Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?
I learned Spanish, every day, for 1,033 days. That’s a long Duolingo streak.
That’s learning every day for 1,033 days—24,792 hours. When thought about it, I should have felt proud. Don’t they say that it takes 10,000 hours to master something? But I didn’t feel like a master.
Studying for 1,033 days meant almost three years of Spanish learning. But I wasn’t even fluent after those three years…
After reading about Benny’s approach to learning a language in three months, three years seemed like a long time. Too long.
In my first three years learning Spanish, I was dedicated. I increased my vocabulary. Got decent at reading and writing. But I couldn’t understand anyone speaking naturally. The phrase ¿Puede hablar más despacio, por favor? (“Can you speak more slowly, please?”) was my best friend.
Three years and I was stuck around lower intermediate level.
How did this happen?
My conclusion is that I got stuck at this level because I’m so good at studying.
How I Broke My Duolingo Streak and Started Actually Learning Spanish
I spent three years steadily floating along a Spanish plateau. Why? Because instead of thinking critically about my goals, I let Duolingo set my goals for me. The allure of gamification gave me a feeling of daily progress. All I had to do was put my time in and I’d get rewarded.
Really, it was too easy.
But why did I want to learn Spanish anyway?
Like most other successful language learners, I wanted to be able to listen and speak—to communicate with the people around me.
It turns out learning new vocabulary spoken by a robot and always with a transcript, wasn’t actually getting me there.
It was time to go back to first principles and define what I wanted to accomplish so that I could make progress on my terms. I researched the most effective ways to set goals and stay motivated and realized I needed to replace Duolingo with new routines.
That was the day I broke my streak and started actually learning Spanish.
Here’s What I Did to Learn Real Spanish While Still Getting the “Fix” of a Streak
Luckily, ending my Duolingo streak gave me plenty of time to explore better approaches to learning Spanish. Even assuming that I was just spending five minutes a day, three years of effort is nearly 90 hours!
I decided that if I wanted to speak and understand Spanish, I needed to focus on two things:
Listen to Spanish (a lot)
Speak Spanish (at least a little)
As an introvert, listening was much easier for me. In fact, Duolingo had a lot of listening. So why wasn’t it helping?
After doing some more research, I realized there were a few reasons:
Grammar practice wasn’t exposing me to all the most important Spanish words
I needed to hear a variety of accents, spoken at a natural speed
Most importantly, the app was mainly focusing on single words and sentences are different
Here’s what I did to change what I was doing:
I started to make progress by learning the 5,000 most frequently used Spanish words in Memrise, a spaced repetition system (SRS) app with a focus on listening.
This new approach helped to build up my vocabulary faster and exposed me to more Spanish accents, as spoken by real people. Also, the daily cadence of an SRS was similar to Duolingo, so it was my natural tendency to stick with it. This was an improvement, but not the whole answer.
The main reason is that hearing single words does not teach you how to listen. Connected speech just doesn’t sound the same as single, well-pronounced words. Consider “going to” and “gonna” in English. You’re not going to learn “gonna” unless you hear it in a full sentence!
Similarly, in Spanish, I was learning what words meant, but I never practiced identifying how they sound in full sentences. In fast speech, words get connected together, syllables get dropped, and even the pronunciation of certain sounds can change. For example, va a andar (“he is going to walk”) becomes vandar and hard bs start to sound more and more like vs, at least to my ear. I wasn’t learning any of these nuances one word at a time.
To get sentence level practice, Glossika was key. Over the course of 300 sessions, I got exposure to over a thousand full sentences, spoken at natural speed by a native speaker.
Glossika’s audio-first approach also taught me to stop relying so much on transcripts, which can become a crutch. They also do some cool things to expose you to different types of grammar. But for me it was really just the amount of comprehensible input that made a difference. By the end of the program, I could understand spoken speech much, much better.
But because Glossika wasn’t gamified, I initially struggled to stick with it and make progress every day.
Enter Beeminder, a website that not only allows you to set gamified goals for yourself, but also to strengthen those goals by putting real money on the line. It seems ridiculous, but the threat of losing $5 if I lost my streak forced me to establish a really solid Glossika habit. Every morning, Glossika was the first thing I did, and every day I felt like I was making progress again.
Within a year, I’d learned the 5,000 most common words in Spanish, and I’d completed Glossika Spanish. But then I started to get bored…
I’d Finished Glossika and Memrise – What Next?
Word and sentence lists based on usage frequency and grammar patterns are efficient, but they can be pretty dry.
Fortunately, I found that I had enough listening comprehension to dive into much more interesting Spanish material. Recall that my goal is communication. That meant it was a great time to start communicating about things that mattered to me. This newfound meaning and interest was another boost to my motivation.
With the strong Spanish foundation I’d built, I found I could expand my listening practice naturally. The two things that worked best for me were simultaneously reading and listening to a Harry Potter audiobook in Spanish and watching Club de Cuervos on Netflix, supported with Spanish subtitles when the going got tough.
Honestly, anything would have worked as long as it involved listening to natural speech and had good transcripts to fall back on. It was very frustrating to watch movies where the subtitles didn’t match the audio very closely. In my experience, audiobooks and Netflix original programming don’t have this problem.
Once you know how to listen to connected speech, the world opens up and you can learn vocabulary the way native speakers do—by reading and listening to things you find interesting. I didn’t bother to make SRS flashcards to remember the words I learned, but you certainly could if you had the time and wanted to supercharge your language acquisition.
One final benefit is that when you choose material that’s relevant to you, you learn words that you’re more likely to use. You don’t need to learn many words to understand 80% of what you hear, but you need far more to get to 90% (or higher). The best way to combat these diminishing returns is to focus on words that are important to you.
How to Gamify “Speak from Day One”
Benny encourages you to speak from day one. I agree in principle, but in practice, this was by far the hardest part for me. As an introvert, I found speaking to be hugely taxing on my motivation. I can look at flashcards for hours, but a 15-minute conversation makes me want to sleep the rest of the day!
Here, my gamify everything approach won out in the end. I simply broke my quest to find a language partner into a bunch of tiny steps and used Beeminder to force myself to make progress each day. I mean, things as small as:
Sign up for italki
Message one person today
Do a 10-minute introductory conversation
It was tough to get out of my comfort zone, but once I found the right partner, it was simply a matter of setting a goal to do one exchange per week and never breaking the chain!
I recognize now that I should be speaking to more people, with different interests, accents, and points of view. But I can also look back proudly and say that I did manage to have at least 40 substantial Spanish conversations this year without traveling or doing some other kind of more extreme immersion.
While getting to fluency can be a sprint, meaningful communication is a lifelong endeavor.
Fluent in 3 years?
Here I am a year later, having made more progress in 12 months than I made in the previous 36—fluent by Benny’s definition in that I can listen and communicate comfortably. I still have plenty of words learn and grammar to perfect, but I can converse!
More importantly, I know what I need to do to reach my next level of fluency: regularly reassess my goals, adjust my language input in service of those goals, and use my “don’t break the chain” method to keep chipping away at it. I just need to be careful not to turn “don’t break the chain” into “chain yourself to something that isn’t helping anymore.”
How I Broke My Duolingo Addiction
In summary, I broke my Duolingo addiction and went from:
Learning single words to learning whole sentences (or stories)
Focusing on grammar to focusing on frequency and relevance
Reading a lot to prioritizing listening in every practice session
Watching an arbitrary number of days in my streak go up to goal based self-evaluation
Playing a game to gamifying everything
It turns out that the means are the end. Set your goals first, then align your practice around them. Don’t let your practice define your goals.
I wish you every success in learning Spanish. ¡Buena suerte!
Product Manager & Entrepreneur
Will helps people build systems to turn their dreams into actions on his blog “It Can Be Easily Done”.
Speaks: English, Spanish
View all posts by Will Haines