During the COVID-19 Crisis, I’ve decided to continue my journey of learning Spanish and looking to become fluent in a second language. With a lot of time on my hands in my apartment, I’ve been able to dedicate a fair amount of time to learning more Spanish, and in this post, I’m going to share with you how you can learn a new language.
Right now, we are living in tough times. Many people are ill, and many people are stuck in quarantine.
It’s very sad and I hope we can overcome this tough time sooner rather than later with the least amount of people affected as possible.
Currently, I’m sheltering in place. For the first few days, I was depressed and bored.
Then, I had a change of heart and decided I needed to make the most of my time.
I decided that I was going to continue my language learning journey and become really good in Spanish.
In this post, I’m going to share with you my thoughts on learning a second language, what I’ve found to be truth and false about learning languages, and how I’m working to become fluent in Spanish over time.
While this post is mainly my story and recommendations applied to Spanish, I’m confident that you can apply these thoughts to learning any language.
My Language Learning Journey
First, before getting into thoughts about language and communication, I want to share with you my language learning journey.
In my high school, each student needed to take a minimum of two years of a second language to graduate.
Since I was focused on math and science, I took two years of Spanish and didn’t care too much about my proficiency going forward in life.
Of course, I knew all of the basic phrases like “Hola”, “Cómo te llamas”, “Feliz cumpleaños”, “Dónde esta el baño”, etc, but other than that, I had forgotten most of what I had learned.
Fast forward to last October , one of my goals in life right now is to see the world and travel some more (Wishful thinking right now as I type this in my apartment!)
I started planning a trip to Colombia for February, a place where Spanish is the official language and only a small percentage of the population speaks English.
In October, I decided I was going to learn Spanish so I wouldn’t be completely lost when I arrived in Colombia.
Since I was essentially starting from scratch, and would only have a four months to learn the basics of a new language, I figured I should be smart about my learning.
Before going any further with my story though, I want to talk about what is language and communication, and what I have learned which has been important to me progressing in my language learning journey.
What is Language and Communication?
First and foremost, I want to talk about what is language and communication.
In the United States, with the way secondary languages are taught in many public schools, we don’t understand what language really is.
Language and communication is the way people interact socially and culturally.
Communication and language is a collection of sounds which we hear and create.
Language and communication is not a set of rules about grammar, meanings and sentence structure.
What I mean to say here is that language is something tangible and real – it is spoken and heard first, and later, rules are applied to make sense of the patterns.
Animals in the wild don’t have a collection of grammar books, and yet they can perfectly understand each other.
Think back to when you were a child and learned how to say, “Can I have my favorite snack?”
You didn’t care or need to learn all of the different ways you needed to say, spell, and write the actions “can” or “have”. For example, you didn’t care about the difference of can and could, or have, had and having, etc.
Instead, your mom or dad or teacher told you, “This is the proper way to say what you want to say…”
After listening, you internalized how to say it, and now could use it to ask for what you want.
This is different than how language is taught in schools, and why even after many years of taking classes in a language, students can’t speak or understand native speakers.
With this thought in mind, let’s now talk about the four skills of language and communication.
The Four Skills of Language and Communication
When looking to learn any skill, it’s important to break down the topic into smaller pieces and looking to focus on what’s most important.
For language and communication, the four skills to successfully be able to interact are:
I put them in this order because this is the natural way we learn how to communicate.
Again, as I mentioned above, communication is a collection of sounds which we hear and create.
First, focusing on listening, pronunciation, and how to sound out words will be very beneficial for advancing rapidly in a new language.
Next, getting into conversations with people in your target language will be essential for practicing your new language.
Reading and writing are last. Of course, this depends on your goals, but for the most part, reading and writing will be secondary because the majority of interactions in real life are just that, in real life – spoken and heard.
By focusing on these steps, I’m making great progress in my language learning journey, and doing MUCH better than if I was doing coursework in a school.
Before sharing with you exactly what I’m doing, I want to answer a common question many language learners ask when looking to become fluent in another language.
How Long Does it Take to Become Fluent in Another Language?
A common question many people ask is “how long does it take to become fluent in another language?”
First, fluency is being able to think, speak, interact, and communicate with ease in another language.
Translating back and forth in your head is not fluency, and this is a mistake many long time learners continue to make. Also, fluency is not memorization.
Anyways, the answer is a little complicated. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, it depends on the language and also of course the consistency and manner of how you practice the new language.
For example, Spanish and French are very similar to English, and are much easier to learn than Chinese, which is very different from English.
In similar languages, the FSI estimates with around 600 hours of study, you can become proficient in that language.
For more difficult languages, the FSI estimates you will need more than 1,000 hours of practice to become proficient.
Of course, learning any skill comes down to consistency and effort.
For example, you could reach 600 hours of study through doing 5 minutes a day for 32 years, but in that time, you definitely wouldn’t have gotten very deep in what you’ve learned.
Also, knowledge in theory and knowledge in practice are two different things. You might know how to do something, but if you haven’t practiced it, it could take a lot more time in execution.
What FSI recommends instead is doing 25 hours a week of deliberate practice for 25 weeks, and through this, you can become proficient.
While this is a LOT of time, mastering a skill takes a lot of time.
However, it is a lot of fun and can open up many doors in the future for you.
Now, I’m going to share with you what I did before my trip to learn more Spanish, and what I’m doing now that I’ve returned and in quarantine to work towards fluency in the language.
Learning a New Language, the Hard Way
When I started back in October, I started like many people do in 2020: go to Google and search for what kind of app I can use to learn on my computer.
I started using Duolingo in October to start refreshing my Spanish and was making progress. I was learning a lot of words and grammar, and at the same time, I was also trying to do a little bit of listening, writing and speaking.
It was definitely difficult at the beginning, but I was definitely picking up many words and phrases quickly.
After 2 months of Duolingo though, and with 2 months to go until my trip, I decided I needed to make a change.
Remember when I said that language is not writing and reading? I realized in December that if I wanted to be able to speak with native people in real life, I couldn’t be a keyboard warrior and continue learning with an application.
Focusing on Listening and Speaking to Learn a Language
As I mentioned above, listening and speaking is what makes languages and communication truly themselves.
After making a decision to switch up my learning, I found iTalki, a website where you can connect with native speakers via Skype and learn whatever language you want.
I also started listening to audio in Spanish and watching YouTube videos in Spanish.
Through this, my progress exploded. The first few weeks, my head hurt a lot and I was struggling with the speed of the language.
When you start listening to someone speaking a different language, yes, it does seem like they are speaking 1 million miles an hour.
The reason for this is that your brain hasn’t gotten used to the sounds of the language. Even though you might know every word in a language, if your ears and brain haven’t heard the word before, they would be able to understand the message!
After about 20 hours of iTalki calls and many hours listening, I arrived in Colombia and had a decent understanding of what people were saying and could communicate.
While I’m still very far from fluent, I have had many hour long conversations in Spanish, and can understand and speak about many different topics.
Now that I’m in quarantine though, I want to continue to improve my skills and work to become fluent.
My Plan to Improve My Spanish Skills During This Quarantine
Right now, where I live, we are in a lock down for at least 2 more weeks, and depending on how things go after, I have plenty of free time to devote to doing something productive.
As I mentioned above, it takes around 600 hours of studying to get to proficiency in a language. I have no idea how much time I’ve already put in, but if I can put in 25 hours of practice over the next two months, I will be in an amazing place.
25 hours a week, done for 8 weeks, is 200 hours.
With 200 hours, at a minimum, I’ll be very confident in basic and everyday interactions with the language.
At a maximum, I’ll be able to communicate, understand, and navigate complex discussions and be able to speak with clarity in Spanish.
For me, I want to become advanced in Spanish, and through the following steps, I’m making a lot of gains on my goal:
- Using iTalki to Talk with and Learn from Native Speakers
- Listening to Podcasts and Music in Spanish
- Watching YouTube Videos to Learn Spanish
- Watching Netflix in Spanish
- Using Flashcards to Review Words
Let’s go into detail below for each of these areas of study.
Using Italki to Learn from Native Speakers
While it might seem intimidating at first, speaking with other people in your target language is so helpful and gets you speaking from the very start.
For me, right now, I’m doing two hours of class a day over Skype in Spanish, and I’m learning different words, phrases, verbs and grammar rules.
By doing this, I’m able to practice Spanish and also learn it at the same time.
If I was using an application, I’d be going from English to Spanish; whereas true fluency is being able to think, speak and interact only in Spanish.
Also what’s great is how inexpensive iTalki is. The usual class for learning Spanish 1 on 1 in the United States would be at least $20/hr.
Per hour, right now, I’m spending about $7/hr to speak with different people in Colombia and Venezuela, and since it’s 1-1, I’m getting great results fast.
For you, you can use this link, we can both get $10 of iTalki credits free if you spend $20 on the platform.
I highly, highly, highly recommend iTalki and think you’ll love this platform as well if you want to improve your second language.
Listening to Podcasts and Music in Spanish
The second thing I’m doing is increasing the amount of time I’m listening to the language.
As I mentioned above briefly, when we are young and growing up, we are taking in so much information and because of this MASSIVE INPUT, we force our amazing brains to soak it all in.
Learning to listen is the same thing – throw as much as you can at your brain and it’ll start to stick over time.
For listening, it’s important to listen to things which are at the appropriate level, and also have subject matter which interests you.
Some of my favorite podcasts in Spanish for learning include:
For other listening, I like this one (it’s a personal finance podcast):
In addition to podcasts, listening passively to music is great because you can start to pick up words and phrases as well – also, I love Latin music and dancing 🙂
Watching YouTube Videos to Learn Spanish
Another way to practice your listening is to watch YouTube videos to work on your comprehension.
For me, there are two channels and playlists I really like to working on my Spanish:
Again, there are so many ways to expose yourself to a language and these are just some of the ones I’ve found to be good for me.
Watching Netflix in Spanish
Next, we have watching Netflix in Spanish.
Becoming fluent in a different language is a process of learning the different mannerisms, phrases and words used in the various cultures around the world.
Watching movies and shows in your target language can speed up your progress because you can seeing how people interact in your target language.
For me, I just started La Casa de Papel (aka Money Heist), and have been loving it.
I turned the subtitles on because the Spain accent is a little bit foreign to me, but for the most part, I’ve been loving the show and each day I’m picking up a few more words as I watch more of the show (I’ve also learned some swear words in Spanish as well! Oops).
Using Flashcards to Review Words
Finally, using good ol’ flashcards can be a great way to internalize various meanings to help solidify new things you have learned.
For me, I’m using a program called Anki – it’s free – and have been spending about 30 minutes a day reviewing verbs, nouns, and phrases I come across on a daily basis.
Whenever I encounter a new word or verb, I add it to my list of flashcards.
Anki uses spaced repetition and over time, you’ll internalize the words you learn to truly know each new word you come across.
Another app I’ve used is called Memrise. While this is geared to language learners and is decent, on your phone, you can’t go very far without having to upgrade to premium.
I think it’s okay, but I prefer Anki since it’s free and I have more control on my word list.
The goal here isn’t necessarily memorization, but instead, to more easily recall and review words which are not in your active vocabulary, but need to be known in certain cases.
With all of these methods, I’m looking to learn more Spanish and make it stick. In the next few weeks, I know I can be in a great spot with my Spanish and each day, I’m hoping to get one step closer to true fluency.
Are You Looking to Learn a Second Language?
I’m super excited to keep progressing in my journey to learn a second language. Maybe you already have started learning a second language, or maybe you want to start but don’t know how.
Hopefully this post has been somewhat inspiring and you can take the next step in your journey to becoming proficient in learning a second language!
For me, I’m looking forward to seeing where I am post quarantine, and I hope that I can stay consistent with my actions and reach my goals.
Again, while this post was mainly my story and recommendations applied to Spanish, I’m confident that you can apply these thoughts to learning any language.
Let me know if you have any questions and thank you for reading!