“I Can’t Learn New Languages”: A Spanish Learning Project

The Ballad of Heisenberg from Breaking Bad. This and other American TV shows give us a very basic intro to some Spanish words and phrases.

I can’t learn new languages. Growing up, I took French in school each year. It didn’t go very well. Today I know roughly zero French words. When I traveled to a small French community in Quebec last year I completely embarrassed myself by not even being able to place a simple order at the local corner store.

With a trip planned to Ecuador in April 2017, I decided to test my theory that “I can’t learn new languages” by committing 20 hours, 30 minutes a day for 6 weeks, to a Spanish learning project to see what I could learn during that limited amount of time.

Before starting this project, as far as I knew I had absolutely no experience with Spanish, although I was pleased to find out that knowing English is a great start to learning Spanish since there are many similarities, and that I actually had picked up some very basic Spanish words and phrases in the past through American TV shows such as Breaking Bad.

The Ballad of Heisenberg from Breaking Bad

The Spanish Learning Project

Here I will outline the approach I took to try to learn as much Spanish as I could in 20 hours. When selecting the following approach to learning Spanish, I relied heavily on this guest post by Benny Lewis on the blog of Tim Ferriss.

Phase One: Defining SMART Goals

I began by setting up one reading and one speaking goal that would enable me to assess my abilities at the end of the project. When learning French I had no clear goals in mind, just to “learn French”, and I think that is one of the key reasons why I failed terribly. This time I created clearer S.M.A.R.T goals, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Here were my goals:

Reading Goal: Correctly identify at least 50% of the words in a randomly selected article from a Spanish newspaper by May 10th 2017.

Speaking Goal: Order two meals in Spanish without using any English and without there being any errors in the meal I receive, by the end of April 2017.

I will describe how I did with these goals near the end of the article!

Phase Two: Most Common Words

In this phase I put my focus primarily on learning the 40 most frequently used words in the Spanish language. Although lists of most frequent words varied by source, I used the list of most common Spanish words from Spanish 101 because this was the first source I found that included audio files with the pronunciation of each word.

I did a keyword search on three articles from the website of the El Telégrafo newspaper and found that these 40 keywords alone accounted for 41.2% of the total words in the articles. Therefore, I decided that focusing on these 40 keywords was a good place to focus a lot of my time because just getting down these 40 words alone would get me close to my reading goal of correctly identifying 50% of the words in a newspaper article.

To deeply ingrain these 40 keywords I used the following approaches:

Cue Cards: I began by putting the 40 words on cue cards and went through them every day for the whole six weeks.

Keyword Searches: As I was going through the cue cards, sometimes I would open up a Spanish news website and do a keyword search (Ctrl + F) in the article for each keyword so I could see how the keywords fit into Spanish sentences.

Writing Sentences: For each keyword I wrote out an English sentence 5–10 times with the Spanish word inserted in place of the corresponding English word. For example, “Jamie se [is] going to the party”.

Fill in Blanks: I did a few fill in the blanks exercises for keywords that were either giving me trouble or were extremely high frequency words, involving writing the Spanish keyword and then filling in several fitting English words into the blank. For example, for “made de [of] ____” I wrote the English words “carbon”, “stone”, “paper”, “plastic”, and “wool”. I found this exercise was helpful in making connections between the Spanish and English words.

Listening/Speaking: While I was doing fill in the blanks I said each of the phrases in my head or aloud and played the audiofiles for the Spanish keywords. When searching news articles for keywords(mentioned above) I said each keyword I came to out loud.

News Articles: In addition to the keyword searches I did on news articles, I printed off Spanish news articles and for each keyword in the articles I wrote the English word next to it and looked at how the keywords fit into the structure of the sentences. I found this method to be particularly helpful, and seeing the Spanish words in the context of full sentences helped the words sink in for me at a deeper level compared to just trying to memorize cue cards.

Visualizations: I closed my eyes and tried to create a visual in my mind for some keywords that were not sinking in. For example, for the word ‘en’ [in] I visualized a box with the letters e and n IN it.

Phase Three: Cognates

I was pleased to find that there are hundreds and hundreds of words that are the same or similar in Spanish and English. Spending a little bit of time learning these words and the common conversion rules seemed like it would be a time effective way to proceed since these words should be much easier to learn than learning totally new words.

This guide was particularly helpful, 1001 Spanish Words You Already Know — A Guide To English-Spanish Cognates. I reviewed this list and attempted to say the words out loud (although with a pretty weak Spanish accent!).

Here are some near perfect cognates that follow the rule that nouns ending in ‘tion’ in English can be converted to Spanish by replacing with a ‘ción’:

I only spent roughly 30–45 minutes total on cognates, but think it was time well spent because I learned a lot of new words very quickly.

Phase Four: Duolingo

I used Duolingo’s language learning app for the final 15 days of this project for about 15 minutes per day. It was so effective and fun that I wish I would have started using it earlier on in the project. Some of my favorite features of Duolingo:

  • Each lesson includes a mixture of speaking, listening, translation, and multiple choice challenges
  • It felt like playing a game, so was much more enjoyable than reviewing cue cards!
  • I felt more confident that all the Spanish I was learning was actually correct, in comparison to other tools I had been using previously such as Google Translate and various websites that seemed to differ in their translations between sites.
  • They keep a streak count of how many days in a row you have spent learning the language, which reinforced learning Spanish as a part of my daily routine, helping me not miss a single day of practice in the 15 day period.
Duolingo Streak Count

Phase Five: Social Media, Podcasts, and News

The purpose of this phase was to get a better sense of how Spanish is actually used in everyday language in the real world.

Twitter Feeds; Newspaper Articles: I followed various Spanish Twitter feeds. Twitter was surprisingly a great tool for learning Spanish because since Tweets are so concise it was easier to get my head around what was being said in comparison to other longer forms of writing such as newspaper articles. In some cases I printed out pages of Spanish tweets and worked through them one by one, highlighting the words I knew. I then used Google Translate to help me figure out a few more words in each Tweet (although I tried to reduce use of Google Translate more and more as I began hearing accounts of its inaccuracies). Similarly, I focused on reading a lot of the titles of newspaper articles, and once I saw progress at reading titles I switched to reading text from the articles themselves.

Podcasts: I tested out several podcasts and the most helpful one I found was Coffee Break Spanish. I only had the opportunity to make it through three episodes, but got a lot of value from them. It was especially useful getting practice following along with the experts, speaking the Spanish phrases with them. In some cases I would practice saying these phrases to OK Google voice search on my phone to see if I was saying the phase well enough to get it identified correctly in the search. For each of the episodes I created a brief video log with me speaking all the phrases from that episode.

Some key phrases that were covered in the first three episodes of Coffee Break Spanish.

News Programs: I watched news coverage on CNN Español about half way into my project, although only for a total of about 15–30 minutes. I found it very challenging to keep up with how fast they were talking, so decided this wasn’t a place I should spend too much time until I become more advanced.

Testing Progress On My SMART Goals

At the end of the project I assessed progress in meeting my SMART goals.

Reading Goal

My reading goal was to be able to correctly identify at least 50% of the words in a randomly selected article from a Spanish newspaper by May 10th 2017.

On May 5th I went to El Telégrafo’s website and printed off three articles, — the first article that came up in each of the Politics, Economy, and Ecuador sections. As planned in advance, I selected the first paragraph of the Politics article, second paragraph of the Economy article, and third paragraph of the Ecuador article to test my abilities. I went through each of these paragraphs and for each word wrote down what I thought the corresponding English word was, and then graded myself using my learning resources.

Here are my results:

Article 1 (Politics)–20.5/31 = 66% correct
Article 2 (Economy)–28/35 = 80% correct
Article 3 (Ecuador)–17/22 = 77% correct
Total- 65.5/88 = 74.4% correct

This is my test on the Economy article:

I was very pleased and surprised that I got a total of 74.4% of the words correct.

However, I came away from the test feeling as though the results of the test overstated my Spanish reading ability to some extent. Some things that are still causing me problems relating to Spanish reading that I will need to continue working on moving forward:

  • Even if I can identify many of the words in a sentence, I find it can be challenging to determine how the words all fit together within a sentence.
  • Some of the basic, frequently used words are still giving me problems because it wasn’t until I was nearing the end of this project that I started discovering many of these words have alternate meanings. For example, I was studying the word “de” as meaning “of” in English for weeks, but then discovered it can also mean “from”.

Speaking Goal

My speaking goal was to successfully order two meals in Spanish without using any English and without there being any errors in the meal I receive, by the end of April 2017.

On April 6th and April 15th I ordered meals from the Quito Airport Center in Quito, Ecuador.

Quito Airport Center

For each meal I ordered rice (arroz in Spanish) and vegetables (vegetales in Spanish). I found this to be a very interesting challenge because no one at the restaurant appeared to understand a single word of English, so I had no crutches to fall back on.

I kept the conversations extremely basic, using primarily the phrases I had learned from the Coffee Break Spanish podcast mentioned above. It was even challenging paying for the meal because although I had studied Spanish numbers I still had trouble making out how much money the waitress was asking for.

Nevertheless, ordering the meals was a success, each time actually getting the correct order that I wanted with no errors caused by miscommunications!

In this project I focused the vast majority of my time on learning how to read as opposed to speak. I was able to get my speaking level good enough to order a very basic meal or have a very basic conversation, but there is no doubt I will need to practice my Spanish speaking skills in much more depth moving forward before I’ll be able to have engaged, meaningful discussions in Spanish!

My biggest takeaway from ordering the meals is how much respect I now have for my friends who have moved to Canada from non-English speaking countries, because I found it to be scary and intimidating trying to converse with native Spanish speakers in a language I did not feel overly comfortable in!

Summary / Moving Forward

Overall, I was very pleased with the progress I made in learning a fair amount of Spanish in a limited amount of time.

The process outlined in the present article was much more effective in learning a new language compared to my disjointed approach with no clarity when learning French. Defining the SMART goals was a vital component of this project that really helped move my abilities forward.

I believe that in this project I’ve set a solid baseline competency for myself in Spanish, especially reading Spanish. With another 6 week project in the future focusing more on speaking I’d be able to raise my abilities to the point of being able to communicate fairly effectively​ in the language.

If I had to do this project again, I would change:

  • Rely less on Google Translate because I started to question its accuracy more and more as the project moved on
  • Rely more on Duolingo
  • Look for opportunities to start speaking Spanish to people right away at the start of the project
  • Create daily Spanish vlogs to document my progress and post them on YouTube

In the future I want to do another 6 week project consisting of going all the way through Duolingo’s material, focusing more on speaking, and obtaining an intermediate level Spanish certificate.

I would love to hear in the comments below any tips or tricks that you’ve found to be effective in your own life for learning languages!