Category Archives: Travel Hacks

How to become semi-fluent in Spanish in 5 months

I’m not going to make outrageous statements, like “Learn Spanish in a Month!” But I do think you can get to the level of having simple conversations with a local in 5 months, feel completely comfortable in particular travel situations, such as hotel checkins, renting a car and ordering a meal, and even having some in-depth conversations regarding subjects such as politics, film reviews and other conversational topics.

I caught myself having a conversation with a local in line for Machu Picchu, talking about where we were both from, what was the best thing to do early in Machu Picchu, and what we were going to travel to next. I kind of had this Satori moment where I realized as I was talking that I was able to understand, and was able to be understood while speaking in Spanish. It blew me away, frankly! This type of conversation would have been impossible for me 5 months ago, and I realized that maybe I had a method that worked for me that could work for others.

I am not a natural language learner, in fact I started learning Spanish in my 40’s. I tried Spanish classes – getting lost in tenses and vocabulary, even hired a tutor at one point, but I had a turning point when I got serious about language learning, and figured out a process.

Motivation

I think this video has a point, and that in order to make changes in your life – like learning a language, takes more than motivation.  It comes down to making a decision, even in the moments of hesitation. That being said, I think having a motivation is the spark that makes you continue towards success – and for me that motivation is connected to running away from pain.

I was volunteering in Chile, and if you haven’t already heard, Chilean Spanish is known to be one of the most difficult to understand versions of Spanish that is out there. Much of it is because of the way they speak Spanish. A Chilean friend explained how Chileans “inhale” the “s” sounds, so “Gracias” becomes “Graia”. Chilean Spanish is also full of slang, and the words are also spoken faster with fewer changes in intonation.

For me it sounded as if the person speaking was gargling with marbles.

But working as a volunteer, I had to understand what was being said – especially in the midst of a breakfast rush when the words became commands, and you only had a half-second to understand what was being said, and take action – to fill breakfast bowls, to refill napkins, make coffee, take orders.

The cook in charge, a short stout Chilean woman, grabbed me by the shirt, pulling me down eye to eye saying, “Escuchame! Escuchame!…” then said some other things I didn’t understand.

In that moment, the pain of not understanding, and the pain of not being understood was the singular motivation that pushed me to become more fluent in Spanish.

If you don’t have this sort of motivation, motivation that came for me from actually living and working in a foreign country – it becomes difficult to create the spark that drives the machinery towards fluency.

Find your motivation.

The Material

I had previously casually used an audio program I liked called the Pimsleur Method – I just needed to programatize it in a way that would lead to fluency.

The Pimsleur Spanish Program takes advantage of a method called “Spaced Repetition” or “Graduated-Interval Recall.” Basically, introducing new words, then reintroducing them later in gradually increasing spaced out intervals. It’s a method of memorizing massive amounts of information, and given that complete fluency involves 3,000 words, this type of method is perfect for learning Spanish.

The entire CD series is in 5 parts, with 30 lessons each. 1-5 CD sets can be purchased as CDs, with #5 can also be downloaded using Amazon’s Audible audio program.

The lessons are meant to be listened to one per day, with the next lesson in the series to be listened to the following day. The lessons are only around 30 minutes long, which means you learn and memorize small chunks of the language per day, which is also known as a better method than cramming a bunch of learning in a single go.

In conjunction with Pimsleur, I also knew that fluency is a numbers game, and that casual conversation, or semi-fluency required at least 1,000 words. Apps seemed to be a decent way to learn additional vocabulary in a way that would be fun and interesting. After using apps like Babbel and Lingo Arcade, I winnowed the list down to DuoLingo and Memrise.  Those 2 seemed to be the best of the bunch in terms of an app that could help me learn Spanish.

The Process

Once you have your motivation, or the spark that will drive you to do the things to learn Spanish, and gathered the material you will use to learn the language, the next step is to define a process, or schedule which will automatically give you success.

For me, I was trying to figure out something I could do to help me learn Spanish on a daily basis for 1-2 hours a day.

The method I used is:

  • Go to a cafe, order a cup of coffee, and listen to a Pimsleur lesson.
  • Allow myself to stop and start, rewind and replay the first time around.
  • I would take a break – walk around, order breakfast – whatever.
  • I would listen to the lesson a second time – this time at regular speed, with no pauses, rewinds or replays.
  • Follow up with doing the daily Duolingo and Memrise lesson.

All-in-all this took me around 2 hrs/day.

Why This Worked for Me

The initial motivation was enough to drive me to study 2 hours/day for 6 months. Without a solid reason you may not have enough of a push to make the effort to learn a language. For me it was the pain of not being understood.

Having proven learning materials at hand gave me a blueprint towards fluency.

And setting up a schedule (and working the plan) automates the process that leads to fluency (or semi-fluency).

I think it also works because using an audio program is similar to the experience of actually having a conversation – looking at the other person, and conjuring the words in your head – in real time!

What didn’t work for me

Frankly, I hated Rosetta Stone. Sitting in front of a computer while trying to learn Spanish was just maddening to me. Maybe because my profession involves computers, adding another task on top just seemed like work for me. I also felt they stressed rote repetition, which I didn’t like. That being said, Rosetta also has a track record of success, and it might work for you – I just knew it wouldn’t work for me.

Language classes also were not very good for me. I think mainly because of the breaks between classes where I would subsequently lose most of what I had learned from the previous class. Also, teachers methods and abilities changed – some I responded to, while others I found just horrible. I knew I needed a consistent method that I responded to applied consistently over time. Pimsleur, plus a couple of language apps were the ticket for me!

Other Ways to Improve Language Learning

The above method of studying 2 hrs a day using the Pimsleur CDs, and the two apps Memrise and Duolingo is the main things I did consistently to improve my Spanish. Some other things I did also helped:

  • Listening and trying to understand Spanish lyrics in popular songs (Despocito, Bailando, Deja Vu, etc)
  • Watching Popular Movies in Spanish with Spanish subtitles turned on (Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Pt II, etc)
  • Watching 5 minutes of Spanish language television/day. This was a tip given to me by a Spanish teacher. You get to hear different pronunciations of words in conversations at real speeds. Just 5 minutes – be it news, or telenovellas – or whatever is on!
  • Being in a country that speaks Spanish.

This last was a great boon to my learning, and admittedly not one available to everyone. But actually having to use the language everyday in everyday situations really cements the usage in a way nothing else can compare with. Traveling through Chile, and then Peru expanded my vocabulary, and made me more comfortable in using the language daily.

But, if you can’t get to a foreign country, you can create your own immersive environment by always listening to Spanish music, only watching Spanish language movies, and trying to interact with native speakers in restaurants, Meetups and other situations where you get to practice with a native.

Conclusion

This is the exact way I learned to be semi-fluent: using the Pimsleur CDs, and mobile apps of DuoLingo and Memrise, then working my plan of studying 2 hours a day. Of course this leads to semi-fluency, why wouldn’t it!

I also had the advantage of traveling through South America, but that is kind of beside the point. I met several folks who didn’t know a lick of Spanish while traveling through South America, and exited with only the barest understanding of a few words of tourist Spanish. Travel by itself is not the key to learning another language.

Programatized effort over time is the way to learn to be semi-fluent.

If you are interested in becoming at least semi-fluent, know that it takes time and dedication – and a plan of action. If you decide to give my method a try, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Machu Picchu for under $350 USD

Machu Picchu for under $350 USD

Okay, so it’s not the cheapest. I think that record goes to this guy at 37 soles. It also doesn’t cost $2,000 USD as a Brit told me it cost him, over a game of cards and cervezas at a restaurant at the bottom Colca Canyon.

No major hikes, such as the Inca Trail is involved. I also include the train, which if you aren’t shelling out for the Inca Trail is a must – just a classy way to travel. The big windows on the Peru Rail help you see the dramatic mountains on either side.

How I did it is also a more leisurely way of doing things, spending a night here and a night there to break up the travel and rest and relax a tad. I’ll also include the price of the train, busses with some options you could consider that would adjust the cost and be either more or less comfortable. I won’t include price of meals, as they can range from $3-100+.

DESCRIPTION of TRAVEL

I started my travels, as many who go to Machu Picchu, in Cusco. Cusco is where I bought my entrance ticket to Machu Picchu. After spending a night there I went by Collectivo to Ollantaytambo where I spent another night in a dorm of a cheap hostel there. At Ollantaytambo I purchased my roundtrip tickets to Machu Picchu and back.

The next day I took the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, otherwise known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. I spent another night in a hostel dorm room with 2 bunk beds before departing at 3am to stand in line for the busses that go through the narrow winding steep road to Machu Picchu

 

OPTIONS

I happened to stay in cheap dorm rooms, so different accommodations can change the cost dramatically. I would go to Booking.com, and sort on price from low to high, then select based on Rating and Reviews.

Also, additional nights in either Aguas or Ollantaytambo would drive up the cost. I kind of wished I stayed overnight in Aguas, rather than take the train back to Ollantaytambo, but it worked out okay.

This way I was able to leave my Pacsafe roller bag in Ollantaytambo overnight while I went to Aguas. At Aguas, I was also able to leave my extra Pacsafe backpack of stuff at the hostel there, taking only the essentials (coats, snacks, water, etc) to Machu Picchu. I collected my bag from the hostel prior to my departure to Ollantaytambo.

This turned out great as I just took my extra Outdoor Research daypack (lightweight, waterproof, collapsible, light) while wandering around Machu Picchu.

Bare Bones Method

There are also some low cost tours in Ollantaytambo or Cusco. Look for signs for “Hydroelectrica” where they take care of the car transport, meals, entrance fee, and even a guide for less than $150. Or, you can do like this person did for $116 where she did everything herself. But, frankly, I think if you wanted to go barebones, a few extra dollars to have a tour agency take care of everything for you would be the less stress way of doing it.

Here’s the breakdown (in US Dollars):

– $11 Hostel single room in Cusco.
– $3.24 Colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.
– $9 Ollantaytambo dorm room
– $61 Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
– $22.22 – RT bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and back.
– $152 Entrance fee to Machu Picchu
– $65 Train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo.
– $9 Hostel in Ollantaytambo

TOTAL: $332.46 (Valid August 2017)

Oh yeah, Photos:

 

 

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