Here’s the second part of the update on the past year since July 2020, on my learning experiences. The first was about my teaching.
As I said in my previous post, there are several things that I’m trying to learn. To make it more structured, I decided to put them into different categories: analytics, languages, dance and productivity. I would really love to add playing the piano and painting, but for now I can hardly manage what I have. So I’ll cover analytics, languages and dance because me-trying-to-be-more-productive is a huge topic and is worth a separate article.
So what has changed since last year?
It hasn’t been on this blog yet, but the idea of learning data science goes back to 2017 when I got disappointed with my CELTA results and decided to leave teaching. However, I vastly underestimated how difficult my new interest was. For more than two years I did different courses online to find the entry point for myself, but it was hard to combine it with full-time teaching. Finally, I left the language school I was working for in Ferbuary 2020 and decided to go all-in.
I soon started a six-month data analytics course from Yandex.Practikum that promised to give lots of practice in the form of projects. The idea was to finish the course by autumn and start looking for a new job. I wanted to keep teaching as more of a pet project and a means to maintain my level of English. Because eventually I thought I would go into Learning Analytics where I could use my knowledge and experience as a teacher and a learner, or into Natural Language Processing, where I would still work with language. (I still hope to do so, I just don’t know when it can happen.)
The course was long and difficult. When it finished in September, I was mentally exhausted. It was the first time in my life when I had spent on average 20 hours to do one project in addition to learning theory and doing exercises on the course platform. And I had 12 projects in total. But I finally got an idea was it was like to analyse data – from a task and a csv file to results nicely described in a presentation.
In October I still hoped to start looking for a job, so I joined an acceleration programme to prepare my CV, portfolio and myself for job interviews. But then understood I had no energy at all to embark on this journey and decided to take some rest. I would go back to it in January, I told myself.
But in January I found the coaching course, and everything got postponed.
In the spring, I did a couple of other courses on datacamp, but mostly now analytics is on hold. I really really want to go back to it. I also created a huge plan with links to the the courses I want to do, projects I want to try and books I’d like to read. I’ve counted the number of hours needed (about 600) and I’m curious what I can really make of it.
Anyway, interesting how different may be our plans and the reality itself. If anyone had told me in 2017 I would still be in teaching in 2021, I would never have believed. But here I am. And I’m only starting to understand how realistic and implementable my plans are.
I have long had this idea in my head that I want to speak five or six foreign languages. But then, when you listen to polyglots, most of them advise to have as much practice as possible – go out there and speak with people. Or better learn from them. And there I’ve always felt some resistance, as if communicating so much actually contradicted my purposes. So, yes I wanted languages but I didn’t want to go look for people and get into superficial discussions. I like to invest in long term relationships, but with low levels of language that is not easy.
Then I understood. Who said that the main point with languages is to speak them? What if that’s a view actively promoted by extraverts and people people? I’m not them. Yes, it will be great to eventually speak fluently in languages, but it’s not the end in itself.
It was a bit of an eye opener. I don’t need languages to communicate. First, I need them to be able to learn about different cultures and the world from different perspectives. I am much more about receptive skills than productive. I want to enjoy the world through a different prism and see what it has to offer that I haven’t seen before – concepts, ideas, attitudes, knowledge and wisdom. I’d like to read books and articles in the original, watch videos and take courses in different languages. (Then, of course, it would be interesting to discuss these things in the language.)
Once I made it clear for myself, I calmed down.
There’s another thing, though. My observations show that people who fluently speak in different languages actually are good at learning them by ear. So once they are in the language environment, they pick up language, experiment and learn it bit by bit. But the main prerequisite here is being able to travel and immerse in a different culture.
Well, it’s not my case either, living here in Russia, having to obtain visas for travelling and experiencing unfavorable jumps in currency rates. I’m not a keen traveller and I avoid talking to people in the streets even here. Just don’t like it.
With the three languages that I learnt in my school and university years, I always went from written text to speech, acquiring listening skills later. I like to analyse grammar and do exercises to make sure I use it right. So, the whole communicative approach doesn’t work well for me. Neither do language apps because they build language knowledge bit by bit and bottom-up and I have a top-down thinking. I get lost in all those bits and can’t glue them together.
That was this year’s discovery. I still don’t know why I was so fixated on the ‘speaking’ bit when I’m much more interested in a language as a system and an embodiment of culture. So I gave myself permission to explore French, Spanish and German without thinking how I would speak them.
In terms of speaking, I’ve tried taking lessons a couple of times a month. And it works. But only if I do my homework properly. Otherwise, the lesson turns into a wandering discussion, and I don’t feel the value of it. I like to speak about things that I know and understand. Unless I need to practise being able to handle random topics.
After many years of learning and teaching English I still feel that there are areas I’d like to improve. The use of registers and figurative language, for example. My writing skills. Pronunciation and dialects.
With figurative language, it was interesting to observe how in Russian I combine words that don’t usually go together but whose combination makes sense and gives nuances of meaning to a native speaker. It may be about allusions or the sound of the words. Or modified idioms. Or word play. Or humour. Or a feeling implied.
For now, I don’t have enough courage to do so in English and I don’t think my feel of the language is enough to do it well. But I’m trying something while I’m writing here and I plan on taking my experiments to a native speaker to ask how it feels to him. I also think that watching stand-up comedians may help, as they often do word play and I haven’t watched them yet.
With registers, it would be really interesting to later have talks about data analytics with a mentor or a study buddy. And ultimately have job interviews and go to work for an international company with English as a working language. Without such contexts it’s difficult to really practise switching between different registers. But I could do a theoretical overview of the registers and make lists of phrases and structures belonging to them. I could use these materials with my students then.
In terms of dialects, after watching Peaky Blinders I’m fascinated by the Irish accent and Birminghan dialect. I’m learning more about modern RP and have found a couple of Russian phoneticians who teach it. But I don’t know whether I want it because sometimes it sounds somewhat pretentious to me. My ear is more used to the BBC type of RP, especially the one I hear from university professors as in my favourite podcast about language Word of Mouth. Highly recommend it to everybody!
In terms of progress made in English, I think it’s become much easier to write in it. Over the last year I’ve been writing most of my to-do lists, notes, diaries and goal reviews in English. If I keep writing more for the blog, I could make it the main place for writing practice and switch everyday stuff to French.
I’m reading more and faster in English, and not just articles, which I mostly scan, but books.
I’ve taken several lessons with a native teacher before money ran out and found it almost perfect practice with solid boundaries and clear relationships. I would certainly like to come back to having regular classes a couple of times a month.
I’m also thinking of taking CPE again, but undecided if it’s worth the effort. On the other hand, I like this low frequency language of nuances, complex structures and not-so-common topics. My writing would definitely benefit from brushing up on the proficiency level. And it’s funny to compare how I could hardly produce 300 words when preparing for the writing part seven years ago and how I struggle to keep my articles within 3000 now. What progress it is!
For many years I’ve dreamt to learn French ‘for real’ and become as fluent in it as in English. I’ve tried language courses twice but couldn’t make it regular.
Last year I made another attempt at it. I found a very nice native teacher on italki and started lessons with the intention to have two lessons a month. I wanted to finish my Alter Ego B1 book thoroughly, but the teacher got me speaking and soon we were talking about job interviews, technologies and series that I watched. (Interestingly, there’s a huge and growing IT sector in France, well supported by the government. I would never have guessed to learn about technologies in French being so focused on the American ones. Now I know.)
Then she suggested we try Edito C1, as this was what my speaking and writing skills sounded more like. (At times I even heard myself using third conditional more or less spontaneously and quite managed to combine past tenses). After a couple of units I understood that my receptive skills weren’t that advanced. I found it difficult to paraphrase and summarise at C1. I struggled to use new grammar and vocab as well.
So I begged Sophie to go back to B2. Finally we started to work with a book, as I’d wanted, but then I ran out of time and money to continue. Hopefully, I’ll come back to lessons in October.
I am actually very thankful to her because with my ‘two lessons a month’ scheme lasted only for three months and then I started to have longer breaks between lessons. Sometimes as long as two months, but she always welcomed me and adapted to my needs.
Interestingly, my speaking skills don’t deteriorate much especially if I do a lot of listening before the lesson. So if I had taken even one lesson a month over the last five years, I would probably be much more confident and fluent in my French now. But my perfectionist self never even arrived at this idea thinking that anything fewer than two lessons a week is not learning at all. Well, it was wrong.
For my receptive practice, I’ve been enjoying Le Pays préféré des Français videos on YouTube. They are about 50 minutes long and of good quality. Usually, there are several presentors who explore different parts of a region and talk to local guides, restaurateurs, craftsmen and other tourist business owners. The language is clear, the views are spectacular and I’m getting to know more and more of France.
At one point I understood that I get lost without a map and printed one for myself. Now I find the locations mentioned in the videos and pinpoint the places I particularly liked. So inspiring!
I’ve also been listening again to 7 Millard de Voisin, but it’s still difficult to keep focusing for 50 minutes on a lively discussion, especially when they start to bring in politics, social issues, policies and economy. Obviously, this is the cognitive load I’m not yet able to manage even though I understand almost every word. I get overloaded and can’t follow the argumentation and the logic of discussion. I should probably do more practice with 15-min videos to improve my summarising skills. But 50 min podcasts align nicely with my walks, so I keep listening to them albeit not very often.
I’ve done some writing in French as well and I have to admit that it’s a pain learning to use the French keyboard – accents, m, z, a, q and punctuation signs in a different place… I get stuck and it is really frustrating as in English and in Russian I touch type. Really a new skill to acquire. But for that, I would have done more writing for sure.
So, now my plan for French in to continue with Edito B2, slowly and thoroughly. I also want to make lists of grammatical structures, topics and functional language by A2-B2 levels to see how they are supposed to evolve. And to compare them to the English ones (which I already know almost by heart). This way I hope to fill my gaps in the previous levels.
We suspended our ‘Spanish meetings’ with Tanya somewhere in July last year and since then I haven’t spoken it. But, as I’m interested in understanding the language first, I continued with my not-so-regular studies with videos, Busuu and a grammar book.
I finished A2 and did half B1 in Busuu. At first I didn’t want to prolong the subscription in January, but then I thought that I’d already got used to the app and it was better than nothing. It also has ‘conversation’ tasks every 5 or 6 lessons where you need to answer a question by speaking or writing and you get corrected by natives. At least, it’s some productive practice even if I’m using Google translate for it. I haven’t tried speaking yet, only writing.
The app is not bad for practising recalling vocab. I’ve learnt most of my 600 words and I’m intrigued how I can retrieve them from my memory, as I never really did this with my English or French (I find memorising and learning vocab by heart pretty useless use of my energy.)
The bad thing with this recalling practise is that it doesn’t help build any sentences. Maybe, if I had regular speaking practice, these learnt expressions would pop up in my memory and be useful. But I don’t and I can’t evaluate how well it works for me. For now I mostly see it as a memory exercise. Let it be.
I’ve started doing more grammar exercises from a book similar to Murphy. I’m interested in verbs and tenses first of all, and for now I’m still struggling with past tenses. All those ending get mixed up even if I keep writing my own examples. But when I listen to short dialogues, I recognise different tenses better and get more and more used to them.
I’ve also watched Extra in Spanish. I like it. Liked it back when I was watching it in French. Somehow the series has excellent warm vibes and really help to understand the language more – pronunciation and intonations are a bit exaggerated but it makes them more clear and easier to take in.
At one point, I caught myself with the feeling that I started to understand texts and videos which would have been difficult for me last year. For example, I watched a hald-an-hour documentary about Russian school of gymnastics and mostly understood it. And then I went to check more on the information from this video because I didn’t know about it =) I also came across a website about language teaching in Spanish and it was all clear. So, progress made.
With German I decided to go super easy, mostly to improve my understanding of the language. I had learnt it for a year at university, some 12 years ago. Back then we had a very good teacher for the first year and, surprisingly, I soon found myself speaking German and it didn’t seem too difficult. Probably we covered A1 then. I enjoyed our lessons even though they were at 8.30 in the morning.
But for the second year the teacher changed, I started missing classes and couldn’t keep up with the group anymore. There were too many new words to learn and not enough time to practise grammar. The teacher wasn’t inspiring or helpful either. So I gave up.
But German is the language of Bach and Hoffman, of Schumann and Goete. I got a glimpse of it and I’d like to know it better to enjoy the great works of art in the original.
Last May I tried an app called Wunderbla for free (was their offer during the pandemic). I had used its French version – Frantastique – previously, for almost 4 years, and I liked it. It was probably the app that helped me use third conditional without much thinking and helped maintain my level of French.
The app is adaptive and the initial seven lessons are meant as a placement test. Then it sends a new lesson based on your previous one. Most lessons are made about the same set of characters that appear at the beginning. It tries to be funny and original as well.
So I bought a yearly subscription in October and have been doing it ever since. But I can’t say it’s been very successful.
Maybe their placement system isn’t very well tuned, but I started to receive stories where almost all words were unknown. Yes, I could get the gist, but it was still quite frustrating. But the subsciption couldn’t be cancelled, so I moved on.
After a couple of months it became better and I understood my lessons more. Now they are almost all clear. But still, it seems that this approach doesn’t work well for me. Yes, it helps revise grammar and vocab. But there’s no way I can use the language and develop my productive skills. I can’t build the system of the language either because it’s always about random bits of it – just based on my previous mistakes.
So I’ve got tired of it and lost my motivation. I’m only doing it because I’ve paid and I hope it’s still useful for acquiring passive knowledge. Once the subscription is ended in October, I’ll be finally free and move on to trying out other resources.
I’ve already found one, by Deutsche Welle – Deutschlandlabor. It’s a series of 5 min videos at A2, B1 and B2 that take one topic per episode and explore it by interviewing people in the street and those connected to the topic. I first came across it on YouTube when I was looking for more listening practice. Then it turned out all these videos can be found in the Deutsche Welle free learning app. And they are complemented by exercises, a glossary and a transcript. Now I’m finishing A2 and couldn’t be happier with my listening practice. Maybe I’ll watch Extra in German as well, for the sake of everyday vocab.
The general feeling now is that my knowledge is rather fragmented. Plus I haven’t practised speaking at all since uni so I don’t know if I can produce an intelligible sentence =) I think I’d like to finish Deutschlandlabor A2 first, and then I could sit to practice some grammar and work more on my productive skills, starting with writing about A1 and A2 topics to put everything I know together. I’d also like to start reading adapted or bilingual books in German. After all, reading in the original is one of my goals.
For the past 11 years I’ve been in and out flamenco dance. Mostly in, till the pandemic came and our classes with Spanish teachers were put on hold. I performed in my new bata de cola at a local fiesta at the end of a course with my favourite teacher last March and came back to classes only three weeks ago.
From summer till December I tried rehearsing the choreographies I know on my own. But then I understood that my body was just too tired to dance. It was the type of tiredness that had build up over many years when I had language classes in the morning and in the evening, and flamenco classes in between. Funny how I was afraid to take a break from flamenco for a couple of months of more. I thought I would lose all my technique and dance skills.
But in December I looked at a video I made of myself and caught a feeling that my dance was almost dead. The body did the movements in compas, but there was no life in them. So I went home and did nothing for eight months.
In August, I suddenly tried hip-hop. It seemed my body needed something like this – more natural, more relaxed movements than in flamenco. Simple steps and energetic music. And I liked it. It was especially funny to be in an open-doors-day class with teenage girls. And I’m proud to say that my coordination was better than theirs =) But then the dance studio didn’t find enough people to organise an adult group, so I went back to flamenco.
It’s interesting how the body remembers everything even after eight months of doing nothing. I quickly learn new movements. I have my reactions in place and doing footwork is almost as easy as it was. I keep my posture and my arms know (approximately) what to do. I enjoy the dance more because I care less how correct my steps are. Amazing! I should definitely have allowed myself more rest in the past.
And I should definitely go back to hip hop. It would be fun to make my body dance both styles. For now I’m watching videos and planning to try this hip hop warm up.
I’ve been taking it easy since last year, so there isn’t much progress in my learning. But I understand much better how I learn better and why I previously failed in my studies.
Even though I’m learning different things, I still want to learn them thoroughly and in detail. That’s another reason why everything is so slow. At first I was really frustrated about this, because I’m a very fast thinker and can make plans really quickly. But when it comes down to doing things I get stuck with those details. Lose focus, get upset or get side-tracked.
It seems that my body and my psyche are as slow as my thinking is fast. I don’t have much energy or mental resources to learn intensively. Or it’s an exhaustion built over years. And both my body and my mind needed a rest.
I’ve tried hard and experimented a lot with my routine and productivity tricks since last summer, and it seems it’s starting to work.
I’m feeling better, more focused and more energetic. I have plans written for all of my directions of studies. If I persevere, who knows where I’ll be next year with this amalgam of interests. I’m intrigued =)