You have been studying Spanish for years and you might think you have a pretty good level: you understand most of what you read, you’re pretty familiar with the grammar, and you can conjugate most verbs without too much trouble (you may still slip with ser and estar from time to time, but who doesn’t?).
The problem is that you feel stuck. You know your Spanish isn’t perfect, but you don’t see a clear path to continue improving. You could start re-reading your grammar books, but who’s got time to do that? On the other hand, you worry that if you stop practicing you’ll lose your current level of fluency.
What’s the solution?
In this article, I want to give you a 3-step process to go take your Spanish to the next level: from intermediate to advanced or from advanced to bilingual. To avoid crossing the 6000-word barrier, I’ve decided to break them up into three individual posts:
Let’s start by talking about mistakes and why you should be making more of them.
Shouldn’t I be trying to make fewer mistakes?
It might seem counterintuitive, but the reason your Spanish is not as good as you’d like is because you’re not making enough mistakes.
The blue circles represent the parts of Spanish that you’ve already mastered.
The red circles represent your persistent mistakes (we’ll cover those in part 3).
The black circles represent your Spanish Dark Matter: they consist of your blind spots (the mistakes you don’t recognize as mistakes) as well as the parts of Spanish that you don’t even know exist. This includes vocabulary you’ve never heard of, unfamiliar sentence structures, and pronunciation subtleties that currently escape you (if you never realized that Spanish has approximant sounds, you can blame one of the big black circles).
There is nothing especially hard about turning dark matter into blue circles (unless it’s made of blind spots, which we’ll talk about in part 2): the only thing you have to do is make mistakes that you’ve never made before.
How to get good at making new mistakes
At the start of your Spanish journey, you had beginner’s mind: you were always surrounded by black circles, and that was okay. As you learned, your stockpile of blue circles got bigger and, at some point, you came to the conclusion that being pretty good felt great and you didn’t want to give that up.
After that, anytime you came across an unfamiliar word, you tried to avoid it (maybe subconsciously), and you focused on the blue circles instead. Eventually, you got so good at jumping over black circles that you stopped making new mistakes; you only repeated the old ones.
It’s harder to fall into this trap if you live in a Spanish-speaking country because natives will drag you kicking and screaming to whatever black circle the situation requires. However, if your main method for learning is consuming Spanish through newspapers and podcasts, you’re completely vulnerable to the Old Mistakes epidemic that keeps sweeping Spanish classrooms everywhere.
The best way to make new mistakes is by writing and speaking in Spanish.
Take stock of this past month. How much Spanish did you consume and how much did you produce? If your ratio is 10-to-1 (or 100-to-1), you’re actively slowing down your learning rate. If you have a busy life, and you struggle making time for Spanish, that’s not a luxury you can afford. The less Spanish you produce, the slower you’ll learn.
The solution is to do something you might not have done in a while: writing and speaking Spanish every day.
Your fear of looking bad is sabotaging your Spanish
—Oiga, agente, mmh… ¡Este tipo me está impidiendo hablar español!
“(Listen / Excuse me), (agent / policeman) (muffles…). This guy is preventing me… from speaking Spanish!”
—¿Me está tomando el pelo?
“(Are you grabbing my hair? / Do you take me for a fool?)”
—Dígale algo, que no me deja, mmh… decir una palabra.
“Tell him something, (since) he doesn’t let me (muffles…) say a word.”
—¡Pero si es usted el que se está tapando la boca con la mano!
“(But realize that) it’s you the one who is covering (the / his) mouth with (the / his) hand!”
That’s you during these past six months.
You stopped producing Spanish because you don’t enjoy making mistakes. Maybe you’re afraid other people will think less of you, maybe you associate making mistakes with failing at life, or maybe you have a perfectionist drive that censors anything that doesn’t meet your unrealistic standards of quality (my people).
Regardless of the reason, the antidote is the same:
Mistakes are part of the scenery. Notice them, and move on.
Language makes it really easy to overidentify with mistakes by letting us say things like “I make so many mistakes” or “These are all my mistakes”, but neither statement is true.
A mistake is just a mismatch between what an English speaker is trained to produce and what a Spanish speaker is trained to consume. It’s a subconscious part of your brain communicating with a subconscious part of a native’s brain. Nothing inherently wrong is being produced, and you’re not even the one doing it, so stop feeling guilty and get curious: what the hell are these native brains complaining about?
We’ll go deeper on that note in part 2—Your Language Problem Is Just a Noticing Problem—, but meanwhile you should focus on the only thing you have control over: producing as much Spanish content as you can.
Become a prolific writer and speaker of Spanish
Quality is the end-result of a long process with many iterations, so don’t worry about that for now. All I want you to do is focus on the quantity: the more you write, the more new mistakes you’ll make. That’s your real goal. You can still binge on Spanish podcasts and newspapers, but only after you’ve met your Daily Production Quota:
- 100 words of written Spanish.
- 60 seconds of recorded Spanish.
If those numbers seem too low, feel free to double them. If they seem too low but they’re still larger that the amount of Spanish you’ve produced during this past week, don’t change them until you meet them for 30 days straight. Doing 1000 words today and 0 tomorrow is counterproductive; the goal is developing the daily habit.
This is what writing 100 words in Spanish looks like:
Hoy tengo que ir a hacer la compra. La iba a hacer ayer, pero como me olvidé, me toca ir hoy. En cuanto termine de escribir esto, bajo. Espero que la pastelería de la esquina esté abierta, porque así me puedo comprar una palmera de chocolate y me la voy comiendo por el camino. Aunque, ahora que lo pienso, hoy es domingo, así que es bastante probable que esté cerrada. Otra opción es que me compre una caja de galletas en el supermercado y me la vaya comiendo de vuelta a casa. ¡Qué idea más brillante! La verdad es que soy un genio.
“I have to buy groceries today. I was going to go yesterday, but since I forgot, it’s my turn to go today. As soon as I finish writing this, I come down. I hope that the bakery in the corner is open, because that way I can buy a chocolate palmier and I start eating it on the way. Although, now that I think about it, today is Sunday, so it’s pretty likely that it will be closed. Another option is to buy myself a box of cookies in the supermarket and to go eating it on the way back home. What a brilliant idea! The truth is that I’m a genius.”
Write the way you want to speak. This is a perfect opportunity to repurpose all of the Spanish that you’ve been consuming: What was that thing that guy said the other day? How do I tell someone to just “quit it”? Is this the right context to use the expression hasta las narices?
Since it’s only 100 words, you can afford to go slow and spend the extra time looking up new words and phrases. When you’re done with the first draft, paste it into Microsoft Word or Google Docs, set the language to Spanish, and spell check it.
You might think this is cheating, but it’s not. The goal is to make as many new mistakes as you can, not to hand in our best attempt to a teacher with a fetish for red ink. If Clippy can help you identify mistakes, let him help: you get instant feedback, and you make it much easier for a native to correct what you wrote. We’ll talk about this more in part 2, but it’s a good idea to keep a list with the mistakes you make each day (even the typos). Tracking how many mistakes you make each day is a good metric to ensure you’re on the right track.
Do this exercise every day for a month and a huge chunk of your Spanish Dark Matter will vanish.
Speaking to a native is fine, but recording yourself has additional benefits. If your introversion tends to get the better of you when you try to speak Spanish, this is the exercise for you. It’s just you and your voice-recording app. You can throw all of the social anxiety out the window and focus on what you want to say (instead of on what the other person might be thinking).
The main advantage of recording yourself (even if you don’t have any problems speaking Spanish in public) is that you will get better feedback. When you send the audio to one of your native friends, they’ll be able to listen to what you said multiple times and pinpoint the specific problem that you stumbled on. Likewise, you’ll be able to listen back to yourself and notice the mistake on your own.
—En esta frase, cuando dices «la primera vez que te conocí», te comes la te
“In this sentence, when you say ‘the first time I met you,’ you’re (eating / skipping) the ‘te‘”
—¿En serio? Pues no me había dado cuenta.
“(In / are you) serious? (The thing is) I hadn’t (given myself count / noticed).”
If improvising for 60 seconds doesn’t sound like a huge challenge to you, try reading aloud an editorial from a Spanish newspaper. Reading what somebody else wrote is the speaking equivalent of altitude training. You have to spend additional mental energy staying a few words ahead of what you’re reading, figuring out the pronunciation of unfamiliar words on the spot, and determining the right intonation for each sentence based on the others around it.
If you fall in love with this exercise, you’ll have no trouble sounding fluid in everyday conversations.
If you feel like your Spanish is on autopilot, you’ve stopped making new mistakes. This is probably because you’ve gotten so good at Spanish that going back to beginner’s mind feels icky and unnecessarily painful. This is your Resistance talking.
Your Spanish will only be as good as your willingness to make mistakes.
If you want to take back the controls of your Spanish plane, start making mistakes like a pro. Prioritize your production over your consumption and commit to writing 100 words and recording 60 seconds in Spanish every day.
In the next part of this series, we’ll talk about what to do with all the new mistakes that you’re finding. For now, just write down them down in your notebook, notice which ones keep repeating, and focus on collecting as many new ones as you can.
Start today. Let me know how it goes in the comments.