Inspiration for you to learn a language and read an incredible book (Factfulness)

About 6 months ago, I left my role as an engineering manager at Plaid to pursue new endeavours[1]. Before I committed to another full-time position, I wanted to take the time to reflect, learn and explore – activities that in my experience are much easier to make time for without a full-time job.

One concrete goal I set for myself was to learn Spanish. Prior to this point, my exposure to Spanish was limited to some hours on the Duolingo app, a few short trips to Latin America, and what I could figure out from the Spanish language signs that I came across while living in the US. During this exploration time, I also read a book that I now consider my favourite read of 2018 -- "Factfulness" by Hans Rosling.

USA, land of Spanglish (Photo by Michael Pereckas)

To learn Spanish, I headed to Medellín, Colombia and joined a full-time class at the Colombia Immersion School[2]. At the end of my 4th week, I had the task of writing an exposition on any topic, and I jumped at the opportunity to share Factfulness with my class.

Medellin, Colombia (Photo by Florian Rohart)

I'd like to share that exposition and an English translation to (1) show you what can be achieved in 4 weeks of immersion classes for language learning, and (2) to share a synopsis of an amazing book, Factfulness. I'm not-so-secretly hoping it might inspire you to learn a language, read this incredible book, or both :)

This is my original version with all the mistakes. It was written in a few hours and given as a speech to the class. A quick count of my corrected version surfaces at least 30 errors, so don't imagine for a second that what follows is perfect Spanish! Still, I think it's more than what most people imagine can be achieved in 4 weeks. Note that the classes were actually more focused on verbal than writing skills, and that my Spanish continued to improve consistently in the subsequent weeks (I did 10 weeks in total).

If you don't speak any Spanish, feel free to skip to the English version to get a sense of the writing level. In the translation, I've included [corrective braces] around words and phrases that were wrong or poorly worded in the original Spanish, and otherwise tried to keep the translation as close to the original as possible in terms of language sophistication, to give English readers an accurate sense of my language level.

I'll share some quick caveats and takeaways on language learning at the end.

Spanish original

Hoy queiro hablar sobre un libro publicado este año. Fue escrito por Hans Rosling con ayuda de su hijo y su nuera. Tristemente, él murió de cáncer justo antes de publicación del libro.

Rosling era un doctor y profesor de salud global de Suecia. Él se dedicó su vida a dos cosas. Primero, a ayudar a las comunidades en muchos países a lograr una mejor salud. El salvó miles de vidas a través del trabajo médico directo y apoyando a los gobiernos. Su segunda pasión fue disipar las falsedades sobre el desarrollo global incluso en salud, educación, seguridad y pobreza.

Este libro es sobre estas falsedades muy comúnes y los intintos humanos que crean estas falsedades. Él discute 10 instintos en total.

Al primero del libro, él pregunta 13 preguntas sobre el mundo al lector. Él también preguntó a personas muy educadas y importantes en todo el mundo. Doctores, profesores, políticos, economistas, periodistas, personas normales – todos. En todos los casos, las personas lo hace muy mal. Estas no son preguntas capciosas. Son preguntas sobre la educación de mujeres, la pobreza, la salud, la población, etcétera, en nuestro mundo. Nosotros tenemos muchas falsedades sobre estes temas importantes.

Por ejemplo: en el mundo, los hombres que tienen 30 años de edad, tienen 10 años de educación en promedio. ¿Cuantos años tienen las mujeres que tienen 30 años? (opciones: 9 años, 6 años, 3 años)[3].

Otro ejemplo: dentro de los últimos 20 años, ¿cómo cambió el nivel de pobreza extrema en el mundo? (opciones: doblado, igual, a la mitad)[4].

Último ejemplo: la esperanza de vida en los países más ricas del mundo ex aproximamente 80 años. Qué es en todos los países en promedio? (opciones: 50 años, 60 años, 70 años)[5].

Al final, el mensaje del libro no es que el mundo es perfecto. Es que el mundo está mejorando, cada año. Aun necesitamos trabajar para un mejor mundo, pero no necesitamos entrar en pánico o tirar todas las ideas existentes – muchas están funcionando bien. ¡Lo recomiendo a todos! Tienen que lo leer. Yo tengo una copa extra (en inglés) hoy, para quien la quiere.

Pronunciation (audio recording of me reading text)

Note: This was recorded around the same time that I wrote the text but after I had made some corrections.

English translation

**Corrected errors in [brackets]**

Today I want to speak about a book published this year. It was written by Hans Rosling with the help of his son and daughter-in-law. Sadly, he died of cancer just before [the] publication of the book.

Rosling was a doctor and professor of public health from Sweden. He dedicated his life to two things. Firstly, to helping communities in many countries achieve better health. He saved thousands of lives though direct medical work and [by supporting] governments. His second passion was dispelling falsehoods about global development, [including in] health, education, safety and poverty.

This book is about these very [common] falsehoods and the human instincts that create these falsehoods. He discusses 10 instincts in total.

[At the beginning] of the book, he [asks] 13 questions about the world to the reader. He also asked these questions to [some of the most educated and important] people around the world. Doctors, professors, politicians, economists, journalists, and [average] people – everyone. In all cases, these people [did very poorly]. These are not trick questions. They are questions about the education of women, poverty, health, population, etcetera, in our world. We hold many falsehoods about these important topics.

For example: in the world, men of 30 years of age have 10 years of education on average. How many years [of education] do women of 30 years of age have? (options: 9 years, 6 years, 3 years)[3].

Another example: in the last 20 years, how has the level of extreme poverty in the world changed? (options: [doubled], [the same], [halved])[4].

Last example: Life expectancy in the richest countries is approximately 80 years. What is the life expectancy in all countries in the world, on average? (options: 50 years, 60 years, 70 years)[5].

In the end, the message of the book is not that the world [is] perfect. It is that the world is getting better each year. We need to work for a better world, but we don't need to panic [nor] throw out all existing ideas – many of them are working well. I recommend [the book] to everyone! You have to read it. I have an extra copy (in English) today, for whoever [wants it].

Further thoughts on language learning

Caveats

  • I did 1-1 conversational coaching 4-5 days/week and this was incredibly helpful, though very tiring.
  • I did individual practice (beyond assigned work) when I had the energy, and switched my mobile phone language to Spanish. I can't say how much these things helped my learning, but it was definitely a factor.
  • I think there is likely some version of Pareto's 80/20 rule with language learning. Achieving this level of language ability is much easier than achieving full fluency. Although I improved consistently in my remaining 6 weeks of classes, I the think the rate of learning certainly slowed. Actively focusing each week on areas of weakness (e.g. past tense one week, pronunciation the next) helped keep up the rate of learning.
  • I took 1 week off classes to focus on perfecting past class material on my own (with continued conversational coaching) around week ~7. This worked well for me.
  • For English speakers, Spanish is easier to learn than almost any other language[6]. Other Romance languages are not much harder, but a language from a completely different language family, like Chinese or Korean, will be harder.
  • Spanish is a phonetic language, where the spoken language maps fairly exactly to the written one. This is not the case in many languages. For some languages, like Japanese, the written language is much more difficult than the spoken one.

Tips

  • The scariest part of language learning for me was simply getting out in the real world and putting my limited communication skills to use with native speakers. 1-1 coaching helped a lot, but real world conversation was still very intimidating. At the end of the day though, the person on the other side is rarely as annoyed as you think (often they're actually quite excited to help) and there's no more effective way of learning a language than speaking with native speakers, once you've mastered the basics.
  • Conjuguemos is awesome. Flashcards and rote learning really do work for Spanish verb conjugations. Quizlet has a great integrated Spanish voice engine.
  • I'm of the opinion, after many long debates with a self-taught polyglot, that grammar rules are a very effective part of language learning for adults. This is in contrast to learning methods that only involve language exposure, with no discussion of grammar rules.[7]
  • I really like Duolingo and bought the paid version to support the creators. That said, I now think that Rosetta Stone is the better digital learning product for serious learners. Their new subscription pricing is much more reasonable than their old download prices. Check to see if your university or library has it available for free, and also search for deals and student discounts.
  • Recommend Spanish for Reading and First Spanish Reader for reading skills.

— Soroush Pour (@soroushjp)

Footnotes

[1]: I had an incredible experience in my 3.5 years at Plaid and only left because I wanted to pursue different things. I highly recommend the product for prospective customers and the company for prospective candidates!
[2]: If anybody is choosing a Spanish language schools -- I had an amazing time in Medellín and at Colombia Immersion. Highly recommended.
[3]: Solución: 9 años / Answer: 9 years.
[4]: Solución: A la mitad / Answer: Halved.
[5]: Solución: 70 años / Answer: 70 years.
[6]: US Foreign Service Institute's Experience with Language Learning
[7]: I've heard great things about Tae Kim's guide to learning Japanese via clear grammar rules.

Soroush Pour

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