April 21, 2017
Eating my own dog food
SuperCoco is an iPhone app for learning Spanish through conversations. I am SuperCoco’s developer and I’ve been eating my own dog food—learning Spanish exclusively through SuperCoco—for almost a year. Today I took the Cervantes Institute prueba de nivel (placement exam) and scored a high B1 (between B1.3-B1.4), placing me squarely in Intermediate level1.
In this article, I’ll give my thoughts on what this result means; more importantly, I want to assess what’s working well in SuperCoco and where it still needs improvement.
First, the Cervantes Institute results2. Reaching high B1 after almost a year of study doesn’t mean anything without knowing both where I started and how much I used SuperCoco. For the latter, it’s easy to be quite precise since SuperCoco keeps track: I played SuperCoco for a total of 225 hours on 308 days, with an average session length of roughly 45 minutes. I wasn’t aiming for (and didn’t have time for) massive immersion—I wanted to be a typical user who fits SuperCoco into a busy life. I mostly played SuperCoco while doing chores and walking my dog.
The question of where I started is a bit more complicated. I’ve never studied Spanish before, and began working on SuperCoco with only the barest of tourist Spanish. But in order to build SuperCoco, I had to learn quite a bit about Spanish. Although we have native Spanish-speaking experts on the team, as the only developer, I needed a conceptual understanding of Spanish grammar in order to represent sentence structure, parts-of-speech, and so forth in SuperCoco. In addition, I have personally checked SuperCoco’s parsing of every single sentence that it teaches. That’s almost 6,000 sentences that I’ve inspected. In other words, by the time I began using SuperCoco, I already had some familiarity with the content.
The upshot is that the precise value of 225 hours (which would be very fast to reach high B1 from A0) is not very meaningful. I undoubtedly went through the material faster because I had previewed both the content and the grammar. I did, however, go through the material from the very beginning—because despite my book knowledge, I still couldn’t speak any Spanish beyond hola, por favor, and gracias.
In what follows, I’ll outline where I think SuperCoco is performing well and where it still needs development.
What we got right
Effortlessness. The core pedagogy—learning through constant imitation and production, always in context of a story/conversation—feels right. It feels mostly effortless (but, again, with the qualification that I previewed the content outside the app) and enjoyable.
Effectiveness. My prueba result is one data point. Another is a handful of successful conversations I’ve had with native speakers. To be sure, I’ve been stumped occasionally—but it’s important to remember what B1 is: exploit a wide range of simple language flexibly. I feel quite confident that I can communicate on any day-to-day matter—even if it’s not always pretty.
Convenience. Almost all my SuperCoco use has taken place while doing chores and out for walks. Basically, I’ve learned Spanish while walking my dog.
Focus on speech. I’ve come to really appreciate the constant speaking practice that SuperCoco gives. Spanish pronunciation is deceptively difficult for English speakers—easy to produce an approximation, but hard to produce a good approximation. It often feels very awkward in the mouth. After thousands of reps—well, it feels a lot less awkward.
Where we still need improvement
After using SuperCoco for nearly a year, it’s clear that the pedagogy can still be improved. There are certain places where learning feels too effortful and where one seems to stumble over the same sentences time and again. That’s not a good feeling and I think we can fix it.
To understand what the problem is, you have to know a little more about how SuperCoco works. In SuperCoco, you’re learning scripted conversations, through imitation and repetition. But your goal is not simply to learn them by rote—but rather to use each sentence as an opportunity to practice producing Spanish yourself. We want you to forget the specifics and absorb the general patterns.
That works great for patterns that occur frequently. For example, gender agreement—which is totally foreign to an English speaker, but which one practices in nearly every sentence. At first, you are very conscious of it, but over time you just develop a feel for it.
But it works less well for patterns that occur sparsely. For example, I often flub sentences that contain the imperfect subjunctive—or only remember them by rote. That’s because that verb form occurs rarely in the lower levels. It’s much harder to internalize what one hears only occasionally.
The solution is to provide more focused practice—and we’re working on ways to do that.
One piece of this puzzle that will come out very soon is our conjugation trainer. I’ll admit that when we started, I wasn’t convinced that conjugation drills were necessary. Contemporary thought on this is split—with some teachers adhering to a “communicative” approach (all learning in context) and others drilling like crazy.
Though I’m a strong advocate of learning in context, I have to say that my experience using SuperCoco has made me crave conjugation drills—to address these less common verb forms. I feel that if the forms were second nature, one could better focus on meaning and sentence structure and stay in the flow.
A key part of the SuperCoco philosophy is to provide the right learning tool at the right time. You may feel that you’re absorbing verbs just fine from context. That’s awesome. The conjugation trainer will simply be there if and when you want it.
B2 and beyond
In addition to more focused practice, the other big area of development for SuperCoco is more content. Currently, it only goes up through B1—and we aim for B2 and beyond.
Incidentally, if you’re intrigued by SuperCoco but wish it had more advanced content, drop us a line: advanced at supercocoapp.com. We’ll let you know when new levels become available.
Gracias por leer, y hasta luego.
Like what you’re reading? Then you probably want to try SuperCoco: