Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

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yossarian
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Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby yossarian » Tue Apr 20, 2021 8:40 pm

Hi language learners,

I'm about four and half years into my Spanish journey, having started as a false beginner. I managed to pass the C1 in November of 2019 and have been living in Madrid since the beginning of 2020. I use Spanish daily with my friends and colleagues, and most of my meetings are conducted in the language although the nature of my job does mean that I am required to use a fair amount of English too. I really do think my listening comprehension has increased significantly, especially when compared with the first few days of the pandemic where I barely understood anything in video calls with multiple people talking at once!

However, I found myself feeling incredibly frustrated at how hard it is to express myself. I don't feel like I am "thinking" in Spanish and am constantly making basic grammar mistakes. I've become hyper aware of how forced and stilted my speech is, especially if I'm suddenly required to talk Spanish out of the blue (with a neighbour I didn't expect to meet for example). It's incredibly hard to tell stories about things that have happened to me in the past, and sometimes really simple things trip me up, asking for things in the hardware store to hang a picture frame for example, or simply telling someone I found their phone down the back of the couch. I really thought that after a year in an immersion environment I would have gained a lot more fluency that I currently have. I work with a Venezuelan girl who speaks perfect English with an American accent after having lived there for a few years, but she told me her English really wasn't that great before she moved there to study. She's not someone who would spend hours making flashcards, and according to her the only intense study she did was a 6 week course upon arriving. I find that sort of comparison really confusing - how come some people's brains are able to absorb the language naturally, seemingly without effort?

I'm constantly adding words and expressions to my Anki deck in an attempt to remember them, but they don't seem to "come" to me in conversation. Otherwise I'm not doing any independent study outside of using the language daily. I was very diligent with my study before moving here, but these days after working, I find myself just wanting to watch an English panel show in bed. I'm not sure if I should return to some more basic materials like Assimil in order to strengthen my foundation.

Sorry for the rant. I guess I just wanted the point of view of other people who have thrown themselves into an immersion environment only to be disappointed with their progress. I feel like I'm hitting the limit of what I'm able to assimilate, and that I'll never be able to "feel" the language the same way as if I had learned it as a child. This is disheartening especially as I would like to learn other languages and Spanish is widely considered one of the easiest for native English speakers to learn. I wanted to start with French this year but I'm now starting to think I should delay it until my Spanish is more rock solid.
Last edited by yossarian on Tue Apr 20, 2021 10:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby rdearman » Tue Apr 20, 2021 9:45 pm

yossarian wrote:I feel like I'm hitting the limit of what I'm able to assimilate, and that I'll never be able to "feel" the language the same way as if I had learned it as a child.

If that is what you are waiting for, I fear you'll be waiting a long time.
yossarian wrote:Spanish is widely considered one of the easiest for native English speakers to learn.

I have heard this same lie about French and Dutch. I wouldn't put too much stock in that old chestnut. While it is probably true if you're comparing Spanish to Mandarin, everyone learns differently and at a different rate of speed.

yossarian wrote:I'm constantly adding words and expressions to my Anki deck in an attempt to remember them, but they don't seem to "come" to me in conversation.

So you're assuming that passive knowledge automatically becomes active knowledge. It doesn't. You'll need to start using these words for real, or encounter them in other places outside the anki deck.

yossarian wrote:I find that sort of comparison really confusing - how come some people's brains are able to absorb the language naturally, seemingly without effort?

Personally I'd say she is lying, or rather underestimates the amount of English she's absorbed via the all intrusive TV and Films as well as English learned in school. In addition, some people are better at mimicking and therefore have a much easier time with pronunciation. Also, the amount of times I've spoken to Italians who complained their English wasn't great, but speak perfectly. :roll:

yossarian wrote: wanted to start with French this year but I'm now starting to think I should delay it until my Spanish is more rock solid.

So you want to start French? If it took you 4 years to get to your current Spanish level, do you think French will take less time? If you wait another 4 years to start French then it will be 8 years to get to where you are now in Spanish in French. People overestimate what can be done in a day, but underestimate what can be done in a year. Also ...

Once upon a time, there lived an Emperor who owned a majestic white stallion, the finest beast in all his Kingdom. One night, a thief tried to slip in and steal the horse, but was captured by the palace guards and thrown into the dungeon.

The next morning, he was dragged before the Emperor. "How dare you," bellowed the Emperor, "lay a hand on my royal steed! Jailer, put this thief to death!"

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The court burst in to laughter at that, but the Emperor was intrigued. After all, you didn't get to his high position by turning down freely offered gifts, no matter how far-fetched they seem. To the surprise of all, the Emperor quickly accepted the offer.

As they were leaving the chambers, the jailer whispered to the thief, "You are a fool!"

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Re: Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby El Forastero » Tue Apr 20, 2021 11:41 pm

Hello Yossarian. I'm going to speak from my own experience.

I don't know if you reached a C1 level in your four skills. Apparently not, according to what you say about your speaking. But even when you reach B2 level in speaking, you are already independent and for most situations that could be good enough. If you realise that you're not able to express your idea as accurately as you would in your native languages, you have the tools to find an alternative and don't let the convesation die. You can even be a bit redundant and with a narrow range of vocabulare, but your message is well delivered and although some mistakes here and there, others understand what exactly you wanted to say.

Most people are comfortable reaching this point because they won't need to study anymore: They can simply enjoy the language by using it. In some contexts, that could be enough to keep learning and improving, but not in every context you can choose. You can speak the whole day in spanish, but if you onle are involved in low complexity conversations about daly routines and quotidian vocabulary, you'll stagnate at the maximum level these conversations have. To push your level upwards, you need to push yourself to the next level.

So, you need to study spanish. Not necessarily a C1 level course with a book and a teacher (but it's a possibility). You can use the TV or youtube in a variety of ways but not with the sole purpose to enjoy the content, but to learn from that content. Let's say you're watching a movie and a catching sentence appears. You would say: "What a beautiful sentence! I really like the way they have expressed that Idea. It's very different to the basic way I use everytime". So write it down and try to memorise for a specific moment that you imagine it can be useful. Maybe these special moment never comes, but if you have select 10 or 20 sentences like this, eventually one of them will be used in the right moment. Besides, you'll feel that there is a better way to express yourself and you'll be motivated to find more.

The idea is: Try to be exposed to a higher quality of spanish. If you are a C1 in reading, enjoy literature, essays, poetry, good lyrics songs. If you are a C1 in listening, enjoy interviews, speechs, conferences. Try to learn something in spanish. You'll discover better ways to use the language and you'll improve without noticing.
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Re: Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby mokibao » Wed Apr 21, 2021 1:31 am

I used to be share your linguistic insecurities but I realized I also suffer from such predicaments in my native tongue - it has more to do with being at ease than linguistic competence.

If you really feel your lack of eloquence is frustrating your day-to-day communication (what I usually call 'caveman' syndrome), you should probably just read more books. That's how people learn to sound eloquent and cultured in their native tongue, anyway. Just pick up a dictionary, a book other than Harry Potter and get going.
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Re: Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby Steve » Wed Apr 21, 2021 1:04 pm

Something to consider is how your study activities are developing structures in your brain to do what you actually want to. From my limited reading of academic papers, one current picture of the brain is that it has two types of memory, declarative and operational. Using rough synonyms, fact-based memory and skill-based memory. We use fact-based memory to grammatically parse and analyze words, phrases, or sentences. We use skill-based memory when speaking or listening to our native language in typical use.

There appears to be some debate on the roles of fact-based and skill-based memory on language learning. Some consider significant amounts of fact-based memory essential and believe that it provides a needed framework for building proper skill-based memory and that it will fade to the background as skills grow. Others see fact-based memory as competing with and potentially replacing skill-based memory. I suspect it is a case where the two might work together or compete depending on the level of progress, the individual, and the activities being used.

My own experience in playing music and decades of limited language learning is that fact-based memory can provide a substitute for skills up to a certain level. In music, I used to improvise leaning heavily on music theory. It was very intense mentally requiring complete concentration. I was a decent musician. As I learned about the divide in brain functions a few years ago, I forced myself to not use fact-based memory in order to develop skill-based memory to improvise. I sat at a keyboard, didn't look at the keys so I didn't know what notes I was playing, and just listened as I played something. It felt weird at first, but within a few weeks I was doing things I'd expected to take months to years to be able to do. The complexity, speed, and diversity of what I could do dramatically increased. Instead of being limited by how fast I could mentally process music theory as to what notes were permissible to play, I was being guided by what sounded right. One huge difference is that it is relaxing and easy to do requiring minimal mental processing. I can even hold a limited conversation while improvising. A few months after I started that, I picked up my guitar to do some lead playing, found myself back in music theory mode, and found it tedious and painful and limiting. It was hard to try to go back to the intense fact-based processing mode I used to use.

I found something similar happened with trying to learn to read ancient Greek. I spent decades using a fact-based approach (which amounted to spending almost all my time thinking in English about Greek). I never got much beyond working through sentences word by word. After a month or so of listening and following along with interlinears and parallel texts, skill-based memory started to kick in and I found myself able to just understand some words and phrases as I saw them. I now spend most of my time doing skill-based activities. I use limited amounts of fact-based study to clear away stumbling blocks and make improvements to skills.

I'm probably at a B or so level in Spanish in listening and reading with weaker speaking skills and minimal writing skills. As I look ahead to improving, I consider potential activities in terms of how much they will develop skill-based memory. In other words, I'm going to spend as much time as possible practicing actual skills in contexts similar to how they will be used reserving fact-based things as tools to help steer the skills and correct problems. One measure I use now to evaluate activities is how much of my mental effort is in English analyzing what I'm doing versus how much of my mental effort is in reacting to and using the new language.
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Re: Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby Sonjaconjota » Thu Apr 22, 2021 8:54 am

Some thoughts:
I know many people are averse to active grammar study and think that input is the only way to go.
But if you feel insecure and do often make basic mistakes, my suggestion would be to clean up your grammar. Buy a grammar book (with exercises) for a level slightly underneath yours and work through it. Many things will be easy and obvious, in other cases you will be able to reinforce shaky concepts, and maybe there will even be eureka moments, when you will suddenly understand something complex or find an information completely new to you.
If grammar per se is a problem, because you are unsure about terms and concepts, maybe a book like the "English Grammar for Students of Spanish" by Emily Spinelly could be helpful.
When it comes to your colleague and her language learning story, my advice would be to ignore it. I'm always very sceptical of this kind of stories, but it is true that people have very different ways of learning and very different learning rates. Comparing ourselves will only make us suffer.
When it comes to speaking, I really liked the suggestion by El Forastero:
Let's say you're watching a movie and a catching sentence appears. You would say: "What a beautiful sentence! I really like the way they have expressed that Idea. It's very different to the basic way I use everytime". So write it down and try to memorise for a specific moment that you imagine it can be useful. Maybe these special moment never comes, but if you have select 10 or 20 sentences like this, eventually one of them will be used in the right moment. Besides, you'll feel that there is a better way to express yourself and you'll be motivated to find more.

I would like to add that, after making your list, it is a good idea to create opportunities to use your new structures.
You can convert this into a game. When you go out with friends, challenge yourself: How many times will I be able to use my new word / grammar structure / idiom tonight? Or book a couple of conversations classes (of just half an hour or so) on a platform like italki. In that case you could actually have your list on the table beside you and tick off anything that you have used.
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Re: Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby Cavesa » Thu Apr 22, 2021 11:19 am

A lot of good advice already given, I'll add my two cents.

1.you live in the country, but that doesn't mean anything at all. As you say, you are doing a part of your job in English. Yes, you use Spanish with friends and so on, but is it challenging enough? Are you doing the same stuff in the language all the time, or do you look actively for opportunities to leave the comfort zone? It's a huge difference. If an unexpected problem arises, do you insist on solving it in Spanish, or do you escape (or allow the other side to escape) to English? To really progress, you need to push yourself to new experiences and learn from them. If you can pretend to not know any Enlish outside of your work, it might help.

2.I fully agree with others that your Venzuelan colleague is probably underestimating the time spent in English, especially when it comes to media. Have you spent at least a few hundred hours watching normal tv? Have you read at least 10000 pages of books? If not, do so. And even if yes, keep going. That's something people underestimate a lot, when they compare their English learning and other language learning. So, don't feel that bad, you are most probably not significantly less gifted than she is.

3.
"I don't feel like I am "thinking" in Spanish and am constantly making basic grammar mistakes."
Fix the grammar. It is not that complicated, just get a grammar book with tons of exercises (input clearly isn't sufficient for you, which is normal. It is not sufficient for me either without the second and less fun part). Una gramatica de uso del español is a wonderful example. Gramática workbooks by Anaya are good (but less comprehensive) too. Or Kwiziq is probably the only digital tool that is as good as many solid grammar books. It is not popular these days, I know, it is more cool to say "grammar is worthless, just learn from tv", but it is only partially true. Most people learn the best by some sort of combination of the two approaches. And from my experience, you can make a huge amount of progress in just a few weeks, if you just complete a grammar workbook and fix some of the weak links of the chain.

4.
"It's incredibly hard to tell stories about things that have happened to me in the past, and sometimes really simple things trip me up, asking for things in the hardware store to hang a picture frame for example, or simply telling someone I found their phone down the back of the couch."
Yes. That's pretty common. In my a bit too talkative log, I sometimes write about that. Even at C2, I struggle much less with "difficult" stuff, than with the everyday small things. Most conversations are not deep discussions about the sense of our existence (but those happen sometimes too, sure). They require tons of vocab and experience, to describe what funny thing did your cat do this time, why exactly is Ann from another bureau so annoying, what dumb thing did a fellow driver do on the highway just this morning, what exactly is wrong with your heating at home, or what kind of shoes you need exactly.

So, practice. Think about your favourite funny stories from your life, or any recent events you would be telling friends in English normally. No need to memorise everything, but go through the story, and make an effort to look up ways to tell it in Spanish, with the same nuance, emotion, effect on the listener. The more experience you have (even from tons of input), the better it will go. Try to tell it to yourself (or your houseplant, cat, anything). It's not only about preparing a few funny (or other) stories to tell without much stress, whenever a social situation calls for it, but it is about getting into the habit. You'll apply stuff learnt this way to new stories, new explanations, new jokes, new complaints.

5.
"I feel like I'm hitting the limit of what I'm able to assimilate, and that I'll never be able to "feel" the language the same way as if I had learned it as a child."
You're not a baby anymore, accept it. You will not learn like a baby. You don't have the same neuroplasticity, you store new languages to a different cortex area, you are capable of abstract thinking, you have a previous language knowledge to use for learning, you don't have a whole team of people dedicated to teach you 100% of your awake time for years. You will not learn like a baby. But you can learn very well, you can function more or less like a native in vast majority of situations.

6.
"This is disheartening especially as I would like to learn other languages and Spanish is widely considered one of the easiest for native English speakers to learn."
Another problematic mindset. Yes, Spanish is most probably objectively easier than Japanese for an English speaker, because it is much more similar and there are more resources. But all the "Spanish is the easiest language" or "Spanish is easier than French/German/whatever" nonsense is just harming your progress and setting many learners up for failure. Learning the basics of Spanish (the touristy content of the first few units of a basic coursebook) may be perceived as much easier by most English native learners, than doing the same thing in most other languages, even though it will partially be just a self fulfilling prophecy. But learning Spanish to a high level is not easy at all. If we compare rather similar languages (for example French and Spanish), you'll just notice that the difficulties are slightly different, and differently spread through the curriculum. Many of the Spanish difficulties "appear" at the intermediate or advanced level. If Spanish was that easy, wouldn't many more learners achieve C1 or C2? Clearly, it's not the case, you are learning something objectively difficult. So, don't use the myth to beat yourself up.
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Re: Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby yossarian » Thu Apr 22, 2021 11:44 pm

First of all thank you to everyone who's taken the time to write long and thoughtful posts. There's a lot of good practical advice in this thread.

Cavesa wrote:Even at C2, I struggle much less with "difficult" stuff, than with the everyday small things. Most conversations are not deep discussions about the sense of our existence (but those happen sometimes too, sure). They require tons of vocab and experience, to describe what funny thing did your cat do this time, why exactly is Ann from another bureau so annoying, what dumb thing did a fellow driver do on the highway just this morning, what exactly is wrong with your heating at home, or what kind of shoes you need exactly.

This is exactly what I mean. On the surface talking about something like politics seems like more of a challenge but in the end it is these informal and colloquial chats which are are harder to master. When you're exploring different ways to tell a story, do you ever bother to write them down and ask for feedback from a tutor or a friend who speaks the language natively? Or is it simply something you keep to yourself?

rdearman wrote:I have heard this same lie about French and Dutch. I wouldn't put too much stock in that old chestnut. While it is probably true if you're comparing Spanish to Mandarin, everyone learns differently and at a different rate of speed.

rdearman wrote:Personally I'd say she is lying, or rather underestimates the amount of English she's absorbed via the all intrusive TV and Films as well as English learned in school.

Cavesa wrote:If Spanish was that easy, wouldn't many more learners achieve C1 or C2? Clearly, it's not the case, you are learning something objectively difficult. So, don't use the myth to beat yourself up.

You're both right of course, and this is something I try to keep in mind. I find it really hard not to compare myself with colleagues who can already speak several languages, and it's easy to forget the head-start and advantages they may have had such as growing up in countries where language learning is valued, or simply being exposed to more media in those languages as children.

mokibao wrote:If you really feel your lack of eloquence is frustrating your day-to-day communication (what I usually call 'caveman' syndrome), you should probably just read more books.

Cavesa wrote:Have you spent at least a few hundred hours watching normal tv? Have you read at least 10000 pages of books? If not, do so. And even if yes, keep going. That's something people underestimate a lot, when they compare their English learning and other language learning.

I have easily spent that much time watching series and films, and that's probably why my listening comprehension has improved a lot faster than my other skills in the last year or two. I've spent less time reading intensively, and perhaps doing more would help develop that "internal voice" which I feel is lacking.

Steve wrote:My own experience in playing music and decades of limited language learning is that fact-based memory can provide a substitute for skills up to a certain level.

This is what I feel is happening to me... I've become skilled at Anki and other drills but not at speaking confidently.

Steve wrote:I now spend most of my time doing skill-based activities. I use limited amounts of fact-based study to clear away stumbling blocks and make improvements to skills.

What some other things you consider "skill-based" activities?

Sonjaconjota wrote:But if you feel insecure and do often make basic mistakes, my suggestion would be to clean up your grammar. Buy a grammar book (with exercises) for a level slightly underneath yours and work through it

Cavesa wrote:Fix the grammar. It is not that complicated, just get a grammar book with tons of exercises (input clearly isn't sufficient for you, which is normal. It is not sufficient for me either without the second and less fun part). Una gramatica de uso del español is a wonderful example.

I have actually completed that series of books Cavesa. They're fantastic as you have said. I consider myself fairly studious about grammar and don't believe in simply "absorbing" it either, I'm always sure to ask someone if I have doubts. But that's why it's become so frustrating for me that, despite being able to write without too many errors, in the moment of speaking I make mistakes as simple as using the masculine form of adjective when I should be using the feminine, or mixing up the imperfect and preterite tenses. In process of worrying, I find the rest of the sentence falls apart too and that prepositions go missing. These are things that I obviously know, since I don't make the same mistakes when writing. Will doing yet more drills really help?

Sonjaconjota wrote:Or book a couple of conversations classes (of just half an hour or so) on a platform like italki. In that case you could actually have your list on the table beside you and tick off anything that you have used.

This is a good idea. I might try it.

El Forastero wrote:You can speak the whole day in spanish, but if you onle are involved in low complexity conversations about daly routines and quotidian vocabulary, you'll stagnate at the maximum level these conversations have. To push your level upwards, you need to push yourself to the next level.

This is a really good point. It's obviously been a lot harder in the last year because of the pandemic, but being exposed to new situations might break the "cycle". I'm wondering if it might be worth learning about a new topic and booking an iTalki lesson with the sole intention of talking about said topic, so as not to be stuck in the grind of "small talk". People often ask me about the history of my country for example, and I struggle to explain it Spanish.

El Forastero wrote: Maybe these special moment never comes, but if you have select 10 or 20 sentences like this, eventually one of them will be used in the right moment. Besides, you'll feel that there is a better way to express yourself and you'll be motivated to find more.

This is something I do a lot already. It's a good method and I have learnt a lot of colloquial Spanish this way, but it hasn't helped me much with being able to tell a story. I'm not sure if I'm emphasising the wrong parts of speech.

Cavesa wrote:If an unexpected problem arises, do you insist on solving it in Spanish, or do you escape (or allow the other side to escape) to English? To really progress, you need to push yourself to new experiences and learn from them. If you can pretend to not know any Enlish outside of your work, it might help.

I don't think the accusation that I avoiding the language is fair, since I don't speak English at all outside of work, and only speak English at work when it's absolutely necessary (the person I'm talking to doesn't speak Spanish for example). I can only think of a couple times I've had to default to English to explain something technical, although the explication in Spanish is often awkward. It is true however that I can pass a day or two without talking to anybody face to face, which is obviously not "immersion" so in that respect you have a good point. Any formal documentation I write at work must also be in English. Perhaps on those days I should force myself to listen to more podcasts in Spanish, or to write a diary entry in the language.
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Re: Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby Steve » Fri Apr 23, 2021 3:48 am

yossarian wrote:
Steve wrote:My own experience in playing music and decades of limited language learning is that fact-based memory can provide a substitute for skills up to a certain level.

This is what I feel is happening to me... I've become skilled at Anki and other drills but not at speaking confidently.
Steve wrote:I now spend most of my time doing skill-based activities. I use limited amounts of fact-based study to clear away stumbling blocks and make improvements to skills.

What some other things you consider "skill-based" activities?


Right now I'm focusing on reading and listening. I'm tentatively planning on focusing more on speaking and writing this summer. For speaking, I'm planning on experimenting with different methods and materials to see what seems to work best for me.

At first, I want to base what I'm doing on correct forms so I don't have to mentally worry about that. Using some combo of audio from my Assimil courses (beginner and advanced) as a source as well as audio books and audio from TV, I plan on chorusing/shadowing (without written materials as much as possible) for a line to become somewhat familiar and build the muscle and language memory for those phrases and lines. The idea being to be able to comfortably speak those lines. Basically, I'll adapt with various combinations of listening, speaking along, and speaking alone as to whatever seems to work and does not become stressfully tedious. Perhaps reading a book or something aloud, and then pausing to repeat out loud what I just read with comprehension.

Second, I'll try out some combination of building up language islands, rehearsing conversations, and replaying old conversations with what I wish I could have said. Using some combination of writing and study, I want to develop correct forms and then practice until those are comfortable. In other words, I want to figure out how to say what I want to, and then practice doing it. I'll also want to construct different variations of saying the same thing.

The guiding principles in the back of my mind are these. First, the Pareto Principle (or 90/10 or 80/20 rule) when I spend most of my time developing the skills to say things I'll likely want to say. Second, I want to spend as much time as possible practicing speaking in contrast to practicing analyzing what I am about to say. I don't want to be practicing having an extra layer of thinking going on in English to select grammatical forms before I can say anything.

If possible, I'd like to get back in contact with some of the local native Spanish speakers I haven't seen in months since COVID hit and actually have some conversations, but what I've mentioned is how I plan on upping my skill level for the next time we do get together.
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Re: Immersion, speech, and plateaus [Spanish]

Postby rdearman » Fri Apr 23, 2021 7:51 am

You don't get better at hockey by playing football. If you want to get better at speaking then you'll need to speak. I think I can help you out. I collected a list (14 pages) off essay questions. Download the list and work your way through it, writing the answers in Spanish and record yourself saying it. You might want to also consider joining the output challenge on this site. :)

14 pages of essay questions
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