Good ol’ immersion. How you, and I, and everyone else learned their native language. Who would’ve thought that the most effective method of learning a language was something so obvious, something that we’ve all done ourselves. What happened to lead us astray? How do we know OG immersion really is the best way to learn?
On this page we explain what’s wrong with traditional language learning, why the strong foundation of the OG Immersion Method makes it the best approach, and what to do and expect at each stage of your learning to make the most of Dreaming Spanish. Continue reading to understand how following this timeline will get you to your learning goal, however ambitious it may be:
You can also download our Language Learning Roadmap to better understand the levels and what to do at each level to progress to the next one.
Traditional language education doesn’t work. Students spend years in school learning a second language, but by the time they graduate, they still can’t hold a conversation in the language. Students spend hours and hours practicing grammar constructions, but after many years they are still unable to use them spontaneously in conversation. They spend a lot of time studying vocabulary lists for an exam, just to forget those words a week after the exam. As a consequence, the success rates are abysmal. You can check our blog post if you want to know more about the things that traditional language education gets wrong.
Why aren’t we doing better? You would be surprised to know that it’s not because we don’t know how to do it. Actually, over the last 40+ years, language acquisition researchers like Dr. Stephen Krashen have figured out why traditional language education doesn’t work, and how to do better. Keep reading to understand the fundamental misconception in which traditional language education is based.
Unfortunately, language education hasn’t caught up for the most part. Besides natural human resistance to change, and the tendency to consider languages as another subject matter that needs to be studied, real language acquisition is harder for teachers to measure in an exam. The requirements for teachers to give out scores that are easy to understand, and the lack of time to really judge how much language their students have acquired, leads to exams with easy-to-grade exercises like “fill in the blank”, “sort the words”, and other meaningless tests that have nothing to do with real acquisition. As a result, teachers have to teach the things that will allow their students to pass the exam. Again, what they learn is very far from the real acquisition that would allow you to have a fluent conversation, or understand a movie or a book in the language you are learning.
But here, in Dreaming Spanish, we are not bound by those limitations. We’ve decided to step up and put together a method that implements the principles of actual language acquisition in a way that works and that you’ll actually have fun doing.
Now we can explain to you the foundations of this method and how to make the most of it.
The concept of comprehensible input is fundamental for understanding how we acquire a language. Since Dr. Stephen Krashen introduced this concept as part of his Input Hypothesis, more and more research has piled up showing that receiving comprehensible input is not only necessary for acquiring a language (both first and second), but it is also sufficient. More and more research is also showing that it's not only necessary and sufficient, but also faster and gives better results.
What is “Comprehensible Input”, though? We are receiving comprehensible input when we understand messages. The “input” part means that we are listening or reading. Only listening or reading (or watching in the case of sign languages) is input. Speaking, writing, and doing exercises is not input. The “comprehensible” part, means that what we are listening to or reading is understandable to us. This doesn’t mean that we understand every word or every grammar point in the input, but that we understand enough to be able to figure out the rest thanks to context. When we receive comprehensible input, the conditions are met for our brain to be able to use its natural ability to acquire language, without having to do anything else. There’s no need to study, review vocabulary, or practice anything. Watching and reading itself results in acquisition. Research also keeps showing that this ability to acquire language remains active even as an adult, and that we can benefit a lot by imitating the way children learn their first language.
During the 1980’s, Dr. J. Marvin Brown adapted Krashen’s ideas into a practical classroom method called ALG, and developed a more unified framework about how we acquire languages, that also explains in more detail the reason why some people end up with stronger foreign accents than others, the benefits of delaying speech, the issues with trying to use explicit learning to acquire a language, and can even explain how creole languages appear.
This framework explains acquisition in terms of the representation of the language in the brain. When we are aware of a concept (because we see it or we understand it from the context) and hear the word that refers to it, we start forming connections between them. When we form more and more of these connections, we have acquired a word. Over time, those connections start to form between words that share common grammatical properties, between words that can be used in the same position in a phrase, and that’s how our brain forms the patterns that will allow us to gain an intuitive understanding of the language. By forming brain connections that are similar to those that native speakers form, we can become fluent and be able to produce language that’s comparable to what native speakers would produce. If instead we make our brain form connections to our first language (by using translations), to the explicit thinking parts of our brain (by studying grammar), or to our own preconceived ideas of the language (by forcing early production), we end up with something that’s different to what native speakers have.
To understand why traditional language education doesn’t work, it’s important to understand the difference between learning and acquisition. Learning refers to doing conscious study, be it in the form of grammar rules, studying lists of vocabulary, or any other activity that engages our conscious thinking. But conscious thinking is very slow and incapable of holding at once the incredible complexity of a language. We can never hope to hold a fluent conversation if we need to be holding in our head and applying dozens of grammar rules for every sentence that we say, or if we need to constantly translate the words in our head.
Acquired language is not conscious knowledge. Acquired language in fluent speakers (both as a first or second language) is subconscious knowledge, sometimes also called implicit knowledge. Acquired language works extremely fast, without having to make an effort to think about grammar or translate words in your head. When receiving comprehensible input, our brain connects our experiences directly with the words that we hear associated with those experiences. These direct connections allow us to understand a word immediately when we hear it or read it, and to immediately know what sounds like correct grammar and what doesn’t, without having to think about it or translate in our heads.
On the other side, acquisition will NOT be adequate or sufficient if your reason for learning a language is one of the following:
Now that you know why you should acquire a language rather than studying it, let’s see what that means in practice.
We said this earlier, but it bears repeating. Watching the videos is by itself what results in acquiring the language. Not doing comprehension tests. Not reviewing vocabulary. Not doing other activities related to the content. Any of these activities that don’t provide you with comprehensible input will not result in acquisition.
Watching is the activity that will lead you to acquire the language. For the first few hundred hours of exposure to the language, it really is the only activity that you need to do. At the higher levels, listening to audio is also useful, and reading also has its place. We discuss reading later in this page.
By the way, if you would like to get the benefits of Comprehensible Input but you prefer direct personal interaction with speakers of the language, we recommend you check out Crosstalk.
When watching our videos, your focus should be on enjoying the videos. You do need to be paying attention, so listening to them in the background or while you sleep won’t work, but your focus should be on enjoying them, not on trying to analyze what’s being said or on memorizing certain words.
The input needs to be comprehensible. You need to understand enough of the input. How much is enough? You certainly need to understand enough to stay engaged and enjoy watching the videos.
But when you’re just starting, you won’t know most of the words that are being said. That’s okay, though. As long as you understand the overall story by looking at the pictures and drawings, you will start connecting meaning with vocabulary. Most vocabulary you are ready to learn at this stage are nouns for concrete items (house, dog, river...) and verbs for common actions (walk, talk, see...), and our easiest videos are designed to help you do that without needing to know every word.
Even at the higher levels, you don’t need to understand every single word. At each step of your learning, you’ll be ready to acquire certain things, and you won’t be ready to acquire certain other things. By focusing on watching interesting content, the things that you are ready to acquire will stick, and the rest will come to you when you are ready for them. This is especially true of function words, which you will hear over and over before your brain figures out their meaning.
Because context is so helpful to figure out the meaning of new words that you encounter, most people would benefit from watching lower level videos than what they think they should. If you are losing track of what’s being said, then we advise you to try watching easier content. In this case, challenging yourself with harder content is counter-productive most of the time.
While watching, avoid doing things like looking up words in the dictionary, repeating words in your head to try to memorize them, or paying any kind of conscious thought to the structure or the pronunciation of the language. To say it in the most general way possible: don’t think. These things take you out of the activity of listening, and engage the conscious part of your brain, which should be focused on understanding the content, not the form of the language.
Improvement when doing real acquisition feels quite different to what it feels like to study a list of vocabulary or a grammar point. You shouldn’t expect to acquire a 100% of any single word or expression in a single day. Rather, each day you will be acquiring 1% of hundreds of words and expressions. Each time you hear or read a word, your brain will be connecting that word to all the other things that you were aware of when you heard it. It will be connected to the physical reality it referred to in that particular context, to the other words that appeared in the sentence, to the degree of formality of the situation, to the person who said that word, and to innumerable other details. Over time, hearing or reading this word dozens or hundreds of times, you will develop a clear picture for the range of meanings the word can have, how to use it grammatically, and in which situations it’s appropriate to use that word. Here you can read more about the huge complexity that there is in a single word.
Since every word or expression is learned gradually, words will feel a bit different depending on how well you know them. The first few times you hear a word, you may start getting a feeling for the meaning of the word, but not be able to tell exactly what it refers to. Then, you will know the word well enough to understand its meaning, but only when in context. Then, you will know it well enough to understand what it means when hearing it by itself. Only after that, you will be able to say the word out loud yourself. Naturally, there will always be more words that you understand than words you are able to say. This is not a problem, and it’s actually inevitable. It even happens for our first language.
At the lower levels, you can expect to be mostly acquiring words that refer to real world items, actions, and other things that can be conveyed visually. Acquisition of more abstract terms (e.g., “hope”, “sluggishly”, “policy”) and words that have mostly grammatical function but no actual meaning will come much later. You can learn about this in more detail in our Language Learning Roadmap.
The learning of grammar and conjugations will be very progressive, and, unlike vocabulary, initially you won’t be aware that it’s happening. Expect to have to wait until getting to level 3 to start noticing how certain word orders and conjugations just feel better, and start detecting how some things just feel wrong. You will eventually acquire the totality of the grammar of the language if you just keep the input flowing.
Because both the vocabulary and the grammar are learned so gradually, the best indicator of your progress is actually the total amount of input that you have received. That’s why the levels of our timeline are based on the number of hours of input that you need to get to each level. For reading, the total number of words read is the measure to use.
There is no need to study grammar or vocabulary. Research over the last few decades has more than proven that the innate ability of our brain to figure out the patterns in the language stays active even as an adult, and it can work as long as we provide it with the appropriate fuel. There’s no reason to consider yourself more stupid than a child. You are not.
By hearing a word over and over, we intuitively remember its meaning, and we even associate it to its correct usage, level of formality, and other details that will let us use that word in an idiomatic way.
The same happens with the grammar. Once we know enough words that we can start understanding complete phrases, our brain will subconsciously start figuring out the patterns, and providing you with an intuitive feeling for how to put together sentences, how to use prepositions correctly, how to conjugate, and every other aspect of the grammar.
While speaking has its place, its importance has been grossly overstated. Speaking is output. That means that when speaking, no new information is actually entering your brain. Therefore, speaking itself doesn’t help us learn new words or grammar.
In addition, at the beginner and intermediate level we still haven’t acquired enough of the language to be able to speak well. That means that our brain will try to find whatever it can to fill in the gaps, and that usually means using the vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation of your first language. After doing this repeatedly, we create connections between our first language and the language we are learning, which result in a nonnative use of the language that’s very hard to fix.
Speaking does become desirable at the higher levels. One reason is that by speaking, you get speakers of the language to speak back to you and provide you with highly engaging, highly meaningful input.
The biggest benefit of practicing speaking is gaining confidence about your ability to communicate and get rid of fears you may have about speakers of the language not understanding you or reacting negatively to your attempts to talk to them. The more language you have acquired, the more likely you’ll have an easy time communicating and holding conversations. If you try speaking and you are missing too many words and expressions, there’s no shame in focusing on input for a while longer, and trying again in the future. Once you have acquired enough language, if you are still hesitant about speaking, it’s helpful to get a language exchange partner, a private instructor, or a patient friend that you can talk to in a comfortable setting.
A bit of speaking practice is also needed to get your mouth muscles to produce the appropriate sounds. This is purely a muscle memory issue, so it requires actual practice. However, this is much shorter than most people think, only taking a few dozen hours of practice at most. If your mental image of the sounds of the language is well built by getting lots of input, you will be able to very quickly guide your muscles and have them converge towards producing the sounds that you expect them to produce. In this blog post, you can learn more about why the physical skills required to speak a language well are so easy to learn for an abled person. When people can’t pronounce a language clearly it’s not because of lack of speaking practice, but rather because they internally don’t have a clear target for what the language coming out of their mouths should sound like.
Additionally, thanks to several case studies of people who were unable to communicate because of handicaps, suddenly were able to produce whole sentences in the language as soon as they were given the technological means to do so. This, and our personal experience, indicates that grammar and vocabulary don’t need to be practiced to “activate” it.
The belief that we need to make mistakes and be corrected is a leftover from the days of B. F. Skinner's behaviorism. The problem with correcting errors is that it targets the conscious part of our brain, not the intuitive part that’s in charge of producing fluent language. This has been confirmed by the research, since for years and years researchers have been trying to get both oral or written corrections to work, but none have been able to get corrections to have any effect on acquired language.
The good thing is that if you keep getting lots of input, you won’t need your mistakes to be corrected. You’ll eventually learn the right way of saying things from the input itself.
We highly recommend reading once you are at level 5 or ideally 6. Reading practice is required in order to get good at (1) spelling, and (2) reading fast. Additionally, reading practice can help you learn tons of vocabulary that doesn’t commonly appear in other kinds of media.
The reason we don’t recommend reading early on is purely because of pronunciation. If you don’t care about talking to people, or if you already speak a language that sounds very similar to the language you are learning, you can start reading the most basic graded readers (easy readings for language learners) at around level 2 or 3. If you decide to start reading early, we do recommend to, at least, become familiar with the way the letters are pronounced in Spanish. You can get started with this guide.
The reason reading early affects your pronunciation is the same reason why speaking early affects it. When you are reading, you are going to sound out the letters and the words in your head. If you haven’t developed a good mental image for the sounds of the language through input, your brain is going to have to use the sounds it already knows, which are the sounds of your first language. To know more about the effects of reading, check out our blog post.
If having a clear and understandable pronunciation is important for you, we recommend waiting at least until you are at level 5 to start reading. By then, your mental image of the sounds of the language will already be quite well developed. For those learners out there that really care about having a pronunciation that’s very close to that of native speakers, you can even postpone reading until you get to level 6. At level 5 or 6, your mental image of the sound of the language will be so solid that it will be able to overcome your default tendency to read the letters the way they sound in your first language. In this case, you won’t have any problems, even if you don’t study the pronunciation of the letters. Once you are at this level, explicitly learning the rules of pronunciation is not a bad thing to do, though. Especially with Spanish, since it has such a direct relation between spelling and pronunciation. So feel free to do so if you wish.
A good thing about starting reading at level 5 or 6, is that by then there will be lots of books that you can already understand, like children’s novels or non-fiction books.
So until you get there, don’t worry about anything and just keep getting your input!