Learning Spanish While Programming in Colombia — My BaseLang Review

Connor Stein
7 min readAug 7, 2018

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I recently took a trip to Colombia for the month of June for some remote work. I chose the country because it is in roughly the same timezone as North America (making remote meetings easier) and I had heard great things from a few friends who had visited.

I told my friends about the trip and the first thing all of them asked me was — how’s your Spanish?

Spanish was something I had barely even thought about when I booked the flight.

“Hola” and “vamos” were the full extent of my knowledge. I had never taken a Spanish class in school and aside from some French classes in school growing up I hadn’t read, listened or spoke anything but English my whole life.

At the same time, I love learning and in particular crafting learning strategies to acquire skills. As a software engineer this is something you have to do frequently, so being completely in the dark on a new topic was a familiar feeling. The trip seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a stab at language learning and having absolutely zero background in Spanish actually put me in a unique position as I hadn’t developed any bad habits and my brain was a completely blank slate.

About one week before my trip, I started reading a ton of Reddit, Wikipedia, material from the US Foreign Services Institute documents and watching YouTube videos as I tried to determine what the best strategy would be for learning a new language. Although there is a plethora of “experts” out there all purporting to have the secret sauce, most of their ideas were really just minor variations on the same things.

There really is no mystery in how you learn a language, basically you need time with native speakers and a way to build your vocabulary to then use in the conversations. Anomalous language savants aside, everybody needs a few hundred hours of practise to get to a strong conversational level where you could comfortably say that you speak Spanish.

Being disciplined and putting in the few hundred hours is really the only hurdle that restricts people from getting there. Someone’s secret sauce might shave a few of those hours off, but as a percentage of the total hours you need to put in regardless, it’s not really worth fretting about. Makes more sense to just pick something and get cracking.

To actually realize those the two pieces of the puzzle — native speaker time and vocabulary expansion — there are some nuances to people’s strategies. For native speaker time, common suggestions included: spending time in a country where the language is spoken, online Skype lessons with something like BaseLang, starting to date someone who speaks the language and formal in-person classes.

For vocabulary learning, common suggestions were: Duolingo, Spanish movies and TV, Spanish music and Anki. As a total beginner trying to learn quickly, the idea that developing the correct pronunciation early on and focusing on speaking will pay dividends later keep cropping up in places all over the internet. This was absolutely true, as now when I read something I pronounce it correctly in my head and when I hear something I can make a very good guess at how its spelt (note this is particularly easy in Spanish, not necessarily true in other languages), both of which lead to virtuous cycles of being to understand more, learning faster and reinforcing the correct pronunciation.

BaseLang includes some pronunciation training, had unlimited lessons and was only $1 for the first week, so it pretty clearly was the best option for me to study up during the week I had before my trip.

I really only planned to use it for the 7-day trial before my trip with the assumption that I would just learn in the wild while in Colombia after that. So, for that week, I spent 1–3 hours a day on the platform, going through the pronunciation and early level lessons. I was totally stunned at how fast you internalize the pronunciation and all of the sudden you are rolling Rs without even thinking about it. In fairness, Spanish is often considered the easiest language to learn for English speakers and in particular the pronunciation is easy, but nevertheless, seeing that transformation was exciting.

On the other hand, conversations were immensely more difficult than I had anticipated. Easily the hardest part of Spanish for me — and probably for other languages as well as for other people — is being able to recall the components of and then formulate a syntactically correct sentence at normal conversational speed. This was and still is the thing I struggle with most. Understanding a speaker, though not as difficult, is still quite hard as well. I tried watching a Spanish TV show without subtitles and got nothing out of it, so it was clear that style of learning would have to come much later. Duolingo is ok, but I found it to be way slower than learning through BaseLang.

The week went by fast and all of the sudden I was in Colombia and failing spectacularly in every conversation in restaurants, taxis, hostels, coworking spaces, bars etc. It was pretty clear that if I was going to stay for a month, I would need to learn a lot more. Learning in the wild just did not work at all like I had planned because in most everyday encounters, people obviously speak at their normal pace, they have minimal experience teaching and minimal desire to actually teach you.

So I kept going with BaseLang after the $1 trial, doing 1–2 hours a day while in Colombia during the week and more on the weekends. I was also making notes all the time on my computer of verb conjugations, grammar rules, verb lists and vocabulary.

I supplemented BaseLang with Duolingo when I had a spare few minutes and I started to experiment with what to actually do during a conversational BaseLang lessons to get the most out of it. The regular cadence that I fell into was this: about 30 minutes before a BaseLang session, I would write out as much vocabulary, conjugations and so on as I could from memory and then I would pick a few new verbs or vocabulary that I didn’t come up with in the brain dump to try and use them in the conversation.

After about 2 weeks of this I started to get a bit more comfortable in everyday interactions. I went on a tour of Escobar’s estate in Guatapé in Spanish and felt like I really understood most of it, which was a very satisfying and motivating experience. I did the tour with a friend who was doing full time in-person lessons and I was able to understand and interact more with the guide than him which was a huge validation of the superiority of BaseLang platform and learning style. He actually quit the lessons to try BaseLang shortly after that because the lessons were way more expensive.

I continued more or less the same regiment for the next two weeks, with the addition of music and Spanish TV shows with subtitles. When listening to a song, I found it pretty useful to try and pick out a word you hear and then look it up on SpanishDict.com (better than Google Translate) to check if it makes sense in the context. That way you kill a lot of birds with one stone — pronunciation, context, new vocabulary and because it’s a song it really sticks well in your head.

I also started getting more and more adventurous with the real-world interactions. I actually went on a Tinder date with a girl who didn’t speak any English, thinking it would be a good test. It was a total disaster and I realized that talking to a cab driver or a waiter is much, much different than trying to entertain a woman on a date. Dates really are the pinnacle of conversation — jokes, stories and wide-ranging vocabulary. Needless to say, the date didn’t go anywhere, but I was strongly reminded me just how much farther there was to go in learning the language and it helped strengthen my motivation. This is an area where I think Duolingo really falls short because it tricks you into thinking you actually have a command of the language when you don’t.

I left Colombia feeling like I could handle restaurants, taxis/metro, tours, hostel/coworking space instructions, stores, bars and a fair amount of texting. The internet consensus is pretty much use it or lose it, so I also left feeling like I should keep at it or I will end up throwing away everything I had learned thus far.

It has now been a month after my trip and I am still using BaseLang!

There seems to exist this inflection point where once you cross it, you can start just reinforcing everything you already know really quickly because you can practise it in fun ways like real conversations, music, shows and even reading.

My plan is to finish all of the levels and go through the conversational lessons over the next few months with the intention crossing that inflection point. It is super cool to watch yourself start to blurt out sentences that are closer and closer to being correct. Also fascinating is how you begin to internalize the conjugation rules and when a new verb comes along you can just use it right away. Since I got back I have gotten into Anki as well, something I would recommend people do instead of Duolingo when they start. You can use the shared decks at first and then start crafting your own decks for specific things you want to learn.

My learning rate has certainly slowed down since I came back, but these days the routine consists of an hour a day of BaseLang and Anki during the spare moments during the day which I something I feel like I can really stick to. I also watch Spanish TV shows with subtitles (I don’t quite feel like I can turn them off yet), listen to Spanish music and listen to podcasts like Spanish Obsessed Intermediate and the Duolingo Podcast.

Overall, the trip radically changed my interest in learning another language and BaseLang has been an integral part of the process. Even though I am only 2 months in, I feel like it has opened up whole new domains of music, travel, dating and shows. Plus, it is just plain fun rolling Rs and dancing to Reggaeton.

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