Have you ever felt like it’s time to give up on trying to learn Spanish?
I definitely have. I thought I had done everything right:
• I spent months memorizing thousands of words.
• I had a daily routine of quizzing on Spanish flashcards.
• I clocked hour after hour of online practice with native speakers.
• I listened to Spanish materials regularly.
• I moved to Buenos Aires and made friends only with native speakers.
And yet everything seemed stacked against me.
It started at the airport when I landed. When the announcements came on, I had to listen to the English translations. I couldn’t make out anything in the Spanish.
After getting into the city, I ordered a coffee, and was quickly embarrassed. I asked for a café con leche in my crisp, methodical Spanish, but the server’s thickly accented response was completely unintelligible to me.
Over time I made friends and sometimes did *pretty* well in one-on-one conversations. But in a group setting, I was a fish out of water. I’d be listening along, and then suddenly something funny would provoke a burst of laughter from everyone. Of course, to avoid awkwardness, I would laugh along too… but it would suddenly occur to me that I had no idea what the joke was. I had lost the thread of the conversation several sentences back.
The worst thing was how many people had to switch to English to communicate with me. Friends would try to say something in Spanish several times and then finally switch to English to get the point across. Store clerks were less patient: As soon as I started trying to speak Spanish, they could tell I was a foreigner and immediately switched to English.
At a certain point, I gave up.
Any time I went into a store or coffee shop, I simply used English. And if I was talking with a friend who knew a significant amount of English, I used that instead of Spanish. It was refreshing: I could communicate in my native language, without the stress of saying something unclear or just plain dumb. The pressure was all on the OTHER person. What could be better?
Of course, under the surface, I was deeply disappointed in myself.
This funk lasted for several weeks. I ended up speaking more English than Spanish for the latter half of my three-month stay in Argentina. English became my happy place. Spanish represented stress, frustration, and hopelessness.
Don’t worry, my story doesn’t have a tragic ending. But it only got better after I accepted and embraced a reality that I had been denying for months.
In a nutshell:
LEARNING A LANGUAGE IS HARD.
There, I’ve said it.
And it’s true. Learning to speak a second language fluently might be the most difficult thing you can possibly try to do.
I’ve had software engineers tell me that Spanish is the hardest thing they’ve ever had to learn. And don’t get me started on the hundreds of business owners, doctors, professors, and other accomplished individuals… who completely gave up and abandoned Spanish after trying hard for a few months. Bear in mind that these are people who have overcome more challenges than most of us could ever imagine. And in the end, trying to learn Spanish was what finally broke their wills.
And that’s because language learning is a unique kind of challenge.
It’s one thing to learn a new skill, no matter how complicated it is, while speaking and thinking in English. It’s quite another thing to try to change the way you *think*, at a fundamental level.
If you’re memorizing thousands of terms of human anatomy, or learning how to calculate the trajectory of a missile, you may have to learn a lot of new terms, methods, and algorithms. And that’s a lot of work. But the syntax that you’re using to form those thoughts, the programming language that you’re using to encode all of that new information, is still your native language.
Learning Spanish, on the other hand, requires you to rewire your brain from the ground up. You’ve spent your whole life using little words like “the”, “and”, and “her” without giving them any conscious attention. You’ve never had to think about the subjunctive mood while expressing intention. Now you’re being asked to rethink all these things you learned before you were five years old. And asking you to use direct object pronouns BEFORE verbs instead of after them? That’s basically like asking you to walk on one hand and one foot instead of two feet!
Not only that, but after you’ve learned all these rules and have begun to speak Spanish, these habits won’t be second nature until you’ve been using them consistently for months. Meanwhile, you’re expected to learn thousands of new vocabulary words while flawlessly using your new Spanish grammar. It’s as if you’ve JUST re-learned how to walk, and now you’re expected to start breakdancing.
Does it ever end? When will you finally be speaking, thinking, listening, and dreaming in Spanish without a problem every day?
When will it finally “click”?
Three Tips for Conquering the Doldrums
I stayed in my funk, what I now call the “Spanish doldrums”, for several months. But eventually I got out. Here’s how I did it, and how hundreds of other students have broken free of the heavy chains of linguistic depression.
1. Go Easy on Yourself.
To snap out of the Spanish doldrums, the very first thing you need to do is give yourself some grace.
Repeat after me: LEARNING A LANGUAGE IS HARD. And when you’re doing something this hard, it’s only fair to treat yourself with a little bit of compassion!
Let’s do a little thought exercise. Imagine that you have a friend who is trying to learn to play the oboe. She’s chosen the oboe because it’s one of the most beautiful instruments to listen to when it’s played well… but as she’s quickly learned, playing the oboe “well”, even one note, takes an enormous amount of practice. Creating a consistently beautiful tone on the oboe is more difficult than it is on almost any other instrument.
Now, if you were listening to your friend practicing, would you snap at her if she played a wrong note? Would you laugh at her every time she accidentally produced a honky, squeaky sound? I hope not! If you’re a good friend, you’ll treat this friend with support and encouragement. You’ll patiently and graciously endure the mistakes, reminding her that they’re helping her on her way to becoming a master instrumentalist.
So… why not be a good friend to yourself?
Does it really help when you snap at yourself or deride yourself for making a mistake in Spanish? If you’re a good friend to yourself, you’ll treat yourself with support and encouragement. You’ll patiently and graciously endure the mistakes, reminding yourself that they’re helping you on your way to becoming a fluent Spanish speaker.
Going easy on yourself does NOT mean that you have to lower your long-term expectations. In my case, my dream was eventually to get to the point that I could live my entire life in Spanish for months on end. And that dream never changed.
But my short-term expectations were out of wack. I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t perfect, and that I wasn’t going to be perfect any time soon. I was going to make mistakes. I was going to honk and squeak for a while. And if I was going to get any better at speaking Spanish… I’d have to be okay with honking and squeaking. In fact, I’d have to do a lot MORE honking and squeaking if I wanted to improve.
It wasn’t going to help me at all if I kept berating myself every time I made a mistake. As long as I learned from those mistakes, I should actually plan to make as many mistakes as possible.
It all starts with being easier on yourself.
2. Embrace Difficulty.
Going easy on yourself doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard. Actually, it means giving yourself some slack because of how hard you know you have to work!
Getting out of the Spanish doldrums will, eventually, require getting down to business — the serious, effortful business of working on your Spanish. Since language learning is perhaps the most difficult challenge you’ll endure in your life, you should both be patient with yourself AND give yourself gentle encouragement to work hard at it.
As I described in a recent article titled Adopt a Growth Mindset, there are two types of language learners.
First, there are those who have a “fixed mindset”. They tend to think that people are either “good at learning a language” or “bad at learning a language”. When they face difficulties, they tend to be discouraged and decide that they don’t have what it takes.
Then there are those who have a “growth mindset”. These learners tend to see effort and persistence as the most important factors for success. When they face difficulties, they tend to see this as a sign that they need to work harder.
The good news is that you can decide which type of learner you want to be. It takes training, but over time you can gradually coach yourself to become a growth mindset learner by doing the following:
(1) Never call yourself “bad at language learning”. In fact, remove the phrases “good at” or “bad at” from your vocabulary! Instead, when you talk about the difficulties of learning a language, make sure you talk about effort. If someone is fluent in a second language, they worked hard at it. If you are having trouble, it means you need to work harder.
(2) Highlight your mistakes. If you’re working hard at learning a language, you’ll make mistakes. If you want to grow from them, you need to be willing to make them in the first place, and then learn from them.
(3) Embrace difficulty. Remember, learning a language SHOULD be difficult! If it ever feels like a breeze, then you’re probably doing it wrong. The best Spanish learners are the ones who can find joy in the daily work of getting slowly better and better at learning Spanish, even though it’s difficult.
Unfortunately, most language learners don’t embrace difficulty. They’re willing to turn on Spanish TV once in a while and listen passively to it. They’re willing to open an entertaining language-learning app that tells them they’re doing a great job. But without serious effort, these things don’t lead to real progress.
Learning a language is hard, and it’s the hard work that’s going to get you out of the doldrums and carry you to fluency.
Are you up to the challenge?
3. Use Atomic Habits.
If you’ve decided to embrace the challenge of learning a new language, your next step is to make it as easy as possible.
That sounds like a contradiction. If learning a language is the hardest thing you can possibly do, and if you need to embrace that difficulty… how can it be easy?
The key to conquering Spanish is to make it as easy as possible WITHOUT sacrificing quality. So it will still be hard, but not so hard that you give up.
That’s why “make it easy” is one of the fundamental rules in Atomic Habits, a book that I recommend for all language learners.
As I mentioned in my article on this topic:
The truth is that we’re naturally kind of lazy. Even when we are convinced that it’s time to work on Spanish, that doesn’t mean we’ll choose to do the most productive work during that time. Instead, we choose whatever is easiest so we can check our daily Spanish practice off the to-do list as quickly and painlessly as possible.
It hurts to admit it, but if we have to be honest: The reality is that even when we’ve committed to doing something difficult, we normally tend to choose the path of least resistance… at least on a bad day.
There’s a solution: Reorganize your life so that the “path of least resistance” actually IS the real work of learning the language!
To make learning Spanish as easy as possible without sacrificing quality, I recommend boiling your daily Spanish routine into 3 steps:
• Speak some Spanish out loud, using audio quizzes.
• Review some flashcards to identify your weak areas.
• Write a few sentences in Spanish based on the weak areas you just discovered.
You can do this routine every day in 20 minutes or less. Sure, it’s not as easy as opening Duolingo or listening passively to Spanish TV. It’s real, hard work! But it’s the easiest possible version of that hard work. And it will keep you moving toward genuine fluency on a daily basis.
For a detailed plan of how you can make daily Spanish an easy, automatic habit, check out the full habits article here: Atomic Habits and Language Learning.
My Path Out of the Doldrums
Two years after my doldrums in Argentina, I finally left the US again to spend a month in Spain. This time, I hoped, I would conquer all my fears. In fact, as soon as I reached my destination, I might just stop speaking English altogether! After all, I’d now had years of more practice and study; surely I was prepared.
THIS time I was going to do it right.
As I walked up to the checkin counter at JFK in New York City, with visions of landing in Barcelona and swearing off English, my heart suddenly sank.
Everyone around me was speaking Spanish. And I couldn’t understand a thing.
Here I was, still in the US, and I was already panicking. I should have seen it coming; this was a Spanish-owned airline, after all, and most of these passengers were Spaniards, either going home or visiting relatives in Spain. And they were all chattering excitedly in Spanish, making new friends in Spanish, and exchanging pleasantries with the checkin assistants in Spanish.
And despite all my practice, hearing 10 layers of Spanish voices on top of each other was completely intimidating and disorienting.
As I slowly approached the counter, I had a decision to make. Was I going to conquer my fears and try to be one of them? Was I going to speak Spanish to the assistant and vanquish the doldrums?
“Flight 6253 to Barcelona,” I heard myself say in English.
The doldrums washed over me again.
Over the next 14 hours, at every step, I spoke English. On the plane, I spoke English to the flight attendant and listened to the English announcements. During my connection in Madrid, I asked for directions in English. It *almost* felt like the same funk I had felt in Buenos Aires.
But there was a difference: I had an action plan.
Here’s how I followed the three pieces of advice from this article.
1. Go Easy on Yourself.
“Learning a language is HARD,” I reminded myself on my first flight over the Atlantic. “And listening comprehension is perhaps the hardest part. Don’t be discouraged by what happened in the airport. Besides, when 20 people are talking on top of each other, you can’t expect to understand what everyone is saying even in English, let alone Spanish! Go easy on yourself.”
2. Embrace Difficulty.
On the second flight, from Madrid to Barcelona, I pulled out my phone, opened the flashcard app I was using, and started quizzing. My little scare in JFK was a wake-up call to how difficult it is to learn a language. Now it was time to embrace that difficulty.
Specifically, as I flipped through word after word, I imagined myself landing in Barcelona and having to use these words in a real conversation (see Become Fluent in Spanish Using Flashcards). I practiced saying them under my breath, in the middle of spontaneous sentences I made up on the spot.
3. Use Atomic Habits
In Barcelona, I got off the plane on a mission. And although Atomic Habits hadn’t been published yet in 2017, my mission was a based on a habit rule that would soon be a prominent part of the book.
The rule is simple: “Never miss twice.” No matter what habit you’re trying to make (or break), if you mess up one time, it’s probably no big deal. But if you make the wrong decision two times in a row, you’re actually establishing a new habit — the opposite habit of what you want.
The habit that I DID want to establish was to speak Spanish with every native speaker I encountered. I had messed up during my trip, and there was no reason to beat myself up about that. But if I kept speaking English now, that would mean I had “missed twice”. I would be establishing the habit of speaking English rather than Spanish, even here in Barcelona!
As I left the airport, the airport staff directed me to a taxi. My driver greeted me with a friendly, “¡Hola! Buenos días.”
I swallowed my pride and responded:
“Hola! ¿Cómo está?”
“Muy bien. A ver, déjeme abrir esta…”
Relief washed over me. My confidence started climbing. And I stuck to my plan.
The conversation with the driver flowed more and more naturally. We chatted about travel, Barcelona’s climate, the quality of the city’s coffee, differences in Spanish dialects, and his recommendations for things I should do during my visit. It felt amazing
Still, there were hiccups. Sometimes I didn’t have a word for something. Several times, I had to ask him to reword something so that I could understand it.
And that also happened throughout my time in Spain, in my countless conversations with locals. Sometimes they were smooth and almost effortless. Other times, I got discouraged and almost gave up. Even now, as I rely on English less and less while in Spanish-speaking countries, there are days when I just want to use my native language.
And that’s because learning a language is hard.
But it’s worth it.
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