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.
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.