8-Week Language Challenge: Only Spoken Language

I recently finished up a year of studying Spanish, with good results–even if I didn’t quite meet my goal of conversational fluency.

But I’m not finished. I’ve come so far with Spanish, and I want to get to the point where I’m comfortable with my new language.

I have some specific goals I’ll discuss in future posts, but right now they can be summed up as: “Speak Spanish better.”

So I’ve come up with a challenge to help me get there.

I enjoy setting goals for myself, both mental and physical. That's me (doing the carrying) during the Central Florida Tough Mudder. The beefcake on my shoulders is a diesel Filipino guy who handled all the obstacles better than I did.

I enjoy setting goals for myself, both mental and physical. That’s me (doing the carrying) during the Central Florida Tough Mudder race. The beefcake on my shoulders is a diesel Filipino guy who handled all the obstacles better than I did. I tore my pec muscle off the bone and permanently damaged it, but at least I still have one working chest.

The Challenge

Here’s the problem. Recently, I’ve had my nose buried in novels, textbooks, magazines, and flash cards. That’s been really effective, but I’m starting to see diminishing returns.

Also, I’m able to understand written texts much, much better than I’m able to understand spoken texts. This gap between my reading and listening concerns me.

Why do I care?

Because I know that true understanding of a language comes when you are able to hear it. I wrote a whole book about this phenomenon, in fact.

So my challenge is:

Improve my skills in the next eight weeks by only listening to and speaking Spanish.

This means no reading, no flash cards, no courses, no text books, and definitely no grammar drills. In the next eight weeks, it’s only going to be spoken language for me.

“Improve” is a vague goal, so here’s something a little more specific. Right now I’m a solid B2 in listening and a B1 in speaking. By the end of eight weeks, I’d like to get to a C1 level in listening and a B2 level in speaking.

What I’m going to do

I’m basically going to drown myself in:

  • TV shows
  • Podcasts
  • Radio programs

I’ve also started doing regular language exchanges with a really cool guy from Colombia, which I hope to continue. If you’re not familiar with language exchanges, look for the details in a future post.

I’ll do some other things here and there, like language shadowing or talking to myself, but I won’t do any translation or transcription–basically, anything requiring a pen.

I’ll still be exposed to a little written language in my Twitter feed and in TV captions. Also, every once in a while I might look up a word in the dictionary. But overall there’s going to be a huge reduction in my intake in visual language.

Why not do it all?

Reading and writing are great. Listening and speaking are great. Why am I excluding half of the equation here?

A few reasons.

First, I want to mix things up. If I sense that I need to shake things up, why would I go on doing the same thing? I hypothesize that I’ve gained a very logical understanding of Spanish from the studying and reading, when what I really need is a more visceral feel.

Second, this is an experiment. In my book, I made some pretty strong claims about the role of verbal language in language learning. Yet I never tell you to exclude written language or studying altogether. But what would happen if you did? Could you improve just by listening and speaking? Children show us that it’s possible, but is it possible for an adult language learner?

Third, I’m trying to optimize my limited time. I go to work and also have a family to take care of. If I want to really focus on verbal language, I may have to take out other activities to make room for it.

With this challenge, I expect to see a huge jump in my acquired language, and I’m hoping to gain a truly visceral feel for the language. Also, I predict that when I do return to reading and studying, my mind will be a sponge.

Wrapping Up

So check back in periodically and see my progress. Think I’ll make any improvements? Or will I backtrack? Let me know in in the comments.


  • Shawn


    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Thanks! 😀

  • http://blog.fluenthistorian.com/ Natalie

    This sounds like a great idea, Ron. I look forward to hearing about the results.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Thank you! Have you ever tried anything similar with Russian?

  • http://www.unlocklanguage.com/ Robert Lewis

    Awesome challenge, very interested to see the results!

    If you really immerse yourself in the speaking and listening, and are confident that your ‘logical understanding’ is solid like you mention above, I am betting that you will see real improvement.

    What does your language exchange look like? (How often? How long?)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey, Robert, thanks for the encouragement! I was thinking about my logical understanding today, actually. I still get hung up on some grammatical points when I’m speaking, but not so much when I’m listening and not at all when I’m reading. Unless I don’t know the words, it’s pretty easy to get an exact translation when I’m reading. I need more grammar, but I was telling myself today that it’ll have to wait. haha…didn’t realize what a crutch “studying” had become.

      I’m meeting 2 to 3 times a week with my language exchange partner, spending about 40 minutes to an hour chatting. Very informal, but we try to split it up evenly, with the first half of a session being all one language, and the last half being all the other. His English is better than my Spanish, but I think we’re both seeing some benefits.

      Have you been doing language exchanges? I was planning a post on them. Any quick tips? [I’d credit you and your site, of course. :) ]