The Spanish-in-30-Days Experiment: Introduction

Written from Girona, Catalonia

Just off the plane in Girona and inspired by the learning method in Tim Ferris’ book, The 4-Hour Chef, I’m attempting a month long mission to learn Spanish. My definition of which is two part:

  1. Understanding roughly 50% of spoken words in conversation—which is an intuitive estimate, from my experience with Bulgarian, of the amount I need to understand in order to make sense of what someone is saying. For an oversimplified example, if someone says “Hey, do you feel like having some coffee?”, it’s probably necessary to only understand the word “coffee”—in many languages a recognisable variation of “coffee” or “cafe”—and the intonation of the sentence—indicating a question—to understand and reply with a simple “yes” or “no”.
  2. Being able to utlise what I know to express myself in daily conversation. I define “daily conversation” by things like, ordering drinks or food; asking for directions or recommendations; talking about what someone did today yesterday, last week; talking about interests and travel. I draw the line at philosophy, politics and spirituality. Topics which usually require clear articulation and a subject specific vocabulary.

The Method

Tim Ferriss breaks down his learning process with two acronyms.


D for Deconstruction

“What are the minimal learning units, the LEGO blocks, I should be learning with?”

S for Selection

“Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?”

S for Sequencing

“In what order should I learn the blocks?”

S for Stakes

“How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?”

CaFE (noted by Tim as optional)

C for Compression

“Can I encapsulate the most important 20% an easily graspable one-pager?”

F for Frequency

“How frequently should I practice? Can I cram, and what should my schedule look like? What growing pains can I predict? What is the minimum effective dose (MED) for volume?”

E for Encoding

“How do I anchor the new material to what I already know for rapid recall? Acronyms like DiSSS and CaFE are examples of encoding.”

The Plan


My chosen Spanish LEGO blocks are as follows:

  • The 13 sentences Tim recommends for quickly deconstructing a language’s grammar.
  • Total Spanish with Michel Thomas Audio Course. Which pre selects many blocks for me.
  • The Duolingo iPhone app.
  • Paper and pen note taking when I think of something that would be useful to know how to say.
  • Practicing vocabularly with the flashcard program Anki. I’ll enter the words I note on paper here to make use of the spaced repetition model for increased memory retention.
  • Twice a week language exchanges with people found through Couchsurfing and
  • Listening to Spanish podcasts and music.
  • Vis-ed Spanish Study Cards.

I’ve also installed a free Spanish dictionary iPhone app to look up words while I’m out and about. These I can note to later add to Anki for memorising.

Another key helper in my experiment, is that I’m actually in the country where the language is spoken, and where not many people speak English. In Slovenia, a surprising amount of people speak English, which means many immediately replied to me in English despite my efforts.


Analysing those blocks for the best 20% to give me 80% of the results I’m looking for, my selection is:

  1. Michel Thomas’s audio course. (based on the success I had with his Russian course. The method is amazing.)
  2. Language exchanges. (based on my experience with Slovenian. Being able to ask someone questions and practice dialogue, correct pronunciation is invaluable.)
  3. Duolingo. (Technically 3 out of 7 of the options is more than 20%, but I'm considering Duolingo a lightweight investment of time and energy. I started using it yesterday and it’s fun. I can see myself using it at moments where I have 5 or 10 minutes to spare. Too little time to start listening to the audio course, which also requires repeating out loud—not something ideal in public places.)

In Selection, I’m also avoiding learning how to say the same thing in multiple ways, or learning uncommon vocab, or multiple synonyms—I went to one Slovenian lesson in Ljubljana, delivered by an academic who thought two or three ways of saying each sentence. I was frustrated by the waste of memory, a rich vocabulary and poetic prose can come later. The energy and time taken to commit a synonym to memory can be better used learning a something new.


I will complete the audio course, with intermittent Duolingo use, before arranging a language exchange meetup to have a good basis to make the most of each.


The stakes? Public declaration and potential resulting embarrassment via this blog post.


I’ve yet to think of a useful way to compress key material onto a one-pager. Anki is possibly a form of this as I bundle new vocab and phrases into new decks for easy practice.


Michel Thomas’s course requires neither homework, review nor memorising. In fact he states doing any of that will hinder learning. I find I can listen to the course for hours on end without significant drop off in retention. I also noticed it’s crucial I repeat out loud before the other speaker, on the audio track, repeats after the teacher. My retention seems to drop dramatically without doing so.

Language exchanges I will try to arrange twice a week after the first week. From experience with Slovenian, I need to limit the volume of new learning in these sessions and schedule time to review my notes, add new material to Anki and practice. It seems a Michel Thomas-like method of conducting the exchanges, where the review and note taking isn’t necessary would be ideal and much more time effective. I’ll study these to see if a system can be introduced.


I’ve successfully used something along the lines of the Link Word method, where I create associations with words and use visualisation to help remember. For example, today I learnt the Spanish word for apple, “manzana”. I broke that down to man-zan-a, and imagined Billy Zane holding an apple over his head and saying to himself, “Billy ZANe is the MAN!”. I also imagine myself in the visualisation looking at him, thinking that’s pretty weird—a Michel Thomas tip.

That’s not the most eloquent example—the words need to be reversed MAN ZAN A, and ZAN is pronounced differently than Zane—but it’s effective in that, while I’m committing the word to memory, when I think of an apple, I imagine that crazy visualisation and extract the syllables.

The Starting Line

I speak some French, also in the Romance language family, like Spanish, so many words are familiar to me. There are also thousands similar words in English and Spanish. I know a few words from Spanish friends too. My vocabulary at the moment is as follows, plus a few more words that probably haven’t come to mind:

  • Yes
  • No
  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • Thanks
  • Please
  • Good morning
  • Good night
  • How are you?
  • Very good, and you?
  • Where is?
  • I know
  • I don’t know
  • I understand
  • I don’t understand
  • Also
  • But
  • I have
  • You have
  • I want
  • You want
  • How do you say?

I started, Sunday 8th September 2013. I’ll post the results in approximately a month, after 8th October. If you want to know when I do, you can get updates from my blog by email.

† The Grammar Deconstructing 13

  • The apple is red.
  • It is John’s apple.
  • I give John the apple.
  • We give him the apple.
  • He gives it to John.
  • She gives it to him.
  • Is the apple red?
  • The apples are red.
  • I must give it to him.
  • I want to give it to her.
  • I’m going to know tomorrow.
  • (I have eaten the apple.) gives past tense with past participle.
  • I can’t eat the apple. Continue reading the main text

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