Select Page

This is the final article in an epic three-part series designed to help you take your Spanish to the next level.

In Part 1: You’re 10,000 mistakes away from fluency, we saw that making more mistakes is actually a good thing, because it means you’re spending a lot of time outside your comfort zone producing Spanish (as opposed to just consuming it).

In Part 2: Your Language Problem Is Just a Noticing Problem, we saw that keeping a mistake notebook and relying on native speakers are two great ways to get better at noticing your blind spots.

In this last part, we’re going to talk about persistent mistakes, the kind that refuse to go away, the kind that make you want to slap your forehead, the kind that you make five seconds after someone just pointed them out.

It’s like your brain refuses to acknowledge them as mistakes, so you can’t even catch yourself making them.

But before we get into that, let’s start with a memory challenge.

Repeat after me

Put on your headphones and hit play.

Now, repeat what you just heard.

(Seriously. If you don’t repeat it out loud, this article won’t make a lot of sense.)

Okay, I’m going to assume you repeated it and that it wasn’t that hard. Now let’s try the same sentence, but in Spanish:

Now, repeat what you just heard.

You won’t always have a native speaker pronouncing things in your ear, so let’s try the same thing in writing:

Siento haber llegado tarde, pero te prometo que la próxima vez empiezo a prepararme antes.

Now, look away, and repeat it from memory.


The point of this challenge is to give you a glimpse into an interesting structure inside your brain: your language scaffold.

Your English scaffold is so strong that hearing a sentence a single time is all you need to recall it with perfect accuracy.

Your Spanish scaffold is probably not as sophisticated. It might be strong in some areas, but weak in others. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find out which ones you’ve already mastered and which ones need reinforcing:

If you cannot remember something five seconds after you read it, you need a stronger scaffold.

Let’s take the sentence from the previous challenge and build a better scaffold around it.

The Scaffold Technique

Take the first part, and read it aloud:

Siento haber llegado tarde, pero te prometo que…

Now, look away, and repeat it from memory (aloud).

Read and repeat as many times as necessary, until you know every word by heart.

Don’t stress over nailing the pronunciation. Don’t worry about saying it at maximum speed. Just focus on recalling the words.

Once you can remember the first part, move on to the next one:

…la próxima vez empiezo a prepararme antes.

Look away. Repeat.

When you have the second part down, repeat the whole sentence in one go.

You’ll notice that the main difficulty is not in remembering, but in fighting the instinct to add extra words (te lo prometo), or to omit important ones (empiezo { } prepararme).

Every time you resist the permanent mistake instinct, you’re making your scaffold stronger.

Simply reading a sentence on a page is not enough. Listening to somebody else saying it out loud is not enough. To really remember it, you need to go inside your head and pull the sentence out word for word.

The persistent effort is what sends the signal to your brain that this is something worth paying attention to.

This is where the magic happens

Your brain is wired to remember stories, not isolated facts.

When you use the scaffold technique to commit a sentence to memory, you’re storing a lot of interlocking details at the same time: the meaning of the story, the muscle movements in your mouth, the intonation of the sentence, the spelling of each word, even the room you’re in.

That means that if you see one of the words (Siento), your memory will fill in the rest automatically (… haber llegado tarde, pero te prometo que la próxima vez empiezo a prepararme antes). This automatic trigger is what reduces your chances of, for example, adding a lo before siento haber {infinitivo}.

Next time something triggers this memory (should I put an a after empezar?), you’ll be less likely to fall for the mistake.

Scaffolds on demand

The beauty of this technique is that you can build a scaffold for whatever mistake you want to get rid of.

For example, let’s build a scaffold to stop confusing quedarse and quedar. Browsing your textbook, you might find a couple of sentences like these:

Nos hemos quedado sin gasolina.
We’ve run out of gas

Hemos quedado a las ocho.
We’re meeting at eight.

They’re not super interesting sentences, but they contain the structures we’re interested in: quedarse refers to the aftermath of an event (we were driving, and this is what happened); without the pronoun, quedar means to meet up with someone.

Remembering two random facts is harder than remembering one connected story, so we can combine them along with a few extra details:

Habíamos quedado con ellos a las ocho, pero nos quedamos sin gasolina en mitad de la autopista.
We were meeting with them at eight, but we ran out of gas in the middle of the highway.

Seventeen words are enough to force your brain to slow down and take this challenge seriously.

Try to memorize it right now: look away, repeat.

As you go through the recall process, you can glance at the words to get instant feedback (to make sure you didn’t add or omit any words).

When the scaffold gets strong enough, thinking about saying ¿nos quedamos a las ocho? will instantly remind you of nos quedamos sin gasolina, and you’ll realize that the pronoun is not needed in that case.

Permanent scaffolds

This technique only works when your scaffolds are more permanent than your mistakes. The secret to never forget a scaffold once you learn it is repeated exposure. You can achieve this by regularly quizzing yourself using the first-letter method (where each letter reminds you of a word in the scaffold sentence):

S H L T, P T P Q L P V E A P A.

H Q C E A L O, P N Q S G E M D L A.

I like to jot these down next to relevant mistakes in my notebook and use the other side of the page to write out the scaffold sentence. If you’re a fan of flashcards or spaced-repetition software, feel free to use those.

Takeaways

Permanent mistakes like to lodge themselves in the weakest parts of your Spanish scaffold. If you want to get rid of them, make the scaffold stronger.

You can identify the spots that need reinforcing by trying to commit full sentences to memory. You know the scaffold is good enough when the sentence is no longer hard to remember.

By recalling sentences out loud, you force your brain to roll up its sleeves and fully engage with the challenge. It’s at these times when you have the highest chance of fixing permanent mistakes.

Connecting isolated words into a one-sentence story makes them easier to remember and you get the grammar for free.

To make scaffold sentences permanent, review them every day for a week (you can use the first-letter method when you need a subtle reminder).

Scaffold sentences are just like song lyrics: if you play them enough times, you’ll remember them for years.


This series has given you a process to take your Spanish to the next level: write and speak every day, pay attention to your mistakes, and focus on your weak spots.

The only thing left is putting in the work.

I hope you have fun doing it.

Let me know how it goes in the comments.

Send me NachoTime Spanish to my inbox
Subscribe

Get out of Intermediate Purgatory

Want to become fluent in Spanish? Sign up below to get 3 of my most useful articles on: sounding native, using "ya" correctly, and mastering the verbs of change.

Awesome! (Check your email to confirm)