My Spanish After Three Months

A little less than three months ago today, I arrived with my friend Vat with very limited Spanish, with the goal of not speaking English for our entire stay.

The challenge was an experiment: would it be possible to get by with no English even though our Spanish was rudimentary? And more, how much could you learn in three months of immersion?

I’m happy to say now that the answer to the first question was a definite yes. As for the answer to the second question, that’s what I’d like to describe through this post—what level of fluency is possible after only three months.

Were We Really Able to Speak Zero English?

As I’ve mentioned before, my English usage wasn’t exactly zero. I called my parents once a week. I had to make two phone calls to settle unexpected issues in Canada. I had a few conversations with a previous girlfriend who lives in France now.

Vat also took a two-day detour to Switzerland to attempt to meet renown Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava. He did manage to meet him, and spoke in Spanish with him, but the trip to Zurich meant a few conversations in English as the Swiss generally don’t speak Spanish.

But, I can say safely that this English amounted to less than 1% of our total time in Spain. I haven’t once spoken in English to Vat. Every friend we’ve met we’ve spoken in Spanish to. I even made an effort to have conversations with friends back home who spoke some Spanish.

To a purist, these exceptions may mean I’ve already failed. However, from a pragmatic point of view I’d consider the no-English rule to be a complete success. The only exceptions I made for English were maintaining relationships with my past life in Canada—never because Spanish was too difficult or I was succumbing to the temptation to speak in English.

How Hard is Maintaining a No-English Rule?

Short answer: very difficult in the beginning, tiring the first week, somewhat frustrating the first month and unnoticeable after that.

When we landed in Spain, it was after two days of zero sleep, several months since we had done any of our limited practice in Spanish and a nine hour timezone difference to make for some killer jetlag. You can see how that affected our Spanish by listening to the first day’s recording here:

The first part is the hardest. We ended up using the translator apps SpanishDict and Google Translate extensively (WordReference when those failed). Nearly every substantial word needed a translation, so we were searching for probably a third of the words we wanted to use.

Spanish grammar is also significantly more difficult than English. We solved that problem by ignoring a lot of it until we were ready. Vat didn’t even bother to conjugate verbs until about one week in, but that didn’t stall him from going up and asking questions to strangers on the street.

This first part is what holds people back. Because it’s so difficult, it can feel like it won’t ever be comfortable or normal. What’s more, if you’ve never spoken another language before, you have to struggle with the difficulty of the language on top of the new frustration that you can’t express yourself how you’d like to.

But the flipside is that, if you can maintain the no-English rule, speaking only in that language becomes normal far faster than any other method I’ve tried. You pay for more difficulty in the first week, but it pays of in making the learning process much easier for almost every moment thereafter.

I remember meeting with Benny Lewis in France at the six month point of my stay in France. We spoke only in French that day and I remember feeling exhausted at the end of the day. I haven’t felt that way in Spanish since the first few weeks.

The unfortunate part of the no-English rule is that there really isn’t a way to ease into it. I’ve found forcing myself to speak in the language only some of the time much harder than speaking it completely. It extends that initially difficult period unnecessarily and doesn’t make you feel any better about your progress.

The only way I could imagine making the rule easier would be to wait until you’ve studied the language more before speaking it. If I had studied Spanish for two years at school instead of fifty hours at home, the all-Spanish rule would have been easier. However, that’s a dubious since it means you’re adding years of additional study to avoid a week or two of strenuous difficulty.

Early Progress

Luckily we didn’t have any problem making friends in Spain. We went to an Erasmus party the first day, which led to a few friends who helped us make other friends and got the ball rolling in terms of social activities. My good friend and polyglot, Benny Lewis, also helped us meet a few people from the first day.

Our first friends were all non-native speakers of Spanish. Non-natives are much easier to understand because you both share the same, limited vocabulary. Conversations are basic, but nobody minds too much because we were all trying to learn Spanish.

About two weeks in we met our first good Spanish friends. This was considerably more difficult at the beginning, but by the end of the first month we could get along well with them too.

Later Progress and the Wall of Intermediacy

One of the surprising factors was how fast we hit what I’ll call the Wall of Intermediacy. The WoI is when you’ve learned pretty much all of the functional words you need to adequately express yourself and most of your everyday vocabulary. Once you hit this point, you can probably say just about anything you want, even if sometimes you need to explain things longer or use less exact language.

Once you hit this point, the things you’re learning become less common and less important for simply being understood. Think of the word “tired” in English. If you felt tired you could use this word to express yourself. But English has many words for “tired” all with slightly different shades of meaning: burned out, exhausted, fatigued, sleepy, drained, run down, bushed, drowsy, haggard, pooped, tuckered out, broken-down, warn, spent, exasperated, taxed, fed up, etc.

If you want to reach more advanced levels of English, you need to know not only “tired” but all of these synonyms which express the same sentiment in slightly different ways or for slightly different contexts. Knowing each of these words, along with their nuances of meaning, is an order of magnitude more information than learning only one basic word, even though it only subtly improves your ability to express yourself.

Three months was more than enough time to master the components for basic conversational fluency: the language ability necessary to hold conversations, ask questions to strangers, understand and be understood. But it was far too little time to learn all the nuances that truly distinguish advanced speakers.

What is Our Spanish Ability Now?

I opted not to do a formal test of my Spanish abilities, such as the CEFR, which would have allowed me to officially declare my Spanish at a particular level. My reasoning was simply that preparing for a test offers somewhat different constraints than actual life, so I though preparing for the test might remove me from some of the travel aspects I wanted to enjoy.

I’d say my level is a decent intermediate level of Spanish, but saying this has widely different interpretations for different people. Instead, I’d prefer to describe my level of Spanish in everyday situations—the things I can do and the things I can’t yet—and let you and Spanish speakers judge the hours of unscripted recordings Vat and I have made (including an interview I did here at the 2 month mark).

Difficulties in Description

Part of the difficulty in describing ability is that, particularly for people who have never learned a language as an adult or only learned one in school, is that things which seem easy are often hard, and things which seem hard are often easy.

Take reading a book, for example. The first book I read was a biographical book on the history of various scientific figures. The book discussed many of the technical details of their important discoveries and follies. Arguably a somewhat difficult read in English.

However, this book was far easier than reading a trashy detective novel would have been in Spanish. Why? Because my existing understanding of science helps me make sense of the Spanish, but it doesn’t help with the detective novel.

Another example is in conversations. I could have a conversation about political philosophy or physics, but I’d still struggle through a low-brow comedy routine. Native speakers often confuse subject difficulty with linguistic difficulty, and in many cases the two are inversely correlated—the most silly jokes and simple puns require far higher levels of language skill to understand.

What I Can Do (and What I Can’t Yet)

I would describe my Spanish as being conversationally fluent. That means that I can more or less participate in any conversation on any subject and understand and be understood.

I don’t usually have difficulties in group conversations, if I know what is being discussed and I’m actively participating. However, joining other conversations midway is very difficult, and sometimes even impossible. If people aren’t talking to you, there aren’t any feedback cues to help you ease in.

Reading wasn’t a focus for me while I was here, but I read one and a half books in Spanish during my stay. The first was a translation of an English book on the history of scientific errors. The second was an Argentinian book on mathematics. Although my understanding isn’t always perfect, I can usually read a book without relying on a dictionary or translator.

Watching and listening are areas which I can sometimes achieve without problems (I watched the film La Piel que Habito without subtitles), but other times give me difficulties. The problem here is the same as joining conversations, without feedback cues, it can be hard to skip over words or phrases you don’t understand.

In terms of the actual experience, my Spanish was enough to make dozens of friends, go on dates and have extended conversations about practically any topic. At this point, I feel I could go to any city in Spain, make friends, work (although finding a job in Spain is a different matter) and study without significant issues.

From that perspective, I consider my Spanish to be a success. My original goal was to get to be conversational, to make friends and feel comfortable in the language. I feel I surpassed my initial expectations, and reached a level higher than I had thought would be possible for me in three months.

Vat also did quite well in Spanish. Although his grammatical understanding is a bit weaker than mine, I’d say we’re pretty much functionally equivalent. For comparison, here is a recording we did on one of our last days in Spain. Compare it to our Day 1 Spanish to hear the difference three months without English makes:

Brazil, Taiwan, Korea and Looking Forward

Now we’re getting packed to head to Brazil. This adds a new twist to the challenge because I’ve only done a couple hours of practice in Portuguese and Vat has done exactly zero.

Spain was a bit easier because we already had some of the basics in Spanish. Portuguese represents a new challenge, because we’ll have to be translating almost every word in the sentence until we get into the new rhythm of speaking.

Most of the improvements I wanted to make didn’t have to do with learning the language. Instead it was about adjusting my actual lifestyle so I could accomplish more during my stay.

In Spain, aside from socializing and tutoring, I didn’t have any hobbies or sports. I’m hoping to change that in Brazil, trying a few different activities which should hopefully also put me in real situations where I can use my Portuguese.

Another disadvantage was not spending enough time switching between Spanish and French. In Brazil, I hope to do regular tutoring on each of them, so that I don’t bury my Spanish underneath my Portuguese.

The system for learning was fairly relaxed here in Spain. I’m sure I could have improved my Spanish ability by grinding a lot more through exercises and classes, but I’m not sure it would have made the experience any better. Learning a bit slower, but far more enjoyably, is the right course of action much of the time.

I don’t expect that system to change too much for Portuguese. Because of its similarity to Spanish, I’m reasonably confident we can reach the same level of ability. That means I’d rather learn Portuguese through surfing or hiking with friends than spending more time doing grammar drills.

That system will probably have to undergo some changes when we get to Asia. Because Asian languages mean additional work, the more relaxed approach we took towards learning Spanish might have to change.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

If you’re looking to learn another language—particularly one you may have studied a little in the past—I highly recommend opting for the no-English rule, at least for the first few weeks.

I found that many of the systems we use in non-immersion environments (flashcards, drills, software and courses) becomes unnecessary once you start living your life in the language. You learn vocabulary and grammar because you need to, not simply because it’s listed on a sheet of important terms to memorize.

Obviously immersion is easier in the environment you want to speak, but I want to stress that it isn’t necessary. A good 60% of the speaking I do, ends up being with my roommate Vat. Had we decided to speak to each other in Spanish while in Canada, I would have still spent most of my time speaking Spanish. Had we decided to speak English to each other in Spain, we would have spent most of our time speaking English. Immersion is a choice, not just an environment.

This is especially true when we meet other foreigners here learning Spanish. The majority of speakers who start with low ability, cluster together in groups of the same language so they can continue to speak in English, Italian, French or whatever language they came with. As a result, even though they are in an immersive environment, most of their time is spent speaking their native language.

In contrast, there are people like Benny Lewis and Khatzumoto who create semi-immersive environments where they speak only the language they want to learn, even though there may not be native speakers around them.

To end off, here’s an unscripted conversation I recorded with Benny Lewis where we discuss the language learning process through immersion in Spanish. The conversation wasn’t edited to remove any stalling points or mistakes (although it does have two cuts because the camera shut off automatically). This gives a good idea of my Spanish level after three months:

Note on subtitles: I did the subtitles myself to try to mirror some of the mistakes we were making in Spanish. Unfortunately the task proved very difficult. Both because translation makes representing some errors difficult (how do you represent a misspoken gender agreement in English, which lacks that grammatical feature?) and because transcription is almost never exact, even without translation. So, as you watch, you’ll notice some of the errors we make in our speech, but that this was an inevitable undersampling of our actual error rate.

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  • Johnny Mean

    Great work! Glad to see Vat chimed in too. I noticed hand gestures have become augmented in this video compared to other videos (LOS). Is that a cultural norm or a communication mechanism you think you have all added?

    Keep it up!
    Johnny

  • jquiroga

    Hello from Madrid. I’m a native Spanish speaker, and I can hear both of you speaking really nice Spanish. It’s clear you need some more time to learn more vocabulary and to speak a little faster, but what you learned in three months is quite understandable.

  • David

    Su nivel de Español es verdaderamente impresionante! Realmente el metodo de Benny y el metodo de ustedes (que son muy semejantes) ha sido comprobado.

    I must say that I am extremely impressed with your level of Spanish. You accomplishment, and Benny’s many accomplishments, completely shatter the myth that it takes years to speak a foreign language. Thank you for sharing your experiences in Spain and I am looking forward to your trip to Brazil.

    Parabéms!

  • Eric-Wubbo

    Hi Scott,

    great to hear of your progress! In any case it is good to know that it should be possible for adults (at least for most adults) who actively immerse themselves in a language to reach conversational fluency in it within three months, that’s at least one less excuse for expatriates who complain about the difficulty of learning the language of the country they’ve been residing in for five years.
    That would still leave the question how fast it would go if the adult were a more typical person with a regular, 9 to 5 job and a spouse and kids to attend to at home. Would three months then still be enough? And would immersion then still be the method of choice for learning?

    A deeper question is on the “Wall of Intermediacy”. I have little doubt that if you would have tested your vocabulary every week (say take 100 random words out of the dictionary) you would have seen a slowing but steady improvement of your vocabulary, even towards the end of your stay [I hope you can get data of such a curve in Brazil!] I also have little doubt that if you would immerse yourself for say 6 months or one year in Spanish, you would likely be able to read non-scientific books too with not too much hassle, and understand the great majority of movies and television quite well. Perhaps in two more years, you’d also understand the puns in comedy shows!
    I sincerely wonder, though, if you would recommend special methods for breaking the ‘wall of intermediacy’. Continuous immersion would probably work (I guess kids learn that way), but would there be methods to get the same result in fewer study hours? I ask this because I hope to one day bring my Chinese to a level in which I can read books and newspapers, and I’m not certain whether an ‘intermediate’ fluency would be enough in that case.

    Best regards,

    Eric-Wubbo

  • Eric-Wubbo

    By the way… while I can’t answer my own question fully, one thing I notice with Chinese (I get my vocabulary from different sources) is that there seems to be a common ‘core’ vocabulary, for example ‘do’ and ‘car’ and ‘often’, but that outside that core, the vocabulary greatly depends on the application: fairy tales, science books, newspapers, as well as Chinese text books have vocabulary that shows little overlap outside the core. I definitely am groaning if I try a different source of Chinese and notice that suddenly my ‘quite decent understanding’ that I had with the previous genre disappears completely…

    I wonder if the vocabulary of ‘conversational Spanish’ would be similar to the limits of the vocabulary of ‘conversational Chinese’. Briefly, would it be useful to help break the wall of intermediacy, to try, after a certain point, to study totally different souces of Spanish (or Portuguese), like trashy detective novels, newspapers, textbooks and fairy tales, next to conversations, to extend your vocabulary faster than you would get from a couse of almost only conversations? [science books of course are a good start, but as you probably know, most scientific words, even in English, are derived from French/Latin, so science books may show a larger overlap between English and Spanish than regular books, simply because scientific English naturally resembles Latin/Spanish ]

    I’m curious as to your thoughts.

    Best regards,

    Eric-Wubbo

  • Mike Campbell

    Eric-Wubbo,

    I’ve lived in Taiwan for the last 20 years, speak the three Chinese languages here and several aboriginal ones, and I’ve published books written in Chinese. You mentioned this core vocabulary in Chinese, which in some cases like body and health issues are quite easy to learn. So most of the medical terminology in Chinese is quite transparent which is not true in English. However, I think that a “wall” exists in all genres of Chinese: medical, political, economic, pun/social, etc. It takes the same amount of time in Chinese to be able to read the scientific journals as it would take you to learn social discourse, and you need to make a choice of which you’d prefer to learn. There are literally languages within a language to learn that have little overlapping vocabulary other than the syntactic structural vocabulary.
    Besides this, there is so much similarity between Spanish and English in pronunciation, cognates, structure of words, grammar, etc. that were these languages in China, people would refer to them as “dialects” or “topolects” (方言). In fact they resemble each other more than the three Chinese languages spoken here in Taiwan, which people normally just refer to as dialects.
    So it’s a really good idea to learn Spanish and Portuguese first with all their similarities to English, to get an idea of how oneself acquires the target language, what areas of the language one finds most helpful in living day to day life, and what knowledge of the language is necessary on which to expand expression entirely in the target language. And one should analyze and demarcate what vocabulary is actually “easiest” to acquire and make good note of it, because it won’t be the same in Chinese.
    As a student of Chinese yourself, you know that verb constructions containing “be able to” are constructed entirely differently and can be “infixed” into virtually any verb. So one who thinks that the use of “poder” is straightforward and transparent will have a hard time adjusting to Chinese “de” or even the Korean “halsu”. Which makes me think of the other major differentiating aspect is that European languages are very active-passive centered languages, and although less obvious in English, most European intransitive verbs are inherently reflexive. Whereas in Chinese, agent trumps the active/passive nature of a verb. So we’d say “the apple’s been cut” in English, but in Chinese “the apple cuts” semantically implies that the apple received the action, because Chinese assume you’d have to be dumb to actually believe the apple acted upon itself, so apple is the agent, and cut is the action, where direction of the action is obvious by meaning.
    In the last few years, I’ve found that reading stories in translation (I know the story or familiar with it) in target languages with conversational speech throughout are the best ways to pick up a language that you are not in contact with. I also found this immensely helpful in learning aboriginal languages (reading their oral legends) that have only recently started to be put down in writing. And I have a series of novels that have been translated into dozens of major languages by a few favorite authors that I feel represent a lot of the speech I use myself, so I tend to read those when learning the colloquial speech of foreign languages and I stay away from news/journalistic/economic/political writing. Besides in Chinese, most journalistic writing is “condensed” in that its meaning is encoded in the writing and you can’t read it character-by-character out loud because it wouldn’t make sense. There are lots of filler words you need to add in order to make it sound sensible. Kind of like how headlines are written in English.
    I’ve also extended a free offer to Scott and Vat to try my Chinese fluency program when they arrive here in Taipei. Although it has 20-30 minutes of daily training involved, it would only require meeting for two hours per week. In 4 weeks, you can breakthrough the 20,000 active sentence threshold for basic fluency, and 3 months lets you breakthrough the 60,000 active sentence for intermediate expression.

  • Baptiste

    Hola Scott!
    Ambos Vat y tu hablais mucho mejor hoy: estoy impresionado!
    Estoy de acuerdo que el Wall of Intermediacy es una putada. En vuestra video, Benny aconseja leer mucho y tener conversaciones sobre topicos mas sofisticados. Me parece tener sentido, aunque pienso que no sea tan facil como tener conversaciones “superficiales”. Que piensas tu? Tienes cualquier otros consejos?

    Ademas, quiero agradecerte para tu punto de vista sobre los libros que leer. Nunca habia pensado en el hecho que leer un libro sobre un tema ya conocido (e.g. las ciencias o psicología) pudiera ser mas fácil que leer una simple novela. Recientemente, he empezado leer Etica para Amador (un libre que trata de filosofia muy sencillamente – lo aconsejaria) y le encuentro mucho mas facil que las novelas que habia intentado de leer antes.
    Finalmente, te incito a buscar un hobby que te permite encontrar a personas de manera mas regular en Brasil (porque no Capoeira ?). Me parece muy buena idea.

    Mucha suerte para la proxima etapa, y si buscas un companero para mantener tu Frances por Skype, me manda un email!
    Baptiste

  • Marion Vermazen

    Estoy aprendiendo español. Me gusta mucho leer tu blog. Tengo muchas ganas de tener noticias de aprender portuguesa y de Brasil. Tengo una pregunta. Cuando una persona está hablando a tu en español y tu solamente entiendes algo de lo que están diciendo. Tu apenas sonríes y asientes o detienes a ellos y pedirles que repetir

  • David Zinger

    Very inspiring and educational. Well done!

  • Scott Young

    Johnny,

    A lot of it is cropping. My LOS videos crop out my hands most of the time I would want to use them.

    Marion,

    Depende de la conversacion!

    Baptiste,

    No sé, si estoy de acuerdo con Benny. Me parece que las conversaciones mas basicas son, a veces, mas dificile que temas mas profundos.

    Eric-Wubbo,

    I think it’s true–to an extent. Every book I read is hardest at the beginning as I adapt to the new style of vocabulary and expressions of its author. I think it helps to change situations to improve your vocabulary, but you also need to be cognizant of your purpose in learning. Why improve many dimensions of your language if you only want to use a particular one?

    Mike,

    I agree. It will be interesting to try out new learning methods for Chinese!

    -Scott

  • Pau

    I admire your perseverance!

    I came across Benny’s blog a few months ago when I realized I had to learn Danish, fast. The thought was very daunting and tried to immerse myself. One thing that made it difficult is that people here in Denmark tend to be very fluent with English, so they would automatically start speaking English to me when they saw me struggling.

    I tried to keep the no English rule going with my girlfriend. It was SO exhausting that we decided to do it only a few hours a day rather than the whole day. You are right, doing it some of the time is probably a lot worse – because the exhaustion and frustration phase never left me even after a couple of months. I wish I had know that after the first week, it would have been much better.

    Several months after, I gave up on learning Danish, partly because it was such a tiring experience and took so much from me, but also because I didn’t really need to anymore. Next time I need to learn a language, I will have learned from that experience (which I can finally put into perspective thanks to yours!) and do much better with it 🙂 Thank you.

  • Jon

    Very cool and very inspiring Scott and Vat, thanks for this. It will be interesting to see how Korean and Chinese work out. I suspect that initial painful stage, which I think you said was about two weeks for Spanish, perhaps that will stretch out to 4 or 5 for these due to the lack of cognates and just general dissimilarity. But we will see.

  • Mario

    It is not “El Piel Que Habito”, but “La piel que habito”, changing the gender and supressing the capital letters.

  • camila

    Buenas Scott y Vat,

    Es excelente y admirable progreso el que han hecho ambos. Yo soy hispana (and I also speak english haha) y les entendia la mayoría de lo que decian sin tener que leer lo subtitulos. Estoy muy muy impresiona con no solo sus resultados sino con la perseverancia que demostraron al embarcarse en este proyecto.

    Yo estoy aprendiendo portugues…con mucha lentitud y sin poco progreso, asi que espero con ansias las novedades que publiquen de su nuevo proyecto en Brasil, y les deseo mucha suerte y excito en su próxima aventura 🙂

    Gracias, ambos son una inspiración.

  • Scott Young

    Mario,

    True! I’ve gone back and edited. Not sure how I missed that one!

    -Scott

  • pam

    cuando necesites practicar avisame! 😉

  • Eli

    This is interesting…I actually did the opposite when i learned Spanish and i found the results worked quite well also. That is, I just read and listened. I learned some of the grammar up front and immediately transitioned to difficult material like newspapers, articles, etc…i found this really helped move my vocab. my speaking was a bit of a j-curve but i found that loads of reading actually makes one a better speaker, whereas loads of speaking doesn’t really help you improve your vocabulary to any great extent.

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