India doesn't have a foreign-language culture. This is at odds with the fact that most Indians are trilingual, if not polyglots. The reason for this paradox is simple: India has over 50 languages of its own and most Indians rarely feel the need to gun for a foreign language other than English.
Even those Indians who do feel adventurous rarely pick Spanish. It's French and Japanese that enjoy that privilege, which is why I decided to learn French when I was still a clueless teenager. That endeavour failed miserably as I soon got curious about German. Then came Russian, which I can still read and write, and then Spanish. By the time I was 20, I had tried my hand at no fewer than six European languages, and aced none of them.
Like any other demotivated language enthusiast, I threw in the towel and shelved all language ambitions. Then one day I stumbled upon various language learning blogs, including Fluent in 3 Months. These pumped me with a whole new rush of adrenaline, and Spanish started looking doable once again. I resolved to nail Spanish no matter what. Motivation was at an all-time high and I wasn’t going to miss the train this time.
I’d like to share my journey with fellow language hackers in the hope that my story might be inspirational.
But before I begin, let me state the ground rules I subjected myself to for this adventure. I resolved to:
- Use no mainstream commercial products like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur.
- Avoid immersion-tourism (I couldn’t afford it anyway).
- Count success as my ability to converse with a native-speaker for an hour without any hiccups.
Spanish in 4 Months: Day 1 – 20
Motivation wasn't my only nemesis in my prior language learning attempts. It was more of an effect than the cause itself. A little self-reflection led me to the root of my problems: lack of strategy. This was crucial because unless I had this out of the way, I couldn't count on doing any better this time.
Every language is a bottomless pit of rules and words. Aiming to learn everything at once is not only a recipe for failure, but also an exercise in futility. Not all rules of grammar are equally critical to daily conversation and not all words in the dictionary are meant to be learned. So I spent the first entire week just researching the bare essentials that I needed to get the ball rolling.
I sifted through countless language-learning forums and even analysed my own conversations in English to get a feel for which aspects of grammar I used most heavily. Chances were I would be using the same in Spanish with some minor differences. By the end of day seven, I had a list of items I had to cover before starting my first conversation.
- Ser/estar: Spanish equivalents of “to be”. Since this is the most heavily used verb in English, they seemed like a no-brainer.
- Por/para: These two prepositions made the list because even in English it would be impossible to hold a conversation for long without having to use “for”, “of”, “through”, or “around”.
- Present tense: Needless to say, most of our conversations are in this tense, making it essential. Not only that, but with the present tense you can discuss future events without having to use the future tense conjugation! That makes the present tense more versatile than any other.
- Past tense: Spanish has two of these, the preterite and the imperfect. After the present tense, this is what makes up the bulk of conversations.
- Imperative: Again, imperatives are hard to wish away in a real-life conversation even at the beginner level which makes them, well, imperative!
So, there you go. Four verb tenses, two verbs, and two prepositions – that's all I had to nail for now. The job seemed a whole lot easier now with some tangible structure and an achievable goal in sight.
But this was not all. I also had to deal with vocabulary. I prepared a list of 1,000 high-frequency words to memorise. This would easily have me covered in almost 80% of all conversations.
Instead of rote rehearsals, I resorted to etymology and mnemonics to memorise words at the speed of thought.
Over the next couple of weeks, all I did was learn new words and practise grammar. I did nothing in the way of speaking, nor any immersion.
Spanish in 4 Months: Day 21 – 60
By now, I felt pretty comfortable using the limited grammar and vocabulary I had assigned myself. Or so I thought. It was time I tested the waters with a little immersion. Knowing your conjugations is one thing. Being able to put them to use in a real-life scenario is another.
I needed to see if I could express myself in simple written Spanish a native speaker could understand.
A few minutes of research landed me two options: Lang-8 and italki.
Both offer a way for you to write down phrases and sentences in your target language, then have your work reviewed by native speakers. To return the favour, you could do the same for those writing in your native tongue.
This was exactly what I needed.
I set myself a personal goal of composing no fewer than 20 Spanish sentences every single day over the next 40 days. This was a modest yet challenging goal. The sentences could be about anything, any subject, any idea. This was going to be a thorough exercise in expressing myself freely, albeit only in writing.
For added immersion, I labelled stuff around my house with their Spanish names. I also started listening to Spanish music (although I could still make out nothing).
I also read a lot about the Latin American culture and way of life. This kept me motivated and I consider it an important aspect of my learning.
Spanish in 4 Months: Day 61 – 90
Two months into my experiment, I had become reasonably proficient at expressing simple ideas and thoughts in Spanish. I could write short essays on any generic topic with little help from anyone.
Now, my goal was to reach the same proficiency in speech.
I explored the forum on italki and found several learners willing to participate in Whatsapp groups for language exchange. This opened a whole new world to me – it was language practice on steroids.
By this time, I had also made a few connections on Lang-8 and had a sizable list of partners on Skype. With a dozen-odd partners on Whatsapp and as many on Skype, I had someone willing to talk at any time of the day.
The constant stream of exchange requests soon got overwhelming and I had to figure out a way to filter and trim this madness. I used the following filters to choose the best partners for me: time they were active, country they were from, and most importantly, the quality of their internet connection.
The first few hours of speaking Spanish were extremely awkward. I had to struggle comprehending even a four word expression! I would get frustrated every few minutes and almost feel like quitting. It was hard. Very hard. As if that weren't enough, I would find myself tongue-tied on something as basic as cómo estás!
Things began to get better sooner than I expected. By the end of the first week, I felt a whole lot more confident on my calls. I made it a point to spend no less than an hour a day chatting in Spanish, rain or shine. I took notes, consulted online translators, and made mistakes – a lot of them. But I got better and better.
Some of my language exchange partners turned out to be too shy to even try speaking English. This worked for me although it was terribly selfish on my part as it was not mutually beneficial.
During this time, I also explored Android apps like HelloTalk and Quazzel which are meant for language exchange and nothing else. I did find a couple of precious contacts off them. But in the long run, Skype is what prevailed.
Spanish in 4 Months: Day 91 – 120
My only significant exposure to Spanish over the previous month had been my conversations with native speakers on Skype. I continued to do some reading, but the focus had almost entirely shifted to speaking. The kick I got after each conversation was out-of-the-world! The sense of accomplishment you get after having spent an hour speaking and listening to nothing but Spanish is unparalleled.
Spurred by these successes, I decided to step up my efforts. My conversation time went from one hour a day to two hours a day.
On top of speaking, I wanted to improve my listening comprehension, so I subscribed to a couple of podcasts.
The first podcast I picked was a now-archived series from Spain, Audiria. This is a collection of audio clips on various topics. Episodes are sorted by topic as well as level of proficiency. Since I was focussed on Latin American Spanish, Audiria wasn't an exact fit for me, but was incredibly useful nonetheless.
Another podcast I subscribed to was La Casa Rojas. Episodes are close to an hour in length and the diction is clear. I admit I couldn't make sense of everything I heard, but I wasn't blank either. Every small spike in progress was adding up and I was happy.
I was desperate to start enjoying the richness of Spanish cinema, but my level of comprehension still wasn’t quite there. So I started with two series on YouTube that were perfect for me at that stage: Extr@ Spanish and Destinos. I also discovered a Chilean movie specifically made for learners: Sol y Viento. I would strongly recommend these to anyone looking for exposure to Spanish.
I continued reading for at least an hour a day. I diversified into a lot of interesting reading materials: newspapers like El Universal, comic books like Condorito and Gaturro, and short stories. All this was freely available online.
Spanish in 4 Months: Conclusion
By the end of four months, I had reached my goal. I was able to hold a comfortable conversation with a native speaker on a variety of subjects with little aid and I was able to consume news in Spanish without having to refer to a dictionary.
Of course a lot still lay ahead and I was still unable to thoroughly enjoy a commercial Spanish-language movie without subtitles. But the progress I had made in a space of four months was incredibly satisfying.
Could I have achieved all of this quicker? Maybe. I confess I had always been on the fence about the speak from day one strategy, but that's not to undermine the concept. The only reason I couldn't go straight into full-immersion and conversation is because I was doing this at a time when online language exchange still wasn't as popular as it is today. Remember I didn't have the luxury of traveling, so my only option was online calls.
Plus, when you speak with someone remotely, you have a big disadvantage: you can’t see body language to guess what's being spoken. You have to rely on the words and how they sound. That would have been extremely overwhelming to me if I didn't have my basics in place.
With this experiment, I learned one key lesson: If I could learn to converse in a European language, much less Spanish, living in a small town in the boonies of India, then anyone, anywhere can. I didn't travel, I didn't buy into gimmicky software, I didn't enroll in fancy classes. I just followed my instincts and made the best of every resource I could get my hands on. A little ingenuity and a lot of willpower got me a long way.
The last thing I would advise is, please do not delude yourself. Learning an alien language is not a cakewalk. It's tough and it calls for a bulletproof will. You will be frustrated beyond your senses and you will feel like a loser a million times over. But it's not gonna be that way forever. After a point, you'll have an epiphany, and that's when you'll start reaping the rewards. Rewards that more than make up for all the frustration you were subjected to. Just stay determined to cross over into that zone and you'll be shocked by what you're capable of!