I Taught Myself Spanish. This Is How
A story about Salsa Dancing, Overseas Friends and Some Romance, Of Course
About one year ago, Daniel Gwerzman and I started working on Spanish Lesson, a Google Assistant Action that helps you extend and practice your Spanish vocabulary. I shared a detailed blog post about the technical aspects of the project, and Daniel published a post about the product decisions we made and some of the lessons we learned. But I often get asked how did I learn Spanish?
Here is the story. I will try to share some tips as pointers along the way, and I hope you will find them useful when learning Spanish (or any new language for that matter).
Shall We Dance? 💃
It all started about 12 years ago. A few friends and I were running a small Salsa Dancing club called Salsa4Fun. I was a bad dancer. It took me a while until I realized that you can dance to the music, and it’s not just some background sound while you focus on how you move your feet.
After some months practice, my dance skills began to improve, and I also started to pay attention to the music and the rhythm. Shortly after, it struck me that there were also lyrics to the song.
I remember one evening, when “Contra La Corriente” by Mark Anthony was playing, and the chorus sounded to me like the “Toda, Toda, Toda…”, which means “Thank you” in Hebrew. I jokingly asked Avi Aminov who does the singer thank so much?
Avi knew a little Spanish (after watching too many Argentinian telenovelas on TV), so he explained to me the story that the song tells — a man who is tries to forget an old love, but all his effort are in vain, it’s like swimming against the current (hence the name of the song “Contra La Corriente”). This sparked my interest — suddenly, I realized each song told some story.
I continued asking Avi about other songs, and he tried to help as much as he could with the limited Spanish knowledge he had. Around that time we also started practicing Rueda, a variant of Cuban Salsa danced in circles, and the names of the dance moves were all in Spanish: “Dame Una”, “Dile Que No”, “Siete Loco”, “Candado”, etc. This is how I picked up my first words.
10 Minutes Every Day
After learning from Avi about a few more songs such as “Sabor a Menta” and “Que Levante La Mano” and the meaning of their lyrics, I decided I want to be able to do it myself. I wanted to understand the stories told by the songs I was dancing to. It was time to level up my Spanish!
So around November 2007, I started using an software called “Rosetta Stone”. The lessons consisted of photos and their description, which the software would also read aloud:
Each lesson followed by a practice session when the software would say some word or sentence, and you had to choose the correct picture:
Every day I spent about 10 minutes each day doing one lesson (sometimes even two), and eventually I started picking up more and more vocabulary. I’d practice some of the new words in my ICQ chats with Avi, and would sometime tease him by using new words that I learned and he wasn’t familiar with.
I also picked up some of the grammar, such as how to use the passive voice, the past tense, the future tense, etc. This method has mostly helped me build my vocabulary, but I still felt very far from a point where I could hold a conversation, or even just understand complete sentences in the songs that I listened to. Just a word here and there.
So I decided to try combining this method with another one:
My First Challenge — Translating Songs 🎶
Around January 2008, I started challenging myself by downloading the lyrics for songs that I liked and trying to translate them from Spanish to Hebrew. It was a painstakingly slow process — I checked almost every other word in a online dictionary called WordReference. Apart from defining the words, the dictionary would also tell me the tense and the body for verbs, even supporting irregular forms:
I translated about 20 songs altogether, including “Incompleto Amor”, “Hasta El Fin”, and “Periodico De Ayer”. The latter actually had a sentence that I couldn’t make any sense of (and still can’t, even today):
A tu casa yo no voy Polito
dame y tumba la chaveta la chaveta.
Which literally translates to “I don’t go to your home, Polito. Give me and knock down the pin”. What?!
Practicing Reading and Writing ✍
One day, a guy I met during my military service told me about a website called “MyHappyPlanet”. It was a language exchange service, where I could find people who speak Spanish and were interested in practicing their English or Hebrew, and we’d practice together. I immediately signed up.
I was extremely lucky to meet a Colombian guy called Nestor just a few days after signing up. We started chatting on MSN messenger. Nestor had a goal of learning Hebrew, and we started chatting in Spanish.
I dug up some old backups and managed to find my chat history with Nestor. Back at the time, I used a Messenger client called Miranda, and it’d store its chat history in some proprietary binary format. Luckily someone reverse engineered the format and wrote a Python module to read it, so I was able to extract the data. I even sent them a Pull Request :-)
This is what our first conversation looked like:
Nestor: hola como estas ?
Uri: Hola, es mi Messenger
Uri: estoy muy bien
Nestor: tu español es fluido, donde lo aprendiste ?
Uri: sí, pero mi vocabulario es no mucho largo, y todavía escribo lantamente en español
Uri: porque pienso muchos antes escribo cada palabra
Nestor: te voy a corregir algunas cosas:
Nestor: sí, pero mi vocabulario es reducido y todavia escribo regular
Nestor: por que pienso mucho antes de escribir cada palabra*
As you can see, whenever I made a mistake, Nestor would correct my Spanish (compare the first bold sentence with the second one). But it wasn’t only about the spelling and the grammar — he’d sometimes rephrase the sentence so it would sound more correct. He even taught me some good manners:
Uri: si te dije que mi y mis amigos hemos tocado y cantando una canción salsa en nuestro club hace un mes ?
Nestor: mi y mis amigos ???… jeje.. eso suena gracioso.. MIS amigos y YO*
Nestor: siempre debes referirte primero a las demas personas y segundo a ti.. .hay un dicho popular que dice “EL BURRO POR DELANTE”
I was telling him about something “me and my friends” did, and he told me that this is considered bad manners, and I should say “My friends and I”, quoting a popular Colombian proverb: “The donkey goes first”.
We kept chatting for about a year, and Nestor would always first fix my sentences before responding to them, sometimes also adding grammatical explanations. He was the best teacher I could ask for. I continued expanding my vocabulary using Rosetta Stone, and constantly consulted the WordReference dictionary as we were chatting.
Thanks to Nestor I learned how to read and write Spanish. I was pretty good at corresponding, but I still couldn’t really hold a face-to-face conversation. Apparently, if you only practice reading and writing you get good at reading and writing, but not at speaking. Until one day…
Summer Dance Dates 🌞
It was the Summer of 2008 when Marta and I met in a beach Salsa party. After a dance or two, we started talking, when she told me she was also learning Spanish.
We exchanged phone numbers, and I invited her to another Salsa dance party a week after. But this time, I tried to only speak Spanish to her. At start, she’d fall back to Hebrew, but eventually she went with it and from that moment we only spoke Spanish between us. We started meeting on a nearly weekly basis, dance-dating, and kept speaking only in Spanish.
She made a lot of grammar errors when speaking, but she didn’t seem to care too much. This really helped me feel comfortable speaking with her, and even though I tried to do my best to speak correct Spanish, I’d not feel embarrassed if I made an error. In fact, we found many errors funny, and sometimes we even turned them into new words that we used to laugh about.
The time I spent together with Marta taught me how to speak Spanish and how to listen to Spanish. Eventually, I wanted us to turn the relationship in a romantic one, but it didn’t work for her. So we part ways. I remember that Nestor and I was chatting about Marta at the time, and he was very supportive and gave me a lot of advice. All in Spanish!
If you want to get better at speaking, find someone who you can practice with regularly, at least on a weekly basis. That person doesn’t have to be very proficient in the language, but you need to be able to communicate using that language, and more importantly — feel very comfortable to make mistakes.
Listening to Podcasts 🎧
In addition to practicing with The Rosetta Stone, corresponding with Nestor and practicing speaking with Marta, I also found a podcast called “Notes In Spanish”. They had a series of Intermediate Spanish episodes, which I started listening to, about two or three episodes per week.
I’d usually listen to them during my commute, but didn’t pay a lot of attention to their conversations, as I was also driving (and had to keep my focus on the road). Still, I could occasionally pick up single words. I would randomly pick a different episode each time, so after a while, the episodes would start repeating.
Listening to the same episode again was actually a good thing — I noticed that I start to catch more and more words, and even some sentences. Eventually, after a few months of listening to Notes in Spanish, I could understand what they say. I guess that practicing with Nestor, Marta, and Avi, and going on with the Rosetta Stone also helped a lot.
Local Colombian Radio 📻
Nestor quickly learned that I like Salsa music, so he sent me a link to a local Colombian radio station called “La Z”. I used to listen to it while programming, and it played a mix of Salsa music and other Colombian genres such as Vallenato. I discovered a lot of new music thanks to this radio station.
Thinking Spanish 🤔
I often practiced Spanish by trying to think in Spanish. Running complete conversations in my head, thinking about my plans for the day, or reflecting about things that happened in my life. This was slower than thinking in Hebrew or English, but why rush your thoughts?
This was a great way to practice putting my thoughts into words in Spanish. And I could do it anytime, everywhere.
Challenge Number 2: El Principtio 📖
My second big Spanish challenge was reading a book. I found a Spanish translation of The Little Prince, “El Principito”, and started reading it. Just like with translating the songs, this was a slow process, but after the first few pages the new words started repeating so it was easier.
I still remember some of the words I learnt from reading this book, such as “Boa Abierta” and “Boas Cerradas”, “Cordero” (a lamb), and “Resplandecientes” (shining, as in shining stars).
Reading the book was hard, but it was also fun. It took me about a month to finish the book, and I felt very accomplished when I did.
In addition to the book, I also watched some original Spanish movies such as “Hable Con Ella” and “Jamon, Jamon” (they mentioned it in one of the Notes In Spanish episodes). I watched the movies without subtitles, and wasn’t able to follow many of the conversations, but I did pick up some key words, and thanks to the visuals, was able to make sense of the plot most of the time.
And of course, I kept dancing Salsa and listening to Latin Music. Actually, I am very happy I did — that’s how Ariella Eliassaf and I met. But that’s a story for another time.
The Ultimate Challenge — Two Months in Latin America! 🌎
In February 2011, about 3 years after starting to learn Spanish, I traveled for two months across Latin America. It was sort of “Grande Finale” for my efforts to learn Spanish — as I heard Spanish around me all the time, and I had to speak Spanish on a daily basis. I heard different kind of accents — Argentinian, Colombian, Chilean and Peruvian.
I learned that speaking the local language gets you much further than speaking English — people are more willing to help you, and you can communicate with anyone, even little children or people who live in rural areas, where they don’t speak English very well, such as the villages around the Amazon river.
I spent the last week of the journey in Bogota, where I finally met Nestor face to face. This was really exciting, and we still keep in touch, though not as frequently as we used to. Nestor has moved to Germany, and has plans to visit Israel. I am really looking forward to hosting him and his family here.
Learning Spanish was Hard, but Very Rewarding
I started learning Spanish because I wanted to understand the lyrics of the songs I danced to. I combined multiple methods: Chatting with Nestor and Avi, practicing speaking with Marta, listening to and translating songs, listening to podcasts and Spanish radio stations, reading books, and thinking in Spanish whenever I had a few free moments.
A little more than three years later, I was able to travel to South America and use this language to communicate on a daily basis. Since then, Spanish proved useful in so many occasions: in tech conferences, in Salsa dance clubs, when talking to users of the Salsa Beat Machine, when visiting in Miami (when I went for ng-cruise), and these are just a few examples.
Spanish is also very close to Portuguese, so when Ariella and I traveled in Brazil for two months in 2013, I was able to pick up some basic Portuguese, building on my Spanish knowledge.
Nowadays, Ariella is also learning Spanish, and she was the reason I started developing the Spanish Lesson app.
Do you have plans to start learning Spanish? Have you already started? I would love to hear your story too!