You’ve done it. You’ve laid the foundation for Spanish fluency by:
• adopting a growth mindset,
• using research-based study techniques,
• working toward truly thinking in Spanish,
• creating Spanish study routines that work,
• interrupting/interleaving your study productively, and
• using analogies and stories to learn more Spanish more quickly.
Today we come to the end of this How To Learn a Language series. As we wrap up, I’d just like to mention that I’ve greatly enjoyed the last 5 months that I spent working on these articles. My endless pages of notes that didn’t make it into the articles could make up a whole book. If you’ve enjoyed this series and want me to publish more about learning how to learn, send me an email: Timothy@MasterOfMemory.com
Today, let’s focus on Spanish, and on how to get to the next level of speaking, writing, listening, reading, and thinking in Spanish.
Basically, the 7th principle of learning, become a natural, comes down to mastering the previous 6 principles and refining them to near-perfection.
To do that, let’s pick up the book we’ve been neglecting the most.
What Happened to Josh Waitzkin?
So far, I’ve focused on Make It Stick and A Mind for Numbers because they involve the most fundamental techniques. These two books focus extensively on peer-reviewed research studies on what makes learning effective, getting you from a beginner student to an advanced learner.
The book I’ve referenced the least so far is The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. This book is particularly valuable for getting beyond the foundations laid in the other books and training your intuition to get you to the highest level of what you’re learning.
Waitzkin trains top-1-percent performers in a variety of fields, from athletes to business leaders to portfolio managers. His specialty is helping people go from being experts at something to being the best in the world at it. His book specifically uses that experience to help learners prime themselves for top success at any learning project.
Let’s use Waitzkin’s ideas to become the best in the world at learning Spanish.
One of the things Josh Waitzkin talks about the most is intuition training.
What is intuition, and why does it matter for learning Spanish?
Imagine the following scenario: You’re finally speaking fluid, natural Spanish with a close friend who is a native Spanish speaker. Halfway through the conversation, you’re shocked to discover that you just used supuse in the flow of a sentence, without thinking about it. Previously, you would have had to stop and puzzle it out (“do I use supuse or suponía here?”), but today you just blurted it out… and it was correct!
When your Spanish intuition is at a very high level, you’ll find this happening more and more often. Intuition basically means making correct decisions without consciously thinking about it. And that’s the final step to fluency.
When you communicate (in any language), you’re making subtle decisions all the time, whether you know it or not:
• “How loud should my voice be right now?”
• “What facial expression conveys my meaning best?”
• “Should I spend more time speaking or listening right now?”
• “Which word do I use here?”
Of course, most of the time, you don’t consciously think about most of these choices. For example, in your native language, you almost certainly don’t have to spend a lot of mental resources on “Which word do I use here?” You rarely have to stop and think about whether to say “had ranned” versus “had run”. Since you’ve know your native language your entire life, the correct word form occurs to you intuitively.
And the very idea of “intuition” may seem mystical and suspect, but it’s a subject of extensive study. According to research by Daniel Kahneman, there are basically two ways that we make ANY type of decisions. I highly recommend his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” if you want to go down this rabbit hole! But here’s the basic summary:
• When we make quick decisions without thinking about them, that’s “thinking fast”, or as Josh Waitzkin would call it, intuition.
• When we have to puzzle through something, such as mental multiplication or coming up with the right form of an unfamiliar Spanish verb, that’s “thinking slow”.
Basically, a lot of the advice in The Art of Learning is there to help you go from “thinking slow” to “thinking fast” in your new skill. Becoming a natural at Spanish means that after you’ve mastered the fundamentals, you’ll expand and refine your Spanish skills relentlessly. This will help you put as many into System 1 as possible, until speaking correct Spanish is intuitive almost all the time.
The Art of Learning is full of expert advice on the subject, and I highly recommend buying and reading it. Meanwhile, in the rest of this article, I’m NOT going to try to summarize all the ideas in the book. Instead, I’ll distill some of Waitzkin’s advice into just six brief sections below, based on the things we’ve learned in the previous six articles in this series.
So here are some advanced tactics for taking your Spanish studies to the very top of your game.
Growth Mindset: Advanced Tactics
In Adopt a Growth Mindset, we briefly talked about the importance of “investing in loss”, an idea that Waitzkin describes extensively in The Art of Learning. Whether you’re trying to master chess, working your way up to a championship in a martial art, or refining your fluency in Spanish, it’s the same: The more times you fall down, the more opportunities you’ll have to grow. You won’t meet your goals if you avoid challenges that you may fail to pass perfectly.
In learning Spanish, as in any field, the key is to do two things: (1) “Invest in loss” by putting yourself in challenging situations more and more often, and (2) always find a way to grow from those challenges.
To invest in loss, you should have face-to-face conversations with native speakers as soon as you’re able to, and you shouldn’t stick to your comfort zone. If you’re content just talking to a Spanish tutor who is nice to you and patient with you, maybe you need to break out of that comfort by trying placing a food order at a takeout place in Spanish. If it means you’re more likely to stumble with your Spanish speaking and listening, then it’s probably a good move to make!
The best way to grow from these challenges is to take notes on everything you think could have gone better. Was there a word you didn’t know how to say? Write down the English and look up the Spanish later. Did you have trouble understanding the accent of the person you were speaking with, maybe because she was Chilean and you’re used to your Mexican coach? Maybe you should look up some Chilean listening materials to practice with.
Remember, short-term setbacks are often a sign that you’re moving toward your long-term goals. Find new opportunities to mess up, and then make sure to grow from it.
Study Techniques: Advanced Tactics
Many students get into a rut in their Spanish study because they are simply reviewing things that have become too easy. In order to become a natural, intuitive Spanish speaker, you need to get better and better at highlighting your weaknesses and then finding challenging, effective ways of eliminating those weaknesses.
I’ve already written extensively about some advanced Spanish study tactics elsewhere, particularly for students who are stuck in intermediate Spanish and want to break into an advanced level. See Break Through the Intermediate Spanish Plateau for a thorough tour of these advanced tactics.
Thinking in Spanish: Advanced Tactics
Spanish intuition basically comes down to building your library of mental models, relentlessly, layer by layer. (For a refresher on mental models and thinking in Spanish, refer back to How To Think in Spanish.)
The Art of Learning talks extensively about this process. According to Waitzkin, learning starts with memorizing the basic “alphabet” of the skill, such as the way that chess pieces move or the pronunciation of Spanish letters. At first, the student has to memorize these basics, and it takes conscious effort to use them at all; even as simple as they are, they don’t start out as fully-developed mental models. But as the student begins to learn something slightly more complicated on top of this, such as how to capture an opponent’s chess pieces or how to string Spanish words into a sentence, the basics quickly become natural and intuitive. It’s as if a layer of mental models has been covered with another layer of mental models, and that extra layer helped make the first layer more mature.
When I learn something new, I tend to find that whichever layer of mental models I’m currently on tends to feel difficult. But if I’ve learned that level just well enough to start moving up to the next layer of complexity, I go ahead and start on the next level… and then the original layer quickly starts to feel easier. By focusing on the next layer of complexity, I’m helping build more neural connections for the original, elementary layer. The first layer is now intuitive (“system 1”), and the second layer is now the difficult one (“system 2”).
Here’s the trick to becoming a natural at Spanish: Never settle for the layer of mental models that you’re on. Always aim to move beyond the things that are currently difficult, until they’re easy and something more advanced is your current difficult project.
Remember when you had to puzzle out how to pronounce a new Spanish word? If you are now reading Spanish words easily, you probably feel pretty good and proud of that. But you shouldn’t settle there. Maybe you still have to puzzle out whether to use an imperfect or a preterite conjugation in a sentence. If that’s the layer you’re currently on, get close to mastering it, and then figure out the next level of Spanish mental models to conquer (maybe sentences with multiple tenses!).
The next time you work hard to come up with a complex Spanish sentence and are surprised that you did it perfectly, you should do two things: (1) celebrate that victory!, and (2) make it your goal to get even better and faster at thinking in Spanish so that eventually you WON’T have to work hard at it.
Study Routines: Advanced Tactics
We talked in a previous article about the importance of focusing AND on unfocusing when learning a language. And we discussed some methods for coming up with your own perfect study routine to balance the “focused” and “diffuse” modes of thought.
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t in complete control of our study routines. Some mundane occurrences, such as urgent interruptions, travel itineraries, or even just waking up with a headache, can throw a wrench in our perfect schedule. If only there was an easy way to unfocus and refocus on command! If we could simply flip a switch and tell our mind how to behave, no matter the circumstances, studying and practicing Spanish would be a whole lot easier.
This is a subject that The Art of Learning talks about extensively. Waitzkin became a celebrity through his exceptional mastery of chess at a young age. But ironically, that fame temporarily destroyed his ability to play chess. Instead of being able to focus on how he played, he quickly became preoccupied with how he looked while playing, which is an enormous distraction!
But Waitzkin gradually learned some advanced tactics for breaking out of Einstellung into diffuse mode and then refocusing, in as little as a few seconds. At first, he was using a specific “pre-performance routine” to help prepare his mind for chess. Over time, he was able to compress the mental components of this routine from about an hour down to a few minutes and then eventually to a few seconds. If he was called upon to get into a match at the last minute, he wouldn’t be caught off guard; he could approach it nearly as calmly and preparedly as if he had spent an hour preparing for this moment.
Although I’m no master of this skill, I find it fascinating. Imagine being able to switch into speaking Spanish with a random person, with no stress and without feeling caught off guard. If you are looking for ways to get better at switching between focused and diffuse modes quickly, and eliminating stress under pressure, I highly recommend Josh Waitzkin’s book, along with some self-experimentation to see what works best for you.
Interrupted Learning: Advanced Tactics
Although interrupting and interleaving isn’t a major theme in The Art of Learning, it is an undercurrent. In particular, I’m fascinated with Josh Waitzkin’s personal preference for chaos and convention-bending. When Waitzkin first learned chess as a child, most of his chess friends were learning openings systematically, which means starting a chess game by making specific, measured moves to try to control the board. Waitzkin did the opposite: He preferred to start games by wreaking havoc, doing things unexpectedly and making a mess of the game until his opponent was completely lost. Then he would clean up and win. This helped prepare him to rise to the top of competitive chess, where you can’t take anything for granted.
My takeaway: Start introducing more and more spontaneity and randomness into your Spanish study! It will help prepare you for the real world of spontaneous, random Spanish conversation.
For example, if you use physical flashcards to study Spanish, start drawing two flashcards at a time instead of one. You might draw both “what is the Spanish word for anger?” and “conjugate Estimar in the singular third-person imperfect tense”. Then try to put these two things together in a sentence!
Turning Spanish study into a game is one of my favorite subjects. If you have any ideas of your own to share with me, I might try them out myself and/or share them here on the blog. Shoot me an email: Timothy@MasterofMemory.com
Analogies and Illustrations: Advanced Tactics
According to Josh Waitzkin, after becoming a chess champion and pivoting to martial arts, he discovered something that seemed mystical: Sometimes, while performing a move with his body, he found himself playing chess in his mind. His chess style, something that is core to his identity, was expressing itself in a new skill that he learned.
When you push your mind to its limits in order to become a natural at something, that skill will have a way of permeating every aspect of your life. If you’re learning Spanish and your mind is working on making more and more connections to the language, you might start seeing analogies for Spanish everywhere. If you’re cooking, adding salt to rice might feel like adding an adverb to a short sentence, and putting lids on pots might feel like putting object pronouns before verbs.
This may sound very strange, but all of these bizarre analogies and images are a good sign. The more neural connections you can make to Spanish, no matter how weird they are, the more accessible and important Spanish is becoming.
And the more Spanish becomes who you are, the more naturally your Spanish will flow.
If you made it all the way through this How To Learn a Language series, I’m very impressed. You clearly care a lot about your learning, and that’s honestly very rare! Many Spanish learners are only “learning” Spanish to be entertained.
But why are YOU learning Spanish?
Josh Waitzkin cautions all his readers: One of the most dangerous mistakes that learners make is that they don’t stay true to their passion, their core reason for learning what they’re learning. As a kid, Waitzkin loved chess because he liked chaotically battling with chess pieces on the board. When he started studying under a methodical, scholastic teacher, he almost lost his passion for the game, because his core reason for playing the game was being stifled.
If you’re learning Spanish because you want to speak deeply and personally with the Spanish speakers in your life, make sure you don’t lose sight of that! For example, if you’re opening a Spanish app every day just to maintain your “streak”, but you’re not getting any better at Spanish conversation, maybe you should stop using that app.
Instead, measure everything you’re doing against the progress you’re making toward your personal Spanish goals. Try having a Spanish conversation with someone close to you on a regular basis, maybe once a week or at least once a month, and watch your progress get better each time.
And during the hard work in between those conversations, remind yourself that although language learning is difficult, sometimes the most difficult things in life are the things most worth doing.
Ready to everything you’ve learned in this series to the test? Start the Accelerated Spanish course for free.