How I Learned Spanish in 8 Weeks
Like most people, I’ve always thought I was bad at learning languages.
But as with pretty much every subject, proficiency depends on the efficiency and effectiveness of instruction rather than the perceived intellectual ability of the student. I fully grasped that concept only recently.
Let’s rewind back to January of this year.
I had just realized I didn’t have all the requirements done to graduate by the end of the year. I was planning on graduating by the end of the year, but I still had a one looming graduation requirement to fill: finishing 4 semesters of a foreign language.
There was no way I could get this done before the end of the year. So I had 2 choices: 1) extend my planned graduation date by several months, or 2) take a placement test to test out of the 4 semester requirement.
I didn’t have much to lose, so I thought I’d give the latter a shot.
But there was one problem — I didn’t know any foreign languages.
So I started by reading Tim Ferriss’s language hacking articles. I started to get an idea of the kind of things I needed to do in order to learn a language rapidly.
It was really intimidating. At first, I was doubting whether this was even a right decision, especially since people around me were telling me that I was “trying to take shortcuts” and “not patient enough” to get the results I needed.
Preparation and Results
Eventually, I stumbled upon the Accelerated Spanish Podcast by Master of Memory. I was super impressed with the content — it focused on using memory and language hacking tactics to help listeners understand Spanish very quickly. I took a look at the video lessons and was equally impressed.
I decided that if I really wanted to be able to understand Spanish at a high level in a short amount of time, I’d need 1) accountability, and 2) constant interaction with native speakers in addition to good lesson material. I took a leap and signed up for a 2-month 1:1 coaching program.
I started off with absolutely no knowledge of Spanish. I had never taken a Spanish course in my life, nor had I ever tried to learn the language. I also did not have fluency in any other foreign language prior to learning this (though I do understand Tamil, which my parents speak).
My preparation was from February 13th to April 10th 2015 (8 weeks). I spent 6 days a week doing the following:
- Going through required lesson material (~1 hour per day)
- Writing sentences based on lesson material (~30 min per day)
- Listening to Spanish dialogues, songs, watching videos, etc and translating them (30 min to 1 hour per day — I didn’t do this as much starting out, but did it more and more as time went on)
- Talking to native speaking coaches (1 hour every other day in the beginning, but near the end I did this more often)
- Spamming my Spanish speaking Facebook friends with Spanish chat messages to get more practice (varies).
My total study time: 8 weeks. ~3 hours per day. ~150 hours total.
A little over 8 weeks later, I took my placement test. I passed out of all 4 semesters of Spanish.
4 semesters of Spanish total study time: 16–18 months. ~550 hours total (includes class time, estimated study time, and review time in between semesters).
I also became more fluent in conversational Spanish than many students who have put the time in to take all 4 semesters. I’m now able to have spontaneous, regular conversations with native speakers and understand about 80% of what they say. I can also understand 80-90% of everything I read.
How did I learn so quickly? Let’s dig into that.
5 Steps to Start Hacking Spanish
I’ll focus on how I learned Spanish, specifically, but the following principles can be applied to learning any language.
- Learn the most frequently used words first.
I was recently browsing through videos of first and second semester Spanish dialogues online. There were some really strange parallels in the material that students usually learned in their first several weeks of class. Here were some common first words and phrases learned:
- Una cerveza para mí (One beer for me)
- El árbol (The tree)
- La biblioteca (The library)
- Qué hora es? (What time is it?)
Most courses have a completely arbitrary priority when it comes to sequence of material, and inefficient sequencing can put off students because they think they have to memorize thousands of random words before they can speak.
Not true. In English, just 300 words make up 65% of all written material. Spanish is no different — here are the 1000 most frequent Spanish words (generated from a list of 27.4 million words found in common Spanish movies and TV shows) that make up 80-90% of all Spanish verbal communication. Studying and mastering the common words first can drastically cut down the time to fluency.
2. Start off talking in Spanglish
There’s this weird notion in most foreign language courses that you need to start learning full sentences in that language as soon as possible.
As I started to learn the fundamental building blocks of Spanish (i.e. conjunctions, prepositions, basic verbs, etc), I needed to first understand how they functioned within a sentence. It’s important to focus on understanding the function of these words in a sentence before worrying about other words in that sentence.
I’ll give an example. Some of the meanings of the word de include “of” and “from”. For example, if you wanted to say “I want to take my Spanish exam”, one way of doing so would be Quiero tomar mi examen de Español (literally meaning “I want to take my exam of Spanish”). A beginner who is learning prepositions should only have to focus on the word “de”. It should be sufficient to say “I want to take my exam de Spanish” at this stage.
As the student slowly builds up his/her Spanish vocabulary, more and more words will get filled in, and Spanglish won’t have to be used as much. But in the beginning, it’s not efficient to try to speak full Spanish sentences without focusing on the building blocks first.
3. Learn conjugations by verb, not by tense
Here are all of the conjugations for the Spanish verb hablar, meaning “to speak”:
Each column above represents a particular tense of the verb hablar. For example, hablo Español would mean “I speak Spanish”, in the present tense.
Most college and high school Spanish classes devote an entire semester (or more) to learning a single tense of verbs. So in first semester Spanish, you’d probably learn everything under the “Present” column above (which includes “I speak”, “You speak”, “He/she/it speaks”, etc) along with the present tense conjugations of a bunch of other verbs.
This is a tremendously inefficient way to learn verbs.
I learned the rules for every conjugation for almost every common verb in about 1–2 weeks.
The rules are actually very simple. Let’s take -ar ending verbs such as hablar as an example. To say “I speak”, you’d say hablo. The verb “to return” is regresar, and to say “I return”, you’d say regreso. If cantar means “to sing”, how would you say “I sing”? Yup. Canto.
There are similar rules for the preterite tense, imperfect past tense, future tense, etc and none of them are too complex. You can learn every conjugation of most of the common verbs within a few weeks — this normally takes months if not years to do in school.
4. Memorize words using mnemonics and memory palaces
You can language hack all you want, but there will come a time when you have to memorize verbs and commonly used words.
Fortunately, there’s an efficient way to do that too.
To memorize words, it’s helpful to tie the Spanish word to a 1–2 sentence mnemonic that reminds you of the word. For example, the Spanish word for “rich” is rico. To remember this, I used the following mnemonic (from the Accelerated Spanish course): “Joel loves his wealth, but he turns his nose up at anyone else who seems to be rich — other people’s wealth reeks of bad odor.” This way, I’m tying the meaning of the word (rich) to what the accented syllable sounds like (reek).
I memorized countless words using this method, and the best part is, it doesn’t even feel like memorization. I’ve never had to sit down with flashcards or even try to memorize. Going through 1 sentence stories that relate the pronunciation of the word to its meaning is a quick way to remember hundreds of conversationally relevant words for a long time.
By combining memory palace techniques with mnemonics, it’s also possible to memorize verb conjugations. Even though most verbs don’t need explicit memorization (since most conjugations follow simple rules as shown in #2), there are some irregular verbs whose conjugations don’t follow any rules. These just need to be memorized.
This can easily be done by visualizing a “palace” for each verb — you can visualize each conjugation tense in a different location within that palace, and use mnemonics to memorize the specific conjugations. In the Accelerated Spanish course I took, these palaces are visually depicted in the video lessons, so memorizing them did not take much time at all. Here is an example memory palace video for the present tense of the verb ser, meaning “to be”.
5. Talk to native speakers ASAP
For the full 8 week time span, I was talking with native speakers every other day for 1 hour.
For the first 3 weeks, we were still mostly talking in English, since I was still getting my building blocks in place. After this, we started talking in Spanish more and more, until eventually our hour long sessions were done entirely in Spanish.
This is also where most language learning classes fall short. Due to the structure of the classroom, students usually aren’t able to practice speaking in the context of a normal, spontaneous conversation.
If you want to learn Spanish (or any other language) for fluency, I would recommend not taking a structured classroom course. Not only is this usually terribly inefficient, it can sometimes also sap any desire to learn new languages in the future. Putting in a lot of time, effort, and hard work into something to get minimal practical results isn’t the best way to encourage yourself (this is true for a lot of college courses, but that’s another story).
I would suggest first picking up the fundamentals of the language. This can be done on a basic level with Duolingo. Once you have the building blocks in place, you should find a list of most frequently used words in your language and begin to get an understanding of how they fit within the framework of the language. Once you have enough knowledge under your belt to hold even the most basic conversation (even if you have to talk extremely slow), start talking to native speakers. And of course, start building vocabulary as you go along by rapidly memorizing the most frequently used words.
Personally, I found that having experienced people guide me through the process was super helpful and made all the difference. If you’re looking for more guidance and accountability on your path to rapid Spanish fluency, I’d suggest the private coaching track in Accelerated Spanish by Master of Memory, which worked well for me. But there are other options out there that may be a better fit for you.