Book Review: Las Muertas (The Dead Girls)

A few weeks ago I finished reading Las Muertas by Jorge Ibargüengoitia and was blown away. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I struggled quite a bit with the vocabulary in this book even though it was recommended to me as a novel in Spanish that would be reasonably accessible for an intermediate Spanish speaker. However, even with such an obstructed reading flow I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. Ibargüengoitia’s style is very straightforward — he uses short sentences without much flowery language or imagery but he writes about absurd situations with a deadpan tone that I found very engaging. Maybe you can imagine a funny Ernest Hemingway south of the border.

The novel follows the story of two sisters (las Baladro) who operate a brothel in semi-rural Mexico in the 1960s. The story is sordid and sad and tragic as it follows the Baladro sisters through a series of mishaps that endanger their business and the lives of their employees. While the sisters are reasonably sympathetic characters in the beginning of the story, throughout the novel Ibargüengoitia provides more and more glimpses of the sisters’ callousness and greed so that by the end of the novel they appear fully despicable.

Structurally, the novel is told in a series of flashbacks starting with the attempted murder of an ex-lover by one of the sisters. This initial attempted murder is, interestingly enough, the most sympathetic portrayal of the sisters because it’s a crime born of passion. This initial act is contrasted with the acts of dispassionate cruelty that are portrayed in the novel. Interestingly, we as readers (or, at least, I as reader) are much more willing to tolerate violence and mayhem when it is born of passion than when it is born of avarice or banality. We are able to identify with the emotions that are driving the characters which humanizes them to us even if we wouldn’t necessarily condone the actions themselves. However, as the novel progresses and we observe the dispassionate cruelty of the sisters we are repelled precisely because of the lack of passion which motivates their actions. A murder born of passion feels much more acceptable than a murder born of greed. This is obviously reflected in our judicial system — we treat crimes of passion and “temporary insanity” with more leniency than we do “premeditated” murder even though from a utilitarian perspective one might reason that the crimes are equally morally wrong.

Beyond the philosophical and ethical underpinnings, I just really enjoyed the way Ibargüengoitia portrayed life in rural Mexico during this period. The characters (especially those treated in B and C subplots that only pop up briefly) are delightfully funny and Ibargüengoitia’s use of Mexicanisms and down-home colloquialisms bring the period to life. So far Las Muertas is probably my favorite book that I’ve read in Spanish so far, though I’m looking forward to tackling Pedro Páramo starting this week.

Book Review: The Fifth Sun

I recently reading the Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend and if you’ve seen me in the past few weeks you probably already know that I can’t stop talking about it. The release of this book coincided well with my desire to learn more about the history of Mexico generally and about life for the pre-conquest peoples of Mexico more specifically. Before reading Fifth Sun I had a very rudimentary knowledge of pre-conquest Mexican culture but had struggled to find any sources that gave me a holistic picture of the current state-of-knowledge about the Aztecs and also held my interest — I had read a mixture of academic articles, wikipedia entries, and the excellent Aztec Empire comic series but I still felt like I didn’t have a very good sense at all about what life was like for the Aztecs and what exactly happened during the 16th century conquest of Mexico.

A few things I’ve learned to start:

  • The “Aztecs” is a misnomer that has permeated popular history / culture. There never existed a group of people who would have collectively referred to themselves as “Aztecs”. The people who founded modern-day Mexico City (then called Tenochtitlan [TAY-know-ch-TEET-lan]) were known as the Mexica (me-SHE-ka) and, at the time of Cortés’s arrival, controlled the most powerful city-state in the region (meaning that they had conquered and required tribute from other city-states covering a fairly large swathe of central Mexico).
  • The Mexicas (and many other people in central Mexico) spoke a language called Nahuatl which is still quite widely spoken (~1.7 million speakers). We get the words for tomato (tomatl), avocado (ahuacatl), and coyote (coyotl) from the Nahuatl language.
  • A lot of what is commonly known about the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the beliefs and histories of the people who lived there before the arrival of Europeans are likely fabrications created by the colonizers to both justify their conquest (spiritually, politically, and legally) and to portray the conquered peoples as naive and unsophisticated. For example, the Mexica did not in fact believe that the Spanish were Gods when they arrived in Mexico, and in fact Moctezuma acted strategically and politically throughout his dealings with the Spaniards.
  • “La Malinche” is a figure mostly unknown in the US and served as Cortés’s translator; in Mexico, her name is synonymous with traitor-to-Mexico. However, with a full understanding of her history and the geopolitics of the region before the arrival of the Europeans, her story becomes much more sympathetic and much more compelling.

What I found really incredible about this book is the way that it really captures and brings to life what life was actually like in pre-conquest Mexico. Townsend achieves this by relying primarily on sources written by Nahuatl historians and scribes during the first 100 years after Cortés’s arrival in Mexico. These documents were written in Nahuatl but using roman script learned from the Spanish, and for many years have been generally ignored by historians or sitting dust-covered in European libraries.

In what must have been a truly gargantuan effort, Townsend (who knows Nahuatl) pulled together a full understanding of the geopolitical and royal-family drama that occurred during the 100 years prior to the conquest. Using this context, she is able to craft a history that is able to capture not only the events that occurred (which makes for a very boring adam-begat-seth type of history) but also the motivations of the key players. Townsend’s knowledge of both the political power struggles and the family histories of the characters allow her to reconstruct plausible motivations for what would seem like totally unfathomable actions otherwise.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a modicum of interest in the topic. It’s highly readable while also being very clearly a well-researched work from a respected academic. One tip that I’d give to a reader which helped me quite a bit is to try to get a handle on Nahuatl pronunciation before jumping in. While Townsend does a good job of avoiding an overwhelming soup of incredibly foreign-sounding names, I found that actually pronouncing the names out-loud while reading the book helped me keep track of the characters.

Learning a language is hard.

I moved to Mexico a little over a year ago and it’s fair to say that I drastically underestimated how difficult it would be to learn to speak Spanish. Before moving here I had been doing some on-and-off self study (i.e., duolingo) plus a mixture of the occasional italki tutoring lessons and two short beginner Spanish courses through Idlewild books in New York. I remember vividly being on the plane here, feeling very confident that I’d be speaking fluently in a few months — really ready to start my Spanish-speaking Mexican life.

I also remember, very vividly, approximately 48 hours later, when I realized 1) how little Spanish I actually knew 2) how difficult it was to communicate with real native speakers even just doing basic every day tasks and 3) how much work I was going to need to put in to be able to reach even a basic functional level of Spanish.

Since then I’ve been putting in at least half an hour a day of dedicated study time, probably averaging around 45 minutes a day over the past year (made up of 20-30 minutes of Anki flashcard review plus another hour of dedicated study on a grammatical topic every few days). That amounts to over 330 hours of dedicated practice over the last 450 days, which doesn’t include the non-dedicated practice time of just … trying to live my life in Spanish. I can now finally say that I speak Spanish — not fluently, and I still make lots of grammatical errors, but I can sit down with a native speaker and talk about my hopes / fears / dreams and actually make jokes (a big milestone!). Using the CEFR framework, I’d put my level in between B2 and C1.

Even with all of those hours of dedicated practice, the amount of vocabulary that I will need to be “fluent” or to simply read a book without having a dictionary at my side is truly staggering. I’d estimate that today I can recognize and understand between five and ten thousand words in Spanish (that is, I have them in my “passive” vocabulary, so I don’t use all of those in speech and writing). Even with that amount of vocabulary, reading a book is a real slog. I recently finished reading a novel, Las Muertas by  Jorge Ibargüengoitia (review forthcoming!), and I made the decision to underline and create an Anki card for every single word that I had to look up in the novel. I ended up with 579 cards. The book is only 183 pages! That’s 3.16 words that I had to look up per page just to get through the novel. And this is a novel that was recommended to me as being relatively straightforward such that someone at my level could get through it.

What that has made me realize is just how large a vocabulary you need to have in order to have native-like comprehension of the culture (books, TV, movies, etc.). Depending on how it’s measured, estimates for the active (words that are used by the person in speech or writing) and passive (words that the listener / reader can recognize and understand in context) vocabulary of native or fluent speakers of a language very widely. This post summarizes some of the research on the topic and notes that “U.S. native English speakers would have acquired a vocabulary of 42,000 words at age 20 and about 48,000 words by age 60.”

 U.S. native English speakers would have acquired a vocabulary of 42,000 words at age 20 and about 48,000 words by age 60.

Just let that sync in — 42,000 words just to have the comprehension of a 20 year old. Over the course of 10 years, the Wall Street Journal used 20,000 unique words! While it is the case that you don’t need to know the meaning of every single word to grasp the meaning of a paragraph, I can tell you that when you’re speaking with someone and they ask you a question that uses a word you don’t know the definition of, the conversation pretty quickly goes dead.

For this reason, most of my study time today is on two things: 1) acquiring more vocabulary via my Anki cards and 2) practicing listening and speaking at a “real life” pace with native speakers. In order to get from where I am today (let’s say 7.5k words) to where I need to be (40k words) I’ll need to learn close to 18 words a day for the next five yearsLetting that sync in for a second, it’s no wonder to me that so many people find learning a new language so daunting — the sheer magnitude of vocabulary you need to know feels truly astronomical!

The Production Function: To-Dos

I focus a lot on trying to maximize my own productivity — I always feel like I have way more things that I want to get done than I have time for doing, so I’ve put into place a number of systems that help me make sure I’m making progress on the things that matter to me without letting all of the other little things in life slip through the cracks. A number of people have asked me about my system for staying productive, so I’ll at least outline it here.

Key Features

  • Make heavy use of google calendar for scheduling — I’ll block off time for heads-down work, for dinners with friends, or just to mark when someone will be in town visiting. I trust the calendar over my memory, so if it’s an event is not on my calendar it’s very unlikely that I will show up!
  • Inbox zero — in both my email inbox and my to-do app, I make sure to get to inbox zero by the end of the day. Doing this helps me keep my mind clear of clutter and reduces the anxiety of opening up an email client and seeing a huge inbox of things outstanding
  • I use Things for my to-do app, and I use it religiously. If it’s not in Things, it probably won’t get done.
  • I use Instapaper for tagging things to read at a later date (though I’m considering switching to Pocket)
  • I use Netvibes for an RSS reader (though I’m considering switching to … anything else)

In this blog post, I’m going to focus on the techniques I use for my to-do system, and will save how I use some of these other tools for future posts:

Basics of the to-do system:

I have two goals for my to-do system: 1) work on the things that are most important, 2) promote habits and good behaviors I’m trying to develop and, 3) don’t forget anything.

  • First thing in the morning I review my to-do list which will have a mix of things scheduled weeks ago, recurring events that show up every day or week, and things that I added the day before. I will sort all of the tasks according to their priority and will make adjustments as necessary — if the list looks too long, I’ll proactively push things to tomorrow or next week.
  • For activities that I’m trying to build habits around (doing my Anki flashcards, writing in my journal, writing blog posts, running) I’ll use repeating tasks that pop up every day or every week
  • As things pop up during the day, I make heavy use of keyboard shortcuts to quickly add tasks to the “Inbox” which I can sort through later
  • By the end of the day, I’ll have either completed all of my tasks or will have rescheduled tasks I couldn’t get into the future. I’ll also generally take a look at what’s scheduled for the next day so that I know what’s coming down the pipe.

Between the morning and end-of-day review sessions I generally feel like I’m able to consciously prioritize the work that’s most important. The dopamine hit of box-checking also encourages the habits that I don’t enjoy (e.g., writing in my journal, running) but that I know are good for me. Overall I feel like this system works very well for me and I have very little to change.

Writing good to-dos:

The most important trick for making this system effective is writing good to-do items. For me, that means making an item that feels achievable in <2 hours of work — often times I’ll have a to-do item that I’m sort of dreading but that doesn’t have a strict deadline, and I’ll find myself pushing it off day-after-day-after-day. When I observe myself doing this, I know I have to change the to-do item to make it something that feels easier to accomplish which will make it feel less painful to start.

For myself, that generally requires a very simple change from “do x” to “start x”. That’s almost always all it takes to go from making zero progress, to getting the thing done. If I have an idea for a blog post, the to-do item “write blog post on x” feels very daunting — that’s normally at least a few hours of worth of work staring at me from my to-do list. However, if I change that to “outline a blog post on x”all of the sudden that seems extremely doable, something I can crank out in 30 minutes at a coffee shop. This applies to software engineering problems as well — going from “build feature that does x” to “start on feature that does x” makes all the difference in the world in terms of how much progress I’m able to make. Often, even though the to-do item only says “start”, I’ll go ahead and finish the whole thing because once I’ve got the momentum going I don’t want to stop at all.

All sorts of things:

I don’t just keep work things in my to-do list. I’ll often include names of musical artists I want to listen to, movies I’ve heard about and want to watch, or even just ideas I have for interesting things to learn more about. My to-do list enables me to keep my email inbox at zero, because when I get an email that I know I won’t have time to deal with properly, I’ll simply create an item on my to-do list, paste in a link to the email, and schedule for a time in the future when I expect to have enough free time to deal with it.

Having a good system for adding things to my to-do list allows me to shift the decision from “is this thing worth doing right now?” to “when will this thing be worth doing?”. This takes a lot of the pressure off of getting things done that you know are important but you also know will disrupt your flow or aren’t the most important thing to do todayIf someone sends me a link to an article and asks my opinion on it, I can simply pop it in my to-do list and tell the person I’ll get back to them “sometime this weekend”. There’s no requirement that I get it done before I forget about it, and having a trustworthy system for deferring the prioritization decision means that I don’t end up distracted by all of the incoming items.

2020 Resolutions

We’re here on the second of January and I wanted to post my resolutions for 2020 for all the world to see in an effort towards accountability through visibility. I’ve been spending some time thinking about my goals for this year and what all I want to get done this year, so since one of them is to write more blog posts, I figured I’d start here.

Become fully fluent in Spanish

I spent the last year getting to the point where I can speak Spanish enough to have real meaningful conversations with people. I speak to my roommate only in Spanish, and I can finally make jokes and show a bit more of my personality in Spanish (which is a big milestone!). However, I still struggle if I’m in a group of native speakers and they’re all speaking rapidly, and I still generally need to use Spanish subtitles if I’m watching a movie or TV show in Spanish. The goal for 2020 is to get to full fluency — I’ll have more blog posts to come on my strategies for trying to make that happen.

Learn to dance salsa

One thing that has surprised me about Mexican culture is how prevalent salsa dancing it is — it’s not uncommon at all for salsa dancing to break out at any given party, and for … basically every non-foreigner to know how to dance and be on the floor dancing. While I love to dance to hip-hop and reggaeton, salsa is a whole different animal. My goal here is to get to the point where I can dance with a stranger and not absolutely embarrass myself. I expect I’ll both need some formal lessons and to spend a fair amount more time in salsa clubs to get there.

Read a lot of books

According to goodreads I read 31 books in 2019 (though I didn’t finish all of those), and I have an even more ambitious list slated for 2020 — 34 books in total, which isn’t too out of the ordinary for me, but this year about half of them will be in Spanish. This will be a pretty heavy load, but if I want to meet goal #1 I think it’ll be necessary. Expect many book reviews to be forthcoming!

Write more blog posts

Finally, I want to be more diligent about writing blog posts. My goal (for now) is at least one per week — this should be easily achievable with my schedule, and my hope is that after I build up the writing muscle a bit more I can increase the frequency even more.

Happy New Year to all of my friends, and here’s to many more blog posts in 2020!

A thing that wants Virginia

I was reading famous historic love letters the other day (don’t ask) and I can’t get one line out of my head. The opening line of a letter from Vita Sackville-West to to Virginia Woolf:

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia.

I can’t get over how well this one line captures the helplessness, and the out-of-bodyness that comes with the early days of an infatuation — when your head is swimming with nothing but the thoughts of someone else, someone who you want desperately and you believe/think/hope/worry that they want you back.

Here’s hoping that all of you are, at least occasionally, reduced to a thing that simply wants!

Learning Spanish

I’ve been learning Spanish for about the last year and a half, and I finally feel like I’m making real progress. Living in Mexico City definitely helps by giving me more opportunities to practice, but I do not believe that simply being around Spanish will help you make much progress unless you already have extensive training (say, 4+ years in school) or you are extremely diligent in your private studies.

In this post I discuss what has and hasn’t worked for me and how I think we should change how we teach beginners new languages.

My learning tools

I won’t bury the lead for y’all. I am pretty happy with my current learning routine which I’d recommend for anyone getting started learning a new language. It’s a fair amount of work (on average probably about 45 minutes a day) but if someone promises you that learning a language will be easy, they’re lying to you (or, more likely, selling you something)!

Here are the key elements of my routine in descending order of importance:

  • Anki flashcards for spaced-repetition learning: 30 minutes every day, religiously. I use a few different decks for studying:
    • Top 5000 most commonly used Spanish words for vocabulary building
    • A deck that I created where I add words and phrases that I encounter in my studies. Here I focus on grammatical patterns from my Spanish lessons and useful words and phrases that come up in conversation (e..g, “unfortunately”, “actually”, “anyways”)
  • Online tutoring: 2 hours a week. I use a platform called Italki to find Spanish tutors who help me study.
    • I generally drive the lesson by starting out with a review of questions about grammar from my reading and other lessons
    • At the end of every lesson, I add my notes into my Anki deck to solidify the material
  • Journaling: 15 minutes a day. Every day I write in my journal which I can highly recommend just for general mental-health benefits alone. Once my Spanish progressed enough, I started writing my journal in Spanish which has given a huge boost to my language skills
    • Writing about what you did yesterday and what you’re doing today helps you practice the things you’re most likely to want to talk with someone about
    • Writing regularly helps you identify the gaps in your Spanish, which you can use to drive your tutoring lessons (e.g., how do I say “she is the same age as my sister?”)
  • News in Slow Spanish— once a week for an hour
    • This is great practice for Spanish listening comprehension (which is much more challenging than reading comprehension!)
    • When I was just getting started with Spanish, this was a real challenge for me. For every episode, I listened through once without reading the text for comprehension, then listen through again while reading along, then listen through a third time without reading
    • For every episode I’d review the vocabulary and grammar and would review the aspects of the grammar I didn’t understand in my tutoring lessons and Ankify the vocabulary that seemed most important.
  • Netflix in Spanish — whenever, for fun
    • When I was first getting started I would follow a similar pattern to what I did for News in Slow Spanish — I would first watch the episode in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, then watch again in Spanish with English subtitles, then (sometimes) watch a third time just in Spanish.
    • Watching television episodes two or three times can get pretty boring, but it’s a good way to learn about the culture and get exposure to a broader vocabulary than what you hear on the news.
    • My favorite Mexican shows on Netflix are Luis Miguel la Serie, Club de Cuervos, Narcos Mexico, and Colosio.

What didn’t work

When I first started trying to learn Spanish, I wasted a lot of time with learning techniques that weren’t very effective. Duolingo being the primary culprit — while Duolingo is fun, and they have done a good job of gamifying the learning process, it did not help me very much at all. I also took a short in-person Spanish class through Idlewild books in New York that was fine but probably could have been improved substantially.

It seems to me that most classes (and apps!) for learning new languages aren’t actually structured around how humans acquire languages. Most people under-appreciate how much 1) memorization is required and 2) how important it is, especially in the beginning, to focus on learning lots and lots of vocabulary.

How we should teach languages

In order to really learn a language, you need to be able to practice speaking and thinking in that language. The biggest blocker to speaking and thinking in that language, at first, will be your vocabulary. If you want to tell someone that you need to go to the grocery store, but you don’t know the word for grocery store, you’re going to be dead in the water. When you’re first starting out learning a language you should focus almost entirely on vocabulary acquisition to learn the most common one to two thousand words before you learn very much grammar at all.

This is how humans acquire language outside of formal instruction — they will begin by acquiring vocabulary words in the target language and slotting them into their native grammar:  “Mi nombre ser Michael”. It turns out that this isn’t a terrible way to get your point across if you really need to! Just slamming the right words together without any grammar can actually get you pretty far. When we are teaching someone a new language, we should emphasize vocabulary acquisition above pretty much everything else for the first few months.

In introductory Spanish classes today, the first thing most students learn is how to conjugate verbs, and that’s where most of the class time is spent. I think the students would be better off if much more emphasis was placed on memorizing vocabulary — unfortunately, the infrastructure we use today for learning doesn’t actually support that very well. There’s not really a reason to have a teacher if all you’re doing is memorizing and most students don’t find the effort very “fun”.

This is where I believe that hybrid learning models that combine the use of apps (e.g., Anki) with a teacher can really excel — we should design curriculums for learning languages that emphasize the appropriate amount of memorization (a lot) and use the best tools we have available for facilitating that (spaced repetition) and then supplement that with in-classroom teaching of concepts that are more difficult to memorize (more complex grammar rules, exceptions, pronunciation).