Beyond Intermediate Spanish with Olly from Fluent Spanish Academy

Instead of a Podcast this week I sat down with Olly Richards to give me some pointers on how to advance from intermediate spanish and beyond. We also talked about his new project: Fluent Spanish Academy, and what made him start it.

I like to feature new initiatives in the language learning world, and as I'm learning Spanish this year I thought it would make a lot of sense to have an informal chat with Olly Richards to find out more about learning Spanish and his new project: Fluent Spanish Academy.

The Fluent Spanish Academy is a membership site that features extensive resources for Spanish learners to progress from the early intermediate levels to fluency. You'll find lots of lessons and content, as well as a community so you can always get help and support for your learning mission.

In the video we talk about what changes as the learner progress through the beginner to intermediate stages and Olly also shares practical tips and advice on how you can progress beyond intermediate Spanish more efficiently.

The Academy is suitable for any Spanish learner who has progressed through the beginner stages and is now looking to take his or her Spanish to the next level.

Resources mentioned: 

Fluent Spanish Academy: Try a few samples for free

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► Transcript:

Kris: So, what we wanted to talk about today are two, I think, really interesting things.

The first thing is sort of how to progress in to an intermediate level in Spanish and beyond. Also, talk a little bit about the learning strategies that comes with that. And maybe also touch on a bit before that just in case because as a personal side note I am also learning Spanish this year.

So, it will be fun if we can just take a few minutes how to get to the intermediate level because I think although it is covered extensively in most apps and software is kind of aimed towards beginners. You know this more than anyone.

Just as a personal note let’s start there, should we?

  • Olly: Of course, yes.
  • Kris: I guess before we just in to all that I guess we should just clear the introductions out of the way.

Why are we even talking about Spanish? Why don’t you talk to us a little bit about your Spanish journey as it were and how you have now opened up your own website to teach Spanish.

  • Olly: Spanish was actually the third language I learnt, it was after French and Italian, then came Spanish. It became one of my strongest languages over time I think. Because I had a very good friend who is from the Canary Islands, which is part of Spain, because of that friendship and the amount of time we spent together basically Spanish became one of the languages that not only I was best at but was most meaning for me in my life.

It became more than just an object of study but just something that I lived and breathed every single day. I never actually lived in a Spanish speaking country but I did speak a lot of it, mostly in the UK.

Fairly recently, last year, I was kind of looking for ways to work more interactively with people because it is cool to do blogging and podcasting but I wanted to be able to interact a little bit more with people. I thought Spanish is a really popular language. It is one of the most popular languages among people that follow my work and I am also okay at it myself. So, I thought well why not. Let’s teach it and let’s help.

Rather than another beginners course why don't we look at the intermediate stages where a lot of people end up struggling with Spanish. Especially somewhere like the states where you do a few years of college Spanish but then don't get much further. I am kind of interested in that and how to get through that point.

  • Kris: That is great. And of course, you started this teaching path last year, or was it the year before, with the short stories for the course. So, Spanish was the first one, wasn’t it?
  • Olly: That is right yes.
  • Kris: And another wait to learn in context. So, that is great. Why do you think the intermediate stages it seems so much more difficult than the beginner stages? It’s an obvious question of course but what are the pain points and struggle points that Spanish learners will hit once they reach that upper beginner level?
  • Olly: The pain points are not unique to Spanish. The challenge is typically you face of course whatever language you learn.

But you're right in what you said in that it is a perception, it is not necessarily a reality. Spanish doesn’t suddenly get more difficult when you learn the conditional form of a verb. What happens is that from a psychological perspective you start a new language as a beginner and then everything you learn from the hola to the como estas.

You learn something you can use it straight away. It’s like directly, immediately you can put it in to practice.

The thing about the intermediate stage is that you start to study finer shades of meaning. So, when you spend time learning grammar in a book or something like that, it is not so immediately useful. You have to learn different verb forms different tenses alternative

vocabulary. So, your visual tangible progress slows down, and the effect on you is that you feel that you are just not progressing like you used to and that kind of sucks. It’s not a good feeling and that can lead to loss of motivation and giving up.

So, what that means is two things. First of all, you just have to keep going, which is why motivation is so important. But also, you have to change the way that you are studying. It doesn’t really work anymore to simply learn a few phrases from your book and then start to use it. You have to expose yourself to the broader range of the language to start to learn that way.

  • Kris: Can you give some examples of how people could do that? I suspect there are a lot of English speakers listening to this that would love to speak Spanish. Maybe they are from America or they are France and Latin America.

And then Europe where a lot of people also speak Spanish. How can we become more efficient Spanish learners at that stage? Because the beginner level it is extremely obvious what you should do, should just add words and if you are in doubt there is like 20 million apps and courses and websites. You are never going to run out of beginner resources every.

But once you pass the beginner level also maybe it’s hard to know what you are missing because you don't know what you don't know.

  • Olly: Heightened awareness problem which is what leads to that kind of frustration.

Basically, you have to take the [unintelligible 00:06:00] the whole language. That is actually a technically term, the whole language. As opposed to learning individual words and phrases. So, in practical terms that means that yes you have to speak a lot. But you already know, that, right? If you want to get good at speaking Spanish, you have to be speaking Spanish regularly.

  • Kris: You say that and you look at university degrees and other kind of other traditional ways of learning languages. May be its worth repeating, you should be speaking the language in order to get better at speaking it.
  • Olly: Yes, and its true it’s not everyone’s ambition to be the person who just speaks Spanish. Some people just enjoy reading and assuming the language and that is absolutely fine.

But if you want to get good at speaking Spanish you have to actually be speaking. It seems like an obvious point but you would be amazed how many people have the mentality of I'll speak when I'm ready or just learn a little bit more, and then start speaking.

So, that is part number one.

But there is only so much you can learn from speaking. Because let’s say you speak every day, well how long are you going to speak for? Half an hour? If you speak in Spanish for half an hour every day on Skype or something not many people can manage that kind of intensity.

But even then, in half an hour of spoke Spanish you don't get that much input really. For a start, you are speaking half the time, which cuts it down to 15 minutes. And then the kind of Spanish that is used in speech is a very kind of poor representation of the language as a whole. That is not the complete language.

When you look at it over the long term the only way you can really progress from that lower-intermediate stage and push through the barrier is by having huge amounts of input. Which means you have to read a lot and you have to listen a lot. On a very simple level that is what you have got to do.

  • Kris: Well it sounds very easy. [laughs]
  • Olly: Yes. The problem is of course that you listened to that piece of advice, you read a lot and listen a lot, okay fine.

So, what do you do? You download podcasts and you don’t understand anything because it is too fast. You watch movies, you don’t understand anything because it is all kind of weird topics. You read books, but you don't understand anything because it is too advanced.

That is the problem that you run in to from a practical standpoint for the intermediate learner. So, the really hard thing to do usually in Spanish and most other languages as well is to actual find the material that is right at your level such that you can sit down and study for an hour and it is actually useful and beneficial for you.

Because if you spend an hour listening to something that is above your head you are essentially wasting your time. [crosstalk] Some latent value. But yes, you get bored. You are not learning anything, you need to have material that makes the language accessible to you.

  • Kris: And it has to challenge you also because you are speaking with the same tutor every day, for instance, you might use 95 percent of the same vocabulary over and over. So, you have this false [laughs] level in a way. Because you can speak for an hour but you are speaking the same hour every day. [laughs]
  • Olly: When you are a beginner in a language speaking, every day gives you massive benefits and you grow a bit of confidence, you start to learn to chit chat.

But what a lot of people find is that those kinds of daily conversations start to get very repetitive after you have been doing them for a few months. That is a difficult stage and that is when you need to kind of turn to more conventional forms of study, listening and reading. Because what most people find unless you live in Spain and you are immersed in that environment you are just not getting the richness of input that you require. Your conversations might be very repetitive, you said the same things all the time.

Those are the limitations of speaking. And so, that is why it becomes much more important to have an intelligent approach to study. Especially in terms of the listening and the reading, that input side of stuff. And that is why it becomes particularly important to find the right materials. What you are typical aiming for is usually branded as comprehensible input, that is the term that is usually bandied around. Which ideally is material that is at your current level plus a little bit.

So, you already understand a fair bit but there is just a little bit more that you don't know yet and because you might understand already the bulk of it, using that context it makes it much easier to learn those few things that you don't quite know yet.

That is typically where you want to pitch your learning material.

  • Kris: It is about filling in the blanks in a way but as you know all the words surrounding a word then you can kind of learn it easier, you see it in context and you can sometimes even guess the meaning based on that.

But these kinds of materials can sometimes be hard to find. This is not a segue or anything, but where should people look for that in general?

  • Olly: It is genuinely hard to find because materials intended for native speakers they just generally don't serve you.
  • Kris: It’s impossible to understand.

Olly: It helps to relax in the evening with a movie. It’s better to watch a movie in Spanish than English, and why not?

But those materials are hard to find and Spanish is one of the most well served languages of all. You would be hard pressed to think of a language which is well served in terms of language materials than Spanish. And yet in my facebook group the most common question that comes up is, “Hey where can I get some good Spanish listening practice or where can I get some good Spanish reading prac-?” To be fair there is a lot of good stuff out there but you have got to go dig around and take a little bit here and a little bit there and it’s difficult to find a kind of learning hub if you like of stuff.

Which is why obviously I ended up making the Fluent Spanish Academy for that very reason. Because there is nothing more frustrating that having to spend every day when you sit down to study to think, “Okay well what should I learn? What should I study today?” and they start Googling stuff and you end up on YouTube and before you know it the evening has gone and you have done nothing.

  • Kris: And it’s a problem too because sometimes the beginner material is very unnatural, so they will have sentences, you will learn material sentences that will never be used in the actual day to day life of a native speaker.

So, in a sense it is kind of like you are bridging between your previous language and Spanish instead of actually learning Spanish.

  • Olly: It depends on the quality of the material.

Because there is some really fantastic beginner Spanish out there. Interesting enough I've never actually found a beginner Spanish textbook that I thought was any good. There is a fair amount of good online beginner Spanish stuff out there.

So, it does depend. Like some places to teach very natural Spanish others of course don't.

  • Kris: It just seems like there is a huge gap between the beginner’s materials that teach you the basics and then native materials which are like a native will listen to it seems like it is really difficult to find, let’s say, a podcast that is spoken at a sort of natural vocabulary and level but perhaps not a hundred percent speed or something. People slow down a little bit, maybe not use super technical terms.

What do I know? I don't know how to do this.

  • Olly: But they do exist. There is some good stuff out there. Again, it is all a big mix and one of the most common things either don't know where to find stuff or end up having this kind of butterfly syndrome.

Me myself, the number of times I have kind of gone online to look for some material and just ended up going down this rabbit hole of YouTube videos, stuff like this.

So, its knowing where to find the material. And then of course you need to know how to study with it and then once you have got to that point, you have got the material you know how to study with it. Then your kind the stick-to-itiveness to actually do it every day such that you get a result. Because obviously having the best material in the world and even knowing how to use it means nothing unless you actually do it. And that again is a common stumbling block.

  • Kris: I think that is a point that I make sometimes is that it’s better to have, let’s say, a slightly less effective theoretically method that you would do all the time than it is to have the best of the best that you would never use.
  • Olly: Exactly. Don't let the great get in the way of the good.

You can apply this thing so widely. The mediocre thing that you do every day is far more powerful than that perfect method that you do once a month or something like that.

  • Kris: [laughs] Right, exactly. But you mentioned your Fluent Spanish Academy, which is of course one of the things that we are talking about.

Can you just give– I haven’t seen it yet so what can people expect to find on the inside? How is it built up, is there a guided kind of way to go through the materials or is it more like all you can eat? [laughs]

  • Olly: [laughs] Well what it is not is it’s a course. It’s not a kind of intermediate Spanish course because as we were talking about earlier the most important thing at intermediate level is that you stop studying in the way that you were studying as a beginner. Change of that mentality is really crucial.

So, there is a lot of different elements to it. But essentially there are three different parts. The first part is a huge amount of material. So, I've created, what I consider to be the best, intermediate Spanish material on the planet. I don't say that lightly but I put a lot of thought in to what material I would want to study as an intermediate Spanish.

So, for example authentic conversations with word for word transcripts. Short stories that I have created focusing on specific grammar points. Audio lessons where we teach Spanish phrases that are genuinely useful for the intermediate stage. Stuff that is actually spoken. So, there is a huge bank of materials.

Live training is every month. I do live training course where I teach these study techniques and strategies. I say here is how to study. You have got the material, here is how to improve your listening. Here is how to understand native speakers. Here is how to read effectively. Here is how to memorize vocabulary. So, that people know what to do with the material.

And then thirdly there is the community that we have. Which is a very very active thriving facebook group where we have monthly challenges which range from everything from the current month where we are having a simple daily study challenge. So, the idea is basically do something every day. A general motivational thing too.

What is coming up next month we are just going to focus on a specific Spanish grammar point. And so, the idea is that this month we are all going to focus on improving understanding the difference between the imperfecto and the [foreign word] which is the imperfect and the simple past. Because that is one of the most commonly confused areas of Spanish grammar.

So, it is a combination of the materials you need, the know-how and how to do it, and the community that makes sure you actually do it. And like for me those are the absolutely cornerstones of learning a language at the intermediate level. Having the material, knowing what to do with it, and then keeping going and actually doing the work.

So, that is what the academy is designed to provide.

  • Kris: Cool. And of course, you keep adding stuff to it that way.

Olly: Yes. So, there is a whole schedule of ongoing things. So, there are weekly less weekly audio lessons. There are new short stories that come out every month. Listening tracks with transcriptions. Live training every month. The ongoing challenges.

One of the things that I am kind of clear about is that there is no quick fix to this. There is no intermediate Spanish course that you take and then suddenly you are fluent.

The way that I because fluent in Spanish was working hard at it over time. And I don't try to dodge that point and people who are looking for a quick fix are not probably ready for something like this. You do have to put in the work and so the best service that I can provide from my perspective is the service that gets people excited about it and gives them what they need and make sure they carry on and do that.

  • Kris: Awesome. I really like the idea also of having the community where you can be accountable to someone other than yourself. You can kind of see what others are struggling with because it’s usually similar things isn’t it.
  • Olly: We try and build in that accountability in a lot of different ways. So, for example we have the community where people get to know each other and exchange ideas and some people figure out they are living close to each other and so they get together and speak Spanish.

Then we have the monthly challenges. But then we also have accountability partners. So, we will have someone who is like– You will be paired with someone else who you chat to over messenger or something to make sure that you are doing that thing every day that we have set out to do in the challenge.

I really do my very best to make sure that people get that kind of– Every small tiny little thing that they need to keep going and to do it. I think that is the– All I can say is I wish I had that when I first got started.

  • Kris: So where can people go to find out more about learning Spanish and the Fluent Spanish Academy?
  • Olly: In terms of learning Spanish I've got endless articles that I have written on how I learnt Spanish, my recommendations. I've got stuff on my blog on YouTube on the Huffington Post as well.
  • Kris maybe you want to put some links on this page for people to follow.

In terms of the Fluent Spanish Academy, we are not always open. In fact, the default is that we are closed but we might have spots opening up. We have a waiting list at the moment which you can join and you can get free samples of the material to see whether is the right kind of thing for you.

Again, Kris is you want to put a link on this page somewhere for people to follow.

Feel free to click over the homepage and download the free sample, see what you think, and if it’s a good fit for you and if you've been– Its not for complete beginners but if you have been learning Spanish for a while and you would like a bit of help to get through the intermediate stage then we would love to have you involved.

  • Kris: Great and yes, I'll put the links and YouTube description and I will also put it in the blog post itself under resources.

So, we will have them all linked up there so people can go and they will learn Spanish or at least improve their Spanish.

  • Olly: Yes, bit by bit right.
  • Kris: Exactly. Day by day.
  • Olly: As they say in Spanish: El camino se hace al caminar, which means you forge the path by walking.
  • Kris: Okay. And vamos, that is what they also say.
  • Olly: [laughs] They say some other things as well, it’s not just El camino se hace al caminar and vamos.
  • Kris: Well thank you so much for giving us the tips and tricks on Spanish Olly and I hope to be a member of your academy soon when I have learned the fundamentals of Spanish and hope to have many more questions for you at that time.
  • Olly: We will be waiting.