How to Take Your Spanish to the Next Level: Get Rid of Your Permanent Mistakes

November 28, 2016
<p>This is the final article in an epic three-part series designed to help you take your Spanish to the next level.</p><p>In <a href="">Part 1: You're 10,000 mistakes away from fluency</a>, we saw that <strong>making more mistakes is actually a good thing</strong>, because it means you're spending a lot of time outside your comfort zone <strong>producing Spanish</strong> (as opposed to just consuming it).</p><p>In <a href="">Part 2: Your Language Problem Is Just a Noticing Problem</a>, we saw that keeping a mistake notebook and relying on native speakers are two great ways to get better at <strong>noticing your blind spots</strong>.</p><p>In this last part, we're going to talk about <strong>persistent mistakes</strong>, the kind that refuse to go away, the kind that make you want to slap your forehead, the kind that you make five seconds after someone just pointed them out.</p><p>It's like your brain refuses to acknowledge them as mistakes, so <strong>you can't even catch yourself making them</strong>.</p><p>But before we get into that, let's start with a memory challenge.</p><!--more--><h2>Repeat after me</h2><p>Put on your headphones and hit play.</p><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio></p><!----><p>Now, <strong>repeat what you just heard</strong>.</p><p>(Seriously. If you don't repeat it out loud, this article won't make a lot of sense.)</p><!----><p>Okay, I'm going to assume you repeated it and that <strong>it wasn't that hard</strong>. Now let's try the same sentence, but in Spanish:</p><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio></p><!----><p>Now, <strong>repeat what you just heard</strong>.</p><p>You won't always have a native speaker pronouncing things in your ear, so let's try the same thing in writing:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Siento haber llegado tarde, pero te prometo que la próxima vez empiezo a prepararme antes.</span></p></div><p>Now, look away, and <strong>repeat it from memory</strong>.</p><hr /><p>The point of this challenge is to give you a glimpse into an interesting structure inside your brain: <strong>your language scaffold</strong>.</p><p>Your English scaffold is so strong that hearing a sentence <strong>a single time</strong> is all you need to recall it with perfect accuracy.</p><p><strong>Your Spanish scaffold is probably not as sophisticated</strong>. It might be strong in some areas, but weak in others. Luckily, it's pretty easy to find out which ones you've already mastered and which ones need reinforcing:</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>If you cannot remember something five seconds after you read it, <strong>you need a stronger scaffold</strong>.</p></blockquote><p>Let's take the sentence from the previous challenge and build a better scaffold around it.</p><h2>The Scaffold Technique</h2><p>Take the first part, and <strong>read it aloud</strong>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Siento haber llegado tarde, pero te prometo que…</span></p></div><p>Now, look away, and repeat it from memory (aloud).</p><p>Read and repeat as many times as necessary, <strong>until you know every word by heart</strong>.</p><p>Don't stress over nailing the pronunciation. Don't worry about saying it at maximum speed. Just focus on <strong>recalling the words</strong>.</p><p>Once you can remember the first part, move on to the next one:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">…la próxima vez empiezo a prepararme antes.</span></p></div><p>Look away. Repeat.</p><p>When you have the second part down, <strong>repeat the whole sentence in one go</strong>.</p><p>You'll notice that the main difficulty is not in remembering, but in <strong>fighting the instinct to add extra words</strong> (<span class="sp">te <span class="sp mistake">lo</span> prometo</span>), <strong>or to omit important ones</strong> (<span class="sp">empiezo <span class="sp mistake">{ }</span> prepararme</span>).</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>Every time you resist the permanent mistake instinct, <strong>you're making your scaffold stronger</strong>.</p></blockquote><p>Simply reading a sentence on a page is not enough. Listening to somebody else saying it out loud is not enough. To really remember it, you need to <strong>go inside your head and pull the sentence out word for word</strong>.</p><p>The persistent effort is what sends the signal to your brain that <strong>this is something worth paying attention to</strong>.</p><h2>This is where the magic happens</h2><p>Your brain is <strong>wired to remember stories</strong>, not isolated facts.</p><p>When you use the scaffold technique to commit a sentence to memory, <strong>you're storing a lot of interlocking details at the same time</strong>: the meaning of the story, the muscle movements in your mouth, the intonation of the sentence, the spelling of each word, even the room you're in.</p><p>That means that if you see one of the words (<span class="sp">Siento</span>), your memory will fill in the rest automatically (<span class="sp">… haber llegado tarde, pero te prometo que la próxima vez empiezo a prepararme antes</span>). This automatic trigger is what reduces your chances of, for example, adding a <span class="sp">lo</span> before <span class="sp">siento haber {infinitivo}</span>.</p><p>Next time something triggers this memory (should I put an <span class="sp">a</span> after <span class="sp">empezar</span>?), <strong>you'll be less likely to fall for the mistake</strong>.</p><h2>Scaffolds on demand</h2><p>The beauty of this technique is that <strong>you can build a scaffold for whatever mistake you want to get rid of</strong>.</p><p>For example, let's build a scaffold to stop confusing <span class="sp">quedarse</span> and <span class="sp">quedar</span>. Browsing your textbook, you might find a couple of sentences like these:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Nos hemos quedado sin gasolina.</span><br><span class="en">We've run out of gas</span></p><p><span class="sp">Hemos quedado a las ocho.</span><br><span class="en">We're meeting at eight.</span></p></div><p>They're not super interesting sentences, but <strong>they contain the structures we're interested in</strong>: <span class="sp">quedarse</span> refers to <span class="en">the <a href="">aftermath</a> of an event (we were driving, and this is what happened)</span>; without the pronoun, <span class="sp">quedar</span> means <span class="en">to meet up with someone</span>.</p><p>Remembering two random facts is harder than remembering <strong>one connected story</strong>, so we can combine them along with a few extra details:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Habíamos quedado con ellos a las ocho, pero nos quedamos sin gasolina en mitad de la autopista.</span><br><span class="en">We were meeting with them at eight, but we ran out of gas in the middle of the highway.</span></p></div><p>Seventeen words are enough to force your brain to slow down and take this challenge seriously.</p><p><strong>Try to memorize it right now</strong>: look away, repeat.</p><p>As you go through the recall process, you can glance at the words to get <strong>instant feedback</strong> (to make sure you didn't add or omit any words).</p><p>When the scaffold gets <strong>strong enough</strong>, thinking about saying <span class="sp">¿nos quedamos a las ocho?</span> will instantly remind you of <span class="sp">nos quedamos sin gasolina</span>, and you'll realize that the pronoun is not needed in that case.</p><h2>Permanent scaffolds</h2><p>This technique only works when your scaffolds are <strong>more permanent than your mistakes</strong>. The secret to never forget a scaffold once you learn it is <strong>repeated exposure</strong>. You can achieve this by regularly quizzing yourself using the <strong>first-letter method</strong> (where each letter reminds you of a word in the scaffold sentence):</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">S H L T, P T P Q L P V E A P A.</span></p><p><span class="sp">H Q C E A L O, P N Q S G E M D L A.</span></p></div><p>I like to jot these down next to <strong>relevant mistakes</strong> in my notebook and use the other side of the page to write out the scaffold sentence. If you're a fan of flashcards or spaced-repetition software, feel free to use those.</p><h2>Takeaways</h2><p>Permanent mistakes like to lodge themselves in the weakest parts of your Spanish scaffold. If you want to get rid of them, <strong>make the scaffold stronger</strong>.</p><p>You can identify the spots that need reinforcing by trying to <strong>commit full sentences to memory</strong>. You know the scaffold is good enough when the sentence is no longer hard to remember.</p><p>By <strong>recalling sentences out loud</strong>, you force your brain to roll up its sleeves and fully engage with the challenge. It's at these times when you have the highest chance of <strong>fixing permanent mistakes</strong>.</p><p>Connecting isolated words into a one-sentence story makes them easier to remember and <strong>you get the grammar for free</strong>.</p><p>To make scaffold sentences permanent, <strong>review them every day for a week</strong> (you can use the first-letter method when you need a subtle reminder).</p><p>Scaffold sentences are just like song lyrics: if you play them enough times, <strong>you'll remember them for years</strong>.</p><hr /><p>This series has given you a process to <strong>take your Spanish to the next level</strong>: <a href="">write and speak every day</a>, <a href="">pay attention to your mistakes</a>, and <a href="">focus on your weak spots</a>.</p><p>The only thing left is <strong>putting in the work</strong>.</p><p>I hope you have fun doing it.</p><p>Let me know how it goes in the comments.</p>