Death to Wiley Plus

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

The first time I took Spanish 3, I flunked. Now, a little over a year later I speak pretty well for a gringo. When I travel I make new friends all the time because small talk in Spanish is so fun. When I took my friend to Mexico I called the taxis and asked for directions. I even go on Spanish-only dates here in the states. So what changed? How did I go from getting a panic attack every time the professor said the word ‘subjunctive’ to being well on my way toward fluency? Simple: I stopped trying to learn what they were teaching.

In the middle of my senior year of college, I was exposed to a book called E-Squared by a good friend. If you’ve read the Secret, it’s the same cup of tea. Manifestation, your words create your reality. The law of attraction sounded like bullshit to me but I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. For one week I would believe beyond a doubt that I could go study abroad in Spain. It seemed impossible to me since the year was almost halfway over, but it was the one thing I didn’t get to do in college that I wanted to. To go abroad and to hook up with a hot stranger in the woods were the last things on my bucket list, and I lived right next to the forest.

One day I was walking into the library to study and I saw a friend of mine, but I wasn’t in a social mood. I had a split-second decision to either say hello or politely snub her with a smile and keep walking. I cracked and I said hello, and I’m so thankful I did. I asked her what she was doing and she told me that she had just printed out her packet to apply for study abroad, and today was the last day. In a frenzied panic, I begged her to show me where to get the packet, and she obliged. We walked to the study abroad office together and a week later I was accepted into the program. I would have to stay an extra quarter because I enrolled so late, but that was fine. I ended up meeting all the awesome friends you saw in my Big Sur Photo Journal. And Besides, I was a straight-A student, I relished the opportunity to prove myself again in Spanish 3.

That summer break, I got back into Duolingo, determined to have some kind of Spanish Ability by the time I got there. I brought my Tata’s Spanish guitar back to school with me and swore to only learn Spanish songs on it. I memorized Natalia Lafourcade’s album Musas.

Last time I had taken the class I sat in the very back corner, showing up late and sneaking into my chair. When the teacher asked a question I averted my eyes in shame. This time I made sure to sit at the front of the class, and I didn’t care if people called me a try-hard, I was going to answer as many questions as I could. Everything was going great until we had to buy our access codes to the online homework. Then I remembered why Spanish had been such a drag for me. Fucking Wiley Plus.

I’ve you’ve taken a foreign language class, then you know Wiley Plus or other programs like it. The design of these sites is atrocious. An eternal scroll of questions and lessons you won’t read. A soul-sucking white background. Even a W-2 has a more exciting Layout. Every once in a while a cartoon video will play, where a poorly drawn professor will try to explain to you in English, all the various ways you can use Por or Para.

It was boring and it was cruel. It made going to the rosary with my mom seem like a monster truck rally. But what made me so upset about it is that it didn’t have to be that way. I looked at what just one summer of going on Duolingo and listening to good music had done for me. It had shown me how beautiful and how powerful language is. It’s a tool for telling stories, for effecting change in the world, for communicating our needs. Every great form of art that culture has is connected to its language. It’s poetry, music, dance, paintings, the cinema. All of it comes from the beautiful and challenging Ideas that come from language. But none of that was reflected in the curriculum. And going through it a second time was like purgatory.

I wondered why this was until I realized that the goal of the school (and most of the students) was not fluency. Almost all of my peers were in medical majors, which required them to take up Medical Spanish. The rest just needed to get their foreign language requirements completed to graduate. But soon after they completed these classes they would forget what they learned. And of course they would, they were never given a reason to care. To them, Spanish was not the language of Frida Kahlo, Pablo Neruda, or the Young Lords. To them, it was just another bureaucratic box that needed to be checked.

Slogging through the digital trenches every night to get my homework done made me feel like I was still in the educational wasteland of No Child Left Behind. The curriculum seemed to be designed the same way, to show a linear progression of a student who was learning a nonlinear subject. And every subject is nonlinear.

My problem is less with the fact that we were forced to do our work on a computer because I’ve learned plenty on Duolingo. My problem is how these courses have gutted the languages they try to teach of the passion, history, and culture that formed them in the first place. More time is spent explaining the grammatical minutiae of when you should use the subjunctive in English, than just speaking in Spanish. And a language isn’t something you can be explained. You have to experience it. You have to hear these rules being used by people in everyday sentences who aren’t thinking about the rules.

Here’s how I knew Wiley Plus was fucked. Whenever I tried to have my roommate, WHO WAS FROM SPAIN, help me, he couldn’t. He had no idea what the fuck they were asking of me. But of course, he didn’t. When he’s talking to his mom on the phone in Spanish he is not thinking,” I will now switch to the pluscuamperfecto tense.” He just says what he wants to say to her.

I decided to embark on a little experiment. I would spend a minimal amount of time doing the homework, opting to get a C on every assignment. I got in, answered what I could, and got out. But I was sure I could get an A if I aced the tests and projects. To do this I started having fun with the language. I amped up the amount of Spanish music I listened to, I started to learn Bachata, and I tried to never miss a day of Duolingo.

Surprise to surprise, it worked. Our final exam was to have a conversation with the professor for 20 minutes about a novel we had read. After minute 25 I found I still had more to say.

I decided to write this essay as a plea to my readers. Learn that second language you’ve always been thinking about. Not only are there more ways than ever to do it now, but you can have a lot of fun at the same time. I’ll write more on this in the future but I felt like this needed to be said. If you’re intimidated by learning a second language it’s not your fault. You were probably a square block shoved into a circle hole by whichever institution of education you were at the mercy of. But here’s the thing, we’re all circle blocks. The way they teach this shit is not natural for anybody. There are people who do learn in these classes but not as fast and definitely not as pleasurably as they could.

If you’re trying to learn a second language this is something I suggest you do today: Go on google and find the hottest actor or actress you can from that country. Now, open a Duolingo account and start learning. Make learning this language your gateway to take that foreign hotty to bed.

You’re going to need to learn some jokes to make them laugh. You’re going to need to learn to dance to their favorite style and learn the words to the songs to sing along with. You’re going to need to learn how to cook the food too, we all know the stomach is the quickest way to the heart.

I put sex in the equation just to remind you to associate your process with pleasure, that’s what this process should feel like. Sure it’s frustrating, but it’s also one of the most spiritually refreshing things you can do for yourself. When you learn a new language you open yourself up to a whole new universe of experiences you just couldn’t have had before. And programs like Wiley Plus freeze-dry that experience, concentrate into powder, and expect you to add water and stir. This problem doesn’t only apply to language, most mainstream education strips the wonder, joy, and sexiness out of learning that is essential to fully absorbing the subject.

So please, if there’s something you want to learn, I beg you to go out and learn it. You’ll be happier and when you’re happier you’re more equipped to make the world a better place. And if there’s a foreign celebrity you have a crush on, you just might get lucky too.

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