- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

How I’m Learning Spanish

I’m reaching the halfway point in Spain, the first of four countries, in my year without speaking English [1]. I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on what I’ve been doing to learn Spanish, what’s worked well and what hasn’t.

I want to stress that this article is intended to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. I want to tell you how I’m learning, rather than suggest my approach is the best. If I’m going to give language learning advice, I’d rather wait until I’ve had the chance to see how these methods hold up in Chinese and Korean.

What’s a Typical Day Like Without Speaking English?

The principle constraint of this project has been not speaking in English. I hadn’t thought of it initially, but around week two I added a second constraint: no reading or watching anything in English except for one day each week.

I talk to my parents in English once a week, I write an article here in English once per week and I need to answer work-related emails in English. But, otherwise I’ve managed to eliminate English communication from my life. This includes speaking with my roommate Vat [2], who is also working on this challenge with me.

Right now, a typical day is usually:

My days aren’t identical so that’s only a rough outline of the routine I’ve established here.

The first thing that may stand out is how little studying I’m doing, in general. During the MIT Challenge [4] my schedule was 10 hours of studying every day. Here it’s more like 10 hours per week.

But what I’m foregoing in study, I’m making up for in practice. I’d guess I spend at least 10-12 hours speaking, reading, listening or writing in Spanish every day. That means by the end of my 3-month adventure, I’ll probably have logged nearly a thousand hours of practice.

What’s Worked

My learning schedule is actually quite different from my original plan I formulated in Canada. I had expected I would be doing a lot of Anki [5] flashcards, tutoring and deliberate exercises for advancing my ability. This hasn’t been the case.

What has worked really well is sticking to the no-speaking English rule. I can say this with confidence by comparing my experience in learning French to learning Spanish. Upholding this constraint has worked better for me than any trick, class or piece of software.

After the first two weeks, I noticed myself using the internet a bit too much in English. Originally, the constraint of the trip was going to be not speaking in English, and I had thought keeping a constraint of not reading or listening to any English might be too difficult or unpleasant.

However, after my first two weeks I switched to omitting all my consumption of English in books, movies and the web aside from one day per week. This was a hard step for me as a blogger who practically lives online, but after a two weeks with this new system I think it has also helped immensely.

The only “tool” I’ve found effective for me has been a simple Spanish grammar book. It has little exercises to help explain and practice things like the past tense and subjunctive. On it’s own, it’s probably fairly useless, but a small amount of grammar study has been quite helpful because it’s combined with so much practice.

What Hasn’t Worked

Anki [6] was a program I enjoyed using in Canada prior to my arrival here. It’s a spaced repetition software that gives you flashcards you can study from (and you can make your own). The advantage of this software over paper flashcards is that the software tries to anticipate when you’ll forget a fact, and tries to remind you right at the cusp of that forgetting curve.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found Anki useful at all here. I’m still holding out hope that it will prove more useful in learning Chinese characters, which was my main use of Anki in Canada.

My main critique of Anki is the one I voiced originally [7], before working extensively with the software. The memory associations aren’t learned in context and are doled out irrespective of the actual importance of words. I had even worked out a system to only add cards to my deck that I had previously translated, to try to triage out unimportant words. But this was still too cumbersome.

Maybe Anki is simply better suited for learning in a non-immersive environment? This could be the case, but I’m always worried about tools that give you the feeling of accomplishment without direct translations to ability.

In fact many of the things I did for study in Canada I dropped upon arriving in Spain. Pimsleur [8] was one of my favorite courses for the preparation phase of this project and reviewing the exercises now, the level it covers is laughably basic. I still think Pimsleur was valuable for the first month when speaking at all is too hard, but it quickly reached the point of diminishing returns and I wouldn’t invest in later months.

Then again, my experiences with both Anki and Pimsleur may be idiosyncratic, so I can’t say how they’ll apply to other people. I’m still hoping to find a use for Anki in Chinese, but I’ve become a bit more pessimistic now.

What’s My Level in Spanish Right Now?

I haven’t done any tests to objectively measure my Spanish ability (although native Spanish speakers are free to judge the daily recordings [3] of my conversations with Vat). Instead, I’d like to describe what the experience has been like. For those of you reading this who haven’t ever learned a language from scratch as an adult, I want to share what I think is possible after one month.

The first thing to smooth over were my conversations with Vat. In the first two weeks, discussing more complicated concepts was frustrated and tiresome. We had more than a few arguments which probably could have been avoided in English.

Now, however, we can converse more or less with the same ease as in English with each other. We’re less articulate and likely have many errors in our speech, but we understand each other quite well. Generally I forget we’re speaking in Spanish with each other, which could only happen if the conversational friction had disappeared.

A harder challenge which has just recently become more manageable is having conversations with Spaniards. Conversations with other learners of a language is much easier than speaking with natives. Because their vocabulary is more limited, and their speech slower, learners are easier to understand.

Two weeks into our trip, Vat and I met two Spanish girls. One of them was speaking to me for over an hour and I understood probably less than half of what she said. This was frustrating because by the time I realized I didn’t understand something, the conversation had moved on and interrupting felt awkward.

In contrast, a few days ago we had several friends over for dinner, including the same Spanish girls. This time I understood everything they said.

I’m able to read many things in Spanish more or less comfortably. My current book is retelling stories about important discoveries in science and I feel I can follow along most of the time. Shorter articles and stories are even easier, but I’ve yet to tackle Spanish literature which tends to be more verbose.

There are still many things I can’t do proficiently at my current level.

For the most part, I can’t understand television that isn’t something I’ve previously watched in English or has an obvious context. I can understand many chunks but sometimes misinterpreting even a snippet of dialog can confuse the plot.

I have an unabridged audiobook of Don Quixote which I’m still not able to understand at all. I’m hoping to give it another attack in a few weeks to see if it’s any easier.

Understanding group conversations in which I’m not actively participating is also difficult. I wouldn’t be able to overhear most conversations and explain what is being discussed with any confidence. This is a challenge in group settings where joining a conversation midway is very difficult.

Comparing my Spanish to my French, I’d say that my level is probably similar to what I was able to do after a whole year spent in France. Some of that advantage is definitely because of the similarities between Spanish and French, and that I now have prior experience with language learning. However, Vat has gotten to a level I feel similar to my 6-month mark in French without having either of those advantages, so I’m inclined to believe it’s the method, not the individual, making the difference.

In terms of experience, Spanish has definitely hurdled the frustration barrier. One month in, I’m finding living almost entirely in the language is normal. There is still a lot to learn, but I’m pleased that I was able to get over this barrier and enjoy life here so quickly.

What’s Next

Unfortunately hurdling the frustration barrier also tends to mean you’re reaching the phase where learning is slower. I’m looking to increase my rate of learning Spanish, but I want to be careful that I don’t do this by increasing busywork.

One thing I’m trying to do more of is spend more time with Spaniards. Although virtually all of our friends speak in Spanish to us, only native or advanced speakers can correct our usage or demonstrate new expressions and terms. We already have a number of Spanish friends, but I’d like to increase the time I spend with them or other Spanish speakers.

I’m also trying to encourage my Spanish friends to more actively correct my Spanish. It can be a big ego-deflating to hear your mistakes pointed out, but it’s something I appreciate nonetheless.

Input has also been something I’ve spent time doing. I enjoy watching television in Spanish, especially shows which I’ve previously watched in English, which I find far more helpful for picking up specific phrases at my current level. Encountering words and expressions naturally (rather than from a translator) is something I’m striving for.

I can’t say how my experience with Spanish can be generalized. I expect that Portuguese, Chinese and Korean will offer different challenges which may force me to change my strategy. Some of these experiences may also be idiosyncratic to me, although I plan to share Vat’s experiences with Spanish as well as a counterpoint.

What do you think? For the Spanish speakers, I’d be happy if you’d check out some of the more recent uploads of our daily conversation logs [3] and give some feedback (or even a friendly correction!). If you’ve learned a foreign language before, share your experiences in the comments [9]below about what you felt was the same or different.