This is part two of an epic three-part series on taking your Spanish to the next level. This article will make much more sense if you read part one first—You’re 10,000 mistakes away from fluency—where we discussed the largest roadblock slowing down your Spanish progress: your dislike of making mistakes, especially new ones.
We saw that the antidote was committing to a daily writing and speaking output. The recommended daily dose is at least 100 written words and 60 seconds of recorded audio.
Once you get into the habit of producing Spanish (as opposed to just consuming it), your mistake-making rates will start going through the roof—which is exactly what we want. The goal then becomes catching as many mistakes as possible.
In this article, we’ll cover a few techniques to get better at noticing mistakes and we’ll see how to turn them into memorable insights.
Your daily Spanish production sessions should yield around 1 mistake for every 10 words. If you’re getting a lower rate, you need to get out of your comfort zone and start using words and expression you’re not familiar with. If this is you, try changing the focus of your goal, from number of words produced to number of mistakes noticed:
Make 10 new mistakes every day.
Without making enough mistakes, there won’t be enough interesting things for you to learn, and you’ll go back to stale Spanish mode. And who wants that?
“But how do I know if I’ve made a mistake?!”, I hear you wonder. There are two main ways of supplementing your ability to catch mistakes: reference hunting and relying on natives.
Imagine that this was one of the sentences you wrote during your Spanish-producing session yesterday:
Soy loco por saber qué canciones van a tocar el concierto de mañana.
I’m crazy to find out which songs they’re going to play at the concert tomorrow.
There are two mistakes hiding there.
Let’s say that right after writing it, you remember reading somewhere that loco is a state of mind in Spanish (not an inherent characteristic), so you change it to estoy loco.
One mistake down. How do you notice the other one?
If it’s a blind spot and you have absolutely no idea what could be wrong, you’ll have to find a native willing to point it out. Sometimes, you’ll have the feeling that something is not right, but you won’t quite be able to put your finger on it. That’s when you need to go hunting for reference sentences.
For example, if you googled
canciones concierto mañana, you’d get this:
See it yet? If not, at least you’re one step closer. If you keep at it for a while, you might notice a two-letter word sticking its head out from behind el concierto:
“That’s so obvious, how could I have missed that?”
This feeling of indignation leads to an increase in the number of neurons that are looking out for that pattern. Next time they come across it, they’ll start firing like crazy: IT SHOULD BE “EN EL” OVER HERE. Do that enough times, with enough bits of Spanish, and your blind spots will have nowhere to hide.
Reference hunting only works if you slow down enough to focus on the details. If you rush when you read, you’ll leave all those aha moments on the table. The same thing happens when you’re listening: if you only play it once, you won’t be able to pick up all the differences between what you’re hearing and what you’re saying.
Relying on natives
Sites like lang-8 and apps like HelloTalk make it super easy to get a bunch of corrections from online natives from the comfort of your home (and your pajamas). The instructions are simple: create an account, write at least 100 words a day (lang-8), record yourself for at least 60 seconds a day (HelloTalk), and be a good citizen by correcting other people that are learning English. Eventually, you’ll have more natives willing to help you than you’ll know what to do with.
Interacting with natives live is a bit different. The best piece of advice I can give you is to avoid The Rookie Mistake:
—Ayer no podía concentrar.
“Yesterday I couldn’t concentrate.”
—No me podía.
“I couldn’t concentrate (myself).”
—Eso. Pero hoy estoy mucho mejor.
“Right. But today I’m much better.”
The problem isn’t podía, it’s the implied meaning of eso:
“Right. (Thanks for trying to help me with one of my blind spots, but I find your correction a bit annoying so I think I’m going to ignore it. Maybe when I’m done telling my story I’ll actually care about what you said. Now, where was I?)
You can avoid this honest mistake by trying to internalize the correction. You’ll be less likely to stumble on it in the future, and it will make the other person feel like you actually value their feedback:
—Ah, ¡es verdad! No me podía concentrar. Ayer no me podía concentrar, pero hoy estoy mucho mejor. No me podía concentrar. Me lo apunto.
“Ah, (it’s true / you’re right)! Yesterday I couldn’t concentrate (myself), but today I’m much better. I couldn’t concentrate myself. (I / let me) write it down.
Noticed mistakes are so valuable that we’re going to dedicate a whole section to seeing how we can turn them into insights.
Growing your mistake garden
By now, I hope to have convinced you that your ability to learn Spanish is limited by the amount of Spanish you produce every day. Once you get into a healthy writing and speaking habit, you’ll start accumulating mistakes like a pro, and you’ll be able to focus on the next bottleneck: what to do with all those mistakes.
A recently noticed mistake is like a seed. If you take good care of it, it can grow into a beautiful native-Spanish neural connection. Thankfully, most mistakes are not that hard to nurture. We’ll save the tricky ones for part three, but for now you only need to do three things:
- Write them down
- Give them space
- Review them often enough
Planting the seeds
When you notice a mistake, the best thing you can do is to write it down. Putting pen to paper will force you to slow down and focus on things that you tend to overlook, such as differences in spelling, pesky pronouns, and unfamiliar word order.
Don’t get better at Spanish—get better at noticing; the Spanish skills will follow.
Your brain doesn’t have the room to store every subtle mistake that you make, but your notebook does. Having a place to nurture them is the first step towards fixing them.
There is no judging at this stage. Just collecting. You’re not telling your brain what it should have done; you’re just pointing out things that are worth paying attention to.
Giving them space to grow
One of the reasons you might be reluctant to write down your mistakes is that you remember seeing something like this when you were in high school:
Passive aggressive comments aside, the main problem in this type of correction is the lack of space. It’s just a crowded heap of obnoxiously red seeds. Who wants to plant those?
With space comes clarity:
This format makes it easy to see how many mistakes you noticed each day and it gives each one the importance it deserves. Taking the time to write a mistake down and giving it a piece of your notebook is often all you need to solidify the correction in your mind.
Reviewing them often enough
Growing your mistake garden in a paper notebook means that you don’t have to set aside time to review what you wrote because reviewing is built-in by default.
Since you can’t search, you’ll have to browse through the pages to find what you’re looking for. With time, this will help you build a mental map of what your garden looks like: every time you repeat a mistake, you’ll get a mental flashback of the page where you wrote it down, which will make the aha moment much more vivid and memorable.
Another advantage of physical objects is that they are harder to ignore than digital ones. Yes, you could stop watching the current YouTube video, switch to the note-taking app, create a new note and type it, but your notebook is sitting right there. Opened to the last page. With the pen lying on top. Looking at you.
Of course, pulling out your phone will sometimes be more convenient, but I recommend treating the cloud as your notebook’s temporary holding area, and transferring it to a physical medium before you run out of battery.
—Llevo tres horas pasando las páginas de mi jardín, pero no la encuentro.
“I (carry / have spent) three hours passing the pages of my garden, but I (don’t / can’t) find it.”
—¡Tres horas! ¿Y qué buscas?
“Three hours! And what (do you search / are you looking for)?”
—Esa frase que me dijo aquel tipo el otro día.
“That sentence (that) that guy said to me the other day.”
—Eres más raro que un perro verde.
“(You’re weirder than a green dog / you’re such a weirdo).”
“That is (the one)!”
If you want to achieve fluency, you need to get better at noticing. I recommend a triple filter: slowing down enough to catch the most obvious mistakes, finding reference sentences to double-check your intuitions, and relying on natives to point out your blind spots.
Nurture the mistakes that you notice and many of them will turn into insights: write them down on paper, give them space to grow, and review them with the low-intensity zeal of a comic collector.
Next Monday, we’ll finish this series by looking at ways of dealing with mistakes that just won’t go away. Meanwhile, let me know in the comments if you’ve ever tried a strategy like this, and how it went.