When you’re studying Spanish, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and just practice one thing over and over.
Learning a language is a daunting task, with thousands of words and hundreds of new phrases, sentence structures, and grammatical quirks to learn. But if you settle on just one thing to practice over and over, it feels much more doable. You get to focus on just one small task, and you can see yourself making progress right away.
Unfortunately, research on learning shows that when we do this, we might actually be harming our Spanish progress, not helping it! In this article, we’ll talk about why, and how to avoid that trap so that you can stop learning for the short term and actually become fluent in Spanish for life.
Let’s review how much ground we’ve covered in the this series. So far, you’ve now learned that you can learn Spanish. You’ve started using productive study techniques, you’re working on thinking in Spanish effectively, and you have daily routines that maximize your brain’s focused and unfocused modes.
If you are interested in being fluent in Spanish for years to come, this article is a must-read. After you learn the principles that we’ll lay out here based on the latest research in learning, you’ll understand why most Spanish learners end up forgetting most of the things they learn right away… and you’ll be able to start learning Spanish in a way that will stick with you when you have Spanish conversations months or years from now.
The Problem with Repetitive Practice
Most of us have been taught that repetition is the key to learning anything. And repeating something over and over certainly seems to get results in the short term!
But when we look at the research on repetitive learning practices, we get a different picture.
In a recent experiment, a baseball team was given two different ways to practice their batting. This experiment is described in Chapter 4 of Make It Stick, a book I highly recommend for learning how to be a better learner. According to the authors, part of the team practiced in the standard, generally preferred way, which is to practice one thing over and over: First practice hitting 15 fastballs, then practice with 15 curveballs, then with 15 changeups. The players found this type of learning to be easy, satisfying, and productive. In each set of 15 pitches, they got progressively better at that particular pitch.
But the second part of the team practiced a different way. They were still each pitched 45 throws, but the three types of pitches were randomly shuffled across the practice session. For any given pitch, the batter had no idea which pitch to expect. By the end of each of these practice sessions, the players didn’t seem to be improving, and it led to frustration.
The two parts of the team practiced in their two different ways over the course of the six-week experiment. And at the end of the six weeks, the results of the experiment surprised the players. The members of the first part of the team, who practiced the same thing over and over, didn’t improve NEARLY as much as the second set of hitters, who engaged in the more frustrating, randomized form of practice. It turns out that what we think is productive often fools us.
When you practice the same Spanish verb over and over, you can see immediate progress. And that’s because you quickly learn what to expect. If you spend 30 minutes practicing examples of the verb Suponer, by the end of the 30 minutes, you’ll have all the examples that you’re using down pat. You’ll feel like a Suponer expert.
But if you practice Spanish flashcards that include Suponer shuffled with examples of Poner, Hacer, Dar, and Creer, the 30-minute study session will probably feel more frustrating. Just when you think you’re catching on, you’ll make a mistake because you were expecting the wrong verb. Your study will be more difficult, and it will feel less effective than your massed practice approach.
Massed practice is probably the most common technique of studying or practicing anything. It involves practicing one thing over and over until it feels thoroughly learned. By the end of a massed practice study session, you’ll feel like you know that one topic backwards and forwards.
The problem is that when you mass practice, you don’t know whether that one thing you learned will be retrievable after the study session. If you haven’t combined that one thing you’re practicing with other aspects of your Spanish study, you can’t be sure that it will transfer to real Spanish speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The satisfaction of this type of study session can be a false win, something that actually doesn’t lead to long-term Spanish progress. And the most unfortunate part of this is that since massed practice FEELS good, since it FEELS like significant progress, students keep wasting their time with it.
To avoid falling into the massed practice trap, let’s talk about a couple of study strategies you can use to keep switching up your practice so that it’s as effective and permanent as possible. First we’ll go over some solo study strategies, and then we’ll talk about applying this to conversation practice.
Switch Up Your Practice: Use “Interleaving”
Most of your Spanish progress is going to happen when you’re studying on your own, in between your conversation practice sessions. And as I mentioned in an earlier article in this series, the most effective form of self-guided study always involves testing yourself in some way. This can involve flashcards, quizzing yourself on core language elements, writing Spanish sentences, or practicing speaking out loud from memory. To begin with, let’s talk about an effective way to use flashcards to switch up your practice and avoid the common massed practice error.
As I mentioned earlier, if you encounter an area of Spanish you want to study, such as a tricky sentence structure, you’re normally going to be tempted to practice that one thing over and over until it’s easy. That’s what will *feel* the most productive, even though you now know that that’s an illusion. So next time you want to get better at a particular verb, grammatical idea, idiom, or any other new and challenging part of Spanish, study and practice it until it’s ALMOST easy, but not quite. Then stop yourself, and shuffle a few flashcards on that topic into a large pile of other Spanish flashcards. Maybe take a short break, and then go through the stack of flashcards, quizzing yourself on them, one at a time, while not knowing when to expect to see that one new thing you just studied. It will come up randomly.
For example, let’s say you’re learning how to use Hacerse. You have a few sentence examples you’ve been given: ¿Cómo se hace esto?, Quieren que se haga así, and Eso no se hace aquí nunca. When you encounter any of these three flashcards, your task, of course, is to do two things: First, read the English side and see if you can accurately predict what’s on the Spanish side, word for word; and second, invent a variation on the sentence. For example, when you encounter a flashcard that says “They want it to be done like this”, you should start by reciting from memory quieren que se haga así, then check to make sure you got it right, and then you should try to come up with a variation, such as yo no quiero que se haga así.
But to make it even more productive, as soon as you feel like you’re starting to get the hang of these sentences, stop practicing them immediately. It’s important that you interrupt yourself before they become robotically automatic. Instead, you should now shuffle these Hacerse cards into a stack of maybe 20 or 30 other sentence examples that don’t have Hacerse in them. That way, the next time you practice Hacerse, it will be in the midst of a bunch of other Spanish. This simulates real Spanish conversation — if you’re talking with a native speaker, it’s much more likely that you’ll encounter one or two isolated Hacerse examples than that you’ll find yourself practicing them over and over in sentence after sentence.
Switching up your practice like this has a name: “Interleaving”. I really like this word because it conjures up the image of braiding hair or shuffling a card deck. Essentially, you take multiple Spanish skills that you’re learning, and you weave them together in order to switch up your practice. When you switch between Spanish skills, you’re learning both “how” and “when”: Instead of just learning how to say certain verbs, for example, you’re also practicing when to use that verb rather than another one.
I learned this “how vs. when” idea from Barbara Oakley. In A Mind for Numbers, she gives a great analogy: Let’s imagine that instead of learning Spanish verbs, you’re learning how to use tools in your household toolbox. You might take a massed practice approach: First you practice with the hammer for a day or two, then you practice with the screwdriver for a couple of days, then you get started with the monkey wrench. But after all that practice, despite knowing how to use each of these tools, you still haven’t gotten to practice when to use one rather than another.
If instead you learn by randomly switching between the hammer, screwdriver, and wrench, you’ll quickly learn when to use each one. Sure, this interleaved practice isn’t as easy as practicing one tool at a time, but it will pay off in the long run. The extra difficulty of switching between tools is what Make It Stick would call a desirable difficulty, a short-term challenge that helps you learn better in the long term.
And that’s part of what interleaving does when you’re learning Spanish: You not only learn how to use the elements of Spanish, but you also get to practice when you should choose one rather than another. This should be a core part of your practice… because that’s how things are going to be in real life!
The authors of Make It Stick agree. “Compared to massed practice, a significant advantage of interleaving and variation is that they help us learn better how to discriminate between problems, selecting and applying the correct solution from a range of possibilities. …For our learning to have practical value, we must be adept at discerning ‘What kind of problem is this?’ so we can select and apply an appropriate solution.”
Here’s another example of how to interleave your practice in a challenging way that results in long-term fluency. If you have a really good Spanish coach, such as the excellent coaches in the Accelerated Spanish program, your coach will help switch up your practice between one particular thing you’re struggling with and other elements of the language that you should practice. Let’s say that during your coaching session, you discover that you’re having trouble with the word hubiera. Your coach will help you create sentences that use hubiera, but then as soon as you’re catching on, she’ll quickly mix in other sentence examples that DON’T use hubiera. Then later in the session, just long enough for you to ALMOST forget, she’ll randomly bring hubiera back, without warning, and see if you can remember the right way to use it.
Learn More by Letting Yourself Forget More
Earlier I mentioned the idea of stopping as soon as you have the hang of something, or *almost* have the hang of something. This principle applies to all areas of learning Spanish.
Maybe you’re still working on memorizing your lists of direct, indirect, and reflexive pronouns. Most likely, when you dedicate yourself to learning these lists, it will feel most comfortable to read the lists over and over and over. But according to the science on learning, in order to learn something for the long term, it’s a better idea to exercise patience and NOT over-practice it right away. Instead, familiarize yourself with the list, maybe quiz yourself on it once, and then put it away for a while. Come back to it later in the day, or the next day, and see if you can still recall all the words accurately from memory. The extra difficulty of having to recall these words after a break will be more effective than if you had done massed practice. Research shows that the effort involved in this type of more difficult recall practice actually puts knowledge into long-term storage much more quickly.
Now that I’ve said that, you may be worried about something: “Won’t these extra breaks for forgetting take extra time? My goal is to learn Spanish as fast as possible. And your course is called Accelerated Spanish, which implies ACCELERATION and SPEED, not waiting around for me to forget things! Is this really going to help me learn Spanish faster?”
So… the problem with accelerated learning is that if you hold your fluency to high standards, like the standards that we hold all our coaching students to, you’re not allowed to take any shortcuts that reduce the quality of what you learn. The results have to be the same or better than non-“accelerated” approaches, and they have to last a lifetime. That’s true accelerated learning.
Most Spanish learners have unreasonable expectations for how quickly they can learn Spanish. For example, if you ask Spanish students which of these classes they’d rather enroll in, there tends to be a clear winner:
Option 1: A weekend Spanish “boot camp” where you get to learn Spanish intensely in the classroom for 2 days.
Option 2: A six-month Spanish class with daily assignments and frequent spoken practice, but with face time only once a week.
Most learners predict that they’ll learn better from the bootcamp. But research shows that the opposite is true. If you spend all day every day working on your Spanish, you’ll feel like you’ve made enormous gains over those two days… but most likely, those gains will be very fleeting. You’ll lose most of your progress within a week or two after the bootcamp.
Meanwhile, the six-month Spanish class may feel slow and difficult. Each week you will have forgotten some of what was taught the previous week, which can be frustrating. But in the end, research shows that this will lead to much stronger, long-term learning.
Let’s imagine that you’re in a Spanish bootcamp. On the second day, you get to spend 4 hours learning how to have a Spanish conversation about your favorite book. It might go something like this:
• At 1pm, right after lunch, you learn some of the words and phrases you need to talk about this book.
• At 2pm, you learn how to describe the synopsis to your classmates.
• At 3pm, you participate in a Q&A about various aspects of the book.
• By 4pm, you find that you’re able to have a 10-minute conversation about the book, entirely in Spanish.
This will feel like an enormous breakthrough, all in just an afternoon!
Now imagine that instead of a two-day bootcamp, you’re enrolled in the Accelerated Spanish coaching program, meeting with your coach once a week. For two weeks in a row, your coach asks you to talk in Spanish about your favorite book. But of course, by the time a week has gone by, you’ll have forgotten some of what you practiced seven days ago. When you try to use the same words and phrases that you used last week, it will feel like turning the crank on a rusty device. You’ll wish that you had been practicing this in the minutes and hours before this call, not a whole week ago.
But here’s the kicker: Counter to what our intuitions tell us, “turning the crank on a rusty device” is one of the most productive things you can do for long-term learning. If you let a little bit of forgetting set in between practice sessions, the things you practice will become permanent more quickly. This is counterintuitive, but it’s what the research shows over and over. Here’s what the authors of Make It Stick have to say:
When you recall something from short-term memory, as in rapid-fire practice, little mental effort is required, and little longs-term benefit accrues. But when you recall it after some time has elapsed and your grasp of it has become a little rusty, you have to make an effort to reconstruct it. This effortful retrieval both strengthens the memory but also makes the learning pliable again, leading to its reconsolidation. Reconsolidation helps update your memories with new information and connect them to more recent learning.
It seems that practicing a thing you’ve *almost* forgotten is a clear signal to your brain that this is not a temporary thing to practice and then forget; it’s a skill you’re going to maintain for the rest of your life. And it works.
So exactly how much time should you wait before reviewing something you’ve just learned? That’s a difficult topic, and I’ll be publishing more ideas on the subject soon. If you’re interested in diving into this topic, the spaced repetition is the practice of reviewing new topics at very specific intervals, just enough for the right amount of forgetting to set in. Such a system involves leaving longer and longer intervals of time between review sessions of any particular topic. If you’re planning to learn thousands of new Spanish words in just a few weeks, a spaced repetition system is the only efficient way to accomplish this.
But most Spanish learners don’t need to create an entire elaborate system for reviewing new vocabulary. Just remember not to over-practice new things all at once. With any new piece of information you learn, t’s better to let a little forgetting set in before reviewing.
Summary: Intervals and Interleaving
The next time you learn a new verb, sentence structure, idiom, or any other part of the Spanish language, remember these three tips:
• DON’T use massed practice. Even though practicing one thing over and over will feel productive, it isn’t an effective technique for long-term Spanish fluency.
• DO let some forgetting set in before you re-practice something in order to reconsolidate it for the long term.
• DO switch up your practice frequently, and randomly shuffle topics together in order to simulate how you’ll have to access the information in real life.
In other words, sometimes you need to study and practice a particular topic LESS than you feel like you should. It’s often most productive when you interrupt one type of practice with another, in a way that feels premature and frustrating.
Here’s a final question that many of you may have regarding intervals and interleaving:
“I normally spend 1 or 2 hours a day on Spanish. If I’m supposed to use the techniques in this article to cut my study sessions short each day, what am I supposed to do with the extra time? Should I study Spanish less than I’m doing now?”
Actually I’m NOT suggesting that you study less. In fact, using these principles of intervals and interleaving, you can study much MORE in one study session than most students would.
Let’s say you sit down for 1 hour tomorrow to work on Spanish verbs. What if instead of learning one or two new verbs and practicing them over and over, you were to learn twenty new Spanish verbs? You might barely learn what each one means and how to use them, but if you study them effectively, you can remember them for the long term, even better than you would have learned those one or two verbs. This makes for much more efficient and effective study than massed practice, which is unfortunately how most students fill up their hours of Spanish study.
If you think you can’t learn 20 new Spanish verbs in one sitting, the next article will change your mind. We’ll talk about the mind’s unlimited capacity to learn new things if you assimilate them in a meaningful way.
Are you ready to finally become fluent in Spanish? Start the Accelerated Spanish course for free.