I recently came across this question on the Learn Spanish reddit page.
How do you keep improving your Spanish once you have reached a high level?
I have a pretty good grasp on the language, but I feel that I still have some improving to do. For those of you who have a high level of Spanish, what do you do to keep improving and learning?
In other words, how do I get out of Intermediate Purgatory?
At the beginning of your Spanish journey, anything you do, from flipping through grammar books to translating rap lyrics, will lead to a pretty decent increase in your language abilities.
Eventually, however, you might start feeling frustrated: the vocabulary you study doesn’t stick, mastering the conjugations feels overwhelming, you keep getting ser and estar mixed up.
You may even consider quitting Spanish altogether.
—No sé, tío. Al principio me lo pasaba genial, pero ya llevo una temporada bastante quemado.
“I don’t know, man. At the beginning I (enjoyed myself) genially, but I already carry a season (where I feel) pretty burnt (out).”
—Te entiendo. A mí me pasó lo mismo con el francés, pero tienes que centrarte en el viaje.
“I understand you. To me it (happened) the same with the French (language), but you have to focus yourself (on) the journey.”
It’s always today
That’s a pretty deep claim: it is always today.
Let it sink in for a moment.
Every single day, you’re making a choice. You’re deciding between the low-intensity path and the deliberate path. This decision can be conscious or unconscious, but you make it every day, and it’s the biggest predictor of your future ability to speak Spanish.
Low-intensity practice is the iceberg lettuce of language learning–it may look like it’s good for you, but it’s not all that nutritious. Think of the fill-in-the-blank exercises your high school teacher loved to assign, the 500-flashcard deck that you created once but never reviewed again, or the language-learning app you initially loved but haven’t opened in months. These low-intensity activities can be useful when you’re just starting out (or when you’re tired), but at some point they stop being a good use of your time because they require more effort than the increase in skill you get in return.
Deliberate practice is just the opposite. It’s challenging, intense and outrageously effective. It makes your brain feel like it’s about to explode, but it’s also fun, addictive, and incredibly rewarding. Do it enough times, and every one of your ingrained mistakes will get rewired into its correct neural pathway. It’s the fastest way to Bilingual Heaven.
—Como me siga concentrando, me va a salir humo por las orejas.
“(If) I (continue) concentrating myself, smoke is going to come out of (my) ears.”
—¡Pero si en la última media hora te has visto tres vídeos en YouTube y no has parado de enviar wasaps!
“But (don’t you realize that) in the last half hour you watched (yourself) three YouTube videos and you haven’t stopped (sending) WhatsApp messages?!”
—A ver, concentrado estoy. Lo que pasa es que los demás no dejan de interrumpirme.
“(Don’t get me wrong), concentrated (indeed) I am. What happens is that the others (the people) (won’t stop interrupting me).”
Making time for deliberate practice is the only way out of Intermediate Purgatory
Your ability to close the gap between “Hablas muy bien 🙂” (You speak very well) and “Hablas mejor que yo, joder” (Damn, you speak better than me), depends on a single metric: the amount of time you spend in deliberate-practice mode.
There is an upper limit on the number of hours you can spend being completely focused before your brain begins to melts out of your ears, but even 20 minutes of deliberate practice a day will have a much larger effect than 2 hours of low-intensity practice on an inconsistent schedule.
If you think that you don’t have time for deliberate practice, you’re totally right.
Unless you often find yourself staring into the nothingness, your daily 24 hours are currently being taken up by something. It’s up to you to decide which of these somethings matter less than getting out of Intermediate Purgatory.
The most effective way to find out what your current commitments are is to start an honest relationship with your calendar. Instead of simply scheduling your upcoming events and appointments, schedule everything you actually do: wake up, check email, have breakfast, commute, work, have lunch, browse Twitter, run errand, commute back home, pick up kids from school, have dinner, watch Netflix, browse Facebook, sleep. Which of these things is totally aligned with your life goals?
Once you lay out your commitments in plain view, it’s much easier to evaluate them objectively, and to decide if any of them are less important than becoming a Spanish superstar. If you manage to find something you can stop doing every day of the week, you now have enough time for daily deliberate practice.
Acabo de ver mi calendario y creo que voy a tener que renunciar a Juego de Tronos.
“I just looked at my calendar and I think that I’m going to have to give up Game of Thrones.”
No te quejes, que yo me he quedado sin MasterChef y sin Granjero busca esposa. Todo sea por los idiomas.
“Don’t complain (yourself), (since) I have (remained) without MasterChef and without Farmer Wants a Wife. (May this language thing be worth it in the end).”
I didn’t want to spend the whole post pitching deliberate practice without giving you an easy way to get started. There are many excellent exercises you can do, depending on the areas that you’d like to improve on, but since most people are interested in speaking better and understanding more, I strongly recommend starting with deliberate looping.
During a live conversation, you can’t pause and rewind the person you’re speaking with, so your brain deals with the avalanche of information by ignoring most of it. You probably won’t retain enough on the first pass to significantly increase your listening or your speaking abilities. If you’re a total beginner, the first few conversations you have with native speakers will feel like a challenge, but after a few of them, you will inevitably enter low-intensity territory: you’ll be mostly using words that you’re comfortable with and you’ll be getting very little feedback in return.
Deliberate looping is like a live conversation on steroids.
Every minute you spend doing it, you’re expanding your comfort zone, and you get immediate feedback after every attempt.
This is how it works:
- Listen to a sentence pronounced by a native speaker.
- Try your best at imitating every sound that you hear.
- Listen again, and notice any differences between what you think heard and what you said.
- Keep readjusting and replaying the sentence until you run out of differences.
Give it a try:
La verdad es que la primera vez que te conocí me caíste fatal, pero reconozco que eres una buena persona.
The truth is that the first time I met you (I thought you were the worst), but (now) I admit that you are a nice person.
If that feels too easy, try it at normal speed.
The key to deliberate looping is the listen-notice-attempt loop. If you listen to the audio 20 times in a row, but you don’t attempt to repeat it after each loop, you’ll be missing out on a lot of the noticing. It’s just like drawing: you think you know what a horse looks like until somebody asks you to draw one from memory.
See if you can notice these subtleties:
- the /b/ sound in verdad and buena is preceded by a vowel, so it’s an approximant /b/.
primera doesn’t have a candle-blowing /p/ sound.
pero has a soft /r/ but reconozco has a rolling /r/.
Deliberate looping bonus tips
For each difficult fragment, alternate through these three modes:
- Just listening to the native version.
- Listening and repeating at the same time.
- First, Listening. Pausing. Then, repeating.
Don’t try to repeat the whole sentence from beginning to end. Start with la verdad es que, la verdad es que, la verdad es que, then move on to la primera vez, la primera vez, la primera vez.
If you notice that a specific combination of sounds is giving you trouble, you can short-circuit your brain by starting or ending at unexpected syllables. For example, let’s say you’re struggling with the te in que te conocí. You should try repeating: que te conocí, vez que te co, mera vez que te cono. In theory, every fragment should be equally challenging (since they all contain the sound that’s tripping you up), but for some reason, your brain will find some combinations to be much easier than others.
Repeat each fragment as many times as you need. Unless you repeat each new combination of sounds 10, 20 or 30 times, it won’t stick. The goal is not memorizing the words; the goal is retraining your tongue until the right sounds become automatic. That way, when you’re having a live conversation, you’ll be able to rely on muscle memory, and you’ll have greater mental capacity to focus on what you want to say.
Trick yourself by turning frustration into excitement. Your default might be to clench your fists and punch the table every time you make a mistake, but that means you will get more frustrated every time you make a mistake. You need to make lots of mistakes to improve. Instead, you want to build a possitive association to making mistakes. When you catch yourself tensing up, take a moment, breathe, laugh, relax, and keep going.
Do this exercise for 20 minutes every day, for seven days straight, and you’ll start having these conversations with natives:
Joder. ¡Hablas mejor que yo!
“Damn, you speak better than me!”
—Es que hago un ejercicio que saqué de NachoTime. Luego te paso el enlace.
“(The thing is that) I do an exercise that I got out of NachoTime. Later I pass you the link.”
To get out of Spanish Intermediate Purgatory (or to go from Newbie Land to Bilingual Heaven as fast as possible), you need to make a daily commitment to engage in deliberate practice.
Before you can make this commitment, you have to allocate time for it in your calendar. Be explicit about the things you value, the goals you set, and how you spend your time; then, do what you need to ensure that all three are aligned. If you don’t have time for Spanish, it’s because you didn’t make it. (Bonus tip: this applies to everything else in your life.)
A couple of deliberate looping sessions a day is a great way to turbo-charge your listening comprehension and speaking skills. You know you did a good job if you feel at the end of your session like you completed a tiring but satisfying workout. Take a nap or engage in as much guilt-free low-intensity practice as you want. You can even go watch Peppa Pig.