A fluent in 3 months mission from the outside: Scott and Vat’s first week speaking only Spanish
As you all know, I am currently in Valencia, my favourite city in the world! I wanted to give myself 2 weeks to settle in before starting my big language project, which I'll announce here on the blog (with a cool video intro!) on Monday! That's also the day I'm beginning the project, and even though my books arrived in the mail to study it, I'm not opening them at all until Monday morning, so that I'm truly starting from scratch.
I'm very glad I gave myself this buffer zone before starting. Around this time last year, I had already started my Arabic project when I had arrived in Brazil, and didn't give myself time to settle in and it was a distraction I didn't need. In these two weeks though, I've been able to see old friends, go to ridiculous parties that required sleeping in past midday the next day (no hangover though!), getting crammed into a tiny apartment with many dozens of Erasmus students, walk around my area, and generally catch up on my to-do lists. But it's really great to be back in a place where I feel at home!
So, I feel like I am truly ready to get my teeth into this project, and can't wait to announce it on Monday!
Scott and Vat's Fluent-in-3-months quadruple projects!
I mentioned this before, but my friend Scott and his roommate Vat have the crazy project to spend the next year without speaking any English. They'll be using Spanish here in Valencia, Portuguese in Brazil, Mandarin in Taiwan, and Korean in Korea, each one for 3 months at a time.
Since you'll be hearing all about my first-person perspective of my own fluent-in-3-months project, complete with regular video updates, starting shortly, I thought I would go on a diversion first and share my perspective on seeing someone else's three month language learning intense project!
I saw him tweet that even as he had arrived, jetlagged and tired from the trip, he got straight into the project and shared his tired attempts to speak Spanish from day one. The next day, we met up for a paella (like me, he's a vegetarian, so we had the vegetarian equivalent), and I got to see him dive into speaking Spanish with me from the start.
Head start thanks to French, and in advance work
The first time I ever met Scott, was in Paris during his project to learn French. We only spoke in French, which I was quite impressed with considering it was his first attempt at a foreign language – he was trying hard, OK with making mistakes and had momentum and focus to progress onwards.
That's why it was no surprise to see him do the same thing with Spanish. He launched into speaking actually quite good Spanish already! It was many months before I was at that level when I first got into Spanish. This was a combination of the fact that he had already got over that hump of having learned one foreign language (something I usually tell people they can speed up by learning Esperanto for a couple of weeks, to have the “Polyglot edge”), and the fact that that language was French, so he had a huge amount of common vocabulary and understanding of grammar.
But his sentences were still better than what I'd expect from a “frañol” speaker – and that's because he did some work in advance of coming here. As he says on his blog, he had 27 hours of Anki flashcard studying, 25 hours of Pimsleur, and 4 hours of tutoring. These 56 hours are what allowed him to “hit the ground running”. So even though this is truly his first week of “no English” in the project, he's had some Spanish work done in advance.
He called me about this project back when I was in Egypt to get some advice from me, and this preparation in advance was one of my biggest tips to him, and I'm glad to see that he has implemented it. He is handling Spanish verb conjugations (one of the trickier parts of the language) pretty well, and will have them down in no time. He has already put time into preparing for both Korean and Mandarin, so that will allow him to have a much richer experience in those countries on arrival, even though he won't have a common European language to work off.
He's a great example of how combining learning in advance with a later visit to the country is the ideal way to really get into learning the language. Thanks to all his advance work, he can now work on getting familiar with Spanish and making friends!
As you can imagine, this is precisely what I'm hoping to do with my own project; get a huge chunk (in my case, I'm hoping to actually do all my work in advance of going, unlike Scott who is indeed studying and getting lessons to continue to improve his level while here) done before going, so that the limited time you may have in the country is better.
Socializing and learning with Erasmus students
I made sure to bring Scott to one of my favourite parts of my life in Valencia from ten years ago; the Erasmus parties. He was familiar with them from his year in France, but probably not at the same temperature as what we had here in Valencia!
A huge number of young people crammed themselves into an apartment until very late, and it was a great chance to meet people in the city and exchange numbers and Facebook details, which will let both Scott and Vat be active in using their Spanish while here.
Another reason I wanted to take him to this party was because Erasmus students present an interesting opportunity to learn a language, that I really had to rely on a lot myself in Valencia ten years ago because Spaniards speak very quickly. That night I only saw 2 or 3 Spaniards, but countless Italians, lots of Poles, some French, Dutch, Australian and many other nationalities, who would tend to use Spanish together. When they are spending an entire year here, unlike tourists, they are invested in learning the language well and will tend to be pretty devoted to that.
But like Scott, they are still learners, so they will speak slowly and use simple sentence constructions and words. I was at the point of giving up on Spanish until I found that I could understand other learners like myself in events like this. Starting to learn Spanish while trying to understand Spaniards speaking at normal speed can be a huge challenge, so it's good to have a transition.
We had a great time that night and made loads of new friends! I'll be too busy with my project to go out and not speak my target language for many hours, apart from at the weekends, but the great thing for Scott is that socializing will help his language project every time here. Although, like in any Erasmus party I got to practise some other languages, so these events will be a nice break for me, to allow me to flex my polyglot muscles after 8 or so hours that day of intensively using a language I'm a beginner at.
One downside of these events though is that because you are with other learners, and it's very casual, you are unlikely to get any corrections on your mistakes. So they really are a place to get practice and comfort, rather than structure.
Greater challenge: a night out with Spaniards
After the great first night out with the Erasmus students, it was time to push Scott and Vat a little harder, and meet some natives of the language! I brought them out with a friend of mine and her friends, all from the region, and we went out for tapas.
When they spoke directly to Scott and perhaps repeated themselves, he could understand them fine, but when they spoke directly to one another I could see that he lost track of the conversation very easily. This difference takes a lot of getting used to, since you really have to tune your brain to very fast speech that natives are likely to have between one another, and this can only come with more practice. This issue is much less apparent in many Latin American countries where they speak slower and clearer.
I don't have any problems myself listening to Spaniards any more, but I was aware of how fast they talk and had to remind them to slow down for the learners' benefits. This surprised my friends as they are not at all aware of how quickly they are speaking. Since I'm used to speaking with people of all levels, I can adjust my speed and use of words appropriately, so Vat pointed out that I'm definitely the easiest to understand. When I speak I can also think for a moment and use words or sentence structures that a learner is more likely to know, by perhaps picking a synonym that sounds like a word in English for instance.
While Spaniards are not likely to actually correct you, they are more likely to repeat what you said to themselves aloud to make sure they understood it, and when they do this you can pick up on the correct way to form sentences.
Vat: Doing the same thing with less experience
Scott isn't doing this challenge alone however! His roommate in Vancouver, Vat, who grew up in India and speaks both Hindi and English, has never learned a language as an adult. The rules are quite different because adults have to be a lot more intentional than children, so he is still very much struggling, but he has a tonne of persistence!
Vat doesn't have any romance languages to help him along, so he has more trouble keeping up, and his resulting sentences are not as well formed as Scott's, but they are just as understandable. Despite the lack of verb conjugations and precise vocabulary, he somehow managed to argue pretty well for the merits of Calatrava's architecture against the Spaniards who were angry with the money the city has poured into his projects. Rather than give up, he kept going despite the lack of vocabulary, and he got his point across very well, and even ended the discussion on a peaceful neutral note.
The argument wouldn't have worked at all if I were to write it down to you, but the context, body language and reactions made the discussion move along swiftly.
Sometimes the kinds of conversations you can have are not governed by how much vocabulary and grammar you know, but by your own imagination in using whatever you do know as much as you can!
I'll be going out with Scott and Vat regularly and look forward to seeing the two of them progress. I'm confident that they'll have a very productive year, especially when I see how dedicated they have been to the project. Vat is especially frustrated that he can't really have such deep conversations and make friends so easily at his current stage, but as long as he sticks it out, that won't be a problem very soon, since he is already showing that he can have varied conversations.
It's very interesting to see this kind of project from the outside, especially in these two weeks when I don't have an intensive language project myself. I'm a little jealous to be honest, because after a few hours of studying and language lessons, it actually counts as true language work for the two of them to go out and party with Erasmus students and Spaniards! Whenever I join them, it will be time away from my own intensive project, and as such can only be a brief break.
But at the end of the day, it's important to have fun – and I think this year will be a really fun one for the two of them! My time will come, when I can go to a party (maybe not as Latin or Erasmus-esque as what we have here in Valencia!) in my target country, after a few months of pushing myself beyond the beginner stage, and make many interesting new friends thanks to all this advance and intensive work that I'll be doing online first 😉