This is a guest post by Connor Grooms, who put together a great little documentary called “Spanish in a Month: A Documentary About Language Learning” (scroll down), documenting his progress learning Spanish in a month.
Looking for the best Spanish resources? I’ve compiled some great ones right here.
Got a story to share like this one? Get in touch with me here about guest posting.
Over to you, Connor.
June 16, 10:14am
“So, what do you know already?”
6 days earlier
“American Airlines flight number 923 with service from Miami to Medellín, Colombia is now boarding.”
I walk down the aisle towards my seat. As I go to sit down, an older woman with big earrings and too much perfume on stops me and says something in Spanish.
Unlike every other person on the flight, I don’t speak any. My stomach turns in a knot and all I can do is mutter “uhhh” and give a blank stare. It’s very uncomfortable.
My first of many experiences like this one. “What am I getting myself into?”
I eventually sort out that she wants me to swap seats with her daughter so she can sit with family, which I go along with.
I was the only gringo on the flight. When we arrived, I was the only gringo in the terminal.
And for the fourth-least English speaking country in the world, this isn’t surprising.
Ironically, this is one of the reasons I chose Medellín as the place to learn Spanish. There’s no motivation like necessity. People can’t switch to English with you if they don’t speak any.
6 days later
“Uhm… well. Hola, como estas, gracias…”
Anyone who has started learning a language knows this feeling. We all start from zero.
But I had an extra, self-imposed burden. My “thing” is trying to compress 6 months of progress into one month, which I’d done with things like DJing and muscle gain before. And so I sit here, in front of a camera, on the first day of a challenge to become conversational in Spanish in a single month.
One month and 150 hours of learning later
In short – I was successful. To see the full journey, watch the documentary:
But if you just want the actionable details on how to accelerate your own Spanish-learning – here’s how I did it…
Also known as the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule states that 80% of your results come from 20% of the inputs. This is definitely true with language learning. What you learn (being effective) is more important then how you learn (being efficient).
So, you can cut months off your learning curve by cutting a lot of material out.
How to apply this to Spanish:
Don’t learn the future tense
What’s the difference between “I will” and “I’m going to”? Rather small. If you tell someone “I’m going to speak with him” instead of “I’ll speak with him”, they are going to understand perfectly. When just learning, worrying about the small shades of meaning like the differences between these is a recipe for disaster.
So, don’t learn the future tense. Use “voy a _____” (I’m going to _____) for everything. This is seriously one the easiest ways to cut your learning curve. I speak ~B2 conversational Spanish now, and I still haven’t bothered learning it – it’s not worth the effort until the advanced stages.
Learn the most frequently used words first. There are many free lists out there for this, as well as books. Take these and turn them into Anki flashcards (a Google Sheet exported as a CSV is the easiest way to do this en masse).
But what is “most frequent” in general isn’t necessarily what you will use yourself. So when going through the list, ignore words you never use yourself. Which brings me to the next point…
There are many things you probably think and talk a lot about in your native tongue that are NOT on the top 1000 list. But they are on your top 1000 – you use them all the time.
It makes little sense to learn all the words for the weather when you like talking about sports and travel.
Just because you are speaking in a different language doesn’t mean you have to talk about different things – indeed, being able to have conversations about the things you actually care about is great motivation.
That’s where monologues come in.
Pretend you’re giving a speech about different things. As you just get started, just do this in your native tongue about yourself. Almost every conversation starts with introducing yourself and interests, so this will get a lot of mileage and start your conversations off on a confident foot.
Once you have basic grammar and basic vocabulary, start doing this for all of your interests – all of the things you talk about in English. But now, do it in Spanish.
First, this is great speaking practice, but more importantly, it will very quickly point out exactly what you don’t know how to say that you want to be able to say. Take note of the words you don’t know. Take note of that one sentence you have no idea how to structure.
Now, when you go back to study, you’ll actually learn things that you know you’ll use, about topics you care about (which, by the way, helps with retention).
After the very beginning stages (where it’s perfectly fine to say “today I to write”), you want to learn conjugations.
But skip the Subjunctive (an entirely different “mood”, where things are less definite) and just learn the Indicative (which gets the vast majority of use anyway).
That cuts your workload in half.
Now, pick one past tense. There are two, but even if you use the “wrong” one for the situation, people will understand. So pick whatever is easiest for you to remember, and don’t worry about the other one for now.
This leaves you with just 4 primary tenses to learn for each pronoun (instead of 20+) – most of which are the same verb to verb: Present (I walk), Past (I walked), “-ing” (I’m walking), Conditional (I would walk – this is the least important). Remember, our future tense for now is just adding “Voy a” in front of the infinitive of each verb (the un-conjugated form).
You can add more later as you get more advanced (like, “I have walked”), but start with these four.
Speak. A LOT.
The most important thing when learning to speak Spanish is actually speaking Spanish.
Read that again.
You need to spend as much time as possible actually speaking the language with natives. I recommend avoiding gringos for this, as I did completely – as you don’t want to pick up bad habits, pronunciation or otherwise.
So many people try to skip this. Or try to put it off until they “know” more. Or, or, or.
Here’s a secret – language is like any other skill. It’s built through practice. It’s built through actually using it. So if you think your 96% accuracy rate on flashcards or high marks on a written test mean you can hold a real, live conversation with a native speaker, you’re in for a rude awakening.
On the other hand, if you can have real conversations, then you can read, write, and remember the words for everything you can talk about.
SRS flashcards are a great way to memorize conjugations and vocabulary (I used the hell out them), but nothing really solidifies the memory like actually using it in a real conversation.
And ultimately, this is why you are learning Spanish anyway – to talk to people.
To communicate with people in a foreign country, to have a conversation with a latin family member who never learned English, to make friends.
So why not start here?
Now – in an ideal situation – you do this with a good teacher. Normal people are great to practice with (and is indeed where you will get the majority of your practice once you’re at a certain level), but do you really want to stop and ask the cute girl (or guy) you’re talking to, to ask how to say something or explain a concept? I didn’t think so.
It’s important to find a teacher that follows the principles I’ve laid out here – which is a focus on communication, not perfection. If you’re 5 minutes into your first lesson and they are correcting you on every incorrect conjugation, wrong gender (which doesn’t matter in the beginning, learn the general rules and forget about the exceptions until later), or other petty mistakes – run the other way.
If you focus on being perfect from the start, not only will you slow your progress significantly (which drastically increases your chances of quitting the language completely and writing it off to “not having the language gene”), but you will become petrified in real conversations.
Embrace not speaking perfectly. Speak Tarzan Spanish. The only thing that matters is if they understood. Focus on perfection later.
Finding a good teacher is one of the most important parts of learning Spanish.
Nail pronunciation first
Before I started learning what anything meant, I made sure my pronunciation was near-perfect.
1. Bad habits
Unlike grammar mistakes, pronunciation is one of the things it’s hard to fix after awhile. If you absolutely can’t roll your R’s, don’t let it hold you back, but everything else should be nailed.
2. People will talk to you
If you start talking in a thick gringo accent, and the person speaks English, they are going to switch immediately. With a good accent, people will actually speak to you in Spanish, and they will think you have a higher level than you actually do.
You don’t want to memorize a word with the gringo pronunciation in your head, or you’ll end up “knowing” the word but not being able to recognize it when people use it in real speech.
If your pronunciation is on-point (meaning you went through the process to make it very good), your ability to understand people will improve a LOT.
5. Learning speed
The net result of all of the above is that you learn a lot faster. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your pronunciation is “good enough, people understand me usually”.
Get this right now and you’ll reap rewards later.
How to train pronunciation
First – I used the Mimic Method for this, and would recommend it.
If you want to do it for free, this should do the trick:
Become familiar with the IPA phonetic alphabet. These are based on individual phonemes, which are the smallest building block of sound.
There are numerous guides that can tell you how Spanish spellings line up with the IPA (e.g. if “i” sounds like “ee” or “eh”). But just as important, there are videos and tutorials on how to move your mouth to make that exact sound – the position of your tongue, the flow of air, the shape of your lips.
For each sound in Spanish:
- Watch a tutorial video on how to make that IPA sound
- Practice until you think you have it perfect
- Record yourself saying it
- Compare your recording to one of a native. If it sounds good to you, then…
- Have a native speaking friend or your teacher listen
- If they say it’s perfect (don’t take “close enough”), then practice the hell out of it. Sound is a muscle movement, and the more you practice it, the easier it will become to make that sound, which means you won’t slur, stumble, or stutter in the middle of a conversation
Once you have each individual sound down, get recordings of a native saying a full sentence at a normal speed – you don’t want a recording where the speaker slows down for you, as people won’t in the real world.
What it means, or if you understand, is unimportant.
Do these steps for several sentences (ideally different speakers) until you can predictably pronounce sentences perfectly and smoothly your first or second take:
- Take the sentence audio file, and slow it down in a program like Audacity.
- Transcribe the file, syllable by syllable. Ignore the “real” transcription of what the person is saying for this, as how it’s said in a sentence is often different than word-by-word (for instance, “what are you doing tonight” sounds like “whadda you doin’ tonight” when spoken normally).
- Practice each sound alone.
- Practice them in order, until you are saying the entire sentence in one take. Memorizing can help, as you can then practice wherever you are (the more you practice, the easier the sounds will roll off your tongue subconsciously), but it’s not required.
- Record yourself.
- Compare your recording to the original, and try to spot parts where you don’t sound exactly the same. Once you think it sounds the same…
- Have a native friend or teacher listen. They will almost certainly find a mistake where you are saying something a little bit off. Take note of this and practice it correctly. This part, where you get pointed out the little mistakes, will help tune your ear to Spanish and is what really helps with comprehension.
- Re-record and repeat until the native speaker says it’s correct.
- Say the sentence 50+ times to drill it in.
- Repeat with a few other sentences.
This probably sounds like a lot of work (and it can be), but it saves you time in the long run, and makes things WAY less frustrating in the short-run.
If you follow the principles I’ve laid out here – the same ones I followed when I learned Spanish in a month – you’ll be successful.
To get to a B1 conversational level, expect it to take roughly 150 hours.
That’s how much I studied in my one month, but if you do the same amount over 3 or 6 months (make sure you’re doing at least 30 minutes every day) following these methods, you’ll get the same result.
[NOTE: Donovan here. While I think Connor’s work is fantastic, his progress is inspiring for new learners (especially of Spanish) and the advice here is excellent overall, I have to add the disclaimer that I don’t personally endorse the idea that an actual B1 level can be reached in just one month or 150 hours.]