Why you repeat mistakes when speaking Spanish

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Learning Spanish means building thousands of tiny habits. 

If you underestimate the time it takes for those habits to form, you can end up frustrated and questioning your own learning abilities. 

But the truth is, there’s nothing wrong with you as a learner. 

Sure, there are likely things you could do more effectively (that’s the whole reason I write this newsletter each week). 

But that relates to the things you do – not your aptitude for becoming a Spanish speaker.

Especially if you’ve struggled to learn a language in the past, misunderstanding this can generate enough self-doubt to squash the best-laid plans. 

So today I want to share a simple story to help explain a process we all go through when learning Spanish… plus one tip to expedite the process. 

Swapping glasses for (baby) bottles

In November of last year, my wife and I had our first baby. While it’s been an incredible, fun, challenging experience, one thing I underestimated was how much stuff you need as a new parent. 

To accommodate this stuff, we’re constantly reorganizing. 

The most recent change was moving the baby bottles to where the wine glasses used to be (hard to think of a better metaphor for the last 7 months). 

I had 5 years of practice opening that cabinet!  

Adjusting to this new arrangement has gone like this so far: 

Phase 1: open the former drink cabinet and think, “What the…? Where are the… Oh… yeah.”

  • Est time: 1 week

Phase 2: open the former drink cabinet and immediately realize it’s the wrong one. 

  • Est time: 2 weeks

Phase 3: walk towards the new baby bottle cabinet, then slowly correct myself towards the one I’m looking for. 

  • Est time: 1 week

Phase 4: I haven’t arrived here yet, but eventually I’ll go to the correct cabinet without thinking. 

  • Est time: ? 

    This frustrating experience applies to most habit-building. 

    Try changing the way you tie your shoes or the leg that goes first into your pants and you’ll see what I mean. 

    What most people don’t consider is that it also applies to learning a new language. 

    You’ve heard that habits are important in the learning process, which is of course true. 

    But the skills we develop when learning Spanish are habits, too. 

    In particular, the grammar we practice and the pronunciation we repeat. 

    And in my experience, the phases are the same: 

    Phase 1: Say it incorrectly without realizing it.

    Phase 2: Say it incorrectly and catch yourself.

    Phase 3: Say it correctly but slowly.

    Phase 4: Say it fluently. 

    “I forget everything when speaking”

    Say you’re trying to learn to pronounce your D’s softer when after a vowel, as in padre, todo or hablado

    In phase one, you’ll be pronouncing the D just like the English D, not yet hearing the difference. 

    In phase two, you’ll hear the difference as you say it, but it still won’t come out right. 

    In phase three, you’ll have to think about it while speaking, and make considerable effort to say it right (this phase takes the longest by far). 

    In phase four, the Spanish D will come out naturally and automatically. No conscious process necessary. 

    I sometimes hear from students in my course lamenting that they can produce a sound when practicing, but that everything goes out the window when speaking. 

    My response is usually that it’s because they haven’t built an automatic habit yet. 

    Until a sound or a piece of grammar is an unconscious reaction to a situation, it’s hard to use it correctly in conversation. 

    So how do you take a piece of Spanish from phase 1 to phase 4? 

    Can we expedite the process?

    As I mentioned at the start, there are always things we can do to learn more effectively. 

    And while speed of learning is not a useful goal in my opinion, you can sometimes build a habit more quickly through intentional repetition. 

    With my wine cabinet, this would just mean drinking more, which might not be the best start to fatherhood.

    With your Spanish though, building habits is risk-free.

    In recent editions of Saturday Spanish, I’ve talked about practicing with a Phrase of the Day

    It helps you practice a grammar structure, a new pronunciation, or even just a new word, and it’s simple: 

    Choose or make a phrase containing what you want to practice. Then repeat it to yourself throughout the day (if grammar is the focus, it’s helpful to practice manipulating the phrase a bit). 

    With a narrow focus on one specific verbal habit, it can help you go through the 4 phases a bit faster. 

    Resetting expectations

    Learning a foreign language reminds us how complex a process human speech is… 

    …And how amazing it is that, in our first language, it all happens instantly and almost without effort.  

    If you’re frustrated that a certain bit of Spanish won’t stick… 

    Or you feel like your Spanish should be better than it is…  

    Focus on repetition. 

    Get that repetition through lots of active listening, keeping an ear out for what you’re trying to improve. 

    And add a healthy dose of out-loud repetition of a ‘phrase of the day’. 

    Expect it to take a long time for a new verbal habit to form. 

    One day, you’ll surprise yourself when a new word, or challenging bit of grammar, or a tricky sound comes out without you having to think about it. 

    If you’re interested in learning more strategies like this one, check out Confident Spanish Pronunciation.

    That’s all for today. Thanks for reading!


    P.S. I’d love to hear from you. What can I write about to help you improve your Spanish?

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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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