Mike Gyi

December 20, 2023

How I learnt to speak Spanish (Part 3)

Alas, I entered the barren wasteland of intermediate purgatory. It was lonely. It was hard. It was tedious. It was frustrating. If you've been there, you know it sucks.

So how did I manage to get out?

How does one peep their head above the parapet and into full-blown language fluency?

I'm not there yet, but I'm a lot closer than I've ever been (obvious point, well made).

What?! Mike?! I thought you said that you could speak Spanish?!

Well, I can...it's just that there are different levels of fluency. You find this out when you reach "level 1".

Level 1 fluency, for me (because I've made the "levels" thing up), is when you know all the grammar, can say whatever you want, and can have decent conversations because you have a vast vocabulary. You might stutter, and stumble, or not express your personality fully, but you're doing it. By this point, I'd say you're beginning to say goodbye to intermediate purgatory.

Level 10 is full native fluency. That's the mother tongue stuff. Not sure much needs to be said here apart from all that creative and essay writing practice at school counts and is important to be a level 10 stallion.

I believe I oscillate between 2 and 4, depending on my confidence that day.

So leaving intermediate purgatory is the aim. How did I go about it?

After Camino Barcelona, I carried on with lessons via Baselang.com, a superb platform. You pay a monthly fee and then after that, it's all-you-can-eat lessons. In addition, you are in control of the learning process as the whole syllabus of content is available to you.

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With Baselang you can jump into a lesson with sometimes giving only 5 minutes notice, it's that flexible and instant. It's a genius business model.

As I had studied all of the grammar already in my B2 course at Camino Barcelona, using Baselang was all about speaking practice. For this, I would opt for the reading comprehension exercises where I'd have to read out a scientific article and then answer questions on it.

Weirdly, I became good at saying "entrelazamiento cuántico" (quantum entanglement).

So that was great. I did it on and off for around 3-months and had the lovely Jossbell from Ecuador as my teacher. We also met up in Madrid a year later which was a random and fun experience.

This sounds like I was making good progress, although I was still frustrated day to day. Being one of the most English-looking men in Barcelona, people would still speak to me in my native language because they'd assume I was a tourist. At first, it was annoying and then you get used to it. Besides, I'd say feeling prejudice as a white man is for sure a healthy thing to experience at some point...

In comes deliberatespanish.com stage right, whooosh. What a top top course.

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The course is run by Nacho, an impressive intellect. I came across it via a combination of an article on how to order in a restaurant and his mind-bending practice lessons on YouTube. I was hooked. The lessons were a true brain workout and were centred around the memorisation of 2 or 3 complex sentences to gain fluency.

Worked hard by the taster lessons on YouTube, my brain instructed me to visit Nacho's website to test myself with more content.

"Sal del purgatorio del nivel intermedio" - what a homepage tagline. I was sold. It's what I had been looking for a long time.

The online course was intense. It lasted 12 weeks and included video lessons each accompanied by a challenge. Writing challenges were the norm where learning how to write long passages of Spanish text on a keyboard was the key to success.

My favourite challenge was a 2-minute speaking exercise where you would have to record yourself telling a story without pressing stop or restarting the recording. There were lots of uncomfortable "eerrrrrs and uhhhhmms" and with each one I felt like I was making progress. The best part was that the teachers would give insanely detailed feedback on your pronunciation and correct your writing, always with a thorough explanation.

The course threw me outside of my comfort zone like no other course had. There were 10+ other students from around the world struggling along with me, everyone posting their uhhms and errrs in an online forum.

If you're not able to be comfortable with being uncomfortable you're not going to get very far in language learning. You have to enjoy the feeling, in a perverse way.

One thing that stuck with me was that language learning with the aim of fluency can be a lonely journey if you're self-learning because it's hard to meet like-minded people in a similar position. Nacho's course allowed me to marvel at others' determination and skill level which in turn inspired me to carry on learning. Some people were truly impressive and made me feel rather dumb. Again, an amazing reality check.

After the course, I took a hiatus from active learning, although I was still reviewing my mammoth Anki flashcard deck most days. Given that it works on spaced repetition, you've got to give the process many months for the words to be committed to your memory. The beauty is that it works and little by little you accumulate a huge vocabulary. It's as if you were to stick a pen drive into your skull and upload all the words, Matrix-style. Impressive science. 

I finally started to enjoy the language, speaking with friends, spending whole days and evenings immersed in Spanish. This is surprisingly hard to do in Barcelona given it's so international, but it happened. It was great. Dating was also now on the cards in Spanish and that brings me to the next stage in my journey...

To learn more colloquial Spanish I got into watching trash Spanish TV. This included la isla de las tentaciones "la manita relaja Manue!" and First Dates España. 

I was familiar with the concept of First Dates from the UK as it had started in London. The Spanish version was hilarious to me. All these new regional accents from around the country and some funny characters to boot. 

When you go on holiday and switch on the TV it seems like an alternate universe, a culture far removed from yours. Not for a second would you imagine that you'd one day bridge that gap. Well, for some reason, I decided I needed to do that. Perhaps it was due to feeling an alien in the country I lived in, despite my efforts to integrate myself, or likely because I thought it would be hilarious. 

One evening I was watching First Dates, texting one of my neighbours about the show and up on the screen popped a notice "WhatsApp this number if you want to have a date”. I sent her a picture as a joke, and she replied immediately "you have to do it". 

Impressionable, I WhatsApp'd the number. It was terrifying. Sending the message felt like a bungee jump. What on earth was I doing?! I could only just about go on dates in Spanish so why did I think it was a good idea to go on national TV?!

...and here's probably a good time to stop. More to come in Part 4, the final part.

About Mike Gyi

UX/Product, ex-architecture, ex-TW, community addict, building https://www.townspot.uk