Andromeda: Writing a little each day and dreaming in Spanish at night: thoughts on learning

Screenshot of my Profile from HelloTalk: an app for short conversations with language learners around the globe. 

This week, I keep dreaming in Spanish. Since I’m a light
sleeper who is also bothered by some chronic pain issues (meaning I wake up
many times each night) I notice my dreams a lot, and I especially note what
language I am speaking in those dreams. Sometimes I want to yell at my subconscious:
stop conjugating! It’s too much work! Just sleep! But clearly, my brain is busy,
and doing just what I want it to be doing: processing what I’ve been feeding
it, consciously, throughout the day. (Good job, brain).
Here’s the thing: because I love data and the subject of
learning and metacognition, and have done a lot more record-keeping over the
last three years, I notice what it takes to get my mind spinning in tight
circles around any one subject. That’s what I want to share with you.
Thanks to the beauty of apps and data, I can tell you how
much daily Spanish study used to get me dreaming in Spanish: three hours a day.
Which, frankly, is great for short doses but hard to maintain.
My average Spanish study for 2015 was only 2 hours a day,
which doesn’t always connect me with subconscious learning processes.
About 10 days ago, I decided to focus on one skill in
particular – speaking (which is harder for me than reading, listening, or
writing). Instead of practicing in big chunks, I broke things up. Using an app
called HelloTalk, I increased my contact list and now send short audiomessages,
in Spanish, to people I barely know in Peru, Argentina, and Mexico. I also
communicate briefly with people I know well in Mexico and the U.S. 
I do this in
very short bursts – 5 to 10 or 20 minutes – usually in the morning and evening,
but sometimes in the afternoon as well. I review (re-listen to) the messages I’ve
received and sent, for good measure, noting my own errors in order to speak
better the next time. (Deliberate practice requires self-correction, the
experts say, though I try not to correct myself so much that I get bogged down
in self-consciousness.)  
Though I’m logging only half my 2015 daily Spanish time, and
only a third of what I used to need in order to send my subconscious into
overdrive, and currently living in Canada and the U.S. instead of Mexico, Spanish
has invaded my thoughts more than ever before. I wake up thinking in Spanish. I
talk to myself without meaning to, in the shower. I find myself responding
spontaneously, in my own head, to random incidents with short phrases.
Which tells me: when you want to engage your subconscious, little
pieces of time will do, as long as you do them daily, or even better, briefly
for several times each day. Does this apply to writing? I believe it does.
We write at our keyboards. But we also write in the shower,
as we walk outside, when we’re driving and in our sleep—but only as long as we’ve
pinned a piece of our latest project or creative question to the priority list
in our minds and left it there, present but lovingly half-ignored.
Sometimes the very best ideas come to us when we’ve turned
sideways from a problem, allowing our creative/associative faculties to take
over.  Einstein called those rich creative
times the “three Bs”: bed, bath, and bus.
This blogger says that J.K. Rowling thought up Harry Potter
on a train, and that Da Vinci had some good ideas just staring at spotted
How to make the most of these associative times?
My writing experience has shown me, and my most recent
Spanish experiment is convincing me yet again: Touch base with your writing
every day, or almost every day. Write a little each day, or even if you can’t—and
don’t worry, many of us can’t—re-read a bit of your own prose before bed or each
morning over coffee. Keep adding that pinch of sand to the oyster of your
thoughts. Keep adding a little more flour to your mental sourdough starter.
Whatever metaphor works for you: keep gently and lovingly bringing your project
back to your subconscious. Give it a snack, tuck it in, and see what happens.  
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of three novels, including Behave, a novel about motherhood and science in the Roaring Twenties. She is currently writing books about language acquisition and trail running in all 50 U.S. states, projects inspired by her interests in the science of learning and self-improvement. She teaches in the UAA MFA program and offers full manuscript reviews as a book coach.

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