How much Spanish can you learn in one sitting?
After a certain point in a study session, sometimes it feels like we’ve crammed so much information in our heads that nothing else will fit.
Well, I’m here to tell you that maybe that notion is wrong. The storage capacity of our minds is actually unfathomably huge, and we can see in the research that there’s actually no known limit to how much new information we can learn, even in just one sitting, as long as we use the strategies described in this article.
So far in this series, we’ve learned some important, foundational things about learning a language:
1. You can learn a language, even if you think you can’t.
2. There are tried-and-true methods for studying Spanish.
3. You’ll be able to think in Spanish if you develop mental models.
4. Your studies can benefit from focusing and unfocusing, systematically.
5. You should switch up your practice through intervals and interleaving.
To build on top of this foundation, let’s cover some techniques that will help you learn an unlimited amount of new Spanish.
Here are the two things you’ll be able to take away from this article:
1. You’ll be able to learn more Spanish faster.
2. The Spanish that you learn will be more real, rather than abstract or unusable.
If that sounds too good to be true, read on! My job today is to convince you otherwise, and to get you to the top of your language-learning game.
As you may have guessed, this article is going to expand on the mental models concept that we covered in a previous article, How To Think in Spanish Fluently. (If it’s been a while since you read that one, you might want to review it, because this article builds directly on the foundation laid there.)
If you recall the core ideas from that article, you’ll remember that I said there’s a limit to how much information we can consciously juggle at once, especially if it’s on unfamiliar or boring topics. However, there’s a loophole: If the information we’re learning is interesting, and if it connects in vivid ways to things that we already know, we can learn an extremely large amount of new information without getting overwhelmed.
We’ll start with some basic ideas for building your Spanish vocabulary rapidly, and then we’ll go into some advanced techniques for making abstract elements of Spanish more accessible.
Piggybacking: Turn Boring Spanish into Not-Boring Spanish
Here’s a quick, easy way to get learning Spanish vocabulary faster.
If I just give you a list of Spanish vocabulary to memorize, chances are that you’ll get bored quickly. Even if you’re excited about learning Spanish, your brain doesn’t reward you for staring at a sheet of paper with words written on it. It quickly tunes that out.
But if those words are vivid and meaningful, your brain will light up; it will say “yes, yes, this is interesting!”
It’s kind of like if I were to tell you to read an essay on some obscure people from the history of a foreign country. Even if you tried to find it interesting, your brain would tell you to yawn instead. But what if I instead gave you an elaborate, detailed article on why I think your best friend would be the perfect bank-robbing partner for someone else you know? You might find that very interesting. This second “essay” would be more meaningful to you because it would connect with information that you are familiar with and understand. You’d be able to read it without getting bored or lost.
We need to do the same thing with our Spanish vocabulary. New Spanish words are mental models you’re not familiar with, but if you can connect them to mental models that you ARE familiar with, you’ll find them much more interesting.
A quick and easy way is to “piggyback” your Spanish vocabulary to your English vocabulary. If a Spanish word has a direct equivalent in English, then it’s not a new mental model at all. You just need to find some sort of connection between the two, even if the connection is bizarre.
For example, if I were to teach you the word for soup in Spanish, sopa, I wouldn’t have to spend hours teaching you what soup is or how people eat it. You already know that; you’ve been learning and experiencing it your whole life. The only problem is that your mental model for “soup” exists in English, not in Spanish.
So let’s piggyback the word sopa to your English mental model for “soup”. The Spanish word sounds kind of like “SOAP-ah”. Imagine someone sipping soup from a spoon, then spitting it out because it tastes like soap. (To make this even more vivid and entertaining, maybe some soap bubbles fly through the air from their mouth.)
In How To Think in Spanish Fluently, we talked about how hard it can be to develop new mental models for Spanish concepts. But it turns out that for thousands and thousands of Spanish words, you already have mental models for them! The only hitch is that they have an English label instead of a Spanish label. Your job is simply to change your old label (the English word) for the new label (the Spanish word).
Let’s stick with food examples for a little bit because it’s easy, and… who doesn’t like food? Here are a few words that sound very similar between the English and the Spanish, and then here are some fun memory tricks to make it easier to piggyback between languages. In each case, the Spanish word means exactly what the English word does, but the spelling and/or pronunciation is a little different.
• Chocolate: The stress is “latte”: “choco-LATT-e.” Imagine a chocolate latte.
• Hamburguesa: The stress is “guess”: “am-bur-GUESS-a.” Imagine someone reaching into a paper bag and trying to guess what’s inside, while their hand gets coated with the smells and textures of a hamburger.
• Tomate: The stress is “mat”: “to-MAT-eh”. Imagine a welcome mat, but with squashed tomatoes tramped into it.
If you use stressed-syllable mnemonics, you can turn thousands of Spanish words into readily accessible mental models for your Spanish conversations.
There’s a drawback, however: This only works if the English and Spanish versions of these words are equivalent. For this type of “piggybacking” to work, the English mental model and Spanish mental model need be identical in all but spelling and pronunciation.
Unfortunately, for most of the Spanish vocabulary that you need to learn, that’s not going to be the case. For example, the verb Estar doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. The differences between this verb and the English verb to be are nuanced and complicated.
However, we can use these same principles to learn ANYTHING in Spanish, from action verbs to prepositions to grammatical sentence structures. We just need to find more sophisticated ways to turn them into usable mental models.
And it starts with getting creative with your analogies.
Analogies: The Key To Learning Anything
According to Make It Stick, research shows that new mental models are adapted more quickly when they relate to existing mental models. For example, a student who is struggling to learn new concepts in physics can benefit enormously by turning these abstract ideas into real-world examples they’re already familiar with.
In other words, if you find SOME way to connect your new Spanish to things you already know, you’ll be helping yourself learn faster.
Spanish mental models can be tied to existing knowledge in a variety of ways. The fact that you already have a native language means that some words in your new language will translate very well, as we saw in the food examples. In other cases, new aspects of the language will not translate well, but there will still be ways to create analogies that connect to concepts that you are very familiar with.
Here are some examples of linguistic elements that don’t translate well between English and Spanish:
• Frequently used verbs like Ser, Estar, Haber, Tener, and Ir
• Many common sentence structures
• Any prepositions
Actually, I’m convinced that prepositions might be the MOST difficult parts of speech to master! They’re so situational and nuanced, it’s almost impossible to find a meaning between the two languages. En doesn’t really mean “in”, or “on”, or “at”; a doesn’t mean “to” in every situation; and the English word “for” can be translated as por, para, or a variety of other words, without simple rules to decide between them.
But let’s show how analogies can be used to turn abstract concepts into coherent, graspable mental concepts.
When I was first trying to puzzle out how to use the Spanish word por, I was constantly frustrated by the myriad ways it could be translated. Por can mean any of the following:
• “by”, as in “produced/created by”
• “because of”
• “around”, as in “near”
• “along”, as in “along the street”
• “during”, as in “for” a period of time
Oh, it gets better! Not only are there are many other English words that por could be translated as, but even this list doesn’t hold true all the time. Rather, por COULD be translated into English as any of these, depending on the situation.
How is it that Spanish speakers think of the word por as a single word??
And yet they do. And fledgling Spanish speaker Timothy spent many hours trying to find a way to wrap his mind around por, trying to turn it into a single word instead of a list of meanings.
Eventually, I attempted the impossible task of finding a single concept that could possibly summarize the way that por is used in context.
Originally, my sentence examples were all over the place:
“The book is por the author.”
“Errors occurred por a mechanical failing.”
“The destination is por here.”
“The boy runs por the street.”
“I watched it por many seasons.”
“The dogs ran out por the front door.”
As I tried to reduce these sentence examples to one sentence, a recurring image kept coming up: The idea of water running along a stone surface, especially if the stone was an elaborate fountain of some type that the water could run through, down, around, and so on.
Here’s how I reconciled each of the meanings of por to this one image.
• “by”, as in “produced/created by”: If I imagined the stone itself PRODUCING the water somehow, I could I say that the water was produced “by” the stone, or por the stone.
• “because of”: Since the stone is producing the water, we have water “because of” the stone, or por the stone.
• “around”, as in “near”: If I visualized the water running down the sides of the stone and then pooling around it, I could say that there was water “around” or “near” the stone, by saying that the water was por the stone.
• “along”, as in “along the street”: I visualized the water not just running down the sides of the stone, but actually trickling down a deliberately carved groove that spiraled around the stone. Basically, the stone became a spiral water slide. Now I could say that the water was running “along” the stone, or por the stone.
• “during”, as in “for” a period of time: This was trickier to reconcile to the original image, but I imagined that the water ran down this stone slide for a particular period of time. If that stone was calculated to measure 1 minute, for example, I could say that the water ran down the slide por the length of one unit of “stone time”.
• “through”: To make this work, I decided to have the water run up through the stone from a mysterious underground source. The water ran up por the stone before trickling down.
In the end, I created an elaborate but coherent image for myself that summarized all six of these meanings of the word por into one sentence: “The water is por the stone.”
My brother drew a picture of a stone water slide, and in a strange turn of events, this elaborate mnemonic ended up helping thousands of students learn to use the preposition por. Now English speakers all over the world are parroting “the water is por the stone slide”, and as a consequence they’ve begun to use por correctly and confidently.
This is just one example. Analogies can be used in countless ways to connect new ideas with things you already know.
For example, to help our students remember whether to use Ser or Estar, we sometimes use the imaginary story of a discriminatory person who judges people based on who they are, as a person. She doesn’t care where they are, or how they’re doing, or how they’re behaving; she passes judgment strictly based on who or what they are. To connect it even more closely to the concept, her name is “Sarah” (the stress sounds like Ser). Ser is used in any case that the verb describes who or what someone or something is; otherwise you use Estar.
Earlier I mentioned that there’s no known limit to how much new information we can learn if we connect it to existing knowledge. When we use analogies, mnemonics, and creative elaboration, our minds stay engaged and keep making new connections.
However, remember that those connections are not immediately permanent; they’re strengthened over time, through more and more use in new contexts.
The thing about mental models is that they don’t simply switch from “unusable” to “usable”. Mental models get more and more usable the more you use them, and in particular, they become more meaningful and more accessible the more you find ways to connect them to other things in the brain, whether by using new analogies and examples or by connecting them to new experiences.
Unfortunately, the por example I gave earlier is a great example of this. The imperfect picture that I painted won’t get you using por perfectly right away. Still, if you have a vivid mental image for the word por that looks like a spiral stone water slide, you now have a concrete concept that you can keep building on and improving over time. Every time you encounter a new use of por that you know is correct, see if you can find a way to connect that sentence example to the visual of the water sliding down the stone. Your por mental model will continue to build and become more and more accurate over time, while remaining tangible and accessible.
But just as importantly, your mental models will become more real the more connections you make to the real world, not just this abstract concept in your mind. As you use por in more and more contexts, especially real-life contexts, it will connect to more and more areas of your brain and become easier and easier to access and use.
In other words… go make some memories! Try out your new Spanish vocabulary and grammar with someone who speaks Spanish, especially in memorable contexts, and your models will connect to more and more areas of your brain. As you do, you’ll have not only imaginary examples to think of, but real-life examples where you or someone else has used the word or phrase.
Ready to create some mental models of your own and test them out with our native-speaking Spanish coaches? See if one of our coaching programs is right for you.