Rewiring My Brain: Escucha y Repita

Despite five years of German and two years of French in middle school and high school, I retained none of it. I think I am not a “language person,” and I have often envied friends who seem to acquire languages like adding an extra car just because they can. Nevertheless, it’s been on my radar for years to learn Spanish. It is California; we are practically a bi-lingual state. I decided 2019 was the year to give it the full welly. I discovered ways to learn and not to learn, I started exercising parts of my brain that I didn’t know where there, and learned all about el hombre con seis dodos. Español, aquí voy!

Duolingo language app
The Duolingo free language app

How Not to Learn Spanish

This started three years ago when my daughter showed me the free Duolingo app, which purports to teach you a language five minutes a day. Since I enjoy a challenge, most of my focus has been to keep my streak going. (200 days in a row as of today). I have learned a decent amount of vocabulary, particularly about chicken with rice, fish burgers, and wine.

When we went to Italy last year, we picked up a little Italian in Duolingo. Enough to say Permesso! when I needed to get off a bus. Curiously, Duolingo thought it was very important early on to say Il pinguino beve acqua (the penguin drinks water). However, I was happy that it taught me gelato and cioccaloto right away, and it’s a flaw in this app that three years in, I haven’t been taught to say either ice cream or chocolate in Spanish! (Yes, I know it’s helado and chocolate, but why hasn’t it taught me yet?) Overall, I found the progress exceedingly slow, and after so many months still could barely understand Dora the Explorer-level Spanish. I was determined to do more.

Getting in on the Conversation

The most tried and true method to learn a language, of course, is to be dropped into a place where no one speaks your language, where you are forced to learn or starve. An awful lot of people certainly learn that way, although I wouldn’t call that “easy.” There are also expensive ways to do this, but it must be understood that I am too much of a cheapskate to pay for a better app or take a class at the adult school. I do have a friend who’s become fluent this way, but he told me that this multi-year process has cost him several hundred dollars. I wanted something cheaper, i.e. free. What have we got online? What’s at the library?

EdX, a partially-free online learning annex, provided a great beginning three week video course, which I completed spit-spot. That helped to combine basic vocabulary with conversation, the piece that Duolingo lacks. I learned all about the parts of a house and how to describe hair color and length. However, whenever they started speaking quickly, I couldn’t follow it at all, even if it was vocabulary I had supposedly “learned.”

I then tried watching Spanish-language television with subtitles, but they still spoke way too fast. I can see that’s where I need to get to, yet I need an intermediate step. There is, by the way, some sort of Spanish-language dating show with alternating sets of bachelors and bachelorettes choosing each other based, I think, entirely on looks. They don’t use names but refer to each other by astrological signs. Kissing is involved. No entiendo.

Spanish show 12 corazones
Spanish dating show

I did hit kind of a jackpot at the library, after failing at two conversational programs. One promised to teach you in forty minutes and had the instructor, Olivia, work with a stranded American woman in a Mexican hotel, Phoebe, who had a hilarious New York accent. Unfortunately, learning vocabulary consisted of bringing in the food service waiter who promptly rattled off a list of restaurant-related words, which they repeated as if they had immediately learned them. I call bs. You can’t learn words from one repetition. Another weird “new agey” program played mellow background music while the male voice repeated over and over, un cafe con leche, which is unfortunate since no bebo cafe con leche (I don’t drink coffee with milk).

The conversation method that seems to be working is the Pimsleur method, which I have been able to get via the RB Digital library. It’s 30 days and 30 lessons in each module, and there appear to be seven, which seems like plenty. The first lesson explained that it was much better than all the other methods because Dr. Pimsleur and science! Actually, the approach is called “spaced interval” learning which requires you not just to listen and repeat, but to do it again after time has passed. More effective.

Also, you participate in an actual conversation that starts out simplistic, but after two weeks, involves which restaurant you’re going to, who’s going to buy, and when you’re going. I am finally making progress, though I will say that these particular conversations seem to revolve a great deal around cerveza (beer) which is again annoying since no me gusta la cerveza. Why can’t they teach us in Lesson Three to say Vamos del restaurante “Cold Stone Creamery” para comer algo de helado!

My Wernicke’s Area Needed a Workout anyway

I have been listening to Pimsleur lessons in the car because it turns out I’m in the car at least 30 minutes a day, going somewhere. Even though I don’t commute to the office anymore, I find that just going to the gym, to the grocery store, to my volunteer site easily takes more than that per day.

I was curious about whether driving and listening would be problematic, and while I read some sites that suggested not to do this, I found some interesting research that suggested otherwise. It turns out that the language learning site of the brain is called the Wernicke’s area (Brocca’s area also gets involved with the speech part).

Map of the brain
Driving and language learning may not conflict

Driving is controlled by a variety of motor functions. The cerebellum helps you steer. The medulla oblongota keeps you focused. The corpus callosum helps you connect what you see to what you’re doing. However, Wernicke’s isn’t necessarily engaged, which is why you can have a conversation while you drive. Although that can be distracting, it’s usually not. In comparison, I’ve sometimes found that it’s hard to listen to audiobooks while I drive because I often lose track of the story. Listening to stories, apparently, uses many more parts of your brain than the language centers. The brain starts activating all the segments that might relate to the characters in the story, so because driving uses many parts of your brain, those parts are already busy. Whereas your Wernicke’s area is just sitting there idle while you’re changing lanes, so you might as well use it.

Nooks and Crannies

One curious thing keeps happening when I’m asked to translate a sentence on these tapes. I keep thinking of the translated word not in Spanish but in French or German. Every time I hear the instructor say but, instead of pero, I think aber. When I hear because, I think of parce que rather than por que. I said at the outset that I really remember very little German or French from way back when, but apparently those words are sticking around in nooks and crannies of my brain.

This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this. Anytime I write a long list, I’m more likely to finish with und so weiter or usw rather than etcetera. Maybe my brain just think it feels more exotic. When we used to leave the house, I would tell my kids Dann gehen wir jetzt, and they would look at me.

Many years ago, I came across a three-way translation of the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky written in German and French. It’s a fascinating exercise because it highlights the differences between the three languages, particularly since the poem is full of nonsense words. But I can still toss off parts of it in both languages–those words are tucked in my brain somewhere–even though I can’t remember words to my favorite poems in English. Es brillig warles toves lubricilleux… I may just have to live with learning Spanish that occasionally is full of un peu francais oder ein bisschen Deutsch.

I have also found myself wandering around the house still spouting entire sentences in Spanish, Voy a comprar algo, muchas cosas buenas de Ecuador. (I’m going to buy something, many good things from Ecuador). My wife told me that I’ve walked through the kitchen like this twice, and she wondered whether her hearing was going. Is it my tinnitus or are you actually speaking in tongues?


No te pierdas al hombre con seis dedos.

Maldito sea! (lo siento)

Just practicing conversational skills, while it seems to be bootstrapping me better than other approaches, is suficiente no. I did break down and spend $6.99 on a used textbook, so I could look at the spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. There was again a lot of immediate focus on describing people’s hair color and length but… Chapter Three and still no helado!

The last step to my cunning plan has been to add movies in Spanish to the arsenal. I quickly found that you should not watch movies you don’t know. It’s better if both the audio and subtitle track are in Spanish, which forces you to interpret and learn the words, but you can’t do it if you can’t follow the plot. If the audio is in English, you end up not reading the subtitles.

My daughter and I had a great time starting out with La Princesa Prometida, although we had an interesting side conversation about the fact that I don’t really remember movie plots well at all. (I kept asking her what was going to happen next, and she pointed out that we had watched the movie together three times, listened to the audio of the book, and an audiobook by lead actor Cary Elwes about the making of the film. Tengo una mente como un cubo con fugas. (I have a mind like a leaky bucket). I’m pretty good at remembering dialogue, though, so I’ll keep Inigo Montoya’s speech ready to go; apparently, my hippocampus prefers some memories over others.

Mi nombre es Iñigo Montoya. Mataste a mi padre. ¡Prepárate para morir!

the most famous speech from La Princesa Prometida

I loved the Melissa McCarthy comedy, The Heat, though it seemed to have in ordinate amount of swear words. Diablos! Maldición! (Disculpe!) I have a feeling those curses were fairly mild compared to what someone from Mexico might actually say. Last week we did our favorite pelicula, Monty Python y la Búsqueda del Grial Sagrado which involves Los Caballeros de la Tabla Redonda and don’t ask me why they kept saying tabla instead of mesa. I can definitely report that it is a comuna anarco-sindicalista just as you’d think.

This week, my daughter and I will tackle one of our guilty pleasure favorites: Hojas de gloria (Blades of Glory). I can’t wait to hear how they’re going to translate Jon Heder saying ” I’m not skating to anything with references to lady humps. I don’t even know what that means.” Iron Lotus, aqui voy!

Studying Works, Too

The coach of the Yale soccer team was paid $400,000 to recruit a wealthy student, who may or may not have even played soccer. The wealthy family paid the “admission coach,” Rick Singer, $1.2 million. Tidy little profit, there.

The admissions cheating sting reported by the FBI yesterday is sending ripples through the media today, notable in particular because 50 people were charged with bribery, including some TV personalities. Multiple parents, mostly in southern California, paid the consultant anywhere from tens of thousands to millions for his assistance in ensuring their children access to a handful of elite universities, including USC, Stanford, and Yale. Since, in the interests of full transparency, I happen to work as a college test preparation instructor, the story is resonating quite a bit with me. However, what strikes me the most in the Op Eds and sound bites, is the immediate focus on blaming the system, the test, and the colleges, rather than blaming the cheaters.

Rick Singer
Rick Singer, Key to the bribery scheme, photo by Steven Senne, AP

Continue reading “Studying Works, Too”

We, the Juries

Jury in a movie
The jury in To Kill a Mockingbird, Universal Pictures

I was called for jury duty this week. Like clockwork, the postcard arrived in the mail just about 13 months to the day from the one that arrived last year, an unbroken chain of annual requests that stretches back for at least two decades. In the abstract, I welcome the idea that we the people participate in our civil processes to adjudicate the actions of our fellow citizens. In the concrete reality of the postcard, however, I would prefer not to.

This contrast of opposites—our desire for fairness and search for justice set against the practical realities of daily life plays itself out repeatedly—it has in history, it does today. I could not help but muse on the history of juries as I watched the drama of Congressional hearings and waited to find out if I would have to traipse down to the courtroom myself.

Trial of Socrates–Imagine the Jury Pool!

The use of juries—a group of potential peers—to weigh evidence in a trial has ancient roots but a far more restricted use and history than I realized. The word “jury” originally meant simply “to swear,” or “to pronounce a ritual formula,” an idea that ultimately transformed itself into the formula of law. This slightly differs from the origin of the word for “judge,” which meant “to speak about the law.” The Greeks used juries in one of the early recorded instances of the practice, although their juries were 300 to 500 men or more. Continue reading “We, the Juries”

Live Longer: Eat Cheese & Do Push-ups

Not necessarily, of course.

Like the rest of the human race, I am always in search of better health. I am an intrepid explorer of the findings of scientists, digging into the abstracts. What were the actual findings? Who was the study based on? How did they know? Was it correlation or just causation? It’s disappointing how often it turns out to be hogwash.

Today, it was the push-ups article in the NY Times. Last week, the cheese. I can’t tell, once I read enough to discover, Aha! I knew it! whether I should feel smug or irritated. Should I blame the scientists or the journalists? Or myself, for continuing to search for the easy fix and the fountain of youth? Could I solve it by combining them, say, to get push-up cheese?

Push-up cheese
Push-ups and cheese, Photo at PackagingNetwork.com

The Pattern

The pattern of scientific study recaps is fairly standard. Headline: Do This! Because a recent study says so. The photo is vaguely related, usually exaggerated. In a reputable paper, the digest of findings is somewhat specific, although it may blur some rather key details. If it’s not a reputable paper, the digest is plagiarized summarized from somebody else’s write-up, with most of the key details omitted or exaggerated. Sometimes, scientists are quoted trying to explain causality, though that’s really guesswork given the nature of studies which can’t control for variables enough to make that connection. Never mind! At the end, there’s a snappy quip, often a nonsequitur. If you read the online comments (but don’t!), people responding seem to completely miss the point. Perhaps it’s just as well. Continue reading “Live Longer: Eat Cheese & Do Push-ups”

Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái! Happy Lunar New Year!

 恭喜发财

(simplified Chinese)

I hope I haven’t already insulted somebody.

San Francisco, my homeland for the last forty years, has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world, so the Chinese New Year festivals here have always been spectacular. The elaborate parade, which will be held on February 23, is deemed the largest celebration of its kind outside of Asia, even featuring a 288-foot-long dragon (“Gum Lung”).

SF Chinese New Year
SF Chinese New Year Parade, photo by sponsor Southwest Airlines staff

News stories talk about where to get the best traditional food (e.g. dumplings) and fanciest red envelopes. People do wish each other Gung Hay Fat Choy enthusiastically, which seems to be where some of the argument starts. Continue reading “Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái! Happy Lunar New Year!”