How to Learn Spanish (A Framework For Future Spanish Learners)

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Rick Carabba
Want to learn Spanish? Follow this framework from my case study to flatten your learning curve : )
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Oct 16, 2020
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So you’ve decided you want to learn Spanish.

Not like in high school where you took language classes as a requirement, passed the courses, but didn’t retain anything after.

You want to actually learn; become fluent and speak to natives with confidence.

Maybe you’ve used Duolingo or another language learning platform but weren’t happy with your progress.

Maybe you don’t want to spend money on a University Spanish major that might take 4 years to achieve fluency.

I always wanted to learn a new language. After taking courses in high school, college, and eventually online with language learning software, I wasn't reaching my goal: to speak to natives with confidence.

I graduated college in December, 2019 and decided I was going to move to Argentina to learn Spanish on January 1st.

I sought out to find the best process for learning the most Spanish in the shortest amount of time.

What follows is the best results from ~6 months of trial and error in learning experiments and a framework for prospective Spanish learners to follow.

What I Got Completely Wrong About Learning Languages

“Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth” — Mike Tyson

I left NYC on January 1st with a plan carefully crafted hour by hour. The plan included learning and studying everyday coupled with different methods and new experiments I was going to try.

After about 1 week, I got punched in the mouth.

Things weren’t going as planned. I wasn’t learning as quickly as I thought.

On top of that I started feeling guilty if I didn’t do everything on my schedule, which led to avoidance and abandonment.

A few days later I had an epiphany moment during a 1v1 lesson with my teacher. I told her I was struggling and feeling unmotivated.

She asked me to show her my schedule of what I had been doing to learn Spanish. I showed her my schedule:

The handwriting of a scholar

Every hour of my day was scheduled to do some learning exercise or a lesson from one of the 19 apps I was experimenting.

She couldn’t help but laugh, she said it made sense why I was burning out and unmotivated. I was only focusing on 1 type of learning.

She explained that in her experience there’s 2 kinds of learning: scheduled, and “spongy”, I was only doing the first.

She told me to drop everything and just go out and have fun. To relax with no goals besides hanging out and talking with natives.

What happened that night changed the entire trajectory of my trip.

My Giant Epiphany

I always looked at things like watching Spanish movies or hanging out with native friends as “less than” and because it wasn’t “work” I thought it wouldn’t be as effective as the activities I had set up for myself. My learning framework had been 95% scheduled and 5% spongy.

That night I went to a conversation exchange (an event to meet/speak with natives) by myself at a local wine bar.

I was nervous but I went in and started introducing myself to people. After ~15 minutes I met the people who would become my best friends for the rest of the trip. We stayed out until 6am drinking wine and talked the entire night. It was a fuckin blast.

At the end of the night my brain was racing with Spanish dialogue, I had just logged 8 hours of talking in Spanish and that night I even dreamt in Spanish.

We hung out again the next two days, and just like that my whole perspective changed. I learned 10x more in those 3 days than I had learned in the entire 2 weeks I had been in Buenos Aires.

The 2 Types of Learning You Need to Master a Language (and Recommended Tools for Both)

Scheduled Learning

This is the type of learning that we’re most familiar with. It's usually a set time for consuming information and then an expectation to reproduce that information on your own by a certain time.

The main drivers in scheduled learning are:

  • Pressure of a deadline (with some negative consequence if deadline is missed)
  • Representation of self (usually in the form of a grade or score)
  • Validation of knowledge or accomplishment (a degree/certificate/award)
  • Pressure from peer outlook (social image)
  • Relation to a greater motivational goal or purpose
  • Sheer willpower

Common techniques like lectures, flashcards, note taking, or question and answer activities fall into this category.

It’s important for learning the schematics of the language on paper, understanding reasoning behind grammar, and passing grammar exams.

This type of learning should make up the minority of your learning. Emphasis should be placed on Spongy Learning.

The Top 3 Tools: Scheduled Learning

1. Private Lessons

You’re going to need a program and lessons to ground your learning and understand the grammar, though this isn’t the ~best~ way I found for learning, it’s a piece of the puzzle. I recommend that you get 1v1 lessons ($5-$10/hour in most South American countries). If you can't relocate I'd suggest using Baselang online. I used them during the second part of my learning project & they were PHENOMENAL. $149/month for unlimited 1v1 Spanish lessons online with natives?? Wow. Value overload.

The fixed courses with groups are created with the lowest common denominator in mind, since they need to make the course widely accessible to everyone it will move at a much slower pace.

You however, will be able to move much faster because your learning framework is going to be lights-out efficient.

When I first arrived in Argentina I built what I call a “One Sheet”. I distilled the most important grammar points on one piece of paper and carried it with me everywhere I went.

This guided my lessons with the instructors. It looked like this:

In the lessons you’ll cover all the conjugations, all the tenses, sentence structure, pronouns, the subjunctive mood, etc.

An effective time is 2-3 hours/weekday. Your teacher will have all the learning materials and exercises you’ll need to guide your structured grammar learning.

Don’t get too obsessed with memorizing and traditional studying, it will only stress you out. While hanging out with native speakers and consuming Spanish content you’ll start to naturally absorb the grammar.

2. Quizlet Learn Platform

Download Quizlet on your phone, everyday write down the words that you see/hear but don’t know in a flashcard set.

They have a built in translator so it will automatically suggest a translation for the reverse side in English.

At the end of the day (or the next morning) complete the set and name it “vocab [date]” and use the “Quizlet Learn” function to review the new words each day.

They use the most up-to-date cognitive learning techniques and "gamify" it for you. Make a new set for each day and review it once/day.

This will expand your vocabulary and stems from the idea that the 1000 most common spoken words of any language make up 80% of conversation. I recommend making your own and entering new words you hear everyday but I also found a Quizlet set already made with the 1000 most common words here.

3. Reading while Listening

This strategy is a 2 for 1 with learning. You read something while listening to the words. This trains your listening while improving reading comprehension.

I recommend downloading free audiobooks/ebooks on a kindle or e-reader and reading while the audio plays in your headphones.

Kindle has a translation and dictionary feature where you can highlight words while reading and it will give you the translation right away so you can keep your feedback loops tight. A good ebook/audio to start that’s free is called Easy Spanish Reader.

If you don’t have a kindle, Duolingo podcasts are free and you can read the transcript while listening to the podcast. Each podcast is a roughly 20 minute story designed for intermediate level learners — so the pace isn’t super fast.

Allocate 45–60 minutes to start because you’ll be looking up words and recording them in Quizlet while reading/listening but you’ll quickly improve with each iteration.

You don’t need to limit yourself to podcasts or e-books. Newspapers, articles, and stories you’ve already read in English are also great alternatives.

Spongy Learning

As the name suggests, this is more of an absorbed type of learning.

Someone that has grown up in a Spanish speaking household and always taken part in their family’s culture knows how to speak Spanish.

They can’t explain why they use the subjunctive or how to tell the difference between the past tenses, they just know.

Think of a sponge in a running sink. The sponge isn’t doing any work to absorb the water, it just does because of the environment it’s in.

You’re going to be the sponge. Your job is to put yourself in the right environments.

The main drivers within this type of learning are necessity and neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is a measure of brain activity and how quickly your brain can form new connections.

We want to maximize this as much as possible. You can look at this as how open your mind is to receiving and retaining information.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, has built his entire life work around the science of play. In his TedTalk, Play is more than just fun, he explains that “play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity.” He says, “nothing fires up the brain like play.”

More play = more learning.

With that in mind, the emphasis should be placed on things that you already like doing.

This is the most important thing for this type of learning, it needs to be something fun in order for your mind to really open up and get “spongy”.

Also, if you're into biohacking - I'd suggest Huperzine-A. It's the active compound in the Chinese club moss, Huperzia Serrata, and it protects acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that acts as a messenger molecule in the brain. In plain english: it increases the amount of information you can learn in a set period of time. It works best for short term "brain boosts" and can help you expand your working memory capacity when learning a language.

Necessity

Necessity sparks a different type of approach in your mind, maybe some type of primal survival mentality.

Whatever the case, you learn WAY faster out of necessity.

Biggest rule: NO ENGLISH.

In order to build an environment that fosters the most necessity-filled learning, you can’t speak English and need to avoid as much English speaking as possible.

Make it so that in order to carry out your day-to-day tasks, do fun things, and communicate with people, you need to speak Spanish.

The Top 3 Tools: Spongy Learning

You need to speak Spanish every day, from day 1. It’s your job to put yourself in those situations every day.

No matter how elementary your level is, you need to struggle early and often. Use google translate in the beginning, try not to, but don’t feel guilty about leaning on it.

The overall best way I found for learning was going out to meetup with friends. Go out and have fun every single night. But in Spanish. If there aren't any Spanish communities close to you I included some ways you can simulate that environment online.

The ultimate goal is to make native friends that you can communicate with often. The best way to start is with conversation exchanges.

1.Conversation Exchanges (Making native Spanish speaking friends)

My favorite resource (pre Covid) is Mundo Lingo. The events are organized at a bar 4 nights/week and attract people from all over the world. It’s also free!

Everyone is looking to talk, so you shouldn’t stress about starting conversation. Also, there is a shortage of native English speakers (in Argentina) so it’s especially easy for us (native English speakers). People will usually come up to you first.

When you get there you’re given a flag sticker from your native country and a flag below with the language you’re practicing. They usually reserve a portion of the bar for the event so everyone in the room is wearing stickers and it’s easy to match up with people who are looking to practice your native language and vice versa.

They have MundoLingo setup in most major cities, check their website to find one near you.

If you can't do in person, another resource I like to use is HelloTalk. HelloTalk is an app that connects you to native speakers from all over the world. You can text, call, send audio messages and help each other learn each other’s language.

Another resource that I mentioned earlier is Baselang. You can pay $149/month for unlimited 1v1 lessons online, the lessons can just be conversation as well and in these the focus is entirely on you and your Spanish. If you're doing 15 hours/week the rate comes out to < $3USD/hr.

2. Meetup

Meetup is for finding groups of people who share the same interests as you. That could be art, hiking, cooking, business, dancing, sports, language, etc. They really have everything on there, I was amazed.

Make an account and search for groups that share your interest. When I signed up, I chose soccer (futbol). The app showed a group with pickup games every night in Buenos Aires. Hanging out with other soccer fans and playing a game I already love made the learning sink in deep without me trying.

There are also many language/Spanish groups on Meetup in the U.S. Find one that matches your interests and commit to the events as often as you can.

3. Content Consumption

Watch movies or TV shows that you already like, but watch them in Spanish. Listen to some popular Spanish music. The goal is to allocate time to relax and enjoy some Spanish entertainment.

Actively listen and try to understand, don’t just zone out. Start with children’s books or slower paced content if you feel more comfortable.

In the beginning you’ll feel overwhelmed when you only understand 1% of what they’re saying, don’t get discouraged. You’re training your ear to keep up with the pace, accept that you aren’t going to digest everything right away.

These were things that I had previously thought to be a waste of time, but they turned out to be incredible for listening comprehension.

The results from this were not realized until after doing this a few times. I was amazed at how quickly my listening comprehension improved just by watching a movie or TV.

Bonus Tool: How to Get Free Meals and Spanish Lessons While Traveling

Even though it’s inexpensive to eat out in Buenos Aires, the tabs started to add up. I enjoyed going out because it allowed me to speak to more natives but I didn’t want to keep spending money.

After a few weeks I started thinking “How can I get these meals at a discount? or even free?”

Now, at the end of my trip, I’ve gotten a dozen free meals while vetting restaurant owners to help me practice my Spanish.

I reached out to all the places that I wanted to eat in the city and told them I was curating a list of the best restaurants/cafes in Buenos Aires for tourists from the U.S.

Then I asked if I could come in and interview the manager/owner on what makes their place standout, but I asked to do the interview in Spanish. I mentioned I was practicing and asked if they could correct me along the way.

The best results came from avoiding chains, go to smaller mom & pop shops. Also consider calling restaurants instead of emailing them. I had a higher success rate with phone calls.

Note: I have a spreadsheet of ~200 cafes/restaurants in Buenos Aires with their email, phone, address, and website if anyone’s interested, link here.

In return I asked for a complimentary meal.

Create a list of questions that you plan to ask in Spanish and take notes (in Spanish) during the meeting. Send them your conversation notes and ask if they can correct for errors/offer suggestions.

This model is transferable to any country where foot traffic/exposure of your native country has leverage. Use it to vet a stakeholder in your success, they’ll suggest edits and improvements and the interview will essentially turn into an hour of 1v1 niche Spanish lessons. I thought of this on the latter half of my trip and I wish I had used it sooner.

By the way, best place to eat in Buenos Aires is Las Brasas de Mono. 😉 Phenomenal steak for less than $3USD.

Las Brasas founders (left) and I (right) after I interviewed them

The Final Framework

Though I've shared a few tools from each type of learning, there was ultimately one curriculum that I found to work best.If you follow this framework I believe you can go from complete beginner to passing the SIELE exam with a "C1" score (fluent) in 4 months.Each day, do these three things:

  1. Quizlet Learn platform (30 minutes) - Continually builds vocabulary using cognitive learning techniques - add to it throughout the day as you hear/see new words.
  2. Grammar lessons from a native (2 hours) -  You'll likely be able to cover all the grammar, tenses, and subjunctive in 45-60 days. Transition to constructive conversation after to wield the tools you just learned in real time. Best resource for this is Baselang hands-down.
  3. Social Immersion (3 hours) - Find something that you already enjoy doing but can do it with natives while speaking Spanish. Needs to incorporate verbal communication, any conversation exchange works as well if you're a social person. There's online and in-person groups for this on Meetup as well as some niche hobby meetups.
My personal framework

It looks surprisingly simple, but the magic is in the social immersion. You need to hang with Spanish speakers almost every night. In person or online, doesn't matter.

While you’re talking & having fun your brain is going to open up in a different way that will allow you to learn faster than any other method.

It’s important that you ask each person you meet 3 things:

  1. To correct your Spanish every time they notice something is off. (this will create the fastest possible feedback loop)
  2. To repeat themselves every time you don’t understand something. (this will train your ear to hear quick Spanish and recognize pronunciation)
  3. To get their Whatsapp to stay in touch with them later (maybe one day they’ll be visiting your native country!).

Follow these and you’ll get the most out of your immersion.

Make it as fun as possible!

I used a mix of playing soccer, going to conversation exchanges, playing video games or getting drinks with Spanish speaking friends, and watching movies/Netflix series.

The Reward

There's a ridiculous amount of methods, apps, and programs that aim to teach people how to learn Spanish. I've probably tried every one. It can definitely be overwhelming.

The key is to throw yourself into the deep-end of the language and speak every day, from day 1, before you feel ready.

If you follow this learning framework I guarantee you’ll achieve fluency faster than any other method.

There’s about 1 billion English speakers in the world and ~534 million Spanish speakers.

If you look at opportunity as a function of people you can connect with; you increase your opportunities by 50+% when you learn Spanish.

**If you're interested, see the whole case study here.

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Rick Carabba is the Author.