Thoughts on the First Week Without Speaking English

Today was the first week into my year without speaking English. I wanted to share my thoughts on what it’s been like avoiding speaking English entirely, as a method to learn a language.

First, though, a clarification. When I wrote my initial post about my challenge to not speak English for a year, I generated a bit of confusion. Some people thought I wouldn’t be writing my blog or that I wouldn’t be reading any of my emails (because, then, I’d need to write and read in English).

The challenge is to not speak in English. I’ll still be writing posts here each week and answering my emails. Even within the goal of not speaking English, I was forced to add a narrow set of exceptions: emergencies, anything critical to my business and talking with my parents. I’m being as strict as possible, but I won’t destroy my livelihood or ignore my family for a year to do it.

This past week I was nearly perfect. On the sixth day I had to make a thirty second phone call to my past landlord, because of an error with my damage deposit. Perfection isn’t possible, but I still consider not speaking English for 168 hours with a thirty second necessary exception to be a success.

What’s it Like to Go Without English?

Both Vat and I, from the moment our plane landed in Valencia Spain, have been speaking entirely in Spanish. We only speak in Spanish with each other and with people we meet. Sometimes this has humorous consequences.

Two English-speaking girls tried asking us a question about the subway, moments after our arrival. We sputtered out some broken Spanish as a response and they exasperatedly asked the room if anyone spoke English. Fortunately, another English speaker was there to help them.

In the supermarket, Vat was confused by Europe’s unrefrigerated milk, and wanted to know if it was actually milk, or a substitute. He went up to a stranger and asked if the milk was real, which in Spanish translates as “royal” and not “authentic” as he had hoped.

With our tutor, I asked him a question about his girlfriend. He told me that she was an enfermera which means “nurse” in Spanish, but I understood him to mean enferma which meant she was ill. I told him that was too bad, and we proceeded to have a confused discussion based on my misunderstanding.

One of the bigger worries I had before starting this trip is that people would press me to speak in English. That, largely, hasn’t been the case. Our new landlord, who we emailed in English, was more than happy that he didn’t need to attempt speaking English with us from the very first “Hola!” at the door.

Quite the opposite, most people have been surprisingly patient with us. Waiting twenty seconds in a mid-sentence interruption for me to pull out my phone’s dictionary app, is a conversation killer I’m surprised most people have put up with.

What Was Hard

This isn’t to say the first week hasn’t been without frustrations. One of the biggest has been simply communicating with Vat. More than once, we have discussed something, I thought we arrived at a decision and then later we’re disagreeing about it again.

When we first met our tutor he told me that he was shy and didn’t want to be recorded on video. Since we’re trying to document the trip extensively (we’re going to compile it into one edited video at the end of each leg of our trip) this was a bit of a disappointment.

I thought I had explained it to Vat, and that we had compromised to record the video only of the two of us, in the tutoring session. The next tutoring session, Vat was bringing his camera and planning to record everything, tutor included. It turns out he hadn’t understood the tutor’s objection at all and we had decided completely different things.

This was a small example, but given the amount of coordination required in a world trip with a video project, it’s been one of the most difficult (and will likely be insanely difficult in the early phases of Taiwan and Korea).

The other difficulty was simply arriving. The first day we needed to find the apartment, figure out the transit system and have a conversation with our landlord. At the same time, we’re coming off 24 hours of transit, 9 hours of timezone difference, little sleep from the last two days and the lowest communication abilities we’ll have for our entire three-month stay. If you want to see the result, check out our first day’s recording of Spanish in our daily log.

What Was Easy

Despite these initial hiccups, many things were actually easier than expected. The first was actually how fast you learn to communicate under these constraints.

Spanish was my best language of the four prior to arrival. On top of a small amount of practice, my experience with French gave me a lot of the understanding of grammar which is shared in all Romance languages.

But for Vat, things were more difficult. He speaks Hindi and English, so many of the difficult grammatical features of Spanish that I had won through difficulty with French, he was facing for the first time (masculine/feminine, reflexive verbs, extensive systems of conjugation).

However, even for Vat, with the equivalent of an hour of practice per day for only one month prior to arrival, he was able to talk to strangers, talk to girls at parties and explain his opinion on Valencian architecture during tapas with several Spaniards. All in the first week.

My Spanish has improved greatly after the first week. I’m able to express myself about almost anything if the other person has a little patience. I might not have my verbs properly conjugated, and I still struggle each time with the past tense, but, for the most part, people understand me when I speak to them.

Another somewhat pleasant surprise is that the normal fatigue of speaking in a foreign language went away after the first few days. Anyone who has ever tried to speak in another language continuously will know the feeling of exhaustion that comes from holding a conversation of more than an hour or so. I was worried that drain would persist until our Spanish improved, but it seems to be more a problem of starting to speak than of actual ability. Even now, with limited Spanish, I don’t feel tired speaking every day, even if I’m sometimes frustrated by my inability to articulate things.

How We’re Studying Spanish

Our studying plan is rather minimal compared to the MIT Challenge. The most important part of language learning is practice, so engaging in real communication situations is the top priority. However, we’re starting to settle into a rhythm that includes a few other elements to help learn the language.

Every morning, we have a few hours for self-study. This includes about an hour with a grammar exercise book to practice the parts we’ve found confusing in our conversations. It also includes another hour with a private tutor, again for practice and explanation.

Our apartment has a television as well, and so I’ve used my downtime to watch some television and try to pick up new words and phrases. We’ve done the same with a few Spanish movies, hopefully to watch them repeatedly until we can understand them fully.

Most importantly, we’re spending a lot of time speaking. I’ve tried my best to be conscientious about my speech, using the proper grammatical form as best I know how, even if the other party would understand a malformed sentence. As my level improves, this will become more important, as the goal is to shift from being understood to speaking correctly.

The Long Road Ahead

Now that the first week is over, we can breathe a sigh of relief. Even though our Spanish has a long way to go to even remotely approach fluency, the hardest part is over. We’re settled in our apartment, set up with a tutor and have even made a few new friends.

One unexpected challenge I’ll need to manage in the months ahead, is maintaining my other languages. Even after one week, my ability to speak French has deteriorated because I want to replace my French words with Spanish ones. I think this will get complicated further when we learn Portuguese due to its similarities to Spanish.

My plan is to practice a bit of French conversation whenever possible, so I can train myself to switch more easily between the languages. Still, it’s a difficulty I’ll need to manage throughout this trip and in the years after it’s finished, when I want to maintain and improve the languages I’ve learned.

I’m also under no illusion that Spain will likely be the easiest country in my set of four. Its cultural and linguistic similarities to French gave me a headstart. Additionally, European languages have many loanwords I can make use of from English. I won’t have those advantages in Chinese or Korean.

In the meantime, both Vat and I are recording thirty minutes of our actual conversation each day, so anyone is welcome to see how our Spanish is progressing. I doubt most people will want to hear hundreds of hours of audio when this project is finished, so we’re also planning on editing a final video for each country. This will showcase whatever progress we make as well as show what it’s like to live in each country.

First meal in Valencia... paella!

Note: Benny Lewis, who himself speaks over ten languages, is also living in Valencia at the moment and shared his thoughts on our first week!

  • Ewoks

    Are you aware that writing blog in english is a bit like conflict of interests when u set challenge not to speak English? #justatought

  • Lidia

    ¡Hola! Es la primera primera vez que comento aquí, aunque leo tu blog desde hace unos meses.

    Soy española y vivo en Madrid. Sigo con interés este reto y os deseo a ambos mucha suerte. Las grabaciones de los últimos días suenan realmente bien 😉

  • Scott Young

    Ewoks,

    *Sigh* I should make a list of comments like these. I got a lot of similarly wacky comments about my MIT Challenge from other people who seem to dislike some aspect of a project I undertake.

    The project is to not *speak* in English. I’m clear and upfront about that, and the decision to opt for that precise level of immersion was carefully decided in advance. Not writing in English is impossible for me unless I want to abandon my blog for a year and destroy my career, so it wasn’t an option.

    I would argue that the constraints I’ve set forth are strong and keeping with the spirit of the challenge. But, I can’t please every armchair critic, so I won’t try.

    -Scott

  • Rodolfo

    Hola Scott,

    Te deseo mucha suerte en esta aventura. Espero que te guste la Paella, segun entiendo, la Paella Valenciana es la original.

    Saludos desde Vancouver.

    Rodolfo

  • Vicente

    Scott, I can almost guarantee that Brazil will be even easier than Spain, at least for the part of not being pushed to talk in english, and because we (i’m brazilian) appreciate a lot when foreigners try to speak in our language. And by experience, brazilians are more easy-going than spaniards (off course, Madrileños and Paulistanos – from Madrid-ES and São Paulo-BR are a bit less friendly, but that comes with the whole big city thing, i think).

    Sorry for the poor english, long time without writing. Oh, and great post! When you come to Brazil, let’s set a meetup (or a happy hour – we use the expression in english too, sorry!)

  • Les Hirst

    Hello,

    Bravo for this grand experiment! You will find that if you write in Spanish and have your tutor correct it every day, you will advance even more quickly.

    Adelante!

    Les

  • Les Hirst

    PS

    Nice Paella, no es cierto!

  • Owen

    Great response Scott…btw, I think it’s a great challenge, all the best of luck guys!

  • Scott Young

    Rodolfo,

    Cierto. Pero, voy comer muchas paellas en Valencia!

    Vincente,

    Yes–Brazil might be easier than Spain after our experience, but I prefer to overestimate challenges than underestimate them. Also the vast majority of Spaniards either don’t speak English, or don’t feel comfortable interrupting my Spanish with it, so it really hasn’t been a problem outside of one or two cases in tourist areas.

    We’ll be living in Florianopolis for most of our stay in Brazil!

    -Scott

  • Harry @ GoalsOnTrack

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Scott. It’s a bit surprise to me that you mentioned that the normal fatigue of speaking in a foreign language went away after just a few days. I guessed it might take quite longer. But perhaps you already had some learning done before this trip?

  • dag

    Congratulations for your challenge. It’s appealing to me and I wouldn’t mind to do something alike in case I had enough money to do such a thing! I will be back in Spain next month. One never knows, I might meet up with the three of you, Benny Lewis included!

  • Barbara

    Estoy disfrutando mucho de la lectura y la escucha de la primera semana, me estoy esforzando mucho para aprender también.

  • Alejandro Vivas Riverol

    Hola Scott

    Excelente aventura, y una acertada forma de escribrla.

    Mucha suerte, te estaré siguiendo

    Alejandro

  • georgia

    Am proud of you.keep it up.i wish you success in your project.

  • Peter

    Hi Scott,

    When I first saw this on the blog, I thought, “meh, kinda boring compared to the MIT challenge” (judging the book by…) But on actually reading through what you wrote (lol), this is AWESOME man.

    Another awesome undertaking by you, that makes me really confront the reality of how pathetically and timidly I am “living” my life, to look to do better. Really inspirational, as just like the MIT challenge, this is based on subject matter I myself really wish to learn & have been trying to for a while, but in a shamefully haphazard & undisciplined way. This is more inspiration to work smarter & in a more disciplined way.

    Thanks a lot, and I wish you & Vat all the best throughout this journey!
    Peter.

  • Will

    Suerte, Scott! Todo va estar bien! Tienes que obtener “conjuverb” por Iphone/pad- Es lo mejor para conjugación (y libre)…

  • Vicente

    Scott,

    I wasn’t trying to underestimate the brazilian part, is just that once you get the structure of Spanish (and you already have a French pilar), the portuguese is the same (structure-wise), only being careful with the false cognates between Spanish and portuguese.

    And I honestly don’t think there is a better place to spend 4 months in Brazil than Florianópolis, that was a great choice (weather, the way of speaking portuguese, the view – both nature and people – a great choice indeed!)

  • Suz

    Lo que un gran viaje para ustedes! I’ve listened to a few minutes of your daily recordings (yes, you sounded muy cansados el primer dia). Quizas I’ll listen in to some in Portuguese, but not in Chinese or Korean as I only know a few greetings in those languages.

    I also was glad to hear that the fatigue in daily speaking quickly disappeared. That’s a fear of mine in immersing myself in one of my languages.

    Que os vaya bien!

  • Rhonda

    This blog entry could not have come at a better time. I’m in Guatemala for the next 5 months to learn Spanish. I am struggling with the fatigue of solely speaking Spanish yet amazed at the level of progress I’ve achieved thus far.

    Thanks for the motivation to keep going!

  • Radhika

    Hey Scott,

    How’s the Spanish culture treating you? Have you tasted a lot of wine, experienced siestas? Better, have you gotten pick-pocketed yet? I know this is the first week, but I’m really interested to know about how a Canadian adjusts to the Spanish culture, as well.

    Good luck in the future!

  • Alex

    Hola, Scott!
    Estoy aprendiendo español también, pero no estoy en España 🙁 Yo utilizo Skype a aprender. Puedo leyo (leer) y escribo muchos más tan hablando. Mas yo improvo!

  • Angel

    Actually, real in Spanish could mean “something that actually exists” besides meaning “royal”. The seller shouldn’t have been so confused. But then again Spanish from Spain is somewhat different from how Latin Americans speak Spanish and then I’m Puerto Rican, our Spanish has many particularities.

  • Adrienne

    Scott,

    I think you’ll find that Korean has a lot more English in it than you’d expect. In fact, once you learn to read the Korean alphabet (which is also not as difficult as one might expect), you’ll see English everywhere — written in Korean. I love the Korean language and I’m curious to hear about your experience with it.

    Overall, I really appreciate the detailed breakdown of your experiences here. I am following this challenge with interest and look forward to future posts. Here’s to your success!

  • Michael Bowen

    What is your ratio of self-study to tutor time? 3:1 hours?

    I’m curious of what ratio you are using compared to Benny, who had numerous tutoring sessions per day.

  • Frank

    Many many years ago i planned a long honeymoon in Europe. For preparation the four of us that were travelling together spent a year at Alliance Francais in Vancouver taking lessons. It wasn’t like school as you never got to read along or use English. You spent your time repeating and using the words and phrases the instructor used or played for you.

    My French reached the level of being mistaken for a German when I spoke on the continent. Needless to say that had its own amusing problems which when asked if I was indeed German and I said, Non, je suis Canadien, the change and instant acceptance was astounding. Another thing was that being taught idiomatically correct French engendered rapid fire speech that my ear and cognitive processes were not quite up to, I was at the ‘able to converse’ level but not anywhere near the fluency that idiom understanding implies.

    As for detractors and critics, listen but ignore, I got your schtick about learning languages and how you were going about it on the first pass, good plan, big challenge and nice holiday that pays off with new connections and mindset development as well as a broadening of horizons.

    All the best.

  • Natalie

    Scott,

    What a wonderful project. I am enjoying your progress reports. I am also learning that in this world there are so many dream stealers more than willing to add their negativity to any given situation. And more important I am learning from you how to not waste energy on a futile situation. THAT is the key that I have been searching for. I am sure you and Vat have only begun this adventure. I am glad I found you. Sending love, light, laughter and peace!

  • Scott Young

    Michael,

    Benny uses a lot of tutoring sessions primarily when he isn’t in the country, so he can replicate the immersion experience and high volume of natural conversation.

    I’m using less because I’m speaking in non-tutoring situations most of the day. So the 3:1 ratio seems about accurate.

    Then again, this is only for Spain, and only for right now. I may have a very different approach in the other countries depending on what I feel I need, and I may increase or decrease tutoring in Spain if I feel that I’m not advancing fast enough with ordinary conversation.

    Angel,

    There wasn’t too much confusion, I just wanted to highlight it as one of the anecdotes from our initial arrival.

    Radhika,

    Culturally, I’ve been surprised how similar Spain is to France. I had made some assumptions that it would be more similar to Latin culture, but in retrospect I feel that describing Spain as a “southern European country” first is more appropriate than clustering it based on language. Many aspects of the culture are exactly the same as France, but would be quite different in Argentina or Mexico.

    -Scott

  • David Young

    Scott

    Very impressive,plan to follow your experience this year…first time I have ever read a blog( not as difficult as your plan:)

  • Anne

    Congratulations on your progress. One of the things I love about what you are doing is the utter genuineness of it. It has the flavour of a real authentic blow by blow account of learning the language and well done…will be following this with great interest.

  • Francis

    Great post, Although I find it amusing that you wrote the post in english and not spanish!

  • Sarah Dooley

    Scott,

    Buena suerte con este aventura! Yo soy de los Estados Unidos, pero he estudiado español por muchos años en la escuela, y visité España en 2005 y México en 2010. He leído unos de tus articúlos antes de eso, pero por mis interesas me encanta mucho este desafío. No lo he usado la lengua española hace unos años y necesito practicar (yo olvidé mucho!) pero me desfruta oír tu progresa.

    También, ahorita estoy viviendo y enseñando inglés en China. Llegue el 16. de Augusto, y estoy enviando en mi desafío linguistico mismo. Descubrí que chines no es tan difícil como esperaba, pero todavía se requiere mucha practica. Te recomiendo mucho Memrise.com por sus cursos en vocabulario Chino (yo estudio los carácteres simplificados, pues no sé como están los cursos tradicionales). Me ayuda mucho aprender leer y pronunciar las palabras al mismo tiempo.

    Buena suerte otra vez, y espero con interes el resto de tús viajes.

    Saludos de China,
    Sarah

  • Nuria from Spanishcomeseasy.co

    Hi Scott,

    I just come across your site and I LOVE your challenge!! As a Spanish teacher, it feels great to find someone who’s so passionate about learning and líving new experiences.

    I’m going to follow you on your challenge. Well done again!

    Un abrazo desde Barcelona

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