My mission to become fluent in Spanish: How baby steps lead to really big results

3rd February 2018

Read about my quest to get past intermediate and become fluent in Spanish in 6 months. This month, I learnt that baby steps help me get better results.

January. You start off feeling enthusiastic about eating salads and end up feeling enthusiastic about… well, nothing really. Apart from maybe hiding under the duvet until April. At least that’s what happens to me every year. No matter how motivated I am at the beginning of January, by February I haven’t achieved anything or worse, I’ve gone backwards. So this year I decided to do things differently: instead of attempting something big, I’d start with a couple of itsy-bitsy changes. Something so easy I couldn’t say no to - like reading one paragraph in my Spanish book. I hoped that once I’d planted the seed, these tiny habits would grow organically and help me on my quest to become fluent in Spanish, without constantly battling (and losing) against my flaky willpower. This micro experiment turned out to be a big success: I ended up reading 600 pages in Spanish in January - probably more than I read all year in 2017! But last month wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. My mission to become fluent in Spanish threw up some challenges too: I struggled with time-wasting habits (I’m looking at you Facebook!) and realized that my listening isn’t as good as I’d like it to be. Which got me thinking: could I apply this “make-it-so-easy-you-can’t-say-no” philosophy to other areas of Spanish and get similar results? Would this technique help me nix my time-wasting habits and improve my listening in Spanish? Keep reading to find out:
  • How I managed to read 600 pages by forming good language learning habits.
  • How I plan on breaking time-wasting habits in February (hasta luego social media!).
  • My problems with listening in Spanish + how I plan to fix them.

How I’m becoming fluent in Spanish by forming good language learning habits

Last year, I set myself the mammoth task of reading my way through a pile of foreign-language books. But it didn’t work: I hardly read anything all year. This year, I set myself the micro-task of reading 2 paragraphs per day (one in the morning and one in the evening), and I ended up reading 600 pages in a month!

Become fluent in Spanish Mission The pile of foreign-language books I didn't read last year.

This experience has shown me that when it comes to making big changes, starting small is best. To get into the habit of reading more in Spanish, I used BJ Fogg’s tiny habits technique, which consists of two main steps:
  1. Make the habit so small you can’t say no.
  2. Do it immediately after a habit you already have.
For me this was:

After I make my morning cup of tea, I’ll read a paragraph of my book. After I finish washing the dishes in the evening, I’ll read a paragraph of my book.

This technique worked well because it helped me do the hardest bit - get started. By the time I got started, it was easy to keep going. Actually, it was fun, because there was no pressure. Once I’d finished the paragraph, I could stop if I wanted to (and I did sometimes). But most of the time I kept reading out of choice, which made the whole thing more enjoyable. Riding on the crest of this good habit wave, I added another couple on:
  • After I start boiling the water for my tea, revise one Spanish word on my flashcard app (I usually end up doing 10 or 20)
  • After I brush my teeth, floss one tooth (I usually end up flossing them all). OK, this won’t help me become fluent in Spanish, but it's interesting to see how the tiny habits have spilt over into other areas!
Of course, there were some down points too. Like last week when I didn't read as much because I had the winter grumps and was feeling demotivated. But the great thing about my tiny language learning habits is that even if I’m tired, cranky or busy, I can still do them because they’re so easy. Usually, this would be when I’d let everything slide, end up feeling guilty and struggle to get started again.

Become fluent in Spanish Mission I didn't read much last week because I had the winter grumps

But doing just a tiny something on these days helps me stay in the habit, which naturally expands again when I feel better or have more time. Will I keep bookworming through February? I suspect that once the initial enthusiasm has worn off, the amount I read in Spanish will drop a bit. But I’m hoping that my tiny reading habits will help me stay in the game and still get quite a lot of Spanish reading done. Time will tell. Related: Language learning habits: How to achieve more by trying less

What’s stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Time-wasting habits!

In the 70s, the baby boomers had LSD and weed. For Gen X, it was cocaine and ecstasy. And Millennials? We’ve got coffee and Facebook. Sometimes I like to think this addiction doesn’t apply to me, especially when the conversation moves on to how obsessed people are with their smartphones these days. But the truth is, I’m just as hooked as everyone else in my generation. Most of the time I don’t even enjoy using social media (unless I’m using Instagram for language learning). But somehow I find my fingers reaching for my phone and before I know it, I’m staring vacantly at pictures of what a friend of a friend ate for breakfast, I’ve lost 20 minutes of my life and I’m feeling like a small part of me has just died. If I could stop constantly chasing little dopamine hits on my screen, I’d have a lot more time on my hands. Time I could put towards my mission to become fluent in Spanish.

How I plan on breaking my time-wasting habits

Of course, I’ve tried to stop procrastinating on social media before. Sometimes it works for a bit, but sooner or later I find myself with the same problem. Just because I decide to do something, doesn’t mean I’ll actually do it. What I learnt last month is that to make real changes, it helps to start itsy-bitsy. So this month, I’m going to start unravelling my social media dependence with one tiny habit:

Every time I open my phone to go on social media, I’ll revise one Spanish word on my flashcard app.

This is so small, it should be easy to do. If I really want to go on social media after that I can. But something tells me that once I get started with one Spanish word, I’ll probably do 10. And by the time I’ve done 10, I probably won’t feel like going on social media anymore.

What else is stopping me from becoming fluent in Spanish? Listening skills

I’ve been learning Spanish for a while now, so I’m always surprised by how little I understand when I watch Spanish TV. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching channel 9 from the Fast Show. As I already speak Italian and French, it didn't take long for me to start understanding slow, simplified Spanish, like the kind you hear in textbooks, or that native speakers use with foreigners. I could also understand written Spanish quite well, and managed to watch a few Spanish TV series with Spanish subtitles. This meant I was feeling a little too cocky about my listening skills and got a shock when I turned off the subtitles and realized how little I could understand! I have to remind myself that understanding TV actually comes much later than people expect. After reaching a quite an advanced level in Italian (C2) and living in Italy for several years, I still don’t understand everything on Italian TV, especially if the characters have strong regional accents. Similarly, I have an Italian friend who's lived in America for 10 years and speaks English so well he’s often mistaken for a native, but even he doesn’t understand everything he hears in American films. So the first step is to be realistic and not panic when I understand less than expected. Another thing that trips me up with Spanish listening is the regional variation: after spending a while getting used to Mexican Spanish, I was shocked to realize I hardly understood anything in the Spanish spoken in Spain. Some people say just pick a variety and stick to it, but I’d like to understand Spanish speaking people from all over the world!

How I plan on boosting my Spanish listening skills

I simply haven’t spent enough time getting used to real, spoken Spanish. So this month, my plan is to binge listen to different varieties of Spanish. This is a great excuse to re-watch all the Spanish-language TV series and films I’ve already seen, this time without subtitles. As a rough estimate, I’d say I can understand around 50 - 60% of what’s being said, which means I can usually follow what’s going on, even if I can’t understand all the details yet. By starting with series I’ve already seen, I’ll have an even better chance of following what’s being said.

Binge listening to Spanish-Language TV and podcasts

To learn from films and TV, it’s important to be able to follow the dialogue. For this reason, I’m going to use videos and TV series with Spanish subtitles that I can turn on and off. This way, when I come across big chunks of dialogues that I don’t understand, I can go back and listen again a couple of times, and if I really don’t get it, I can watch it again with the subtitles. That said, in times when I can’t be bothered to go into so much detail, I’m just going to put my feet up and watch. Now I can understand at least 50%, I can learn a lot by just listening to hours and hours of dialogues. I did this a while ago with French (with TV shows that had no subtitles) and after lots of binge-watching, my French listening got pretty good. My speaking improved too. Related: 5 smart ways to learn a language by watching films and TV. I’ll also be listening to as many Spanish podcasts as I can when I’m walking somewhere or cleaning the house. At the moment I’m listening to news podcasts, which is nice because it makes me feel like I’m in Spain (apart from when they read the weather in Granada). Speaking of which, I’m on the lookout for some good podcasts for Spanish speakers, let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions! As I love watching foreign-language TV shows and listening to podcasts, this part won’t require much motivation, which allows me to add another so-easy-you-can’t-say-no habit to my language learning routine.

Language learning goals for February

To recap, I’ve set myself 3 very simple goals to move forward in my mission to become fluent in Spanish: 1. Reading in Spanish: Read a paragraph in the morning and one in the evening. 2. Break my time-wasting habit: review one Spanish word on my flashcard app every time I get tempted to go on social media. 3. Binge listening in Spanish: watch lots of Spanish-language TV and listen to podcasts. Sounds doable right? I’ll let you know how it goes next month!

Related posts

Become fluent in Spanish in 1 year without leaving the house: A step-by-step guide The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced Set winning language learning goals: the easy 3-step process How to learn a language at home (even if you're really lazy)

What about you?

Which language are you learning at the moment? How did it go in January? What are your plans for February? Let me know in the comments!

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