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self learning

Here I am again. So this blog wasn’t dead after all…. Have I been procrastinating maybe? Yes and not.

As I once said, some time ago I was a great procrastinator. For me it was a  very serious issue. Even my self-esteem was affected because of that situation.  As many other people I decided to read some books about procrastination in order to help myself. And believe me, if you choose the right ones, they can help you to change for better (of course reading isn’t enough, a combination of daily work, will, motivation  and routine is a must). For me, this book was one of the most helpful because of it’s main point: to postpone our main pending big task doing smaller tasks. Yeah, it sounds quite simple, but it’s deeper than it sounds. Did you ever noticed back at high school that during the week of finals each semester we always thought we had a lot of things we would like to do but we couldn’t because of exams, and when we we had finished all of them we didn’t  think like that anymore? Well, this is something similar. Here you can read the essay where this idea was explained for the first time (it’s also the first chapter of the book which I pointed out). I believe that it gives enough insight about the idea altogether so I am not going to develop it more in this entry.

Maybe for me updating this blog is not the biggest task in my plate right now. Nevertheless, I consider it very important because it’s the only activity which I do in my personal time with a -very small- public impact. So, what have I been doing instead of updating this blog? Mainly modifying and improving the system which I use for studying and starting a new project based in the incremental reading technique. I pretend to write about these activities in a short-term future and a medium-term future respectively. But first I need to obtain more data and results. So today I would like to speak about my user’s experience while using two of the most well know SRS nowadays: Anki and SuperMemo.

If we look around the Internet we will find a lot of reviews about each of them, and sometimes even direct comparisons between them. But as I see it, nearly always there is a big issue in all of them: most of those reviews are just superficial and limited analysis of the main features of Anki, SuperMemo or both of them. In other words, usually those reviews are made by people who never used either of them, or if they did, usually it was for a relative short period of  time. So, in the end, the decision about which one it’s the most efficient is left to the reader.

I am not going to analyze the main features of each of them, mainly, because as I said, there are a lot of reviews like that, and because I don’t fully know all of them (mostly, Anki’s apparently infinite plugins list). What I want to speak about it’s my user’s experience after using Anki for a whole year in a regular way and SuperMemo  for half year (still doing it) also in a regular way.

Anki was the first SRS I ever used and thus I had a lot of problems because of it. Anyways, it’s interface it’s really intuitive so it in the end it was really easy to learn how to run it. The main problem which I faced was to understand it’s true nature (here I explained what is a SRS and what I believe it’s its true purpose). In the end that situation made me to do many mistakes while using it. The most significant one was to believe that I could introduce any kind of information and in some way or another I would be able to learn and remember it solely with Anki’s help. I wasn’t follow The 20 rules of formulating knowledge in learning even if I was already aware of them. Now I truly understand their importance. Another big handicap I had back then was that I wasn’t aware yet of the big importance of active recall in our learning process, so most of my Anki cards were ‘passive review focused’.

SuperMemo on the other hand has a very complex interface which most of the times makes potential users to think twice before buying it. Yes, while Anki it’s free, SuperMemo isn’t (we are speaking about the Desktop versions). At SuperMemo’s web we can consult the prices. Anyhow, after one week or two of using it I got used to it’s interface. In fact, I realized It was quite intuitive. SuperMemo gives to us more possibilities while creating our cards. Also, it has the explendid Incremental Reading feature. Yes, Anki has a new plugging for it too, but it’s not the same, believe me. While Anki offers to us the Incremental Reading feature as a new incorporation still in process of development, SuperMemo’s last version is especially focused on it. The only feature which I consider better implemented in Anki is the ‘picture clozing’ function. With Anki the ‘picture clozing process’ it’s almost automatic, while with SuperMemo it’s more manually and thus slower (= a pain in the ass).

So, what was the reason to change Anki for SuperMemo (= the reason which makes me think SuperMemo is best suited for me)? After some time using Anki I realized while doing my daily revisions that the older cards (the ones programmed for two or more months ahead) were gone from my long-term memory. That became a common issue rewarding a lot of cards. After evaluating my options I decided to start using SuperMemo hoping to solve that issue. And, in the end, it did. It seems that SuperMemo 15 algorithm is much more solid than the one used by Anki. Here is a brief explanation about the reasons for this. Don’t worry if you don’t understand any of it. I don’t either. I am not a computer programmer nor I have the kind of knowledge which would let me to understand the technical stuff. The only thing I know for sure is that SuperMemo helps me to memorize almost any kind of information in a stable way, while Anki doesn’t. Also, it seems that SuperMemo it’s able to help us to deal with a broader spectrum of topics, while Anki specializes in language learning.

Maybe it’s true that my comparison it’s useless because now, while using SuperMemo, I have much more experience than when I started to use Anki. Maybe, if back then I had the knowledge I have now about certain aspects of my learning process and such, it would have been a total different experience altogether. It’s obvious that my poor results using Anki wasn’t due to it’s own limitations but because my inability to use it in a correct way. Following this reasoning, I would like to point out that both of them have an immense potential. But, in order to benefit from them, and as I said, first we need to understand the true nature of SRS and give to them the credit they deserve; no more, no less.

ps. Yes, the title of this entry is just a trick to get some attention… kind of.

You shouldn’t be reading this blog… this is the kind of thought I end up having every time I read your typical blog about some X Asian language student stating that he/she reached an intermediate/advanced fluency level in two years or less. I don’t know you, but I feel I am doing something wrong every time I read this kind of stuff. Is he/she a f****ng genius or it’s just my problem? How many times are you just looking for a bit of insight about your language learning but, inevitably, do you end up totally unmotivated?

In a few months it’s going to be two years since I started learning Korean by myself, and I feel I am still far from an intermediate fluency level. In fact some days I feel I am in the middle of The Dip.

What’s this so called (The) Dip? The Dip is a concept made up by Seth Godin, an an American entrepreneur, author and public speaker.

According to Godin every new project (or job, or hobby, or company) starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point—really hard, and not much fun at all. In the end you find yourself asking if the goal is even worth the hassle. This situation is what  Godin calls The Dip.

The Dip is the combination of bureaucracy and busywork you must deal with in order to get certified for scuba diving. The Dip is the difference between the easy “beginner” and the more useful “expert” approach in skiing or fashion design. The Dip is the long stretch between beginner’s luck and real accomplishment (*1). I you do a quick Google image search you will be able to find all kinds of illustrations about The Dip.

As I said, some days I feel I am in the middle of The Dip rewarding my Korean level. Of course, reaching The Dip is always inevitable and positive. Even so I hope that I’m just being a bit too negative and my level is not that bad.

If I look closely at what I have been doing for these past two years I realize that my study plan wasn’t that consistent. The main reason for that would be that learning Korean by myself was the first BIG self-learning project I ever undertook in my whole life while having one of the biggest handicaps anybody can have: nobody taught me how to learn.

So these two last years have been a constant process of trial and error about learning about learning. Learning korean it’s been the way I put into practice the theory I have been coming through(*2).

What about English, then? If it isn’t it my first language doesn’t it mean that I already know the way for acquiring new languages? Mmmm this is a question quite difficult to answer. But I will try.

I have two first languages: Spanish and Catalan. I started to learn English when I was eight years old at the school. Back in my school days English lessons at school were quite poor(*3), so it was unexpected to achieve a high English level at public institutions. You had to go an English school or to a private academy to achieve that kind of level. I never went to those kind of places. So what did I do? Well, I spent all my childhood playing English video games and surfing the Internet when Spanish websites were almost nonexistent. I remember that when I was eleven years old my Christmas present was an imported Pokemon Gold-USA version- game copy. Before that I already played some ‘dense games in English’ like Zelda Ocarina of Time and such. Of course I wasn’t able to understand them at 100% but step by step I was building my English skills without realizing it.

Already at high school I was always a few steps ahead of my classmates. When my classmates were reading English books for children I was already reading Poe’s short stories. And then I found one of the best websites around to horn my English skills: fanfiction.net.

When I was a teenager I was a big fan of Japanese animation shows, so to find a website like that where I could keep reading fictional histories about my favorite characters was one of the best things that ever happened to me until then (yes, I had a very simple life). At the beginning I had a lot of struggles to understand 100% all the words, but before realizing it I was able to read whole stories without having to use any kind of automatic translator even for the most difficult parts.

Finally the other major boost which helped me to gain a decent English level was to watch dozens of English subbed Japanese animation shows and American TV series (Lost was the first one I watched without subtitles of any kind).

If I analyze the whole process now I realize I was putting in practice exactly what the Input Theory tells us we have to do in order to acquire a second language: to consume ingent quantities of interesting input sources. That’s why I highly believe in the Input Theory, because it has been already effective for me at least once before.

So, back to my Korean learning process. The main idea has been always to emulate my English learning process. Although recently I found out something really significant. But before keeping on I have to explain something:

Almost all my Korean learning material is for English speakers. Yes, if your first language is Spanish and you don’t know English but you want to learn Korean you are screwed up. Sorry. Korean learning books for Spanish speakers are practically nonexistent.

These past months, while learning new Korean vocabulary, I realized my English vocabulary is not as accurate as I thought. Every time I check the meaning of a new Korean word I have to do a second translation from English to Spanish in order to know the exact word meaning. This led me to discover what I already said: even if my general English comprehension is quite high I have certain difficulties when it comes to identify the exact meanings of individual words.

How it’s possible then that I have been able to keep up with my English learning for so many years? I believe that it was because of the close relationship between English grammar and vocabulary with the Spanish ones. Yes, it’s a close relationship if we compare it with the one between Korean and Spanish, an almost nonexistent one.

When I was learning to read English I could read a certain document beyond my understanding level and be able to deduce the meaning of it through the context due to its similarities with some Spanish words and such. In case of Korean this is almost impossible. My previous language knowledge (Spanish, Catalan and English) while reading something in Korean doesn’t really help me that much. I have to learn every new word from scratch (=to look for its translation at least once). So this situation slows down drastically my learning process. Or at least I feel like that if I compare it with my past English learning process.

Having in mind all of this I reached two conclusions. The firs one is that to focus on vocabulary solely during part of my learning time is critical; at least for now, while I still haven’t reached an intermediate fluency level. The second one is that the next time I start to learn a new language I will make less mistakes for sure!

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(*1)Info extracted from here and here. Of course I also read the book…

(*2)theory= new ideas I get about proper ways of learning.

(*3)In my whole school and high school student live I never took an oral English test, only written ones. Can you see now the kind of flaws the Education System did have back then?