How to Take Your Spanish to the Next Level: Your Language Problem Is Just a Noticing Problem

November 21, 2016
<!-- How to Take Your Spanish to the Next Level: Your Language Problem Is Just a Noticing Problem --><p>This is part two of an epic three-part series on taking your Spanish to the next level. This article will make much more sense if you read <strong>part one</strong> first—<a href="">You're 10,000 mistakes away from fluency</a>—where we discussed the largest roadblock slowing down your Spanish progress: <strong>your dislike of making mistakes</strong>, especially new ones.</p><p>We saw that the antidote was <strong>committing to a daily writing and speaking output</strong>. The recommended daily dose is at least 100 written words and 60 seconds of recorded audio.</p><p>Once you get into the habit of <strong>producing Spanish</strong> (as opposed to just consuming it), your mistake-making rates will start going through the roof—which is exactly what we want. The goal then becomes <strong>catching as many mistakes as possible</strong>.</p><p>In this article, we'll cover a few techniques to get better at <strong>noticing mistakes</strong> and we'll see how to turn them into <strong>memorable insights</strong>.</p><!--more--><h2>Noticing mistakes</h2><p>Your daily Spanish production sessions should yield around 1 mistake for every 10 words. If you're getting a lower rate, you need to get out of your comfort zone and start using words and expression you're not familiar with. If this is you, try changing the focus of your goal, from number of words produced to <strong>number of mistakes noticed</strong>:</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>Make 10 new mistakes every day.</p></blockquote><p>Without making enough mistakes, there won't be enough interesting things for you to learn, and you'll go back to stale Spanish mode. And who wants that?</p><p>"But how do I know if I've made a mistake?!", I hear you wonder. There are two main ways of supplementing your ability to catch mistakes: <strong>reference hunting</strong> and <strong>relying on natives</strong>.</p><h3>Reference hunting</h3><p>Imagine that this was one of the sentences you wrote during your Spanish-producing session yesterday:</p><div class="translation mistake"><p><span class="sp">Soy loco por saber qué canciones van a tocar el concierto de mañana.</span><br><span class="en">I'm crazy to find out which songs they're going to play at the concert tomorrow.</span></p></div><p>There are two mistakes hiding there.</p><p>Let's say that right after writing it, you remember reading somewhere that <a href=""><span class="sp">loco</span> is a state of mind</a> in Spanish (not an inherent characteristic), so you change it to <span class="sp">estoy loco</span>.</p><p>One mistake down. How do you notice the other one?</p><p>If it's a blind spot and you have absolutely no idea what could be wrong, you'll have to find a native willing to point it out. Sometimes, you'll have the feeling that something is not right, but you won't quite be able to put your finger on it. That's when you need to go <strong>hunting for reference sentences</strong>.</p><p>For example, if you googled <code>canciones concierto mañana</code>, you'd get this:</p><p><img src="" alt="google_search" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-596" /></p><p>See it yet? If not, at least you're <strong>one step closer</strong>. If you keep at it for a while, you might notice a two-letter word sticking its head out from behind <span class="sp">el concierto</span>:</p><p><img src="" alt="google_search_highlighted" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-597" /></p><p>"That's so obvious, how could I have missed that?"</p><p>This feeling of indignation leads to an increase in the number of neurons that are looking out for that pattern. Next time they come across it, they'll start firing like crazy: IT SHOULD BE "<span class="sp">EN EL</span>" OVER HERE. Do that enough times, with enough bits of Spanish, and your blind spots will have nowhere to hide.</p><p>Reference hunting only works if you <strong>slow down</strong> enough to focus on the details. If you rush when you read, you'll leave all those aha moments on the table. The same thing happens when you're listening: if you only play it once, you won't be able to pick up all the differences between what you're hearing and what you're saying.</p><p><strong>Pro tip</strong>: The <a href="">Bridging the Gap Challenges</a> are specifically designed to let you exercise your noticing muscles. To train your listening muscles, you can also try <a href="">deliberate looping</a>.</p><h3>Relying on natives</h3><p>Sites like <a href="">lang-8</a> and apps like <a href="">HelloTalk</a> make it super easy to get a bunch of corrections from <strong>online natives</strong> from the comfort of your home (and your pajamas). The instructions are simple: create an account, write at least 100 words a day (lang-8), record yourself for at least 60 seconds a day (HelloTalk), and be a good citizen by correcting other people that are learning English. Eventually, you'll have more natives willing to help you than you'll know what to do with.</p><p>Interacting with natives <strong>live</strong> is a bit different. The best piece of advice I can give you is to avoid <strong>The Rookie Mistake</strong>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Ayer no <span class="sp mistake">podía</span> concentrar.</span><br><span class="en">"Yesterday I couldn't concentrate."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—No <strong>me</strong> podía.</span><br><span class="en">"I couldn't concentrate (myself)."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Eso. Pero hoy estoy mucho mejor.</span><br><span class="en">"Right. But today I'm much better."</span></p></div><p>The problem isn't <span class="sp mistake">podía</span>, it's the implied meaning of <span class="sp">eso</span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Eso.</span><br><span class="en">"Right. (Thanks for trying to help me with one of my blind spots, but I find your correction a bit annoying so I think I'm going to ignore it. Maybe when I'm done telling my story I'll actually care about what you said. Now, where was I?)</span></p></div><p>You can avoid this honest mistake by trying to internalize the correction. You'll be less likely to stumble on it in the future, and it will make the other person feel like you actually value their feedback:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Ah, ¡es verdad! No <strong>me</strong> podía concentrar. Ayer no <strong>me</strong> podía concentrar, pero hoy estoy mucho mejor. No <strong>me</strong> podía concentrar. Me lo apunto.</span><br><span class="en">"Ah, (it's true / you're right)! Yesterday I couldn't concentrate (myself), but today I'm much better. I couldn't concentrate myself. (I / let me) write it down.</span></p></div><p>Noticed mistakes are so valuable that we're going to dedicate a whole section to seeing how we can <strong>turn them into insights</strong>.</p><h2>Growing your mistake garden</h2><p>By now, I hope to have convinced you that <strong>your ability to learn Spanish is limited by the amount of Spanish you produce every day</strong>. Once you get into a healthy writing and speaking habit, you'll start accumulating mistakes like a pro, and you'll be able to focus on the next bottleneck: <strong>what to do with all those mistakes</strong>.</p><p>A recently noticed mistake is like a <strong>seed</strong>. If you take good care of it, it can grow into a beautiful native-Spanish neural connection. Thankfully, most mistakes are not that hard to nurture. We'll save the tricky ones for <a href="">part three</a>, but for now you only need to do three things:</p><ol><li><strong>Write them down</strong></li><li><strong>Give them space</strong></li><li><strong>Review them often enough</strong></li></ol><h3>Planting the seeds</h3><p>When you notice a mistake, the best thing you can do is <strong>to write it down</strong>. Putting pen to paper will force you to slow down and focus on things that you tend to overlook, such as differences in spelling, pesky pronouns, and unfamiliar word order.</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>Don't get better at Spanish—<strong>get better at noticing</strong>; the Spanish skills will follow.</p></blockquote><p>Your brain doesn't have the room to store every subtle mistake that you make, but <strong>your notebook does</strong>. Having a place to nurture them is the first step towards fixing them.</p><p>There is <strong>no judging</strong> at this stage. Just collecting. You're not telling your brain what it should have done; you're just pointing out <strong>things that are worth paying attention to</strong>.</p><h3>Giving them space to grow</h3><p>One of the reasons you might be reluctant to write down your mistakes is that you remember seeing something like this when you were in high school:</p><p><img src="" alt="corrections_cropped" class="alignnone size-large wp-image-600" /></p><p>Passive aggressive comments aside, the main problem in this type of correction is <strong>the lack of space</strong>. It's just a crowded heap of obnoxiously red seeds. Who wants to plant those?</p><p>With space comes clarity:</p><p><img src="" alt="notebook_cropped" class="alignnone size-large wp-image-601" /></p><p>This format makes it easy to see how many mistakes you noticed each day and it gives each one <strong>the importance it deserves</strong>. Taking the time to write a mistake down and giving it a piece of your notebook is often all you need to <strong>solidify the correction in your mind</strong>.</p><h3>Reviewing them often enough</h3><p>Growing your mistake garden in a <strong>paper notebook</strong> means that you don't have to set aside time to review what you wrote because <strong>reviewing is built-in by default</strong>.</p><p>Since you can't search, you'll have to browse through the pages to find what you're looking for. With time, this will help you build a mental map of what your garden looks like: every time you repeat a mistake, <strong>you'll get a mental flashback of the page where you wrote it down</strong>, which will make the aha moment much more vivid and memorable.</p><p>Another advantage of physical objects is that they are <strong>harder to ignore than digital ones</strong>. Yes, you <em>could</em> stop watching the current YouTube video, switch to the note-taking app, create a new note and type it, but your notebook is sitting right there. Opened to the last page. With the pen lying on top. Looking at you.</p><p>Of course, pulling out your phone will sometimes be more convenient, but I recommend treating the cloud as your notebook's temporary holding area, and transferring it to a physical medium before you run out of battery.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Llevo tres horas pasando las páginas de mi jardín, pero no la encuentro.</span><br><span class="en">"I (carry / have spent) three hours passing the pages of my garden, but I (don't / can't) find it."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¡Tres horas! ¿Y qué buscas?</span><br><span class="en">"Three hours! And what (do you search / are you looking for)?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Esa frase que me dijo aquel tipo el otro día.</span><br><span class="en">"That sentence (that) that guy said to me the other day."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Eres más raro que un perro verde.</span><br><span class="en">"(You're weirder than a green dog / you're such a weirdo)."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¡Esa es!</span><br><span class="en">"That is (the one)!"</span></p></div><h2>Spanish takeaways</h2><p>If you want to achieve fluency, you need to <strong>get better at noticing</strong>. I recommend a triple filter: <strong>slowing down</strong> enough to catch the most obvious mistakes, finding <strong>reference sentences</strong> to double-check your intuitions, and <strong>relying on natives</strong> to point out your blind spots.</p><p>Nurture the mistakes that you notice and many of them will turn into insights: <strong>write them down</strong> on paper, give them <strong>space to grow</strong>, and <strong>review them</strong> with the low-intensity zeal of a comic collector.</p><p>Next Monday, we'll finish this series by looking at ways of <a href="">dealing with mistakes that just won't go away</a>. Meanwhile, <strong>let me know in the comments</strong> if you've ever tried a strategy like this, and how it went.</p>