Am I Doing It Right?… And Other Missed Opportunities

It’s been a few short weeks of trying to learn Spanish now. And already, I wonder if I am doing enough or whether I am doing it right.

This weekend I have been to stay in London with some friends.

I was walking across the bridge from the Barbican underground station to the Barbican itself.  As we strolled high above the London traffic, my mate Frank talked about getting cash out of a ATM.

“Aha!” I thought.  “I should know that word.  I had covered that word only a day or two ago in the pronunciation trainer.”

But I couldn’t remember what the word was.

I thought it started with “C” but wasn’t exactly sure.

And When You Can’t Recall Something You’ve Leant…It Doesn’t Feel Good

At that point those negative and unhelpful emotions kicked in.

I started to feel the surge of overwhelm and doubt begin to consume me.

And then the gremlins of fear began whispering their drivel of doom into my ear:

“Oh I will never be able to do this – it is too much…. “

“I should know this because I have covered it”

“Learning Spanish is hard”

“This is what happened before…”

“…oh woe is me!”.

But fortunately I caught myself and recognised what was going on.

Then I put the experience into perspective.

I realised that I had encountered the word in the last two days.  But it was in the context of understanding pronunciation and how the language is written.

The reason I was not able to recall it was because I had not done enough to place it into my longer term memory.

Here’s The Problem

It’s a problem I encounter ALL the time working with people who want to develop their learning.

They feel if they can’t do it straight away, then they can’t do it at all.

Usually the problem occurs because of a mismatch between expectations of results and effectiveness of method.

People expect to be able to remember things… but they rarely do enough to have memorised it.

Common examples include forgetting someone’s name as soon as they have met them.  Another is getting to the bottom of a page of writing and not being able to recall much of what has been read.

In both cases, not enough has been done to secure the information into the memory.

And in this case it was the same with my failure to recall what the word for cash.

Although the scenario for me was a hundred times worse than for anyone else because I should have known better!!

There is an important word that needs to be included when helping people learn ANYTHING.

And that word is…


It is a word I always share with students of anything.

You do whatever is necessary UNTIL you are able to recall and use what you know.

Always baseline your performance against yourself.

Others may learn faster, whilst there may be many who take longer.

Comparing yourself to others is a waste of time and only results in unfair expectations and feeling shit about yourself.  Though occasionally my might feel a little smug.  Either way it is not good.

The only person you need to focus on is yourself.  And once you get clear on what it is you want to achieve, do WEIT… Whatever It Takes… UNTIL you get there.

‘Nuff said I think.

My Very First Spanish conversation

And how I got a free cup of tea for Frank.

Let me tell you more about my weekend in London.

On the Friday night Sarah and Frank took me to the theatre.  We went to see “The Book Of Mormon” which was absolutely hilarious.

We spent Saturday morning having a lazy breakfast and had one of our regular debates about the issues of the day. Though when I say “issues of the day”, for the last year the discussions have been dominated by a certain American Businessman.

After breakfast we had a soak, dip and steam in their gym’s spa and then set out to catch a train north to Biggleswade.

Why Biggleswade (before today I had never heard of it either)?

Well we were attending a party thrown by one of their friends and I was going too.

At Kings Cross Station I decided I would get us all a drink for the train journey and so stood in line at the Prét a Manger. I was served by a short lady with dark skin, a big smile and an accent.

As usual I was my usual pleasant, upbeat and courteous self and tried to engage in a bit of small talk with her.  It is something I make sure I do whenever I am interacting with people whose job is to interface with customers.

As an aside I think they do a really difficult job given how some people can be complete dicks with those who serve them in places like this.   And so I like to make my encounter with people who serve me as pleasant and as enjoyable as possible.   If at the very least I can at least make them smile or even laugh, then it has been a good interaction.

So I gave her my order of two hot chocolates made with coconut milk for me and Sarah, and a cup of tea for Frank.

The lady serving me had a bit of Banter with the barista behind her and my drinks were prepared.

Meanwhile I paid the bill and waited for my drinks.

After a couple of minutes two hot chocolates were proudly presented to me.

I said thank you and then waited for the tea.

She Looked At Me Like I Was An Idiot!

There was a brief Mexican stand off.

I looked at her.

She looked at me.

I looked back at her expectantly.

She looked back at me with increasing levels of confusion until I said quizzically “the tea?”.

At which point she said “Ahh – I am sorry – let me get that for you – you ordered it but I didn’t put it through the till – I am sorry”.

I pulled out my wallet again to get some cash but she said “no this is on the house – I am sorry”.

Another bit of banter with the Barista and the preparation for the tea began.. Once again she looked round and apologised.

At this point I took a note of her name on her name badge as I intended to use it at the end when I thanked her.  I noticed a yellow, blue and red flag on her name badge.

I asked her where she was from (in English) and she said “Colombia”.

So when she presented my cup of tea, I had my first Spanish conversation of this attempt to learn to speak Spanish.

Here’s what I said…

Wait for it….


I said “Gracias”.

That was it.

Now in hindsight, suspecting she was a Spanish speaker I could have said “´De donde es usted? To find out where she was from.

But I didn’t.

However I did take the opportunity to speak a bit of Spanish here.

OK it was one word. But it is a start.

To paraphrase and completely bugger up a well worn cliché:

“The journey of a thousand conversations starts with the first word!”


Should I start A Conversation “para mi”

So after gathering our drinks we get on the train and head north.

As we slowed down on the approach to one of the stations en route,  three people with naturally great suntans wandered past where we were sat.  They congregated in front of the train door in preparation to depart when the train stopped.

They began a conversation and I heard one of them say “para mi” which means “for me” in Spanish.

There were real live Spanish speaking people just a few feet from me!!

They were about to get off so I didn’t really have an opportunity to speak to them but I began asking myself this question:

“How could I have struck up a conversation with them to practice a bit of Spanish?”

And then this follow up question came to mind:

“What could I have said to them without appearing that I was some sort of stalking nutter?”

It opened up the thought process of working out a framework of things I could do to begin a conversation and practice.

I only had about 90 seconds from the time they walked past my seat on the train to them getting off.   There was no reason why I couldn’t have stood up, asked them the time or some other innocuous conversation starter.

For example:

“What is Spanish for….?” and show them something physical like a phone or a bottle of water as an opener?

Food for thought.

If I can take advantage of more of these opportunities then my Spanish can only improve.


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