During the pandemic, I’ve been watching several Masterclass courses and particularly enjoyed the one from Thomas Keller.
I love to cook and I started watching this course with the goal of learning some new recipes and cooking techniques. But I ended up learning a blueprint for how to be successful at just about anything.
In case you don’t know who he is, Thomas Keller is a world-renowned chef. Best known for The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York, he is the only American chef to achieve 3-star Michelin ratings for two different restaurants at the same time.
You might be familiar with Thomas Keller from the film Ratatouille. He let the producer, Brad Lewis, intern at The French Laundry to learn how a professional kitchen runs and he created the dish Remy services during the climax of the film: an elegant variation of traditional ratatouille called confit byaldi.
From the hours that I’ve spent watching Keller work, I completely understand why he’s so successful. He clearly holds himself to a high standard of excellence and takes a ton of pride in his work.
Thomas Keller started his culinary career at the very bottom, working as a dishwasher before he ever knew he wanted to be a chef. And according to him, the disciplines that he lives by today – as one of the greatest chefs in the world – are the same disciplines that he learned as a young dishwasher.
Today, I want to talk about how you can apply Keller’s 6 disciplines of success to your language learning journey.
In a kitchen, if things aren’t where they belong, nothing works – the dishes don’t get washed fast enough, there’s not enough counter space to chop ingredients, and the cooks can’t find the tools they need when they need them.
The same is true for learning a new language. If you’re not organized, you’ll end up going around in circles.
Here are 3 tips for getting organized with your Spanish studies:
Organize your methodology
Thomas Keller didn’t become a world-class chef by wandering into a kitchen and haphazardly playing around; he did it by deliberately practicing one essential cooking skill at a time – identifying his weaknesses and methodically refining them to perfection.
Learning Spanish is no different. Don’t expect to become fluent by occasionally reading lists of colors or animal names. Instead, use a methodical approach that teaches you how to communicate like a native speaker. Start by learning the most frequently used words, master the difficult grammar, and deliberately practice your weaknesses until you’ve mastered each essential skill set.
Organize your study time
Just like professional cooking, language learning is a complex endeavor, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or lost.
Getting organized solves this. I recommend keeping a daily study journal. List the 6 elements of language learning (vocabulary, grammar, speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and check off which ones you work on each day. If you didn’t get around to any writing or speaking today, work on those tomorrow.
With this one simple organization trick, you’ll make better use of your time and make consistent progress on all 6 elements of the Spanish language.
Organize your vocabulary
Do you keep all of your kitchen utensils, pantry items, cookware, vegetables, and meats piled up in the kitchen sink? Or course not! So why would you do that with the Spanish vocabulary you learn?
If you store all the words you learn in a memory palace, organized by parts of speech, you’ll have a much easier time finding the right pronoun or verb conjugation when you need it (just ask our students). For more on this mental organization technique, check out Chapter 3 of Accelerated Spanish Volume 1.
The kitchen at The French Laundry is set up so that every staff member only has to walk a minimal number of steps to get their job done. By saving 1 step per task, each team member saves 100 steps a day, which frees them up to focus on doing their best work.
You can apply this same logic to your Spanish studies.
Let’s say that tomorrow you have two options: either memorize vocabulary words that describe members of the family (such as “abuelo” or “tia”) or spend the same amount of time working on perfecting your use of pronouns (such as “le” and “sus”). Which would be more efficient?
Mastering the pronouns first will save you tons of time and frustration. In any Spanish conversation, you’re going to use pronouns dozens of times, while you’ll use words like “abuelo” much less often. The most efficient and least frustrating way to learn a language is to master the essential grammar and syntax first. Essentially, you’ll be “saving a step” every time you know which pronoun or verb conjugation to use, which means you’ll be saving 100 steps a day.
3. Critical Feedback
Every good chef embraces criticism.
On a typical night at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller and his staff serve an exquisite 12-course meal to 85 customers. Let’s say that 84 of those guests leave happy and one provides some sort of criticism. According to Keller, the guest with negative feedback is their most valuable customer – the give The French Laundry staff an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and improve their food or service. This attitude is what makes The French Laundry one of the best restaurants in the world.
Likewise, one of the best and fastest ways to improve your Spanish is to embrace critical feedback.
If you write a Spanish sentence that you’re proud of but a native speaker says, “Oh, we would never say it that way”…that’s GOOD news! Give your friend a hug and thank her. You’ve gotten just a little bit better at Spanish because of that feedback.
At Accelerated Spanish, we require our students to write every day. They send daily writing assignments to their native-speaking Spanish coach, who looks over their work and sends it back with critical feedback. Our most successful students are the ones who are excited to receive this feedback, learn from it, and use it to improve their Spanish.
When you see a professional chef prepare an inspired, creative dish, you might think to yourself, “Well, she was just born with a talent for cooking.” But the truth is, becoming a Michelin-starred chef is almost entirely repetition – practicing the essential skills over and over and over again, thousands of times, until they’re refined to perfection.
The same is true of language learning. A Spanish speaker may look like they’re inventing new sentences all day long, but in reality, every Spanish sentence is recycled from something a Spanish speaker has said thousands of times before. Using a subjunctive after “cuando” or an object pronoun before a verb is second nature because it’s how they’ve done it their whole lives. It’s like the muscle memory required to julienne carrots or roll the perfect gnocchi. These may look like skills you’d have to be born with, but really it’s just a matter of repetition and refinement – thousands of times over.
Last a master chef, a serious language learner knows to build up the neural connections necessary for fluid speech. Keep speaking and writing correct Spanish sentences over and over, and you’ll be speaking fluently before you know it.
The audio quizzes in the Accelerated Spanish lessons are designed with this in mind. Don’t just listen to Spanish sentences; speak them out loud, over and over again, until they become second nature.
The French Laundry runs like clockwork. Every person knows exactly what to do, all day – from when the first staff member arrives at 5:30 AM to when service starts at 5:30 PM.
Thomas Keller also has his own rituals: for example, he cooks and eats two hard-boiled eggs for breakfast every morning. Observing rituals is actually really common among highly successful people. The more mechanical and ritualistic the important habits of your life are, the better you are setting yourself up to meet your goals.
Your daily language learning ritual doesn’t have to be elaborate. You can start with just one or two small actions you’ll take on a daily basis, every morning or evening, to get you on track. In fact, to make it even easier, Chef Keller says that if you’re doing something that’s new to you, implement a temporary ritual. For example, cook handmade pasta for your family once a week during the winter. If you tell yourself that a ritual is temporary, it sounds more manageable! For example, “This week, every morning when I drink my first cup of coffee, I will write one sentence in Spanish.” It’s a simple ritual, it only takes a minute or two, and you can give it a test run by doing it for just one week.
Even when he worked as a dishwasher, Thomas Keller recognized that he was an essential part of a team. And he started learning the skills that would eventually propel him to a successful culinary career.
Just like working in a kitchen, speaking a new language is collaborative. The faster you get comfortable speaking Spanish with other people, the faster you’ll be able to call yourself bilingual. Start speaking face-to-face with native speakers as soon as you can. Don’t wait until you feel “ready” – just go for it.
And remember to have fun! Good teamwork is both productive and enjoyable, and you need to make sure that you have that kind of relationship with the native speaker who helps you practice your Spanish. I’m extremely grateful to have a team of Spanish coaches who take fluency training seriously but also add creativity and fun to everything they do.
Even if you don’t choose to work with my team, make sure you find a teacher who can balance the difficult with the playful – one minute giving you Spanish grammar drills, the next minute playing humorous word games with you. The top feedback we get from our students is that they love working with their coaches, which is the holy grail of language learning: looking forward to conversation instead of dreading it.
Ready to apply Thomas Keller’s 6 disciplines of success to Spanish? Start the Accelerated Spanish course for free.