What I learned from learning Spanish in 4 months
When I first landed in Barcelona, the only words in Spanish I knew were “hola” and “gracias”. Four months of total immersion and intense study later, I can now speak conversationally fluently!
Conversationally means that I can understand 90% of all conversations as long as it’s spoken at a normal pace. This does not mean that I’m “fluent” (without the qualifier “conversationally”), since I still need to do the occasional dictionary lookup, although my record for longest conversation without using the dictionary is 3 hours.
It was a wild ride, and what surprised me the most is how much the non-language experience helped my personal growth; here are the top 8 things I learned about goal setting, ambition, control, world peace, and empathy:
- Impossible deadlines are easier to meet than realistic deadlines
- If you are not embarrassed to tell people about your goal, your goal is not ambitious enough
- Ambitious projects will cause you to be temporarily lonely
- Self-assurance is one of the most useful life skills
- World peace requires effort
- Learning how to listen
- Seeing the water
- Travel is not an escape
Lesson #1: Impossible deadlines are easier to meet than realistic deadlines
I followed Benny Lewis’ Fluent in Three Months course. Despite the hyperbolic title, did indeed help me learn Spanish to 75% fluency in 3 months and 90% fluency in 4 months.
Many people struggle to learn a language for years without any progress, and I think this is primarily due to a lack of concentrated focus. Paradoxically, it’s easier to learn a language when you are forced to use it for 100% of all social interactions all the time in an intense sprint.
The human mind is not like a machine—knowledge does not accumulate linearly. Memory formation is strongest when you are challenged in short, focused, emotionally salient bursts.1 Trying to memorize random phrases from the language every now and then often gets you nowhere.
Young children are indeed savants at language acquisition, and while part of this is biological, I think a huge part of it is also that their very survival is completely dependent on being able to communicate their needs and wants to adults.
This is what I needed to do: Land in a foreign country and challenge myself to thrive there while committing to never speak English.
If as an adult you mess around on language learning apps for 10 minutes a day without putting in any serious effort, you will signal to your unconscious that this second language thing is simply not that important, and you’ll have a harder time remembering much of what you learn.
Although a goal like “achieve fluency in 3 months” seemed impossible at the outset, and I could have picked a more “realistic” deadline like 1 or 2 years, the time constraint forced me to be extremely serious2 about my learning and helped me push through the toughest initial obstacles and plateaus.3
Ironically, having a shorter deadline helped me obtain my goal more efficiently than having a longer deadline because it forced me to pick the most effective learning strategies from the beginning instead of doing “fake learning” by boosting vanity metrics like my score on Duolingo.4
Lesson #2: If you are not embarrassed to tell people about your goal, your goal is not ambitious enough
I kept this entire language learning journey secret until now. Why? Wouldn’t it be better if I announced every step of my progress online so that I have social pressure to keep me accountable?
I think secrecy is important for two reasons:
- Telling people prematurely about your goals gives you an illusion of progress, and prevents you from making real progress. Additionally, I found that keeping my goal secret encouraged me to work harder because it created pressure to show results by the end of the project, lest I come up empty-handed when responding to “so how was your trip to Spain?” when I returned.
- If your goal is truly worthwhile, it will seem laughable to most people. For example, if you say that your goal is to remove 10 gigatons of CO₂ from the atmosphere every year by 2030, people will probably pooh-pooh you with “that’s nice” or think you are out of touch with reality. It’s important to keep these goals to yourself or else you will get too much discouragement from other people, as your success implicitly threatens others’ egos—if they couldn’t do it, then it must be impossible for anyone. If you can do it, then it is possible, and therefore their failure is entirely on themselves.5
Lesson #3: Ambitious projects will cause you to be temporarily lonely
As a corollary to “don’t tell anyone about your goals”, when you work on an ambitious project, I think you may find it necessary to cut contact with “friends” who try to hinder your progress.
I learned that you don’t have to like someone if they are part of the same “tribe”. If I identified as an “entrepreneur”, I don’t need to feel obligated to be friends with someone if they also identify as an “entrepreneur”. Just because someone else is working towards the same goal doesn’t mean they’re friendly or are positive influences, so I didn’t need to feel guilty about removing negative people from my social circle even if they fly the same tribal banner.
I think you eventually become more like the people around you, but the people around you don’t eventually become more like you. For example, people who have friends that are obese are more likely to be obese themselves. I learned to exercise restraint in the face of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out); I would see my classmates take awesome-sounding weekend trips to cities all over Europe, but I couldn’t do this because it would undermine my goal of learning Spanish. What kept me going was the belief that I ultimately would come home with the cooler experience of having learned a language even if my day-to-day adventures weren’t as cool in the moment.
The problem is that this period of loneliness caught me off guard as I didn’t expect it at first. I had to grapple with the demotivating illusion of having to forge a path myself. Accepting the existence of this obstacle helped me persevere to achieve my ultimate goal and grow closer to my real friends at the end.
Lesson #4: Self-assurance is one of the most useful life skills
I learned that having a high internal locus of control, the belief that “no matter what happens, it is under my control to change things” helped me through the most difficult parts of my language learning journey, when I wasn’t connecting with anyone and couldn’t retreat to my English-speaking support network.
Self-assurance is not the same thing as narcissism or arrogance, it’s simply a belief that “I am enough”, and a willingness to be vulnerable and say “I may not currently have the skills to do everything, but no matter what comes my way I will figure out a way to handle it”.
I discovered that self-assurance is a skill you can learn, not an innate personality trait. This helped me become less afraid of failure and looking stupid. The quickest way to learn a language is not to memorize a book of grammar rules; it’s to purposely make yourself look stupid, awkward, and clumsy over and over again in front of many, many people by trying to talk to them.6
Lesson #5: World peace requires effort
Currently, there are tensions between Catalonia and Spain as the separatist political parties call for Catalonia’s independence from Spain.7 It’s disorienting as a visitor because it’s an important issue to people you interact with, but I’m not as invested in the outcome since it’s not my home.
Numerous historical sites in Europe are relevant only because they are a vestige of war. As a tourist, I’m eager to take photos in front of them and move on, but I couldn’t help but feel the paradox of enjoying a majestic castle steeped in human suffering whose primary purpose is to drive some unnecessary conquest.
My time in Spain made me realize that unless I invested in changing something, I couldn’t claim to care about it, no matter how much I felt like it was important.8
We’re harmed by not working on being more patient and understanding with people from a different culture, or who have different background assumptions, or who are separated by a language barrier. I think being up close with the artefacts of empire-building makes you appreciate how much effort is needed for peace—it’s easy to talk about reaching people who are not like you and try to understand their perspectives, but much harder to actually do it. How many people even want to put in the work of learning a different language?
Solo travel “turns the volume down” on life. I came to realize that 99% of my problems are petty and insignificant in the context of the other problems I could be having. All my normal problems were magnified when I didn’t speak the language and wasn’t familiar with the culture and customs. And Europe isn’t even that much different from North America compared to other cultures around the world. After spending 4 gruelling months barely scraping by in conversations and repeatedly making a fool of myself, struggling for connection, when I finally returned home it was like I had conversational superpowers.
Lesson #6: Learning how to listen
Because I had to go through a phase where I could understand more words than I knew how to speak, this helped me hone my attentive listening skills. Slogging through this period where I was forced to listen more than I speak helped me see that I don’t have to speak to have a good conversation.
I think many people struggle to speak a new language because they don’t know how to have a conversation in their native language. This was the case for me, as prior to that point many of my “conversations” in English were just two people talking at each other, instead of actually being interested in the other person.
What’s fascinating to me is that at some point in our evolutionary past there was a multi-thousand year stretch of time before we evolved speech where groups of humans who looked like us hung out together but never talked to each other. We were communicating non-verbally for millions of years before we learned how to talk. This means that as long as you are emotionally attuned to the other person, the conversation flows very naturally, regardless of how much vocabulary you know. It took being in another country where I didn’t speak the language to make me realize that talking is not the most important part of a relationship.
Lesson #7: Seeing the water
I was surprised to discover just how much “filler” there is in a conversation. For a few weeks I would sometimes be mistaken for a native Spanish speaker simply because I straight-up memorized all the “small talk” topics in their entirety and could confidently deliver my rehearsed responses to common questions.9
You may think it’s impossible to run a conversation on an automatic script for more than a minute or so, but even I was surprised at how long I could simply regurgitate memorized responses before I had to start thinking again.
In A Misanthropic Reinterpretation of the Chinese Room Problem, Michael Laufer points out that it takes no consciousness to respond to “How are you?” with “I’m fine”, which puts humans at the same intelligence level as dogs. The implication is that you are on autopilot not just in conversations, but in many parts of your life. Learning a language helped me become more self-aware of when I was running on “autopilot” because I had to learn a completely new autopilot system and I wasn’t able to fall back to knee-jerk responses in my native language.
I think this heightened present awareness is both the most powerful benefit of learning a new language (you start consciously questioning assumptions you took for granted), and a key reason why many new learners find it difficult to feel comfortable in the new language—you haven’t yet assimilated the autopilot responses so it’s exhausting to be constantly thinking things through.
Lesson #8: Travel is not an escape
“The urge to disappear, to shed one’s identity and reemerge in another, surely must be as old as human society”, writes Evan Ratliff. Evan initiated an experiment with Wired Magazine to see how long he could disappear and adopt a new identity before the Internet tracked him down. Evan concludes in his story, “I’d discovered how quickly the vision of total reinvention can dissolve into its lonely, mundane reality”. This is also exactly what I found: my “escape” was short-lived. Travel was exciting at first as everything around me was new, but I quickly acclimated and my new location just became normal again.
It felt so much easier to socialize with people when travelling than with my friends back home, but I realized that this was an illusion. Everyone I met while travelling seemed so much more interesting because even the small talk subjects were novel and I was continuously making effort towards good conversation. I think at home it’s easy to forget that conversations and relationships require effort, and it’s more comfortable to just hang back and go with the flow instead of consciously trying to make good conversation.
In this way, travel made me see how much better of a friend I could be by putting in the effort, and taught me to cherish my friends on a level that I hadn’t considered before. Of all the things I learned from learning a language, the one thing I’m most grateful for is how learning a new language brought me closer to my friends who speak my native language.
I only publish half of my writing publicly. The rest are posted exclusively on my private email list: billmei.net/email (Subscribing is free, no spam ever, and you can safely unsubscribe anytime)
I think the most worthwhile goals in life are those that don’t have a payoff until you’ve invested many years into it. If I learn things before I need to use them, I’ll always appear to have the right skills for any situation. Preparing early for skills that have long investment curves allows me to seize opportunities and increase my return on luck instead of missing opportunities because I didn’t have enough time to build up a sufficient skill base to execute on the serendipity. ↩
While I did use Duolingo in part of my language learning journey, this essay was originally written in 2013, during the golden age of Duolingo. Nowadays the product managers have A/B tested the app to death and it is no longer effective; I now disrecommend Duolingo.
I was one of the early beta users and joined Duolingo in June 2012 before it was publicly available, and have been learning practically every day since. At one point I had a streak of 1,000+ consecutive days, and even applied to work there.
But alas the company has to return its VC investment now and effective pedagogy is antithetical to revenue. Back then, Duolingo used the SRS algorithm and it was very helpful in keeping me on track with my learning. However, there were many product decisions that ultimately lead to the app’s demise.
First, the original business model was to make money from community translations. I think they soon discovered that this market wasn’t nearly big enough to sustain Duolingo as a going concern, so they pivoted to an advertising-based business model. However, the software supporting the original “translations” business model is still in place, so the way they teach you new words is prompting you with sentence pairs to translate. For example, they’ll give you an English sentence and ask you to translate it into Spanish. This isn’t an effective way to learn a new language because you’re not learning to think in your target language, you’re learning how to match words between your native language and the target language, which is not the same thing.
Sentence matching is unnatural and requires neural pathways that are never used by native speakers; native speakers don’t think in English and then translate into Spanish when speaking. To be able to fluently speak the language, I found that a “call and response” model is the best way to learn. For example, given a question that a real person would ask (“What do you like about your job?”), you have to creatively formulate a natural answer (“I have a lot of intellectual freedom”) without any “guardrails” of a scripted English sentence provided by the app.
“Call and response” more accurately models how people actually speak in real conversations—you take turns talking like a normal human being. It is also more difficult and requires effortful assimilation of concepts instead of just words. To learn, you must make mistakes, so the most effective learning techniques are also the most frustrating. Coming up with novel responses forces you to fully engage in the dialogue, which efficiently helps you to lay down neural pathways that you will use in a real conversation.
Duolingo is optimized for ad revenue, so they can’t give you difficult challenges because you’ll just give up. Instead, they must spoon-feed you 1:1 sentence translations or “fill in the blank” type challenges because this rewards you with a dopamine rush from their slot-machine-like “ding!” sounds and greek checkmarks that pop up when you successfully fill in the blanks. Instead of encouraging you to make mistakes, Duolingo will penalize you by forcing you to redo entire lessons instead of targeting practice towards your weaker words, sweep mistakes under the rug, or making you pay money for gems.
Duolingo touts their effectiveness study as evidence that its methods are scientifically supported with a claim that “an average of 34 hours of Duolingo are equivalent to a full university semester of language education”. However, this study was conducted in 2012 under Duolingo’s old SRS algorithm before they changed their teaching model to matching-based problem sets, got rid of their call and response questions, and implemented hearts, gems, and lingots that penalize mistakes.
Rosetta Stone is another popular language learning app, but is also ineffective because they use the “matching” philosophy where you learn associations between pictures/sounds/words/sentences and the correct word/sentence in the target language. Again, this does not force you to come up with novel responses that would actually occur in real conversation.
Keeping all this in mind, I have found the Pimsleur method to be the most effective at teaching the “call and response” model. Duolingo and Rosetta Stone don’t help you think in a language the way a native speaker would and hence they didn’t help me become more fluent at holding conversations. ↩
One example of someone using this approach is Elon Musk. He never formally announced Hyperloop (only giving immaterial hints to media) until he finished drawing out all the significant technical details of the project. When I was reading the technical draft for the Hyperloop I found myself surprised at how detailed everything was. It was also a good strategy to prevent people from bringing up unfounded criticisms before they understand your entire thought process, and address all the legitimate criticisms before they came up. ↩
I made most of my progress after “The Wall” (or “The Dip”, or “The Plateau”). I learned that if the task suddenly starts to feel impossibly difficult for no reason, I should celebrate because I just hit The Wall. The Wall exists in any ambitious project, and it’s worth celebrating because it’s a signal that you’ve done far more than the vast majority of people as long as you don’t quit at this point. ↩
What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them.
Where are you from? Oh you’re from Canada, it must be cold there! I have a cousin who studies in Vancouver… ↩