Language Hacking Challenge

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A week without speaking English? Is it possible?

Last week we reviewed the Language Hacking Guide by Benny Lewis from Fluent in 3 Months. Reading the guide changed our attitude to our Spanish learning and we realised we needed to step up our game. In the last week we’ve been doing our own 7 Day Language Hacking Challenge where we’ve tried out many of the techniques in the guide.

These are the main areas we have focused on:

No English!

To learn another language quickly, the Guide advised us to stop speaking our native language so for this week our aim was to speak to each other in Spanish as much as possible and to try not to let conversations revert back to English with other people.

We began the week with one of our private Spanish tutoring lessons (each with our own teacher) which is always good for putting us in a Spanish speaking mood as no English is used in the lessons. Simon says he always feels more confident with his speaking on lesson days – the more he speaks, the better he gets.

It was natural for us to continue talking in Spanish together after the lesson over lunch and a walk around Palermo Soho. Our conversation was a little slow and we had to use our handy pocket dictionary a few times but we did manage to stick to it for a good few hours.

When we got home in the late afternoon and switched on our laptops it got a lot tougher. If we’re honest, we forgot about it completely when we were back reading emails and blog posts in English.

Simon had some important business decisions to make and we just didn’t have the technical vocab needed to discuss them in Spanish so we fell back into English. We did move back to Spanish when we could, but it does get much harder once you are ‘out of the zone’.

For the first three days of the challenge, we estimate that we spoke Spanish about 70% of the time which is a huge improvement on before. For the rest of the week this slipped down to 40 – 50% as we got really busy preparing to leave Buenos Aires, and then travelling to Puerto Iguazú, and it is tiring and slow speaking in Spanish all the time.

We definitely felt the benefits of doing this, though – Simon in particular said he began to understand a lot more of what people were saying to him – and from now on we’re going to increase our Spanish rate and reduce our poor excuses.

Speaking to Strangers

We made an effort not to speak to any locals in English, even when they spoke to us in English. Having the confidence to speak with strangers is an important part of the advice in the Language Hacking Guide – if you are too shy then you won’t get many opportunities to practice. We must admit that this is a problem of ours – we don’t find it easy going up to strangers in English, let alone Spanish.

We didn’t speak to the three strangers a day that Benny recommends, but we did make more of an effort than usual. Even making small talk with a waitress, asking a taxi driver how business is doing, or asking our hostel owner questions about the area gave us extra opportunities to practice and move us beyond functional talk and into actual conversation. We’ll continue trying to work on this!

We got our most practice at speaking with strangers by attending Spanglish in Buenos Aires. It’s like speed dating for language learners: 5 minutes in English, 5 minutes in Spanish then you switch to another person. Although we were speaking some English we still got lots of practice and met some lovely local people. We tried to apply the guide’s techniques for using connector words and acting confidently to make our conversations more fluent and it helped a lot – people were surprised to learn that Simon had only been learning properly for two months!

Throughout our time in Buenos Aires we’ve been meeting up with a local guy to practice our Spanish and his English. Usually the balance leaned towards English but, at our last meeting, we made an effort to speak more Spanish.

Immersion

All of the above is about immersing yourself as much a possible in the language, but the Language Hacking Guide recommends taking it even further. It’s important to try and do as many things as possible in the target language.

In an effort to make our computer lives more Spanish we both changed our Facebook languages to Spanish which was surprisingly helpful – it’s always good to get more practice (and Simon loves that all of his friends are now his amigos).

I also set up a Twitter account for Spanish language tweets: @eternoviaje. Changing to a Spanish dictionary in our Firefox and Chrome browsers has really helped this as we get automatic spell checks (it helps for sending emails too).

But the greatest step towards immersion was finding an Argentine version of the Lonely Planet magazine. I love to read about travel so it makes sense for me to do this in Spanish. Not only do I learn relevant vocabulary and see grammar points in context, but I get to actually enjoy the content as well – great for motivation!

Also, our Porteño friend generously bought us a book about an Argentine vagabond so now we have even more interesting ‘study’ material.

Making Use of Wasted Time

Many of us complain we don’t have time for our language learning but Benny disagrees. He suggests using wasted time on public transport and other occasions for study. This is a great idea so on the crowded subte on the way to classes we worked on Simon’s verb conjugation homework, and even while we were waiting at traffic lights. We used our long bus journey to listen to podcasts and although we watched films in English we paid attention to the Spanish subtitles as you can pick up lots just from this.

We’re now carrying around practice material and we’re trying to use all our waiting time to go over vocabulary or talk to each other in Spanish (although getting the motivation to do it at 12:30 at night, when it’s cold and you’re soaking wet is quite tricky).

New Resources

We learn so much new vocabulary here that we both need a way to remember it all. My scrappy flashcards were getting a little out of control so we’ve set up our own computer-based decks on Anki – a resource recommended in the guide that we aim to spend at least 20 minutes a day on. We’ve found that it’s definitely helped to organise our learning.

Another free resource we tried was Lang 8 – a website where locals correct your writing (and you help them out with their English). Surprisingly I got two responses within an hour. It´s really helpful even if you aren’t interested in writing because you can check that what you are saying to people is correct.

Has it worked?

We both feel much more confident. Simon definitely says that he’s felt a big improvement. He is much more able to follow along in conversations and, provided he doesn’t panic when someone asks him a question, give appropriate responses.

Obviously there is only so far we can get in a week and so this is really just the start of applying these and other methods from the guide. We are convinced that if we did everything that Benny recommends we would become fluent in Spanish in a few months, but we really need to make that commitment and go for it.

What has helped more than anything is the realisation that it really doesn’t matter if we make mistakes. Speaking a language is about communication and if you can get your message across then you have succeeded even if you don’t speak perfectly (who does even in English?).

Reading the guide and then applying the principles and speaking to lots of people made us realise that no-one cared (or often noticed) if we made mistakes.

You can read our full review of the Language Hacking Guide or buy your copy now.

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12 Comments (2 pingbacks)

  1. Great tips here, especially the part about using down-time to learn languages. The key is immersion. Even when u’re doing something mundane, make sure the TV is on, the radio is on, or you’re listening to some audio…

    Reply

  2. Wow that would be so intimidating although I do find my Spanish gets better if no one speaks English to me.

    I’m heading to Granada this week to take another week of Spanish lessons and I’m hoping to do a homestay to expose me to more of the language.
    .-= ayngelina´s last blog ..As Gabriel sees it =-.

    Reply

    • It is a bit daunting at first but it definitely gets easier. The more practice you get the better. The homestay would be a great idea. You might also want to consider private lessons as we made more progress that way. The main thing though is just to speak as much as possible. Good luck!

      Reply

    • We really recommend setting a challenge – it definitely helps to motivate you. Good luck and let us know how you get on!

      Reply

  3. Thanks for the comments everyone! We are now in Paraguay with very little internet access so apologies for not responding to you all indivdually. We are getting lots of practice here as noone speaks English and we have only met 2 other travellers.

    Good luck everyone with your language learning. The guide really is very useful – it has completely changed our approach.

    Thanks Benny for your support!

    Reply

  4. Excellent tips. I’ve always had a goal to become fluent in another language, but I haven’t spent long enough in one place to keep at it. I did spend about 4 weeks in Istanbul and did my best to use my handy dictionary whenever I was speaking to locals.
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..An Update & Travel Question =-.

    Reply

  5. Hey Erin, it’s cool to see a review about a product from people that are non biased. And thanks for your comment! You’ve definitely opened some doors and I’ll be looking for this book

    On learning Spanish and English, I usually tell people to watch tv in the language when there’s nobody to practice with. A substitute for not wanting to speak in the middle of the night?

    Reply

  6. Hi Erin,
    Learning a new language is fascinating, isn’t it? I love it!

    We even have an English version of our blog, how crazy is that? Sometimes I think we should keep it in Portuguese only, as our texts will never be compatible to other blogs around.. But who cares? It totally is all about communication… and getting the message through… and believe me, when you learn the local language you end up learning a lot more about that culture too.

    You may find this site useful: http://www.livemocha.com. It’s a language learning community where you can practice with people from all around. :)
    .-= Cris Campos´s last blog ..Brazilian passport: is it that bad? (arriving in Thailand) =-.

    Reply

  7. Hola!
    I have been working with Benny’s guide for about four days now and am seeing an improvement. For my learning tools I am using SpanishPod, watching movies in Spanish, and the Lonely Planet phrasebook. My husband and I have been talking to each other a little in Spanish, but have not completely jumped all the way in. I could see how total immersion can help a lot. I am thinking of taking a Spanish class weekly as well as participating in the social events. Thanks for sharing your progress and experience with the guide.

    Hasta luego!
    .-= Hethir´s last blog ..Pixlr – Free, online Photo editor =-.

    Reply

  8. This is great. I’m planning on buying Benny’s guide before I head to Italy next week, and this post just reinforces my belief that there is a lot of great advice in the Guide. Thanks for sharing.

    I just changed my Facebook language to Italiano, checking out fotos of my amicis. Mucho bene!
    .-= Niall Doherty´s last blog ..Visualize your own funeral =-.

    Reply

  9. You two are doing an EXCELLENT job following my advice :D
    It’s amazing to see people make genuine progress in even just one week when they do it more enthusiastically and focus on conversations rather than too much study.
    I hope you keep up the progress after your first intensive week :) It will get easier and easier, you’ll see :D
    .-= Benny Lewis´s last blog ..Embracing embarrassing mistakes =-.

    Reply

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