Week 10: Mini-missions

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 72 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 31 hours
I have reviewed 950 individual flashcards

There doesn't seem to be anything nowadays that can't be gamified, and language learning is no different. So a lot of language blogs use phrases drawn from the world of video games to describe their progress, and one especially popular term is "leveling up."

I presume you have played video games in the past, as you are a human in the 21st century, but if not, here is what it means to level up: It generally means that you have reached a new level of accomplishment, and, with that, you generally gain increased abilities, or new abilities.

It seems likely that the first person to use the phrase in language learning was a fellow named Moses McCormick, who is responsible for a series of videos where he goes out and locates strangers who speak a language he is studying and then engages them in conversation. It's his version of leveling up that you most often find on blogs, but it isn't very useful to me. There just aren't that many places in Omaha where I can go and find someone who speaks Yiddish and then start talking to them.

But I am in the thick of the grind right now, which, come to think of it, is another word stolen from video games. In the game word, "grinding" is any repetitive task required to move forward. It's notoriously a little dull and frustrating, because it feels like forward momentum has halted. And that's very much how I feel now.

Mostly I'm just adding new words to my flashcards, and bit by bit adding to my vocabulary, and am adding sentences from a grammar book, and so am bit by bit learning how Yiddish constructs sentences. The end goal of this is to be able to say whatever I want in Yiddish, and understand what I hear and read. And that's a really long-term goal.

But a well-designed game has a few things built in to keep players from getting bored, and I think I am going to borrow one of these: The mini-mission, or mini-game. These are tasks that can be accomplished relatively quickly and are meant to be fun.

I mean, right now I have a learning program that has very few major objectives: Learn the 1,000 most common words, learn everything from a grammar book, learn a hundred or so common phrases, and then keep adding to my vocabulary, presumably forever. I have a sense of various stations of language competence, about what you need to know to reach those stations, and about how long it typically takes to get there, and that's it.

But there is a lot more to language than simply reaching certain levels of fluency. I've already gestured at one of these: wanting to understand Yiddish songs. And I have broken down a few songs into their constituent parts and started to learn them, and this is a pretty enjoyable mini-mission. It's not necessarily useful -- songs tend to be written differently than people speak, and so a line from a song might not work that well in spoken language, especially the more tortuous lyrics that bend over backwards to make a rhyme. But songs are they way I primarily interact with Yiddish just now, and so I'd like to understand them.

There is something else I have always wanted to do with language, and I think I will turn this into an occasional mini-mission: I want to be able to complain in Yiddish. More than that, I want to be able to cuss and curse in the language, which it is famously good at. Again, this is not necessarily something useful, as these are the sorts of thing you mutter under your breath, and even if I shouted them at someone else, they probably won't understand. But I like the idea of Yiddish as a private language to grouse in.

I will think of similar mini-missions in the next few weeks. When the grind starts to get a bit exhausting, it will help to have these.

I would also like to think about my own approach to leveling up. Because right now I am not working with easily identifiable levels, but instead this sort of endless continuum of fluency. But there are things I want to be able to do with language, and I need to identify those things, and then identify how I will know when I can do them. I've actually already accomplished a few of these sorts of things without planning to: I can name every day of the week, every month of the year, the four seasons, and all four cardinal directions.

I know that people are suffering from a sort of gamification exhaustion, as the term became so popular, and then was so misapplied, that for a while everything seemed to have been gamified in a manipulative and decidedly unfun manner. But I think the essential tools are still sound, and, at the very least, I hope to be able to use them to keep language learning entertaining and recapture the sense of forward momentum I had when I started this.