Learning Spanish

I’ve been learning Spanish for about the last year and a half, and I finally feel like I’m making real progress. Living in Mexico City definitely helps by giving me more opportunities to practice, but I do not believe that simply being around Spanish will help you make much progress unless you already have extensive training (say, 4+ years in school) or you are extremely diligent in your private studies.

In this post I discuss what has and hasn’t worked for me and how I think we should change how we teach beginners new languages.

My learning tools

I won’t bury the lead for y’all. I am pretty happy with my current learning routine which I’d recommend for anyone getting started learning a new language. It’s a fair amount of work (on average probably about 45 minutes a day) but if someone promises you that learning a language will be easy, they’re lying to you (or, more likely, selling you something)!

Here are the key elements of my routine in descending order of importance:

  • Anki flashcards for spaced-repetition learning: 30 minutes every day, religiously. I use a few different decks for studying:
    • Top 5000 most commonly used Spanish words for vocabulary building
    • A deck that I created where I add words and phrases that I encounter in my studies. Here I focus on grammatical patterns from my Spanish lessons and useful words and phrases that come up in conversation (e..g, “unfortunately”, “actually”, “anyways”)
  • Online tutoring: 2 hours a week. I use a platform called Italki to find Spanish tutors who help me study.
    • I generally drive the lesson by starting out with a review of questions about grammar from my reading and other lessons
    • At the end of every lesson, I add my notes into my Anki deck to solidify the material
  • Journaling: 15 minutes a day. Every day I write in my journal which I can highly recommend just for general mental-health benefits alone. Once my Spanish progressed enough, I started writing my journal in Spanish which has given a huge boost to my language skills
    • Writing about what you did yesterday and what you’re doing today helps you practice the things you’re most likely to want to talk with someone about
    • Writing regularly helps you identify the gaps in your Spanish, which you can use to drive your tutoring lessons (e.g., how do I say “she is the same age as my sister?”)
  • News in Slow Spanish— once a week for an hour
    • This is great practice for Spanish listening comprehension (which is much more challenging than reading comprehension!)
    • When I was just getting started with Spanish, this was a real challenge for me. For every episode, I listened through once without reading the text for comprehension, then listen through again while reading along, then listen through a third time without reading
    • For every episode I’d review the vocabulary and grammar and would review the aspects of the grammar I didn’t understand in my tutoring lessons and Ankify the vocabulary that seemed most important.
  • Netflix in Spanish — whenever, for fun
    • When I was first getting started I would follow a similar pattern to what I did for News in Slow Spanish — I would first watch the episode in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, then watch again in Spanish with English subtitles, then (sometimes) watch a third time just in Spanish.
    • Watching television episodes two or three times can get pretty boring, but it’s a good way to learn about the culture and get exposure to a broader vocabulary than what you hear on the news.
    • My favorite Mexican shows on Netflix are Luis Miguel la Serie, Club de Cuervos, Narcos Mexico, and Colosio.

What didn’t work

When I first started trying to learn Spanish, I wasted a lot of time with learning techniques that weren’t very effective. Duolingo being the primary culprit — while Duolingo is fun, and they have done a good job of gamifying the learning process, it did not help me very much at all. I also took a short in-person Spanish class through Idlewild books in New York that was fine but probably could have been improved substantially.

It seems to me that most classes (and apps!) for learning new languages aren’t actually structured around how humans acquire languages. Most people under-appreciate how much 1) memorization is required and 2) how important it is, especially in the beginning, to focus on learning lots and lots of vocabulary.

How we should teach languages

In order to really learn a language, you need to be able to practice speaking and thinking in that language. The biggest blocker to speaking and thinking in that language, at first, will be your vocabulary. If you want to tell someone that you need to go to the grocery store, but you don’t know the word for grocery store, you’re going to be dead in the water. When you’re first starting out learning a language you should focus almost entirely on vocabulary acquisition to learn the most common one to two thousand words before you learn very much grammar at all.

This is how humans acquire language outside of formal instruction — they will begin by acquiring vocabulary words in the target language and slotting them into their native grammar:  “Mi nombre ser Michael”. It turns out that this isn’t a terrible way to get your point across if you really need to! Just slamming the right words together without any grammar can actually get you pretty far. When we are teaching someone a new language, we should emphasize vocabulary acquisition above pretty much everything else for the first few months.

In introductory Spanish classes today, the first thing most students learn is how to conjugate verbs, and that’s where most of the class time is spent. I think the students would be better off if much more emphasis was placed on memorizing vocabulary — unfortunately, the infrastructure we use today for learning doesn’t actually support that very well. There’s not really a reason to have a teacher if all you’re doing is memorizing and most students don’t find the effort very “fun”.

This is where I believe that hybrid learning models that combine the use of apps (e.g., Anki) with a teacher can really excel — we should design curriculums for learning languages that emphasize the appropriate amount of memorization (a lot) and use the best tools we have available for facilitating that (spaced repetition) and then supplement that with in-classroom teaching of concepts that are more difficult to memorize (more complex grammar rules, exceptions, pronunciation).

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By michael