“Great performance is in our hands far more than most of us ever suspected.” – Geoff Colvin.
When I first started learning Spanish there were a lot of things I did wrong.
I wasted a lot of time focusing on the wrong materials, I practiced in unproductive ways and I went long periods without practicing at all.
But, I did manage to get to a high level of Spanish which meant that there were things I did do right.
Looking back in hindsight, I can see one activity I implemented moved the needle more than any other. This activity made up for years of slow and ineffective progress.
And if I had started using this activity at the beginning I would have reached my Spanish goals years before I actually did.
So, what did I do?
I implemented a perfect language learning routine.
Now I know that last sentence had two ugly words: “perfect” and “routine”. Both of which can cause discomfort to a language learner.
But, I’ll show you in this post how a perfect routine is not about working longer and harder but working as effectively as you can with the time you’ve got.
Definition of perfection
For this article, I will define a “perfect” routine as one that you can simply execute to achieve your goals.
The idea of a perfect routine shouldn’t invoke images of zen-like focus or feats of endurance that would jeopardise your health.
A perfect routine would take into account that your language studies may not be your top priority and, with this knowledge, still allow achievement of your Spanish goals despite neglect from time to time.
This means that once you know your goals, you can define “the” perfect routine for you or “your” perfect routine.
The elements of your perfect language learning routine
Breaking the idea down, there are two elements of a language learning routine that you can steer towards perfection for you: regularity and activities.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that practicing more regularly will improve the rate that you learn Spanish.
Moreover, if you go for long periods without practicing, such as 6 months at a time, as I did, your Spanish will start going backwards before it goes forwards.
This means that the first thing you need to do is set your minimum rhythm for regularity in practice.
How to practice more regularly
I would suggest that once a week or once a fortnight is the absolute minimum for improvement. Anything less than this would only just be enough for maintenance.
Next, you need to look at your schedule or list of priorities and increase your regularity where you can.
In the last few years, I have seen time management as purely about priority management. If something is more important than something else it should be done first.
This sounds kind of obvious in theory but much harder in practice.
Often it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. But, here’s an important question: do you actually need to drive?
Can you avoid greasing the wheel altogether?
In less metaphorical terms, can you create a “not-to-do” list? If you can remove low priority items from your routine altogether, this change will allow more time for your Spanish.
The main problem is that the minutiae of everyday life fills your time if you aren’t paying attention.
If you want to perfect your regularity, you need to recognise low priority items for what they are and put your Spanish ahead.
Once you have got to a point where you are practicing as often as your routine allows, the next thing you need to do is find the right kinds of activities.
The right kinds of activities
A more exciting component of selecting the perfect language routine is choosing the right activities.
This is exciting because with careful selection you can really accelerate the rate that you learn Spanish.
The caveat is that the types of activities that have brought about the biggest improvements in my routine have been those that have stretched and pushed me.
At the very start of the article, I quoted Geoff Colvin. Colvin is the author of Talent is Overrated, and he says that acquiring great skill is not about talent but the act of deliberate practice.
Colvin starts his book on talent with the following premise:
“The assumption that talent is the result of hard work or natural gifts is wrong. The factor that seems to have the largest impact is deliberate practice.”
He then explains that there is a pattern that occurs with some of the world’s most “talented” people. A pattern that is not related to genes but environment.
After researching a number of fields in search of what makes greatness, he determined that there was a pattern of activities that most “talented” individuals followed. He called these activities deliberate practice.
Colvin says that if you want to acquire great skill in any field you too can do it but only through hours of deliberate practice.
On working out what deliberate practice actually is, Colvin says:
“Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.“
He then described the elements of deliberate practice as follows:
- It is doing activities that are specifically designed (often by a teacher) to improve performance.
- It can be repeated a lot.
- There is continuous feedback available.
- It is highly demanding physically or mentally.
- It isn’t much fun.
This last point is a little disheartening but the message is that if you want to improve rapidly you need to put yourself in a place that is mentally demanding.
So what does it look like for Spanish students?
Deliberate practice for Spanish
Deliberate practice is supposed to feel awkward and uncomfortable. It’s in the awkwardness and stepping outside of your comfort zone that the greatest improvements can be made.
If the goal is to be a great performer in the field of speaking Spanish. Then the training ring needs to be a place where you are putting yourself under high mental demand around speaking.
There are, of course, sub-components of speaking such as vocabulary, pronunciation, listening comprehension, verb conjugation and lastly speed. Each that have slightly different deliberate practice elements associated with them.
Before I recommend activities for deliberate practice I’ll point out that Colvin says that deliberate practice involves two elements: continuous feedback and can be repeated a lot. These two elements may not be possible at all times.
For example, you may need to be speaking to a native or teacher for feedback but then you can’t repeat the activity a lot because they won’t be there all of the time.
This is a balancing act and so I have considered activities both with and without a Spanish teacher or speaker.
I recommend that you work on deliberate practice on each of these sub-components in the following order:
For feedback on pronunciation, you are going to need a native speaker or teacher.
Remember, you’ll want to feel challenged, so ask the person you are speaking with to be strict with you. Try to imitate them as closely as you can and then ask for feedback about the sounds that are close but not quite right.
Alternatively, when don’t have access to a native or Spanish teacher, try to find Spanish rap music (go with me here), search for the lyrics online, then play it through a player that allows you to alter the speed such as VLC player or Audacity (both free). Then learn the lyrics and try to rap along with the music. Try to notice where your sounds differ from the native rapper. Start really slow at first and then speed up the music as you improve.
Part of the reason that rap music so effective is that it is closer to speaking than singing is.
It also involves a lot of rhyming which means you will be able to note the differences between your pronunciation and the rappers if your sounds don’t rhyme with the lyrics.
Remember that you need to put yourself under high mental demand to develop your skills as quickly as possible.
So, in the presence of a Spanish native or teacher, in order to improve your vocabulary, you should always look for ways to say what you are trying to say in another way. Use the verbal crutches es decir, o sea or lo que quiero decir which all mean ‘to say again in other words’. Then you need to find other words to express the same idea. It will be a stretch but will help accelerate your vocabulary skills.
When you don’t have a native speaker to practice with, you need to practice at home with flashcards. Try to find lists of words that you aren’t comfortable with and practice them over and over. If you don’t know the top 1000 most common Spanish words start here.
3. Listening comprehension
Simply speaking in a one-on-one is the best way to improve your listening comprehension. Check out this article I wrote for Fluent in 3 Months. I go through some of the key details of why one-on-one is the best form of practice for listening comprehension.
The next best way to improve your listening comprehension is to use active listening with a recording, TV show or podcast. You can choose any of the conversations I have done on the Real Fast Spanish Podcast. Then when you are listening try to write out key pieces of dialogue. You can check your results with the transcripts of the podcasts available in the Real Fast Spanish School.
4. Verb conjugation
When you are speaking with a native Spanish speaker or teacher, tell stories!
Talk about the past and create a timeline of events. Try to find stories about yourself, your friends and your family. This is challenging and will force you to search for the conjugations as you go.
At home, on your own, similar to vocabulary, practice with flashcards. Try to push yourself on some of the harder irregular verbs.
Improving your speed is the ultimate once you have the other areas covered.
Simply push yourself to express your ideas at a pace that feels uncomfortable. The goal is to not lose accuracy. But instead combine the previous elements, vocabulary, pronunciation and verb combination at an increasing pace.
Developing a perfect language routine is the closest thing to a “silver bullet” or “secret to success” for language learning.
Once you have hit your minimum rhythm for regular practice, you simply need to increase the quality of your practice through the elements of deliberate practice for your goal of speaking Spanish.
How else can you implement a perfect language learning routine that works for you?