How I Hack Spanish Language Learning (And Other Things)

I recently reignited my passion for language learning with a desire to take Spanish to the next level. I used to be comfortable having a basic conversation in Spanish, but realized recently as it was coming back to me that there are “little hacks” that can take me from intermediate and able to have a basic conversation to fluent. My loose definition of fluent is the ability to converse comfortably across a spectrum of topics, dialects and speeds.
Hack Learning
Before I even get into the way I “hack” Spanish, it’s important to start with a strategy of how to memorize and ultimately a discussion on learning.
First of all, let’s think of flashcards. Why do we use them? Because repetition works. Our brains are hard wired for repetitive motions, formulas, key strokes, facts that combine into a conclusion…you name it. Its one reason why athletes train in specific “reps.” I found that this time around, learning Spanish has been easier as if it has percolated in my brain a while and now it is just a matter of recalling the already learned knowledge.
The below is the memory decay bell curve. Anki Spaced Repetition Software uses the methodology below to capitalize on the ideal duration of time to recall learned knowledge. If you learn something today, you might remember it tomorrow. If you don’t recall the fact again, you might forget it in two or three days. If you review it before you forget it, it’ll “stick around” in your head a bit longer than the first time interval.
A perfect example of this in action is my husband. He often shares news or other insightful stories that he read or heard about during dinner. The act of sharing these stories often is repeated a second or third time to other friends or family over the course of a few days or a week. Those same stories then become easily recalled in real life application, during business calls, etc. This is the epitome of a mother asking her child, “tell me what you learned today at school.”
Learning How to Learn
I’ve never been good at standardized test taking. I over analyze problems and tend to want to create new unique solutions rather than answer the question with what I view the professor thinks is the right answer. It’s a mix of being head-strong, creative drive and comfort level working in uncertainty (I digress). However, there’s a reason why students that take prep courses perform higher on college entrance exams and why knowing your audience is equally as important as the subject matter. To illustrate this, I recently heard about a student that performed exceptionally well on blue book essay exams in college by utilizing an audience-driven strategy. She figured out that her professor only skims the essays for keywords when grading the papers. So, she began underlining the most important words in every exam and noticed that her grade went up, too. Lesson learned? Know how to hack your audience.
When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning
For the efficient student, getting an A on a test is as simple as cramming memorized facts in 15 minutes before and then forgetting them 15 minutes after. This is NOT learning. What separates memorization from learning is a sense of meaning bound by the ability to web logic from arbitrary facts (that are memorized).
Like the Anki repetitive system above or the rote learning method, there’s a pattern of reminders that instill ultimate knowledge of subject matter rather than pure memorization. In math, I think of it as the ability to recall and apply an equation to a real life problem naturally without a cheat sheet. The solution to learning rather than memorizing is at the threshold of the forgetting curve above whereby a piece of information has been repeated enough times that it become common knowledge. Likewise, the repeated information is then able to be “chunked” into associations or threads in order to understand something. The connections emerge naturally because the facts have been chiseled into memory.
Getting over the Intermediate Language Level Plateau
I recently have been thinking lately that I’ve been stuck in an intermediate level of Spanish for a long time. My language practice has been static and if I’m honest, the biggest gains I made were when I was in Peru and forced to communicate every day with people who spoke zero English. I argue that the majority of language learners who spend 2+ years studying a foreign language are stuck in a sort of limbo or complacent plateau. They’ve memorized thousands of words, but can either only marginally apply them in everyday practice or do not know the nuances of the language in order to converse with ease. By the way, it is estimated that fluency in a language equates to a vocabulary of an estimated 10,000 words.
According to Joshua Foer, “when you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Studies have found that the number of years one has been doing something correlates only weakly with level of performance.” [emphasis added]
My Hacks to Take it to the Next Level
The biggest way to overcome a learning plateau is by mixing up the routine and engaging in deliberate practice. Studies have shown that top achievers consciously keep out of a plateau by focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. Athletes are a perfect example. Variety is KEY (check out Conor McGregor’s secret sauce).
Ouch, sound familiar?
Memorizing Common and Idiomatic Phrases
  1. Frees up my brain capacity to formulate the structure of the sentence rather than stumbling to translate phrases that don’t make sense between languages.
  2. Allows me to transition quickly between topics
  3. Keep up with conversation rather than thinking of the translation to each word.
  4. Repeat usage of phrases until it’s second nature (i.e. I don’t even think about it).
Reading and Listening in Spanish
  1. I switched my Google News settings to Spanish
  2. I make a concerted effort to read outloud in Spanish a few times a week. I even took video of myself speaking in Spanish. When you watch yourself, you quickly see all of the faults!
  3. I subscribed to news podcasts in Spanish that I listen to on my daily commute
Conversing in Spanish with a Native Speaker
  1. It may seem intimidating to converse with a native speaker, but the only way to improve is to put yourself out there.
  2. I converse with and imitate a native speaker’s  dialect once a week
Monitoring Progress and Holding Myself Accountable
  1. I use the Anki system of flashcards to record how many new words I learn each week. This allows me to go back to review them and also note my progress. Roughly a vocabulary of 3,000 words is necessary to reach basic conversational fluency which composes approximately 95% of common conversations. The remaining 5% can be up to or beyond 40,000 words (wowza).
Want to learn more? Here are three articles on learning hacks to keep the discussion going: