The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

80/20 Spanish

I have tried several methods of learning Spanish that didn’t work:

  • Spanish in 30 days (book & CD combo)
  • Duolingo
  • Memorizing vocabulary with Anki
  • Listening to Language Transfer Complete Spanish
  • Listening to Spanish music & watching Spanish films
  • “Spanish days” with fellow learners, on which we only spoke Spanish amongst ourselves
  • Reading Spanish easy-readers
  • Reading Jorge Luis Borges in Spanish, alongside an English translation

Recently, I realized that I didn’t need to Learn Spanish. I just needed to learn the ~20% of Spanish, following the Pareto Principle, that would let me communicate 80% of what I was trying to communicate.

I still don’t Know Spanish, but I’ve made more progress in the past few weeks than I did in years of half-hearted study, and here a few things I’ve noticed:

  • Nothing replaces having a native Spanish speaker you can talk to, who you enjoy talking to, and who doesn’t mind being on the receiving end of your painfully horrible Spanish.

    • It seems like no-one would accept this bargain, but Spanish speakers seem surprisingly tolerant, and, if you make a good effort, might even find blunders you consider tragic, amusing. If they’re a recent arrival, you could trade English for Spanish.
  • Many learning resources cram you full of vocabulary words (Duolingo is el Elephante in the room), which makes you feel like you Know Spanish, but prove useless for being able to speak and understand Spanish in real life. In my experience, nouns are the easy part. They’re often guessable, and they aren’t foxy shapeshifters the way verbs are. Learn a small amount of vocabulary for the things you know you’ll often need to speak about, and let the rest take care of itself.

  • Learn the power verbs (in all their conjugations). Tener, tomar, ir, venir, hablar, hacer, poder, querer and others are used all the time. Many of them are also irregular. You can often fake it till you make it with nouns; not so much with verbs, because of the complications of conjugation.

  • I recommended taking time to grok the two sets of little words (I/she/he/they/we/it and me/her/him/them/us/it) early on — earlier than most courses teach them — because they’re used all the time, they’re crucial for understanding what’s said, and they go in seriously weird places in the sentence.

  • If you don’t have the vocabulary to say what you want to say, instead of reaching for the dictionary, use the vocabulary you have to describe the word you don’t have. A limited vocabulary can describe remarkably complex things, given enough time and a bit of creativity. (If you’re trying to say “the thing under the table” but don’t know bajo, you can say “the thing that is not over the table”; instead of “house”, you can say “the thing you live in”.)

  • For getting your meaning across, the present tense is usually enough, combined with time-specifiers, if you don’t mind sounding stupid. Not minding sounding stupid vastly simplifies everything during the learning phase. Once you can speak and be understood, it’s much easier to learn to speak correctly.

  • All the methods I used probably helped, but they didn’t get me fluent. What does seem to be getting me fluent is the combination of conversation with Spanish speakers, Language Transfer taken seriously, and reading Borges. (Though Borges’ El Aleph is way above my skill level, I wanted to read it badly enough it remained interesting even when read agonizingly slowly.)
  • Language Transfer is an incredible resource, but it’s useless unless you actually engage with it the way recommended in the introduction. Say every word that the student does, out loud, ideally before they do. You have the same information they do, and can figure it out.

  • Don’t forget that the (always) silent h, double l (y sound), ñ with the y sound, trying-to-get-an-insect-out-of-throat g, soft b for v, and literal vowel pronunciation can trip you up and make you not recognize spoken words that you actually know from reading, and vice versa.

  • Everything makes much more sense once you understand vowel-splitting, and stress (which Language Transfer will teach you).

  • Try writing letters back and forth with fellow learners without using the dictionary or Google Translate. It’s easy to reach for an aid, but I suspect you learn much faster without it. What I’ve been doing is writing back and forth in Spanish, and putting my proximate translation for the last letter above my next letter. Only once my letter or approximate translation is finished do I use Translate to see what I missed, and whether my letter means what I think it does.

  • Spanish is spoken fast, and the words run together into an unintelligible river. (Particularly, articles get stuck onto the verb without breathing room.) I have no solution for this.

Good luck!

Resources & further reading:

  • Language Transfer Complete Spanish (Spanish for the engineering-minded. This blew my mind, and is the best Spanish-learning resource I've found. Plus, it’s free. But it only works if you do...)
  • DeepL Translator (purported to be more accurate than Google Translate)
  • Libre Translate (open-source Google Translate alternative)
  • Spanish Checker (Spanish grammar checker. Since I’m not good at Spanish grammar, I don’t know how accurate it is.)
  • Deliberate Spanish (I was subscribed for a while, but it was too advanced at the time.)
  • Spanish Top 5000 Vocabulary deck for Anki spaced-repetition flashcard software.
  • Duolingo (fun & easy, but I did the complete Spanish course and still couldn’t carry on a conversation. It did get me part way there, though.)
  • Mango Languages (Duolingo competitor that I get free access to through my local library.)
  • Compare Language Apps (The effectiveness of 15 language apps, compared)