How I Learned Spanish By Doing Nothing

Derek Mexico 26 Comments


I’ve now spent the past six months in Mexico and while learning Spanish has been one of my top priorities, unfortunately it has taken a back seat to my number one priority – completing several new internet projects that I’ve had planned for a while.

Since the completion of these projects requires me to spend a good deal of time in front of my laptop as well as communicate in English all day long in the form of emails and Skype calls, I haven’t exactly become as fluent in Spanish as I’d hoped for.

However, progress has most certainly been made. The sheer fact that I’m now able to get my point across in Spanish, or at least a basic outline of my point, during almost all of my every day interactions without too much difficulty, is a huge improvement from only being able to ask how much an apple costs a few months ago.

I still need to tell people, a lot of people, ok, the majority of people, to slow down when speaking to me, but in the end, I’m typically fairly confident that I’ve understood the gist of what the other person has said. And if not, I’ve perfected the fake nod that makes it seem like I’ve understood everything, thus avoiding the need for any further discussion on the matter.

So overall, to go from a muttering buffoon to a semi-competent speaker of a foreign language in six months is an accomplishment that for me, is significant enough to leave me wondering what on earth I did to achieve this goal.

SIX MONTHS OF NOTHING

This is the interesting part. When I look back over my time here, from the very day I crossed the border into Mexico until I finished off the quesadilla I just stuffed into my mouth a few seconds ago (not the best mindfulness practice – sorry Nate!), I realize that my Spanish has improved by doing what seems like…nothing…at all. Absolutamente nada!

I haven’t used any methods or techniques that one normally associates with learning languages. For example, I haven’t taken any classes, studied any books or online language learning courses, I haven’t listened to Spanish lessons while sleeping or kept a notebook of new words and grammar rules. In fact, I haven’t written a single thing I’ve learned down on paper and it would be a flat out lie to state that I’ve opened my Spanish/English dictionary more than four times.

All I did was move to Mexico.

And while I obviously could have made further progress by using even one of the above methods, I can’t really complain given that I’m now able to speak a decent amount of Spanish without having put in much of an effort at all.

Instead of spending hours studying, I simply went out to eat and was therefore forced to learn the items on the menu. I took day trips and was forced to struggle through asking for directions. When it was time to negotiate my rent, tell my landlord about an infestation of scorpions or kindly request the construction workers outside my building to quiet down because it was 6:30am and some of us enjoy sleeping past sunrise, I had to do so in Spanish.

Slowly, my brain pieced together the specks of Spanish it learned each day and now, six months later, somehow my brain is able to communicate in complete sentences and understand what others are saying to me.

I literally learned Spanish by doing nothing other than deciding to live in a Spanish-speaking country. The rest took care of itself.

ALL IT TAKES IS ONE STEP FORWARD

Before I arrived in Mexico, I admittedly spent weeks trying to determine how best to learn the language. I researched reliable language schools throughout the country, I considered purchasing Rosetta Stone or Spanish for Dummies. I looked for ways to find a suitable tutor and and to determine which method of language learning most suited my needs. Yet during all of the time I spent thinking about how to learn, I naturally didn’t make any progress at all in actually learning.

Only by taking a physical step (moving to Mexico) did the achievement of my goal become a real possibility. And it didn’t even matter that I had no steps planned beyond that first one.

I think we often spend too much time over-analyzing, complicating our decisions, worrying needlessly, trying to research and craft such precise and executable plans. But in reality, progress cannot be made without taking action. Without action, we will continue to wonder why our goals in life are going un-achieved despite spending so much time thinking about them.

As soon as I realized that I’ve been learning Spanish with such little effort, I immediately began taking action towards several other other goals I’ve set for myself. And I honestly encourage everyone to do the same, no matter how small that first step may be.

Perhaps it requires sending an email, making a phone call, shopping around for airfares, deciding on a title for that book you want to write, deciding what product to sell online, updating your resume or signing up for that course you’ve always wanted to attend.

Whatever it is, it’s not going to get accomplished by thinking about it alone.

You’ve got to move your feet forward. You’ve got to do something, even if that something seems like nothing.


What about you? Do you spend time thinking about achieving a goal without taking any actual steps?

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Comments 26

  1. Princess Kiara

    I found this blog super entertaining! Just found it today 😛 This article is epic! And I am a native Spanish speaker…
    I’m 15 and in the first year of high, with excellent grades. I plan to study in Bucharest, and so I am studying Romanian.
    I love the idea of going there! However it is still two years before I can go, and I’m told it’s unlikely I’ll get a scholarship if I don’t know their language. Any learning tips? Do you know Romanian, or someone who might want to be my Romanian e-pen pal?
    Thanks!

    1. Wandering Earl

      @Princess Kiara – Hopefully a Romanian who reads this blog will know someone who might be interested in being an e-pen pal. I personally don’t speak Romanian although I did pick up a little while I was there (I’m not there any more right now). The best way to learn by far is to just listen to Romanian music, watch Romanian movies and try to connect, like you asked, with a Romanian speaking individual.

  2. Priyank

    I spoke rudimentary Spanish before going to Mexico and was worrying about my (lack of) language skills. But soon I found myself listening to fast and long conversations and actually making sense of it. I was amazed how easy it was to pick up the language.

    1. Earl

      Hey Priyank – Once you understand that first conversation, I think it’s the excitement that suddenly boosts our confidence and leads to rapid improvement. I remember the first time I had a semi-long conversation in Spanish and I spent the following half-hour celebrating as if I had just won free airfare for life 🙂 And from that point on, there is no other option but to improve!

  3. Pingback: Mexico…Here I Come, Again! | Wandering Earl

  4. Dave and Deb

    Good for you! We found that when we were traveling around Central America and Mexico, our Spanish improved quickly. While we were by no means fluent, we found it easy to learn also. Once we were forced to speak it. I think that the best way to learn another language is to move there like you did. We have had a dream of spending a year in a Spanish Speaking country to learn the language. You have inspired us to get our butts in gear.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dave and Deb – You should definitely get that plan rolling! Moving here was a great decision and I still can’t believe how much I’ve learned in just six months. Of course, I wish I had done this years ago as I think I’m going to be much more motivated to pick up more of the local languages during my future travels. So the sooner the better I say…

      And thanks for taking a moment from your India travels to comment!

    1. Earl

      Hey Anthony – It’s amazing what the brain will do when it doesn’t have any other choice. And your mother was certainly lucky to be immersed in foreign cultures as a child, allowing her to easily pick up some valuable life skills and experiences. As we get older, it definitely takes a little longer, or a lot longer, to process everything. The thought of learning ‘multiple languages’ at this point in life seems quite daunting to me!

  5. Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Earl.

    Great point here. So many things in our thoughts are counter-intuitive, in my view. One might think that all the review they were doing to learn a language would be the important thing before they got there, but the important thing is to be there. We often think we must pursue someone to get them, but the best method is to be as we are and let them come to us. If we seek some form of business success, the best way to get it is not to watch it every day, but to do things in relation to it and leave it to bloom on its own.

    Those examples didn’t all relate to the message here but they represent counter-intuitive things.

    Your message here does tell us that the real learning happens on-site, as is the case with languages, jobs, websites, research, sports, and so on.
    .-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..Don’t Take Someone For Granted =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Armen – Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I always look forward to hearing your perspectives on my posts.

      It seems quite easy to get so caught up in thinking about a goal that we falsely believe that the observation and constant review is all we need. And this process is quite powerful, as we are able to convince ourselves that a goal is unreachable, a plan is not feasable, etc. without ever truly putting ourselves out there into the environment that will actually help us make progress.

  6. Dina

    That’s great, Earl. Especially that you are able to convey the scorpion infestation matter to your landlord 🙂

    During my past 11 months, I have always wanted to speak in local language, unfortunately people in Europe that we encountered have been good in English. Even when they don’t really speak English in some part of Greece that we visited, they figured out what we said. It’s too easy to use English. I don’t feel bad though, English is like my third language 🙂

    I definitely have passion in learning the local alphabet or their picture based character. I think when you don’t speak the local language, even only able to read their characters are tremendous help. Obvious use will be to read names of places. But simple thing like food names (English translation is sometimes bad and useless), enter and exit sign, prices (when they have different numbers), and many words are quite similar to languages we already know anyway because many have same roots. Very very helpful.

    I’m now able to read the alphabet of Japanese (katakana and hiragana), greek (I can do it fast now), and arabic (they only write the vowels rarely, pronunciation is a bit flexible depend on the role of the word in sentence). Also basic Japanese Kanji and Chinese characters. Oh, not that anybody still use it now, but I was fluent at reading ancient Javanese characters too, haha.

    In the past few months, I’ve been in English speaking nations: Australia and NZ. But next time I’m in different language environment again, I definitely want to learn to speak like them!

    What other languages do you speak? Do you also like learning alphabet?
    .-= Dina´s last blog ..Go barefoot like the locals in New Zealand =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dina – Seems like you’re addicted to language learning!

      Actually, that’s a similar approach that I took when I used to live in Thailand. The first thing I did was to learn the characters so that I could read as much as possible and this helped me to gain a decent understanding of the every day language in a relatively short period of time. It makes quite a difference when you can read the signs and the menus and it always gave me a boost of motivation when I found myself understanding characters that used to seem so strange to me.

      At this point in my travels, I have learned the basics of several languages but unfortunately none fluently because I tend to move around too much! But wherever I go, even if its for a short time, I make sure that I become familiar with the language as much as possible. It adds an entirely new and rewarding dimension to traveling that I wouldn’t want to leave out.

      You can always learn Maori out there in NZ!

  7. Liz

    Hehehe… well done Earl!
    I just wanted to add some sense of humor to your comments by making fun of our stereotype. =)

  8. Liz

    Hi Moon,
    When I travel to many countries I always carry a wedding ring. I am single, but that always helps to keep guys away from me. Also if you find yourself in an awkward situation, you just grab the first tourist guy that you see and say “you are finally here… where were you babe?” hahaha, they are normally quite smart and will go with the flow =)

    Hi Earl,
    Why don’t you prove to us that you have learned spanish… can you translate? “Había una vez un americano que aprendió a hablar español sin ayuda de nadie, ese americano dormia muchas siestas debajo de un nopal mientras que su burro se tomaba su botella de tequila…” hehehe! Just joking, well done!

    1. Earl

      Hey Liz – Nice, my first Spanish challenge! I believe you wrote “One time there was an American that learned to speak Spanish without help and this American took many naps under a cactus while his donkey drank a bottle of tequila.” Not bad, huh?

      Being a Mexican yourself, you’re certainly not doing a good job at eliminating stereotypes! Haha…

    1. Earl

      You definitely have to deal with some things that male travelers don’t have to deal with, there’s no denying that. Although with a little planning, such as you do, it doesn’t have to affect your adventures much. But in the end, it’s always good to be a little careful, whether you’re male or female, when you find yourself in new places.

  9. Moon Hussain

    Earl,

    That’s awesome. What could be more awesome to live in another country, enjoy it, whilst you’re picking up language on the go? I would have to, before moving, learning phrases like “Where is the restroom?”, “Where is the hospital?”, “toilet paper”, “not single”, and “no, thanks!” etc. haha.

    Looks like it’s good times for you 🙂
    .-= Moon Hussain´s last blog ..My Three Pronged Approach To Creating My First Niche Website =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Moon – I agree, it definitely helps to learn a few phrases first! Some basic understanding does make it easier to practice once you’re actually immersed in the new language.
      And I like that you added ‘not single’ to your list of must-know phrases. That can only come from someone who understands the difficulties that women travelers face in many parts of the world.

      Time to read your new post…

  10. Nate

    Not a problem Earl! I definitely fall into patterns where I’m not eating every meal mindfully!

    This is an interesting article. On the one hand, I think that your complete immersion in a foreign country played a large (if not the largest) role in you learning some basics of the language. On the other hand, your doing ‘nothing’ as you put it also played an important role in it as well. To me, this is sort of a tangent off of non-doing. The thing is, non-doing doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing…and you weren’t doing nothing. You moved to Mexico and were involved in every day activities that put you in the position where you needed to at least attempt to speak the language. What you didn’t do is force it. This is not to say that you couldn’t have taken a language class or that it wouldn’t have helped…I’m sure it would have helped immensely in conjunction with your immersion in the culture. What this does point out is that we should be more open to letting things naturally unfold. We have this pre-conceived notion that by constant doing we receive results. Often times the opposite is true. If we just be, we might find that the answers and solutions will arrive at our doorstep in due time!
    .-= Nate´s last blog ..The Journey Within =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Nate – It’s interesting because just ‘being’ often seems to be interpreted as ‘lazy’ or not being ambitious enough. We believe that a series of constant calculated steps is the answer and if something doesn’t work immediately after one or two steps, then we must quickly try another plan. But you’re right, the idea of ‘naturally unfolding’ is not something we consider enough. But sometimes it seems that simply being present and aware of where you are and what you are doing, is more than enough achieve to make significant progress towards some of our goals.

  11. Ash

    Right on, dude! Krashen first made the distinct between learned knowledge and acquired knowledge, and argued that we can really only learn to speak through the latter. If anything, we only use learned knowledge to monitor ourselves, but it doesn’t make us fluent. Of course, there’s been many opposing theories that would advocate for traditional rules-based language learning, but it’s all a very fluid field of research that tends to swing like a pendulum with its fads.

    While Krashen argued that input was the single-handed most important factor in the acquisition of a second language, other theorists have pointed out the need for us to produce output as well, which is a theory I agree with. By producing output, we receive feedback from whoever we’re talking to, which allows us to continually tweak our growing knowledge of how to use the language through hypothesis testing or trial and error. Then, that person’s feedback feeds back into you as input, and it’s like a big cycle. I like this.

    Wow is it obvious I have a master’s degree in this? lol. Point blank: Immersion is the only way you’ll gain anything close to fluency in a language….although they say that the window of opportunity to sound just like a native speaker closes after 6 years old. Six to fifteen year olds could pull it off, but still have some slight remnants of an accent, and beyond that they pretty much say your mind becomes fossilized, with some exceptions of course.

    Viva Mexico!!!!!
    .-= Ash´s last blog ..Live Alive, Not Just a Life: Guidelines for Rebelling Against “Reality” =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Ash – Did you just provide a scientific background for my simple post? I think you did. That is awesome!

      I like the input/output theory you described and that seems to make the most sense to me. Without output, nobody would be correcting me, or at least giving me a blank stare which forces me to rethink my original output, revise and try again, hopefully with success the second (or ninth) time around. It is indeed a cycle and the cycle keeps the learning fresh, which in turn keeps me interested in learning. If I were to open a book on Spanish, I would last ten minutes before losing interest.

      And I’m relieved to know that a perfect accent is virtually unattainable at this stage – that takes some of the pressure off. I’ll be happy with what seems to be my slightly amusing gringo accent as long as I can communicate!

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