Right now, your use of Spanish might be very clunky. No language learner is able to have a conversation on the first day of learning Spanish; at first, your brain is forced to think carefully about every single word, individually, as you speak and listen. That’s very tedious and overwhelming.
In your native language, you’re able to rattle off entire sentences without thinking about them. You’re probably even able to listen to English in the background while you do mentally demanding tasks, and you can still understand it without intense concentration.
Why does speaking Spanish require so much more mental energy? And will that ever end?
Let’s dive in.
Why Spanish Is Overwhelming
Why can it be overwhelming to speak your second language?
If you know enough words and phrases in Spanish, it should be easy to use them, right?
Unfortunately, speaking Spanish is going to continue being a juggling act for quite a while as you learn it… almost literally! Let’s talk about why, and go over some mental hacks to accelerate how you can get past that overwhelm.
To begin, let’s do a little mental exercise to demonstrate something about how your mind works and why it’s currently overwhelming to try to speak your second language on the fly. The exercise we’re about to do is going to be kind of off the wall, but it’s a test you can perform on yourself.
To start the exercise, try to clear your mind of any distractions. Now, try to picture:
• Indiana Jones
• is climbing a tree
• while barking like a dog
• to the tune of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’.
That’s a lot of information at once, but I’m guessing that if you focused on visualizing this information without distraction, it wasn’t very difficult. When you pictured that scene, your mind accessed 4 pieces of information that were very familiar to you.
• First of all, I imagine that you’re already somewhat familiar with Indiana Jones.
• Second, we’re all familiar with the concept of climbing a tree and the concept of barking like a dog.
• And then if you know the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, your brain just had to access that file as well.
And for most of us, these are very easily accessible mental files that your brain has had to access many times. Putting the four of them together simultaneously wasn’t very difficult.
Speaking Spanish probably doesn’t feel so easy, and you’re about to find out why. So here’s part two of the exercise: Instead of that picture, now try to imagine the following:
• The president of Kenya
• is doing field research on beetles’ migratory habits
• while making whale sounds
• to the tune of the national anthem of Tunisia.
I’m guessing that didn’t conjure a vivid picture as easily. You probably found it overwhelming or impossible to put these four concepts together at once.
And that’s why you have trouble speaking Spanish on the fly.
Our brains can only handle so much work at a time, and the conscious mind short-circuits when we give it any more work than it can handle. That probably happened for you during this exercise. Even if some or all of these concepts are somewhat familiar to you, they aren’t as easily accessible as the ones we used previously.
And this is an analogy for the difference between speaking your first language, which is easy, and speaking your new second language, which is overwhelming.
Now for a real-life example to show how this works for speaking a language.
Let’s say you’re ordering food at a stall on the street. There’s a special offer today, and you want to make sure you get the discount. But the vendor tells you that the discount doesn’t apply to your order for some obscure reason that probably isn’t true. So your mission is to reason with the vendor until he gives you the discount.
If this exchange is happening in your native language (presumably English), here are several things your conscious mind can process all at the same time to make sure you argue with the vendor effectively:
• The content of what you say: The facts as you see them and why you think you should get the discount.
• Your phrasing to make sure you leave no room for ambiguity.
• Your body language to show that you know what you’re talking about and that you won’t back down on what’s right.
• Your tone to strike the perfect balance between firm and calm, civil and determined.
When speaking English, you can think about all these things at once. However, in Spanish, the 1st item in the list takes all your mental capacity.
• “How is it that the discount is phrased? What does that mean exactly?”
• “I heard the previous customer use a local alternative word for this food item. What was it?”
• “Let’s piece together how to say ‘1 dollar and 87 cents’ in Spanish.”
• “Oof, I need to use a subjunctive here to express intention. What was the subjunctive for this verb again? Is it a regular verb?”
When speaking Spanish, you may have to think about all these things at once, just to get out one sentence! Most of these things come naturally in English, subconsciously, leaving your conscious mind to focus on other things. But in Spanish, you have to think about ALL of these things consciously, which means that you’re less likely to focus on your body language, your tone, and other social elements while you’re speaking Spanish.
If you’re like me, you’ve been duped many times into spending way too much money while in Spanish-speaking contexts. Now you know why! When speaking your second language, your brain can get so fully occupied with the content of what you’re saying that you mess up on other things that you would normally do simultaneously, such as social cues and environmental information.
If Spanish were already second nature, you could free up more conscious thinking for those other things: Body language, tone, timing, and so on. But if you’re not there yet, you’ll need to use your brain’s capacity very efficiently, or you’ll quickly get overwhelmed.
According to the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, each of us has the capacity to think about 4 things at once, consciously. If you have a mature understanding of something, it counts as one “chunk”, or one item you can consciously think about along with 3 others. If you don’t have a mature understanding of that thing yet, it will take up more conscious space.
Imagine a juggler who can keep 4 balls in the air at once. Actually, not just balls; he can keep 4 items of ANY kind in the air at once. In fact, he has an infinitely large warehouse; with practice, he’s able to juggle all kinds of things. Lately he’s been collecting a wide array of juggling balls, clubs, fruits, torches, you name it… However, at any given moment, he’s only able to keep 4 items in the air at once.
Your mind is like this juggler’s warehouse. You have about 80 billion neurons in there, and that gives you the capacity to remember a virtually infinite amount of information. But that doesn’t mean you can think about all that information at once. Consciously, you can only keep 4 items in the air at once.
Earlier in this article, you were able to picture Indiana Jones climbing a tree and barking like a dog to the tune of We Wish You a Merry Christmas because you processed it as 4 pieces of information. You’re less likely to be able to picture The president of Kenya doing field research on beetles’ migratory habits while making whale sounds to the tune of the national anthem of Tunisia… because those are not fully formed mental concepts for you.
See, as a mental juggler, we can only juggle mental concepts that we can get a grip on. Some of these items that we try to catch are either not fully developed mental concepts so they slip from our fingers, or in many cases one object actually demands attention on multiple aspects of the object, which means that it’s actually two “items”, not one. Using the “president of Kenya” example, the second item, “doing field research on beetles’ migratory habits”, probably didn’t conjure a single concept in your mind. It was complex enough that it took up more than one slot in your juggling act, so you couldn’t juggle that along with several other items.
Now let’s use another example from speaking Spanish. If you’re in a conversation and trying to integrate the phrase “I gave it to him”, you may have to think about multiple things at once to say this little phrase. First of all, what is the correct conjugation for “gave” here? And then how do you phrase the pronouns? The translation is se lo di. Even though it’s a simple little three-word phrase of two-letter words that native Spanish speakers wouldn’t even have to think about, you may have had to give it a lot of conscious attention, and it probably required two or more juggling balls, or “chunks”, to manage it.
But what if this was second nature? What if you were so familiar with Spanish sentence structures, including these weird ones where the pronouns bunch themselves up in front of the verb like this, that it’s just one simple juggling ball?
What if you were so comfortable with these complicated little object pronouns, like “lo”, “se”, “la”, and so on, that you didn’t have to puzzle through which ones to use?
What if you were so familiar with the verb Dar, including all of its forms, that you didn’t have to give much or any conscious thought to using it in context, no matter what tense or mood the sentence is?
Let’s imagine that that’s how advanced your Spanish is. NOW imagine you have to say “I gave it to him”, and this time you are very familiar with the se–lo-verb sentence structure, as well as the appropriate conjugations of Dar to use in any situation. You could now easily say “I gave it to him” [se lo di], “I’m giving them to them” [se los doy], or maybe even “I want you all to give it to me” [quiero que me lo den], all without using up more than 1 or 2 chunks in your conscious juggling act. That leaves you with 2 other chunks for conveying the right body language and maybe reading the reaction of the person you’re talking with, or perhaps even plotting out how you’ll say the next sentence.
The bottom line is that when a Spanish grammatical concept, such as a phrasal structure or a verb with all of its forms, becomes fully conceptualized and familiar enough, you’ll be able to use it in a variety of ways without having to puzzle over it. It becomes what we call a mental model, something that can be treated as a single juggling ball instead of requiring your full attention.
With that perspective in mind, don’t lose hope as you continue to work on your Spanish! The next time you experience this mental overwhelm while practicing Spanish, remind yourself of the juggler. Tell yourself that there IS light at the end of the tunnel; as long as you keep practicing and improving the grammatical models that you’re learning, you will get a grip on them eventually, and your juggling act will get smoother and smoother.
Spanish Mental Models
Now let’s talk more specifically about what those Spanish mental models are and how to build and strengthen them.
Let’s start with a simple real-world example. You’re talking with a friend in Spanish, and you freeze up while trying to say the sentence “she gave it to me before she left”, because that sentence is just a little too much for you to handle quickly in the middle of a conversation.
Spanish is made of thousands of elements coming together in millions of possible combinations, but the mental models that lie behind Spanish can be reduced to a few hundred. For this particular sentence that we just used, here are the mental models you would need to master in order to be able to say it effortlessly:
1: The indirect-direct-verb structure
2: The “antes de que” idiom
3: The verb Dar and the way its forms are used
4: The verb Irse and the way its forms are used
That’s a lot to think about at once! In English (if that’s your first language), when you say “she gave it to me before she left”, you don’t have to juggle a lot of concepts at once; it flows naturally.
Let’s make your Spanish flow naturally by developing these abstract mental models until they’re intuitive.
Turn Important Linguistic Elements Into Mental Models
I’m guessing you already have some vocabulary in Spanish that is fairly easy to use, such as some basic nouns and adjectives. For example, saying casa instead of house doesn’t take a WHOLE lot of mental energy or focus. This type of vocabulary is fairly easy to use the way you would use it in English.
The real difficulties lie in more grammatically complex ideas, those places where Spanish just doesn’t line up perfectly with English. These harder words, such as verbs and pronouns, along with complex units of language such as idioms, are the ones that tend to trip you up. At the same time, these are the exact words that are super handy to have ready on command. Let’s take advantage of this, because if you manage to turn the most common verbs and pronouns into second-nature mental models, you can combine that with just a few hundred simple vocabulary words and start having conversations on a variety of topics in endless combinations.
Simply memorizing these grammatically complex words isn’t enough. To turn them into usable mental models, you need to apply a diligent, active practice strategy. The retrieval methods that I described in the article “How to Study Spanish” will help you out, especially if you specifically focus on switching verb tenses and pronouns in a variety of contexts.
For now, let’s go over some simple strategies for making pronouns and verbs more natural.
The basic pattern for turning pronouns into mental models is a three-step process:
(1) Memorize a related list of about 5 words at a time. For example, the direct objects me, te, lo, la, and nos. Make sure you can recall all 5 and what they mean from memory.
(2) Practice a sentence context that could use any of those pronouns, saying it out loud but switching between pronouns. For example, me encontraron, te encontraron, lo encontraron, la encontraron, nos encontraron.
(3) Start integrating more and more variety and randomness as you practice. Create more sentence examples, and also shuffle your direct object flashcards into other Spanish flashcards. That way there’s less and less predictability when you encounter direct objects.
As you do this over the course of a couple of weeks, you’ll find that direct object pronouns in Spanish become more and more automatic. You’ll find yourself using the correct pronoun in the correct place in the sentence automatically. Congratulations! A new mental model has been formed and is becoming intuitive.
For verbs, do basically the same thing.
(1) Pick about 5 conjugations of a verb that you want to memorize. For example, if you’re working on Dar, you might start with five of the most common first-person forms: doy, damos, di, dimos, daré.
(2) Choose a sentence example to start with, maybe te doy esto, te damos esto, te di esto, te dimos esto, te daré esto.
(3) Integrate more and more conjugations of Dar, and also start integrating more and more variety and randomness as you practice. Create more complex sentence examples, and also shuffle these flashcards into your other Spanish flashcards.
Soon you’ll find yourself using Dar easily and naturally. It may not be automatic very soon, but it will be easier and easier to find the right conjugation at the right time. If you practice effectively, using a Dar conjugation in context will soon become a single chunk, a single item in your juggling act, rather than 3 or 4. Your conscious focus will be freed up to think about other things while you’re speaking Spanish, all because you put in the effort to develop these mental models.
Turn Sentence Structures Into Mental Models
Let’s take all of this to the next level. Entire sentence structures can be mental models too. When your mind has an easy time accessing entire sentences from its library of mental models, speaking Spanish gets easier and easier!
For complex tasks like this, I recommend a study process that Barbara Oakley lays out in “A Mind for Numbers”. This seven-step process was designed for math and science students, but I’ve adapted it for Spanish students below.
Step 1: Study a Spanish sentence whose structure and grammar gives you some difficulty. Pick a sentence that was written by native speakers (not a fake example from a bad textbook!). After you’re familiar with the sentence, put it away and try to write or speak that sentence from memory. Then compare to the original and see if you got it right.
Step 2: Write a variation on this sentence, changing either the tense, the pronouns, or another aspect of the sentence that you find challenging. The new sentence should be extremely similar in structure to the original; usually only 1 or 2 words will change. For example, the sentence “me lo dio antes de que se fue” might change to “me lo dan antes de que se van”.
Step 3: Take a break! Study something unrelated, or go do something active, such as doing housework or taking a walk around the block. This is actually extremely important to the process, for reasons we’ll describe in the next article, Focus and Unfocus. Basically, by taking a break from this topic, you’re actually going to strengthen it, because your subconscious mind will start to work on it in new ways in the background.
Step 4: Return to the same sentence later the same day, ideally just before going to bed. First, write the original sentence from memory and see if you got it right, just like in Step 1. Then write yet another variation on it, just like in Step 2. Focus on the parts of the sentence that are giving you trouble.
Step 5: The next day, return to the same sentence again. Now that you’ve slept on it, you’ll find that writing it from memory (Step 1) and writing a variation on it (Step 2) is much more familiar and natural. Still, give special focus to the aspects of the sentence that you find tricky.
Step 6: Based on what you’ve found challenging while studying that sentence, choose a new native-written Spanish sentence to study. Once you’ve found a good sentence example that is going to challenge you, do Steps 1-5 again, using this new sentence. After that, choose yet another sentence.
Step 7: As you continue to accrue more and more challenging sentences, do what Barbara Oakley calls “active repetitions”, which means reviewing the sentences in your mind while doing something active, such as working out, doing housework, or commuting.
That’s it! As Barbara Oakley says, “What you are doing is building and strengthening an increasingly interconnected web of neurons, enriching and strengthening your chunks [i.e. mental models]. This makes use of what is known as the generation effect. Generating (that is recalling) the material helps you learn it much more effectively than simply rereading it.” (See How To Study Spanish for why that’s so important.)
Remember, just piecing together a Spanish sentence with the book open in front of you doesn’t guarantee that you could construct the sentence on the fly in a Spanish conversation. Plus, “research has shown that the more effort you put into recalling material, the deeper it embeds itself in your memory. Recall, not simple reading, is the best form of deliberate practice in study.”
In short, this 7-step strategy combines all the learning tactics that we’ve worked on in the last few articles, and then some!
Next time you look at a page of Spanish and feel overwhelmed, seeing nothing but a wall of text… don’t be discouraged. This is simply telling you that you haven’t quite mastered the mental models required to understand this page of text. Combine the mental models idea with the growth mindset that we discussed in a previous article, and then use testing and retrieval practice to build those mental models that you find lacking, and you’ll get to the point that that wall of text is now something you can glance at and understand!
The next article will go over study routines in more detail, describing what research shows to be the best way to balance your study with breaks, and why short study sessions can actually help you learn Spanish better than long study sessions. To get that article when it comes out, subscribe to our newsletter and I’ll send you the article when it’s published next week.