Learning Spanish in 5 Minutes a Day

I’ve been reading Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialist World over Christmas break. I’ve also been thinking about my experiments with Tiny Habits over the past 2 years.

The opening chapters of Range talk about music, which I found especially interesting given my limited background as a musician and my recent foray into learning guitar. I’m now 129 days in (with a few missed here and there) of practicing music for at least 5 minutes a day. Most of that time I’ve spent on the guitar.

We spent Christmas down in Cabo last week and, accordingly, I’ve been thinking about what designing a new habit for learning Spanish might look.

I spend most of my time in my experiments with habits on habit design. It took me months of thinking to come up with my first experiment regarding food.

With Spanish, I had a loose idea. I could spend 5 minutes a day using Duolingo or a similar app. I wasn’t feeling it, though. I wanted to do something, firing up Duolingo again just didn’t seem like the best thing I could do.

Designing effective habits is about identifying tiny actions that create momentum over time. Momentum that you can take periodically and burst into breakthroughs.

I wrote my first book in 5 minutes a day, followed by an evening of focused effort when I decided I had reached the finished line.

So Spanish. What could I do in 5 minutes a day that would help me learn?

Here’s where Range came in. What’s resonating with me especially today are the early chapters on how we learn.

Concepts that stood out to me so far include:

  • Embracing mistakes – Being OK with and even encouraging mistakes is key to effective, long-term learning.
  • Spacing – Time between practice is important. Make use of deliberate non-practice.
  • Making connections – Look for ways to connect seemingly unconnected things. This creates stronger neural links and deepens learning. Analogies are our friend in learning.
  • Resisting easy – Students that received hints from teachers did better short-term and poorly long-term over those who took a harder path and struggled. Struggling is useful and learning is often more productive when it’s hard.
  • Slow – Effective learning is the work of a lifetime. It’s not a thing to rush into or force. Doing so may make it seem that you’ve learned, but you’ll just as quickly forget. Build momentum over time.

I was laying in bed thinking about all this while listening to music. After a bit of listening, I wanted to hear a Spanish song. I searched and came across a song I was familiar with and liked.

I listened and enjoy it. And then an idea surfaced.

“What if I tried to translate this song?”

Applying what I had been learning from Range I asked, “What if I tried to translate this song, without looking up the words?”

At first, that struck me as preposterous. My guess is that I knew about 10% of the words in the song and my comprehension of the song was close to 0%. I just really liked how it sounded, how it felt.

How could I translate a song like that without looking up the words?

As I started to think through the concepts I was learning, light bulbs started turning on. Translating without looking it up would be hard. I’d make a lot of mistakes. I’d also be forced to make connections and stretch the limits of my current understanding.

I got excited about it.

What if I spent my 5 minutes a day doing that? What would happen over time?

My guitar playing over the past few months has been pretty rough. 5 minutes a day doesn’t take you very far and there were many days were all I’d really do was practice finger movement and play a cord here or there.

Today, though, I had a breakthrough moment. I played for fun, taking everything I knew and things I didn’t, and just played. I had so much fun playing that I broke my guitar pick! It took months of what seemed to be fairly non-consequential practice with with a lot of “mistakes” and failing before a breakthrough occurred.

Through my experiments with habits I’ve learned to not only be OK with the slow process but to embrace it. I still don’t like taking cold showers every day – but man, I’m hooked. It’s a struggle each time and, each time, I make it through and I feel better on the other side.

I grabbed some pieces of paper and got to work.

On one sheet of paper I wrote out the words for the opening stanza in Spanish. On the other, I attempted a translation.

Now, importantly, because this was in the context of a song I was not only trying to translate but apply meaning. This is music. I didn’t want a rote, literal translation even if I was capable of producing such a thing (which I’m not). So, I wrestled with the words and tried to supply meaning.

While I don’t know how well I did, I’m certain it was a fantastic failure. And now I’ve got a whole set of new Spanish words bouncing around in my head. I’m curious about them. I want to know what they mean.

If I’d have looked it up, I could have had the answers in seconds.. and that’d be the end of it.

So, back to Spanish.

I went for a walk and gave it more thought (I do much of my best thinking while walking) and settled on the start of an experiment.

I’m going to dedicate 5 minutes a day to learning Spanish. I’ll spend my time on any one of the following list of likely to be expanded activities:

  • Translating a song from Spanish to English (or vice versa) – I’ll work on a few lyrics at a time.
  • Listening to music in Spanish (that’s an “easy” one for tough days)
  • Watching Spanish “concept” videos on YouTube – I’ll work on building a playlist. The idea here is to find good teachers that can expand my understanding of how to think in Spanish.

Then, periodically, I’ll seek opportunities to apply the momentum in a “burst”. Having a conversation with someone in Spanish, attending a Spanish-speaking event, etc.

I’ll edit and iterate on the habit as I go. I’m really happy with the start of it, though, and am looking forward to seeing where the momentum takes me over time.