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Case study: How Niall Doherty reached conversational competence in Spanish in 3.5 months

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Today's guest post is from Niall Doherty, a fellow Irishman also on the road, who I met this year in Portland. He found my blog, bought the Language Hacking Guide and applied my tips intensively over a short number of months and can indeed speak the language!

He's a great example of the many success stories you will find from people who face their fears and use the language with people sooner. For more success stories have a look at the forum.

This post describes his experience, his own implementation of communicative learning and includes a video of how well he's doing it after 3.5 months. He made an earlier video at his six week point here.

While he's still making mistakes (something I urge people to just accept as part of the language learning game), he's clearly having complex conversations in the language, which is an incredible achievement in such a short time! His post below explains how it was all possible.

Niall has his own site called Disrupting the Rabblement, where he encourages people to think for themselves and follow their dreams.

At the beginning of May this year, I flew into Spain for the first time. A few days later I had settled into an apartment in the small city of Burgos, about two hours north of Madrid. I knew a ridiculously small amount of Spanish back then, having just started learning some vocab and listening to podcasts a few weeks before. The word hola still felt weird for me to say out loud. I was very self-conscious about using the language, and entirely hopeless at understanding anyone speaking Spanish to me.

Fast forward to early-August and I was able to go shopping for jeans and tell the sales clerks exactly what I wanted, conversing entirely in Spanish. A few days later I was able to draw laughs from friends with a joke about Irish weddings, translating it quickly in my head from English. And, perhaps most important of all, I was able to talk my way out of trouble with la policía who at first didn't take too kindly to me hitchhiking near the highway in Vitoria 😉

Here's a video of me conversing entirely in Spanish with two friends in San Sebastián last week:

I still have a long way to go of course, lots more to learn before I reach my desired level of fluency, but I've gotten off to a great start and my confidence with the language is building all the time. A lot of the tips I've read here at Fluent In 3 Months and in Benny's Language Hacking Guide have worked well for me, and in this post I'll share a few of them and throw in some of my own findings.

Being there isn't enough

I decided to go the immersion route to learn Spanish, and chose the city of Burgos because I figured there would be less people around to speak English with. That didn't really turn out to be true though. I still had plenty of opportunities to speak English, and had to discipline myself not to speak it too much.

Don't be fooled into thinking that you'll learn much faster just by living in a foreign country. You'll still need to develop the right mentality and some strong self-discipline to progress. For those of you who can't go the immersion route, know that it's really not that big an advantage unless you're really committed to learning the language. Benny often points out how ex-pats can spend months or even years in a country, surrounded by a foreign language, and end up learning almost nothing.

I've found that to really progress, you must make learning the language a priority. I told myself I'd study an hour of Spanish vocab every day, reading through and doing exercises from this book. However, I put that as one of my last things to do every day, which didn't work out very well. Too often I'd be tired or other activities would get in the way and I'd skip my hour of study. Eventually I kicked my own ass and started making that hour of study a priority, one of the first things I would do every day. That made a huge difference.

I also made speaking a priority, finding several language exchange partners as soon as I got settled in Burgos. At one point I had six different partners to practice with, and had to turn away others who were interested because I simply didn't have enough time to meet with all of them!

Overcoming perfectionism

Apart from a two week flirtation with Italian last year, I hadn't tried speaking a foreign language in over a decade. As mentioned, I was really self-conscious about it at first and Spanish words felt extremely weird coming out of my mouth. I've had to work hard to overcome my perfectionist tendencies.

I think this may be true for most people learning another language for the first time, and the sooner you can get past that perfectionist stage, the better. Or if you can skip it altogether, better still. The more you allow yourself to make mistakes early on, the faster you'll learn.

As an example, I still mix up the Spanish preterite and imperfect tenses regularly when speaking, but I've pretty much stopped caring. As long as I'm using one of those past tenses, I know I can get my point across and nobody gives me a hard time about it. With enough practice I'll eventually know when to use which tense without even thinking about it.

It also helps to have a sense of humor about your mistakes. Just a couple of weeks ago while I was in a clothing store when a sales rep asked if I needed any assistance. I responded with, “No thanks, I'm just joking!” Of course, I meant to say “I'm just looking!” but I had mixed up the Spanish words mirando and bromeando. That mistake resulted in a puzzled look from the sales rep, but after realizing what I'd actually said I was able to see the funny side and laugh it off. The incident has since become a humorous little story to tell, and because of it I'm not likely to mix up those words again any time soon!

Avoiding overwhelm

My initial plan was to not speak any English once I arrived in Spain, but I found that to be too overwhelming for me. I agree 100% with Benny that you should start speaking your target language as soon as possible, but if you're not accustomed to language learning you might find that abandoning English entirely in your first few weeks can be too stressful. (This is also why I now totally get Benny's recommendation to spend two weeks learning Esperanto before getting stuck into your target language.)

As it was, I made a consistent effort to speak a good chunk of Spanish every day, but also allowed myself to retreat to English when I needed a break.

Again, self-discipline comes into play here. Don't let yourself get lazy and fall back to English all the time. Your aim should be to gradually increase your level of immersion until you're no longer using English at all. For me, that meant not speaking any English with Spanish people for the entire month of July (except of course with my language exchange partners), which was tough considering I lived with one and was dating another, and both of them had great English.

As a caveat to the above, I should emphasize that you may handle immersion much better than I did, so it's important to test it out and see how quickly you can adjust. Same deal with the methods you use for learning: Make sure you test out several and find what works best for you. I've personally found that I'm very much a visual learner. It's difficult for me to remember words and phrases when I hear them spoken aloud (even if they're repeated several times), but once I see something spelled out on paper, I'm golden.

THE best tip for memorization

If you've read the Language Hacking Guide you'll know about using image association to help you remember words and phrases in your target language. This technique has been immensely helpful to me. In fact, whenever I forget a Spanish word that I've seen and heard numerous times before, I can almost always attribute it to not having formed a strong enough image association in my mind.

Let me give you some examples of associations that have worked well for me in Spanish:

  • The word for neighbour is vecino, pronounced beth-ee-no. I remember this easily because I used to have a neighbour named Beth.
  • The word for head is cabeza, pronounced ka-bay-tha. To me, it sounds kinda similar to cabbage, so I visualize a guy with a cabbage for a head; a vivid image that's easy to remember.
  • The word for onion is cebolla, pronounced theh-bow-ya. Instead of associating the sound of this word, I associated the spelling, using the name of a basketball player (Cedric Ceballos), and imagining him crying his eyes out while chopping onions!

Yes, that last example is especially strange and complex, but it works for me because I used to be a huge basketball fan. It does take a while to come up with and recall these associations in the beginning, but you get much faster at it through practice, and once you have a strong association it's very difficult to forget it.

I also learned words and phrases by carrying around a notebook with me at all times. Whenever I came across a useful new Spanish word or phrase, I'd jot it down in there and look up the translation later. Or if there was something I wanted to know how to say in Spanish, I'd write down the English and translate that later. I'd then look through my notebook whenever I had a few minutes to spare (e.g. walking to meet a friend, or even sitting on the toilet!) and learn off some new vocab. A few short study sessions like that every day really adds up.

Other helpful tidbits

After a couple of months in Spain I found that I was beginning to speak the language pretty well, but I was having trouble understanding what I heard. I simply hadn't been getting enough listening practice. So recently I've been listening regularly to Radio Nacional de España, usually in several short bursts throughout the day so I can stay focused and really try to understand what's being said.

I wish I'd started doing this earlier, as my listening comprehension has improved dramatically since I started.

A couple of other recommendations from Benny that have worked well for me:

  1. I publicly documented my learning progress by announcing my language mission on my own blog, and letting my readers know every so often how I'm doing. This has given me extra motivation to improve constantly, and some folks have helped me out by leaving comments or sending me tweets in Spanish. [Benny: You can do this on your own blog, or you can share it with the Fi3M community in the “mission” forums for great encouragement!]
  2. I've intentionally skipped learning some words, phrases and verb tenses, and focused most of my attention on those that are most useful for helping me to communicate ASAP. This month was the first time I even looked at the subjunctive tense in Spanish. I knew it would be more important to get a good grasp of some other tenses before moving on to that.

As for other online resources that I've found helpful for learning Spanish, I highly recommend working through the BBC's Mi Vida Loca when you're just starting out, and you'll find lots of great free videos, podcasts and reports for all levels over at Notes In Spanish.

How to guarantee success with any language

To wrap this up, I want to reiterate what I believe to be the biggest reason for my success so far: Simple consistency.

I committed to improving my Spanish every single day. Even if I was busy with all kinds of other things, I made sure to learn at least one new word or get some speaking practice before the day was done. Some days I felt like I was going backwards, but I just kept on putting in the work regardless. Really, there's no way you can fail if you just show up and make a good effort every day, and keep experimenting with different learning methods to see what works best for you.

I plan to learn many more languages in the next decade or so (my big crazy goal is to become very fluent in the five mostly widely-spoken languages in the world), and I expect I'll sharpen my learning skills as I go, given that language structure and hearing strange sounds coming out of my mouth won't be so new to me next time 😉

Great work Niall! Make sure to follow his blog to see how he gets along with his continued missions, and leave a comment below if you have any thoughts on his progress in Spanish and his tips!

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