently watching/reading Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese (Corto Maltés in Spanish). Comics are good for children and language learners. I will soon dust off Hermann's Jeremiah and Jodorowsky's Metabarones.

I have moved from "literatura infantil" to "literatura juvenil". In practice this means there are no more pretty pictures, or that they are few and far between. The novels are under 150 pages long.

Soon I will read Historia de la Literatura Española by Ángel del Rio. It's an easy read. I picked up a beautiful hardcover version from Amazon for $4. The book has probably not been touched since 1967. I am not surprised :) Books like these are a great source of easy, descriptive, essayistic language. I also bought a Spanish-Spanish dictionary, el Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado and Duden's pictorial dictionary. I may play with them from time to time when I'm ready.

I've re-watched a Spanish movie I found especially difficult to follow in January. The movie was much easier to follow. I examined one especially difficult scene. Spanish subtitles helped me determine that I knew all the words except one (from the entire scene) already prior to January and that all the comprehension trouble was due to the rapid rate of speech and the peculiarities of continental Spanish pronunciation.

6/02/2016 I just learned "loco como una cabra" from Gatchaman. Yeah, those guys in funny bird suits.

I also wanted to save this:

"In an attempt to summarise all the information available, John De Jong (personal communication) recently presented ranges of time required to reach different levels. The 400 hours for B1 is optimistic according to his calculations, which suggests a range from 380 hours (fast learners) to 1386 (slow learners). For C1 the range is from 1,520 hours (fast learners) to 4,490 hours (slow learners) which neatly straddles Takka’s estimate" of an average of 3,000 hours. "Taking all of these factors into account, only the person asking the question can answer it by logging the progress of the learners in their context. There is no simple answer.” The CEFR in practice, p.98-100

C2 = 4600 - 12,000 hours? My freestyle diving into native material suddenly looks very reasonable.

6/19 I have been watching mostly cartoons and live TV including things such as the Spanish version of "Cops," investigative journalism (sometimes subtitled in Spanish), religious TV, commercials (not on purpose), a bit of Galician programming, talk shows, agriculture programming (very short - I did catch some "bovine" references), soccer.... My TV watching was pronunciation practice, listening, reading and listening-while-reading all rolled into one.

A few observations:

- Don't confuse telenovela-watching or any single source of entertainment with live TV.
- Don't get intimidated with different regional accents.
- Don't believe the hype: regular people and their idiosyncrasies are perfectly intelligible after some live TV watching. If you have trouble following a simple life story your troubles are likely due to general listening comprehension issues OR the person is mixing in elements of a dialect.
- Channel surfing is very useful.
- Read in your strongest languages and watch TV in your weakest language. Always begin with pronunciation and listening comprehension.

In short, I love TV as a language-learning tool. That's how I learned Italian and German from scratch and that's how I improved on my other languages.

6/20 A visual representation of language learning theories:

I am sticking with (in)comprehensible input.

7/5 Slam Dunk (TV series), Stephen King (audiobook), The Tale of Despereaux (60 pages).
7/6 TV - cartoons
7/7 4 short stories; TV - cartoons
7/8 Live TV - 1990's corruption cases, Mafia, Intelligence (TV segment)

Update (September 2016) I have started watching Portuguese TV programs.


Idris Cheikh said...

I'm kind of surprised by your TV watching method! I'm happy to see that it works.

I'd like to know if you think the method would work too without pictures to watch : listening to radio, podcasts… Do you think it would? For children and adults alike?

Thanks a lot!

reineke said...


Methods are for rubes... You've correctly spotted one element that helps convert incomprehensible into comprehensible. TV images and text help, as do the cognates. As a kid, I watched Italian TV because of Lamu and Ken (Ken le Survivant for French speakers). I couldn't care less about the language. The language kind of snuck up on me. As a teenager, I could find Dragon Ball Z during most of the year only on German channels. I also liked "Georgie," Die Königin der tausend Jahre, Robin Hood,Grimms Märchen, movies etc.

Audiobooks and podcasts would work well with cognate languages. However, kids want to have fun and kids from information-rich countries can find all they need in their mother tongue. I am not sure they could be coaxed into language learning experiments through radio shows and podcasts.