SS #80: A snapshot of my own language learning

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When I was around 15, I read a classic of the language learning genre: How to Learn Any Language by Barry Farber.

Farber’s tales of learning Indonesian on a cargo ship and interpreting for Soviet refugees lit a fire under my nascent interest in languages.

More than 15 years after reading it, there’s one main idea that has stuck with me: 

It’s what he calls “hidden moments”.

It’s a simple concept.

You have demands on your time other than learning Spanish. 

But you also have many “hidden moments” in a day that can theoretically be used to practice Spanish — waiting for your tea to steep, waiting for your dog to come back in, or pretending to listen during a dull meeting. 

Add those moments up and you have a surprising amount of potential learning time on your hands.

It was published in 1991, so some of Farber’s tips are dated. 

But the main idea holds:

Making progress is less about hour-long classes and more about what you do with 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there.

Hidden Moments of Spanish Practice

Some of you know I’ve been learning German for several years (a big reason I started was to test and practice all the things I knew I’d be sharing with students of Breakthrough Spanish).

Last week, I had a “hidden moment” practice session that I wanted to share as an example.

I’d gone to the eye doctor to deal with a minor infection.

I was waiting and decided that instead of scrolling, I’d test myself. My challenge to myself was this:

“Pretend you have to explain this eye trouble to a German doctor who doesn’t speak English.”

So while waiting in the exam chair, with that big binocular-looking device next to me, I started talking to myself.

I explained what I was feeling, when it started, how long it’d been going on, what I’d tried so far, and how it was affecting me.

There were plenty of words I didn’t know, but I wanted to avoid using my phone.

Only when I couldn’t find my way around them, I used DeepL on my phone to find the right phrase.

(One handy feature of both Google Translate and DeepL is that they save your previous searches):

Afterwards, I skimmed back over those phrases and practiced saying them again a few more times.

Around 5 minutes after I started, the doctor came in and my speaking session was over.

Short and sweet.

A new reflex: creating Spanish

Many of us have a reflex to take our phones out and scroll when we have a moment of waiting.

Our phones can certainly help us learn Spanish…

But when I pull my phone out to practice, there’s a 50/50 chance I actually do it.

Social apps, the news, betting apps, group chats — it all makes our phones unreliable tutors.

So to rely less on my phone, I like the idea of using these “hidden moments” to create the language, not consume it.

It could be talking to yourself, like I did at the doctor.

It could be looking around and mentally describing things.

It could be writing, like this comment I saw on a YouTube video:

Point is, your time for dedicated learning may be hard to come by. But your day probably contains 30 minutes of downtime, 5-10 minutes at a time, that you can use for Spanish.

It’s not about squeezing productivity out of every last moment. Rest is good, and some mindless scrolling is fun. 

Instead, it’s about finding a bit more time than we thought we had. 

Think of it like saving.

$50 here, $100 there might not seem like much. But in the long run, a habit of saving small amounts of money regularly makes an enormous difference.

So if you’re struggling to find enough time to improve your Spanish, consider two things:

  1. Where do I have hidden moments in my day?
  2. Are there moments when I could replace the “grab-my-phone-reflex” with some Spanish thinking, talking or writing?

That’s all for today. ¡Buen fin de semana!

– Connor

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Hey there, I'm Connor. I help motivated learners speak Spanish without slogging through grammar books or tapping through every new app. I started Breakthrough Spanish to give more people the confidence and focus to learn effectively Spanish from home. Learn more about me here.

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