What I Learned From Grinding Language classes for 9 Months

Over this past year, I’d say my biggest accomplishment was building out my language learning habit and actually improving somewhat in my foreign language speaking skills. So what exactly did I do to learn new languages? I started taking tutoring classes online. Originally, I scheduled weekly classes to learn Chinese. Now, I’m learning Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Japanese. Now, am I learning them all equally as well? Not even close.

March Schedule

Here was my schedule back in March – pretty doable – I think anyone could probably incorporate this amount of classes into their life, possibly with little alteration of their normal schedule, or possibly a lot, to free up certain time schedules.

April Schedule

Here’s April and May – I feel like my schedule remained pretty consistent – about two or three classes a week on average. June and July are pretty similar. It’s not until August that I really ramp up the intensity:

At this point, I’ve moved to daily classes with an additional class thrown in every other day or so. What’s with the shift?

Regardless of your methods for learning a language, there are a couple of core concepts that you must abide by:

  • You need to have an opportunity to learn new material. (This can be vocabulary, grammar, or new language concepts.)
  • You need an area to practice it – For example, speaking in conversations that incorporate the new concepts you’ve learned. Watching videos that use the target vocab/grammar. Reading books. Listening to conversations or podcasts. So forth.
  • Time spent practicing the concepts. This is in line with the above, actually – your output is a function of usage over time – meaning you can practice and use the concept many times over a short period, or the same amount of times over a longer period. However, it’s not necessarily 1:1; there’s a bunch of articles hyping the use of spaced repetition in learning a language – meaning it might actually be worse if you practice a concept 1000 times in a week and then pick it up a year later, compared to practicing that concept 1000 times spaced throughout the course of a year and then picking it up again the following year. You want to practice these concepts over a time interval instead of doing things in bursts.

So, keeping these general concepts in mind, what did I learn about learning languages?

  • It’s a hell of a lot easier to learn the more you study. This sounds kind of self evident, but when I take the same class every day, I don’t even need to do outside homework in order to recall concepts I learned the day before. Just brute forcing learning through sheer volume of classes serves to learn things over time. Would it be better if I study outside of class as well? of course. Do I do it? Nope.
  • Trying to learn multiple languages may not be inherently worse than only focusing on one. Having said that, I do think it gives you a lot more rope to hang yourself with, so I wouldn’t recommend starting from scratch with multiple languages – I think it’s cool to pick up several languages if you’re relatively proficient with one and a beginner in the other. One benefit I found from learning multiple languages simultaneously was not needing to sustain my interest in only one language. It’s really natural to have interest in learning a language wax and wane over time, but whenever interest dropped in one language, interest would rise in the other. It was quite nice.
  • It’s crucial to build in time to explore the concepts you’re learning. On Italki, I would schedule weekly classes with some of my tutors. These tutors would focus solely on going over new concepts, vocabulary, and grammar with me, with the expectation that I would study these things in my own time and practice speaking/writing/reading etc. However, with some languages, it was very frequently the case that the class was the only time I was exposed to that language in a conversational setting, meaning I could talk to someone and they would respond back. Compare that to watching a TV show or listening to music/ reading news in the target language – you are still exposed to the language, but you get little opportunity to practice speaking in a real world setting, which, for most people, is the most practical use for a language. In order to ameliorate this, I had to reach out to my tutors and reset expectations – I needed to move slower and spend much more time practicing these concepts by verbally reviewing them in conversation with my tutor. While the rate at which we covered material dropped to a snail’s pace, my retention shot up through the roof.
  • For those who have taken a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, the structure of a typical BJJ class actually is quite useful to incorporate in a language learning context. A typical BJJ class usually follows this pattern: First 10 minutes of class spent warming up. About 20-30 minutes devoted to learning new material. Then about 30 minutes sparring, which is as close to real world usage as possible. The practitioners grapple under a restricted ruleset – no punching, kicking, or strikes of any kind. No fouling (gouging, manipulating people’s fingers, messing with ears, eyes, throat (except for chokes), etc) Every class is essentially self-contained: There’s room to learn new concepts, but also space to test out new material as you see fit. If you don’t have any exposure to your target language outside of class, I feel like incorporating the BJJ class model is really useful for retaining language knowledge. If you have plenty of opportunity to practice your target language outside of class, I’d recommend taking out the “practice” aspect from your classes, since there’s so little time in a class and you could devote more of it to learning instead.

(It’s important to note that this is simply one method to learn a language – I’m not saying it’s the only path, nor is it the best. But it is my path and it is one that works for me. You may find it useful for you if you need structured classes for guidance in the same way I do. If you think it might work for you, try it! As they say, take what works and discard what doesn’t. I wont be offended!)

Chicanery – on Crossing the Rubicon

I’m really into Better Call Saul . It’s my favorite current TV show, and my personal canon of Great TV Shows . My favorite episodes in particular are the ones that address the relationship between Jimmy and Chuck – the underlying resentment that’s simmering throughout the series. Whenever the series decides to confront the elephant in the room, things complode – it’s like dynamite. I’m thinking of two episodes in particular that really highlight this dynamic – Pimiento and Chicanery. I can address the conflict in Pimiento in another post, but long story short, it’s when Jimmy finally realizes how Chuck has been keeping him down the entire time. It’s an explicit reveal of something Jimmy’s felt all his like – his inferiority complex to his brother, and his brother’s contempt for him. He’s always known his brother thought he was better than him – but this episode is where Chuck comes right and and admits it. But enough about that – I want to focus on Chicanery – the episode when everything comes to a boil.

One interesting aspect of the bar hearing against Jimmy is it’s the culmination of the bubbling resentment finally being unleashed by both sides – Years of harbored resentment finally reaching a tipping point – the thought of having to bail Jimmy out of trouble for years while never seeing how Jimmy had improved over time – While the recording of Jimmy’s confession was when Chuck finally crossed the Rubicon, ultimately, the disbarment case was when Chuck finally brought all the scheming to fruition. Meanwhile, the moment that Jimmy’s resentments finally blow up is when he breaks into Chuck’s house to destroy the tape, but he doesn’t cross the rubicon until after he’s finally let out his resentment. His actions that cross the rubicon – bringing in Chuck’s Ex to inform her about his mental illness, and embarrassing Chuck in front of all his peers – foments from a dispassionate plan to ensure his survival. But ultimately, these machinations against his brother are all a product of that eruption of resentment.

I’m too lazy to synthesize the rest of my thoughts into a cogent post, so here’s the highlights of the episode summarized in a list:

  • Sibling resentment
  • Chuck flipping the addresses in his white lie to Rebecca mirrors when Jimmy plays transposes the addresses to trip up Chuck – gives some more context on why he can sniff it out, even when everyone else thinks he’s crazy. 512 San Cristobal Road to 215 San Cristobal Road -> 1261 Rosella Drive to 1216 Rosella Drive.
  • This episode is a microcosm of the brother’s relationship – the weird emotional codependency on each other, the lingering resentment, the contrast in portrayals -the justification of Jimmy’s work ethic via Howard’s compliments contrasted with Chuck always seeing the worst in Jimmy shown when he finally loses his temper – explains why he’s the only one who can figure out when Jimmy’s pulling a scam, when he only Jimmy’s actions through the lens of Slippin’ Jimmy.
  • Chuck’s explicit statement of what everyone has been tiptoeing about for 2 and half half seasons, which is – he is NOT CRAZY.
  • The whole episode is everyone dancing around Chuck’s mental illness, no one explicitly mentioning it, but talking around it – Howard with the FMLA leave, Jimmy with the TEG, until the State’s attorney finally mentioning Chuck’s mental illness
  • “He’s hoping this will break me down, split me apart at the seams like a murderer confessing on an episode of Perry Mason. Well… I’m sorry to disappoint you Jimmy.” *** Three Minutes Later, immediately confesses ***
  • Chuck and Jimmy’s weird codependent relationship – they both know how to push each other’s buttons. The climax is a result of both brothers finally unleashing a lifetime of unspoken resentment. They both know how their actions will devastate their opposing sibling – indeed, it seems like the point is the devastation.

One other thing I love about this episode – it’s vindication. We’ve been building up this same resentment towards Chuck, as a proxy for Jimmy’s resentment. We want to see him lash out and knock his brother down a peg. But when he finally pulls out all the stops, it’s absolutely devastating. It’s a total pyrrhic victory. Jimmy may have prevented his disbarment, but at the cost of destroying his brother emotionally and professionally. It’s not even a satisfying feeling to get revenge for all the things Chuck has been doing for him over the years. Likewise, he’s gotten Kim roped into his shenanigans as well, and she doesn’t feel any better about the situation. As she says in a later episode, “as far as I’m concerned, all we did was tear down a sick man.”

Life Goals Reevaluations 2019 Edition

Since it’s been two years since my last reevaluation, let’s have a check up.

What were my previous goals?

Low hanging fruit

  • Lose weight (5-10 pounds) (I’ve actually gained weight in the interim – I’m hovering around 220 pounds right now)
  • Establish emergency savings fund (Mmmmm…. Not really working out. I’m net negative because of credit card debt and student loans. Need to start tightening up the belt and clawing my way out of credit card debt before I can start putting money down for an emergency fund)
  • Keep blogging on a weekly basis (Well, I’m restarting this one. Going well so far.)

Ambitious/Long term goals

  • Learn to play an instrument or sing (Eh, it’s been reprioritized onto the back burner)
  • Learn to draw (Hasn’t been going anywhere)
  • Publish a book (Same)
  • Keep blogging on a near-daily basis (Not been working out, but restarting)
  • Learn a new language (This one is something I’ve been succeeding at. In fact, I’m actually pretty proud of my accomplishments so far. Still a long way to go, but I’ve markedly improved my language acquisition in this year alone. My Chinese skills have certainly gone up a level. I’ve also started learning other languages, and while the bar on those languages are mixed, I’ve still improved when I consider where I started.)
  • Live in a foreign country (Though it could also be relatively short term – I could easily uproot my life any time within the upcoming months to the next year if I quit my job) (This one I can mark off my list as accomplished. I’ve lived in another country for a year, which has given me the perspective to consider whether I’d like to live elsewhere long term. While I’m not totally decided on living abroad in the long term, I’ve definitely come to consider what sorts of asks I would target for an area I’d consider settling in.)
  • Lose weight (40-50 pounds) (This is a negative goal – I’ve gone in the opposite direction. Needs some work.)
  • Own a home (Not any time soon, unless I buy property on the cheap.)
  • Run the Iditarod (Nah)
  • Start my own business (Nothing doing)
  • Grab a bag of corn nuts and bust a nut (Always)

New Goals:

Long term goal:

  • Write a million words

Medium Term goal (Accomplish within a year):

  • Write 300,000 words

Short term goal: (Accomplish in next six months)

  • Write 100,000 words

SMART goal: (Accomplish in a month)

  • Write 20,000 words

20,000 words in a month seems doable to me – that’s 20 1,000 word paragraphs, or 40 500 word articles. That works out to a little over a month, which is definitely within reason. The purpose isn’t to hit this specific target (20,000 words in a month) but a general time frame for hitting this goal. I’ve actually installed a word count plugin to track my progress. Currently I’m at about ~30,000 published words, so as I inch closer to 40k and 50k I’ll know I’m making progress.

After reviewing my goals, I feel like I haven’t really accomplished many of the goals that I set out for myself. However, contrary to what might be expected, I don’t feel as if my accomplishments were a letdown – rather, I’ve reprioritized my goals to focus entirely on the language learning aspect. Many of these goals can be put on the backburner as they’re no longer an immediate priority outside of writing and language learning. I actually feel like the list of goals I have set up don’t really accurately reflect what I want to accomplish in the short term – maybe in the longer term, but they’re more nebulous bucket list items, such as owning a home or running the iditarod. What are things I want to accomplish immediately in the short term? I’d need to re-review my wants and needs and build out a new list. I know one thing I want to add is more add more reading to my backlog. I’ve recently started getting into audible audiobooks, which I feel like help get me back into reading, as I’ve been pretty seamlessly going back and forth between reading and listening to a new book when I’ve had the time to do so.

Anyways, back to the point – it makes sense after two years that my goals would change. It’s especially helpful to reflect on I’ve done – not just what goals I’ve accomplished and which I’ve failed, but what methods I tried – what worked and what didn’t in my pursuit of my goals. I feel like I’ve mostly relied on trying out new things and never iterating upon it – while the sheer volume of work being put in helps for learning, I think I’m losing out on the massive benefit of improving over time because of how rigid my methodology can be. For example, in my 1:1 language classes, I rely solely on the tutor for learning the language. Whatever methods they employ, I follow blindly like a sheep. This means the actual effectiveness of each lesson and each teacher varies wildly. I don’t feel like I’m consistently learning each language I’m studying. A lot of this can also be chalked up to frequency of classes, but I do think a big part of what’s holding me back is the method in which I go about learning. I’ve learned this because I have actually applied this in one of my classes – my Japanese class.

My tutor would only spend time with me to go over new lessons and grammar every class. This included vocabulary and material from every lesson. However, I wasn’t practicing outside of class, and I only had classes once a week – this meant I wasn’t really learning anything, since I didn’t bother to retain any vocabulary or grammar from class, because I didn’t practice it. After months of this, I took a step back and reached out to my tutor to change the methodology of the class. I asked him to reset – we went back to the beginning lessons that we started from, and went through the material at a slower pace. We spent much more time actually practicing discussions in class, since that was the only opportunity I would have to practice speaking in Japanese in my daily routine. At that pace the rate of learning was much more sustainable and I even retained more of what we went over, since I got to practice the concepts and the vocabulary throughout multiple lessons. It was a really valuable lesson to me to reach out and attempt to

a) Improve processes over time

or

b) Change things up if they aren’t working for me.

On Frames, AKA Lenses AKA Models

This guy I found recently on twitter loves to talk about frames. In essence, frames are how we perceive the world around us – we can modify our own perception of the world and others’ perception as well to effect various outcomes, such as increase visibility on an issue, increase sales, etc. I bring this up because I’ve also been thinking about the world in this frame – except my preferred nomenclature is the model (like a scientific model), or a lens with which we perceive the world (rose colored glasses).

There’s a well known saying regarding models: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. What does this mean? Well, let’s go back to the purpose of a model when used in our science classes: a model is a simplified break down of certain interactions. By certain interactions, I mean the frame of reference for what is being modeled. This is kind of vague, but it’s hard to be more concrete because the frame of reference for what is being modeled can vary greatly. Here’s the prototypical example: Classical mechanics. Classical mechanics is a model taught in physics to describe the general principle of motion of physical objects. It’s not an overarching explanation for how the world works – it’s more of a simplified description of what is happening when things are moving. When looking at the world only from the perspective of objects in motion, we can apply the model of classical mechanics to predict the outcomes of movement. In the same way that we use this model to understand and predict how objects are moving, we can pick up and apply other models to other aspects of life to effect various outcomes.

How does generalize to the rest of our lives? We can look at models as tools with which to understand aspects of the world, or even manipulate it in limited ways – if we apply the calculations of physical mechanics, we can possibly predict the movement of large physical objects – say, if you wanted to build something the scale of the pyramids. Doing the upfront work of understanding how to move these objects efficiently could save you a lot of manpower. However, these models of the world are meant to be interchangeable – after all, “all models are wrong”. It doesn’t seem to make sense to take one model and try to rigidly apply that to all aspects of the world around you. For example, here are some common mental models for perceiving the world:

Survival of the fittest – similar to the law of the jungle. It’s a world where ultimately might makes right – if you hold more power (physically, fiscally, socially), ultimately you are in the right.

The rule of law – stolen directly from Better Call Saul: “The rule of law – the idea that no matter who you are, your actions have consequences.”

The red pill – this one is popular in the “manosphere”. The idea that the modern world itself is a poison that has destroyed the social fabric – Women have been given inequitable amounts of power in modern society and men have been toppled from their natural place in the food chain, ultimately leading to the destruction of society.

Let’s look at the limitations of each model:

Survival of the fittest – does that apply in a family setting? Is this how you should treat your siblings, your cousins, and your aunts and uncles? In the case of familial relations, it might not make sense to apply this model. Having said that, maybe the power dynamics of your family is the exception, Everyone’s different.

Rule of law – is the rule of law always equitably applied? The assumption behind upholding the rule of law is that the laws themselves are justified. In the case laws against homosexuality, is it really just to apply those laws? They may apply to everyone, but they target a specific group of individuals.

Red pill – I leave this as an exercise for the reader. Come to your own conclusions as to why this worldview is limiting! Even better, try to come up with perspectives in which this model might be useful!

Ultimately, models are only as useful as the contexts in which they are applied. They may end up limiting you socially – see the example of the red pill. Is it sustainable to live a life thinking all relationships are transactional in nature? Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself. But limiting yourself to one model in which to view the world is can bind you like a chain. Having said that, sometimes the limitations also give way to greater freedom of expression – having restrictions can sometimes do wonder for your creativity, after all. Think of how much work you can get done 5 minutes before a paper is due, compared to having unlimited time to work on your creative endeavors freely. The effect depends entirely on how the individual uses it and how suitable the model works for them.

Directing Your Life

I follow a couple of various career forums – Fishbowl, Blind, and CSCareerquestions. I’ve been seeing a bunch of people ask similar questions – typically, new grads who’ve moved for a job are lonely and looking for social outlets – Since they’re new to the area, they don’t know anyone, and unlike their hometown or college, they don’t have a built in system for meeting people outside of work. Their hometown naturally having a bunch of longtime neighbors or friends from school, and from college the people they met in classes or clubs or what have you. These weren’t communities they had to go out of their way to build out – it was a naturally occurring part of their ecosystem. In a sense, these communities were built as a part of an unconscious routine.

How much of our lives are dictated by unconscious habits? Pretty much most of it – on a day to day basis, I get up, brush my teeth, shower, go to work, get lunch, go home, eat dinner, veg out on my computer, and go to sleep. Pretty normal routine for many people I’d imagine – add in recreational activities, exercise, some socialization on the weekends, and you have an average American single. Obviously the lifestyle will vary for people with kids, but they still have a general rhythm to their lives. But they don’t have to be this way.

Everyone naturally has a certain amount of agency in their own lives (or so the theory goes), so why do we fall into these unconscious rhythms? Well, probably because they work. We’re surviving on a day to day basis – if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Having said that, sometimes people aren’t actually able to stomach their current situation and it becomes untenable. Going back to my post about incorporating retrospectives, there can be real benefit to reevaluating your natural routines and determining if they need some tweaking, or total excision from your life. You might find you want to add things as well.

In more concrete terms, what are these habits I’m referring to? Think of your friend groups – the people you hang out with regularly. Are they people who’ve kind of worked their way in your lives through happenstance? Are you still friends with these people out of circumstance, or do you genuinely like spending time with them now? Maybe you’re stuck in a rut and don’t have other friends, so you’re afraid to lose the only network you have, even if you’re not really having a good time any more in the relationship. But you have the ability to look for new friend groups and new communities. You can join a sport, a club, or a hobby. The difference between doing so in college and doing post college is the external nature of it – In college, these things all exist somewhere in your peripheral. Social organizations like frats, clubs, and sports are all part of the college ecosystem. It’s therefore not as much of a cost to break out of your daily rhythm to join these things, compared to post college life – every activity or group you attempt to join is entirely out of the purview of your current daily life. You need to go out of your way to attend these things, because they’re not tied into your work or your routine.

The Feedback Loop: On Incorporating Retrospectives

You ever revisit an old song/movie/book/TV show that you loved in the past, but found out it was actually pretty bad, or dated? Keep in mind, there’s a difference between having your tastes change over time and just visual rot over time. For example, specific genres like action movies usually age worse than other genres, say a romance or drama, because they usually rely on more special effects. In this case, you just realized what you liked wasn’t that good, and a lot of your previous judgement of the work was papered over by other qualities like novelty or the flashiness of the spectacle at the time. For years or decades even, you were had this impression of this work that didn’t align with the actual object experience upon your reevaluation. Why is that? Because in all those years, you never went back to check if your opinion changed over time. Let’s extract this to the rest of your life. A job field you’re no longer interested in, a college degree you’re majoring in but not passionate about, maybe even a relationship that’s kind of lost its spark but you still consider good, because of how many good times you shared in the past. Continual reevaluation of the status quo is fundamentally necessary to determine if all of your habits are worth keeping in your life.

Keep in mind, this isn’t an imperative command to upend your lifestyle. If you’re satisfied with your current lifestyle, there’s no reason to change things up. But at the very least, it’s necessary to reevaluate all aspects of your lifestyle on a continual basis – otherwise, how will you know if something is worth keeping or not? Liken it to a monitoring system: continual reevaluation of all your habits is akin to setting up tracking systems on what is and isn’t working in the current system you call your life. Without reevaluation, you won’t realize whether something is broken or not. Otherwise, things could be critically miscalibrated for years and you would have no idea, since you’ve never bothered to look. Having said that, it’s also important to prioritize what’s worth reevaluating and the timeframe for reevaluations. Consider the example of the childhood movie you realized was crap: Is there any material impact to you realizing you no longer like the movie? Has it influenced your life in any way? If not, why does it matter to go back and revisit it?

Let’s consider it from another aspect: professional athletes, specifically combat sports athletes. How many times do we see fighters continuing far past their athletic peaks, to the point where they’re no longer competitive, or where they’ve sustained so much damage to their minds or bodies that its affected their quality of life? Have they properly reevaluated their vocation, or are they possibly trapped in circumstance? After all, there’s been many a fighter who’ve continued to fight long past their prime simply because fighting still paid well and they had no other opportunities. In the end, no one can make the decision to continue on with a pursuit except the individual themselves, but at the very least they should be cognizant of why they’re making it.