Learning + Game Theory

I have been learning Spanish for quite some time now. I studied heavily for two months in the early part of this year, and then I commenced private lessons again about five weeks ago. In 2016 and 2017 I put out money on a considerable number of websites and schools who promise quick results for learning a language. I am not here to poke holes in any particular method. I do however, have my take on what it takes to learn a language. In the distant past I have learned a couple of languages at an intermediate level, French and Turkish. My efforts with Asian languages have been desultory at best. Spanish is the first time I have attempted to learn a new language seriously in some time. And what I have found is this:

Learning any language beyond a basic level is going to be a lot of hard work. It takes discipline and consistency. Learning how to speak in a restaurant, or with a taxi, or a simple store is not that difficult. You can get by with a modicum of vocabulary and a few basic phrases. Going beyond that however, is going to require a vocabulary of 2000 to 3000 words as well as a grasp of 4 to 5 tenses (Present, Past Perfect, Imperfect, Present Progressive, Present Perfect, and the Subjunctive). That is a list for Spanish. It doesn’t necessarily work out the same for languages like Thai. But for the romance languages and most western languages I suspect it is probably close.

The methods that have worked for me are:

Using what is called Spaced Repetition to be able to learn vocabulary and verb tenses. I use an application called BrainScape which works extraordinarily well. I can recommend it unreservedly. Google it but I put one link below for an overview on what Spaced Repetition is about.


I used video language training sessions:

Great Courses Plus

Gringo español – YouTube

Senor Jordan – YouTube

The YouTube channels are very good for again, the basics. You can also search Butterfly Spanish. Good teacher but a little wordy for me.

The Spanish courses from Great Courses Plus are taught by Prof. Bill Worden. I found these to be absolutely excellent. There is a level I course and a level II course. I am currently working my way through the level II course and I’m almost finished. I’ve been going through selected portions of it again.

My biggest problem is being able to understand Spanish when it is spoken to me. Why? My hearing isn’t great, and Spanish is a very fluid language with lots of vowels that uses very short words (direct/indirect objects such as lo/la/le/les/os/te/nos). They speak REALLY fast and if you miss some of those short words – you may well have lost the meaning of the sentence entirely.

I really had to figure out a way to help train my ear. What I found was a podcast and website called www.unlimitedspanish.com . It is run out of Spain, and what he has is a series of more than 100 podcasts, each with a PDF file which gives a transcription of the Spanish that he is using in the podcast. From a beginning level he speaks slowly, but with a relatively good vocabulary. And then he gradually seems to be increasing the speed of speech. The Bill Worden course does the same thing. What has worked for me is I will listen to the podcast without the transcript at least two or three times to actively train my ear to hear the Spanish. Once I feel that I have grasped it at approximately a 90 to 95% level, I will then go through the podcast again but this time with the transcript. After only a week of this I am perceiving that my comprehension level for Spanish is already increasing. My teacher is also creating recordings for me which is a big help.

In addition, since I am not the most social person in the world (meaning I don’t go out and speak to other people a lot), I hit upon the idea of reading Spanish out loud to myself from newspaper articles and books. My teacher agrees that that is an excellent methodology. Why? Because it gets my facial muscles, tongue, and lips used to speaking Spanish. Again, I started this only about two weeks ago and my teacher told me yesterday that she is noticed a significant increase in my spoken Spanish ability since I started.

So, these things, together, are what has worked for me:

·        I built up a large vocabulary and set of basic phrases using spaced repetition

·        Private lessons (group lessons would work very well also I believe – this is just my preference)

·        Active listening with unlimitedspanish.com

·        Practicing my articulation of Spanish by reading articles out loud. *One interesting thing that I picked up almost immediately once I started reading the articles … I noticed that Spanish has a tendency for incredibly long run-on sentences. In some cases, an entire paragraph might be a single sentence. And I confirmed with several independent sources (all native Spanish speakers) that that is indeed the case.


There is one additional learning technique which I have integrated into my methodology that I believe would apply to almost anything.

Taking vocabulary and then thinking of sentences to create with it. Sometimes I write them down, sometimes just in my head. And it’s okay if I make mistakes, that actually helps me learn better. What I do is I create sentences that I think I might use in a conversation and then I try them out on my Spanish teacher. Then we discuss it. In Spanish. Basically, try to integrate what you have learned and use it actively. Even if only a couple of times.

I could not have made the progress that I am making unless I hadn’t already built up a considerable vocabulary and knowledge of verbs and tenses. I needed that. But I find now, that in a conversation, as recently as yesterday, that I seem to be speaking quite fluidly and only occasionally am I searching for words. I build my vocabulary constantly, because we are not discussing things at a basic level.

But nothing is more important than taking something that you have studied, and then integrating it into an actual conversation. That helps you integrate the language into your brain better than anything else I can think of.

So, there are my thoughts on language learning and learning in general. A friend of mind did point out to me a podcast from the Art of Manliness website that in fact is well worth listening to, podcast #385 on ‘How To Make It Stick’. You will find that that podcast in fact, mentions a good many of the techniques I have mentioned above.

Game theory.


Well, this is not going to be a mathematical treatise on this subject. It is more just a comment based on the conversation I had with a friend of mine. In fact, Robert Heinlein espouses this in many of his books, and I am merely paraphrasing what is an underlying foundation of his philosophies. This refers to living in an environment where you have big government and large bureaucracies. And if you really want to be able to survive and not be bothered very much, you have to end up treating it like a game. You learn the rules and function within those rules. You do just enough to be able to be able to in fact, ‘game’ the system. You do what you need to do, tick the boxes, fill in the blanks, satisfy the bureaucratic requirements, and once you have done that, try to live life on your own terms. But it is almost impossible anymore to try to live in the world we have today, without learning the rules of the games. I suppose, for somebody who is living off the grid, in the Australian outback, or in the chaos that is Africa, it might be possible to not really need to know too many game rules. But if you want to live in the ‘civilized’ world, with access to, and use of, the information highway, banking, and normal travel channels, I just don’t see any other way to do it. You must figure out the game, the rules for that game and how to follow them without impinging on your own independence. Honestly, not the simplest thing to do. But I don’t know any other way to be able to live as you wish. Of course – I’m still trying to figure out the game. One of the complexities is that the rules change constantly, and one has no power over the people that control that.

An interesting article from the BBC.