In our current case study, twin brothers John and Bryan Tublin are competing to learn Spanish before they turn 30.
This is the first foreign language they’ve learned, and they’re doing it with The Mimic Method.
In The Mimic Method, there are three stages to learning a foreign language:
In the first posts of this series, we discussed how the Tublins built their capacity to hear and pronounce the sounds of Spanish.
First, they focused on the 39 Elemental Sounds of Spanish. Then, they practiced combining these sounds in syllables. Finally, they practiced pronouncing whole sentences by memorizing song lyrics.
Through this training, the Tublins built the ability to mimic native speakers of Spanish. With this ability, they can now build their conversational ability through mimicry.
In this post, we will look at what they did to build their simple conversation abilities
How to Learn Basics Words and Phrases
In order to have a simple conversation with someone in a foreign language, you need to know some basic words and phrases.
Most language programs teach you these basic words and phrases through reading and writing. For example, Duolingo and Rosetta Stone will show you written words, then your job is to plug their spellings back into their app.
This approach is called the “Learn by Eye” approach, and it’s problematic for several reasons.
First, the written word can really mess up your hearing and pronunciation. Since conversation is our end goal, and conversation is a purely auditory activity, it’s not a good idea to distort your hearing and pronunciation.
Second, practicing reading and writing at beginning gives you a sense of “False Progress.” You think you “know” all of these words, grammar and phrases, because you can use them within the visual context.
But then you enter the conversational context, and you’re useless. You can’t understand native speakers when they speak to you, and they can’t understand you when you speak to them.
Truth is, you don’t really “know” the words and phrases until you use them in a conversation.
That’s why I recommend people to use “Learn by Ear” programs to acquire basic words and phrases. Learn by Ear programs are audio-based programs. Typically, you listen to conversations between native speakers while the guide slowly walks you through what they mean.
The Learn by Ear program I assigned to the Tublins was the Pimsleur Spanish I series. Pimsleur lessons are about 30 minutes long, and involve listening to a conversation over and over again while mimicking.
The Tublins had to do at least 1 lesson a day, then record a quick recap video to review the things that they learned. Here are some clips of them doing just that.
You don’t Know it Until you Use it
In the language learning world, there’s a lot of focus on memory. But when you’re fluent in a language, you don’t rely on memory and recall anymore.
When you’re fluent in a language, all you rely on is context and emotion.
If you’re in a context that you’ve been in several times before, the words just flow out of you naturally. That’s why you don’t really know a word or phrase until you’ve used it several times in conversation.
No matter how good a language learning program is at teaching you vocabulary and grammar, you won’t retain any of it until you use it in real conversation.
That’s why I had the Tublins go out and find native speakers to talk to, while they worked their way through Pimsleur.
This way, the things they learned in Pimsleur would actually stick. Check out some of their conversations:
I can’t emphasize this enough: if you’re not talking to people yet, then stop what you’re doing and find people to talk to.
Remember, talking to people was the whole point of this language-learning thing. So just by getting out there you’re starting to achieve your goals.
The major thing holding people back from speaking is perfectionism. School taught us that we needed to get everything correct, or we’ll become failures.
In reality, the only way to avoid failure in life is to make lots of mistakes.
If you know Spanish, you’ll know that the Tublins made a lot of mistakes in their first attempts at Spanish. But who cares!
Everyone knows they’re pure beginners at the language. No one has expectations for them to be fantastic.
Don’t measure your success by correction, measure your success by connection.
If you can catch their gist, and they can catch yours, then you’re golden.
Ask, Listen, Mimic, Repeat.
Once you’re in conversation with people, your best friend will be the phrase “How do you say?”
Communicate your thoughts to the best of your ability, then whenever you get to a word you don’t know, you ask “How do you say (word)?”
When person says the word, you need to mimic their pronunciation exactly how they said it. Then you need to repeat it to yourself several times to ingrain it. Then you need to repeat the entire sentence you were saying WITH the new word.
This is what it means to learn a language by ear.
Most language learners have difficulty doing this, because they learn by eye. When you learn by eye, you rely on writing as a crutch to pick up new words.
So in conversation, when you ask “how do you say?”, you need to follow that question up with “How do you spell it?” or “Could you please write that down.”
But no one has time to spell and write stuff out for you all the time – this really slows down the flow of conversation.
But if you’ve taken our hearing/pronunciation courses and developed your ability to mimic, you wouldn’t need to ask these questions.
Watch how the Tublins are always asking the question “Como se dice” in their interactions with natives.
It’s important to remember that most of the time you will NOT remember what you mimic by next conversation.
This frustrates a lot of new langauge learners at the beginning. They feel like something is wrong with their brains if they can’t memorize new things instantly.
The way recall actually works is like this:
- You hear word for first time, but don’t know what it means
- You hear word again, ask what it means, then forget
- You hear word again, ask what it means again, then forget again
- You speak and recognize the opportunity to use the word, but you forget what it was, and ask again
- You hear someone use the word again, but THIS time you remember what it means.
- You speak and recognize the opportunity to use the word again, you struggle really hard to recall it, you punch yourself in the head several times because you knows it’s there somewhere, then just when you almost have it…..you forget again and ask.
- You repeat the last step a few times, then you FINALLY got it.
As you can see, it can be a long process, but over time you get faster and faster at it. And you don’t just “remember” the word – you know it.
It flows out of you as natural as anything, then with your freed up mental space, you do the process again for even more words.
This is what it means to learn a new language.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!
Your goal at the beginning stage of conversation is to acquire basic confidence in conversation. The only way you can do this, however, is if you have as many conversations as you can.
As you work your way through Pimsleur or whatever your preferred audio-based program is, make a daily commitment to use what you learn in short 5-15 minute chats with natives.
If you live in the foreign country, get a language buddy to practice with. Or just chat everyday with your local shopkeeper or waiter.
If you don’t live in the country, put in the work to schedule daily conversations on chat sites like verblining or italki.
Remember, you don’t learn it until you use it over and over again!
Once you’ve gotten through the initial awkwardness of conversation in a foreign language, you want to move on to the next step – Scripted Conversation.
In a later post, we will talk about how the Tublins worked their way through this stage of the method.