Learning Spanish in 4.5 months

I just enrolled myself into a C1 DELE Spanish exam on November 10th 2018.

So…I have less than 5 months to go from just above total beginner/borderline intermediate (I’m at A2 at the moment) to professional fluency (C1). That’s ~8000 Spanish words to learn (60 new words per day) + all the tenses, correct pronunciation and all the grammar rules…this should be fun 🙂

Up to now, I’ve learnt the basics of Spanish using the following resources:

1. Duolingo

It’s an app. It teaches you new words, and systematically tests you on them.

I love Duolingo because it’s easy to get started (the app’s free, you install it and start learning your new language straight away); its gamification keeps you going (its addictive streak system in particular); and its simple interface makes learning a language look easy (this really helped me get over my belief that I sucked at languages, f*ck you GCSE French).

2. Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking book

This book blew my mind.

Using Duolingo, I had learnt some basic vocabulary but I still couldn’t hold even a 5-second conversation. I remember trying to practice my Spanish with a Spanish waitress in Leicester Square. She asked, “How are you?” (“Como estas?”) and I froze, literally no idea what to say. It was very embarrassing, especially after I’d confidently told her (in English) about my progress on Duolingo.

The problem with Duolingo (and similar apps) is its focus on out of context vocabulary acquisition. I’d learnt how to say “I’m well” (“Estoy bien”), I’d learnt all the colours, I’d learnt how to count, I’d learnt how to say fish and how to say chicken…but I hadn’t learnt how to use any of those words in context, in a real-life conversation for example. I’d just memorized each word in isolation – which is helpful, but no way to really learn how to speak or understand a complex, interconnected new language.

The beauty of Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking guide is that Benny teaches you new vocabulary in context and gets you speaking FAST.

He prepares you for real-life contexts and conversation topics using “me-scripts”: scripts written by you, for commonly occurring conversations.

For instance, when you start learning a language and start trying to talk with native speakers (e.g. the Spanish waitress) common topics of conversations are: Why are you learning Spanish? When did you start? How are you learning? Have you ever been to Spain?

Benny gives you the basic vocabulary and phrases to handle these conversations, and then invites you to create your own “me-script” to personalize the conversation to you:

^using Benny’s book, I had just learnt “aprender” (to learn) and a few other verbs. But rather than letting these new words sit idle, Benny forces you to apply them immediately by producing a me-script.

And with your me-scripts ready to go you can launch into conversations with confidence.

I remember the day after buying Benny’s book I spoke to a group of Spanish tourists by Trafalgar square.

The conversation unravelled predictably: Why are you learning Spanish? When did you start? How are you learning? Have you ever been to Spain?

But this time I had prepared for them! I recited my me-scripts and 20 minutes later my mind had exploded all over the pavement next to Charring Cross station.

I was speaking Spanish!

Sure, when my conversation with the Spaniards eventually went off script I lost track of the conversation…but my new Spanish tourist friends were amazed when I told them I’d only been studying for a few weeks.

By preparing for specific conversations (vs. learning isolated vocabulary or abstract grammar) I was able to start speaking immediately. And through these conversations, I was able to learn new vocabulary and more importantly see these new words in context.

Not to mention the massive boost in motivation that comes from actually speaking Spanish after just a few weeks of practice.

That’s been my Spanish journey so far and I really haven’t progressed much from here…

Using Benny’s me-scripts I’ve been able to “get by” in Spain for several weeks – this has made me complacent, and fooled me into believing my level of Spanish was higher than it really is…but honestly I am still miles away from the deep and meaningful Spanish conversations I want to have, from the fascinating Latin American literature I want to read, from the 2 seasons of Casa de Papel (Money Heist) I want to watch and understand in its native tongue.

But that’s not Benny’s fault. That’s my laziness.

(I mean…I haven’t even finished Benny’s book yet – it’s only 200 pages long and I’ve had 1.5 years)

So now it’s time to get serious – I’m at A2 (above beginner/borderline intermediate) and have less than 5 months to pass my C1 exam (i.e. reach fluency).

So here’s my new plan to get fluent:

1. Duolingo

Yes, the app has its shortcomings but I plan to continue using it for two reasons:

First, completing its daily exercises creates consistency. Even if I don’t do anything else, it ensures I won’t quit learning Spanish completely and that’s critical to building momentum and making real progress.

Second, it’s still a fun way to source new vocabulary…which I can then turn into mnemonics (explained below) to actually learn this new vocabulary.

2. Mnemonics

Mnemonics are “memory devices” used to help the brain remember stuff. They can include acronyms like ROY G BIV to remember the colours of the rainbow: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet…or funny, memorable stories to connect foreign words (in Spanish) to their meanings in English.

For example:

“Pregunta” is Spanish for “question”.

But when I first tried to learn/memorise this meaning, I really struggled. “Pregunta” sounds nothing like “question”, there’s no obvious association between the two words, which made memorisation very tough.

So I created my own association.

“Pregunta” sounds like “pregnant” (hence the drawing of the pregnant woman). And this pregnant woman is getting asked a lot of questions (Who’s the father? Is it mine? Boy or girl? When’s it due?) So now when I hear “pregunta”, I think of my story with the pregnant woman being asked questions, so “pregunta” means “question”! Yay!

Over time, as your brain’s association between the word “pregunta” and “question” strengthens, you won’t need to recall the mnemonic at all, it becomes reflexive – but using mnemonics help you get to that point much more quickly.

I make mnemonics for (almost) all the new Spanish words I come across. (Unless there is already an obvious connection e.g. “población” means population)

3. Anki

With mnemonics made for my new vocabulary, I need a way to test my recall of these new words. Actively recalling new information is much more effective than simply rereading new information, so testing your recall of new vocabulary is a must.

That’s why I upload all my mnemonics (drawn on my iPad Pro) to Anki, to turn them into flashcards. On the front I have the English word and my mnemonic, on the back I have its Spanish translation:

Anki shows me the front of the flashcard, and I have to recall the Spanish on the back.

But even better, Anki makes use of spaced repetition which can double your memory capacity (i.e. you can memorise the same amount of stuff in half the time). The gist of spaced repetition is that the brain remembers information best when that information is repeated over increasingly spaced out time intervals. So Anki will test you on a word one day after you’ve learnt it, then three days after, then again in seven days, then two weeks…until the word has finally made it to your long-term memory! This CollegeInfoGeek video explains spaced repetition in more depth if you’re interested.

4. iTalki

I’m preparing for an exam (the DELE C1) I know nothing about, so it makes sense to learn the exam’s ins and outs, what to prioritize, exam technique from someone with experience. So I’ll be hiring a professional language tutor for weekly lessons over iTalki (a platform that connects language learners with language teachers)

5. Frequency lists

Rather than learning the first 8000 words I happen to stumble across I’ll be using Frequency lists to identify the most frequently occurring 8000 Spanish words that pop up, and prioritise learning those first. Here’s the Frequency List from Wikipedia I’m currently using.

6. Moving to Spain

I’m moving to Valencia for three months, and plan to speak 0 words of English during my stay (an idea from by Scott Young who learnt 4 languages in a year, by cutting out all English).

I hope this will fully immerse me in the Spanish language and get me to fluency in time for the exam. I’ve also changed my iPhone, iPad and Mac’s language settings to Spanish. (It’s annoying, but it helps.)

7. Finish Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking book

It’s been 18 months since I started learning Spanish and I’m still only at page 137/238 of Benny’s book, despite giving it praise every time I’m asked how my Spanish is going – time to finish what I started.

I’m excited! And if this goes well there are so many other languages I want to master. My biggest concern is obviously the time commitment: I’m starting this learning project at the same time I’m launching a new company…but with the pressure of my C1 exam in November and the whole living in Valencia thing – I think I can do it.

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2 Comments on “Learning Spanish in 4.5 months”

  1. Great article! Brillante consejo y lo aplicaré: el elemento de contexto es tan importante para el aprendizaje. Muchas gracias. Valencia is a great place to pick for your ‘learning journey’!

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