A Spring Spanish Interview with Co-Founder Lukas Van Vyve: How did I learn Spanish?

In 2020, I co-founded a language education company called Spring Languages, where we teach languages through Conversation Based Chunking on YouTube and in our Academy.

The first language for which we started to create content is Spanish, at Spring Spanish! I’ve spent quite some time in Mexico and Spanish is one of my “strongest” foreign languages. To show that Conversation Based Chunking can really help you to learn Spanish up to a high level, I did an entire interview in Spanish with one of our teachers, Mariana! We talk about learning techniques, routines, habits and some quirks of the Spanish language 🙂 If you’re learning Spanish, make sure to watch it and subscribe to our YouTube channel, we publish tons of Spanish lessons every week (300+ lessons published already!)

Here’s the full Spring Spanish interview in written form:

Mariana: Hello! This is a very special video because Lukas Van Vyve, co-founder of Spring Spanish is going to tell us how he learned Spanish. Lukas speaks 5 other languages in addition to Spanish and he wrote a book about language learning and he is going to share with you all his secrets. Lukas also lived in Mexico for a while, so we have a lot to talk about. Hi, Lukas, how are you?

Lukas: Hi, Mariana, everything’s fine, and you?

Spring Spanish interview with Lukas Van Vyve

MarianaFine too, thank you, nice to have you here. Thanks for inviting me. Hey, well, I’m very happy to know when you started learning Spanish and everything you have to tell us about your story with Spanish. So, tell us first, when did you start learning it?

Lukas: So, I started 8 years ago to learn Spanish, but only for 2 years, and it was for love, that’s why it was also only for 2 years. At that time I had a Spanish girlfriend and well, we always spoke in English but with her friends and with her family I had to speak in Spanish because they didn’t speak English. And you know how it is with the in-laws, don’t you?, it’s always a little uncomfortable to talk to the in-laws, and more if you can’t even answer the questions because I couldn’t say anything in Spanish. So, that’s why I started to learn Spanish with a course, but not to a very high level. Then, well, we broke up and I didn’t have to use it anymore, I didn’t need Spanish. So, for four or five years I didn’t use it at all and I lost almost everything. But two years ago, I went to Mexico to visit some friends and then I stayed there for a long time and I picked it up again, and I started learning Spanish again, I also had a Mexican girlfriend for a while, again for love, it’s always a good motivation, isn’t it? And yes, that helped me a lot and I took it up again and then I tried to really master the language.

Mariana: Well, the fact that it is for love is always a good inspiration. But, what would you say were the challenges you faced in your learning process?

Lukas: Well, at the beginning when I started with Spanish, then 8 years ago. I only took one course, like school, right? I took a 3 hours a week course that I don’t know, they taught us a little bit of Spanish but I didn’t like it that much because it was very traditional, like: Okay, you want to learn Spanish? Here’s your course, here’s your grammar book, here you have all the words that you have to memorize for the exam. On the exam we’re going to do some grammar exercises and that was it. And yes, I learned a lot of grammar and a lot of vocabulary, but every time I wanted to speak, you know, to form sentences, I couldn’t say anything because I was always talking, thinking only about grammar fixes.

For example, I don’t know, if somebody asked me something like: “Why are you here?” and I want to say “I’m on holiday“, for example, right? As it was in my head, and it’s the same for a lot of people, I think: Okay…I, in Spanish, “yo”, right, I am, okay, so…ser or estar? To be, ser or estar, what should I use? Well, ser is more for a state, I think, something more permanent… and estar, I think is to be, but I’m not sure, but I don’t have time, okay. I am. And then “On Holiday,” how are you going to say that? On Holiday. Well, preposition, on. It can be “on” or “to” or “by” or, I don’t know, or “de”. It’s “de”, I know, now I know but. And then “Holiday”, well, okay, “Vacation“, vacation or vacation, I don’t know. There are so many things to think about, right? It’s almost impossible because well, you have to think about every word you use, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work, and that was very, very difficult for me.

Mariana: And exhausting, I guess.

Lukas: Yes, exhausting, for everybody. I think that’s the problem with grammar and vocabulary and that, well, that’s also because we don’t do it that way in Spring Spanish, right?

Mariana: Yeah, right, all the sense in the world! It also happened to me with German. I think it’s easier to learn these phrases, right? And then learn the grammar behind them, not the other way around.

Lukas: Exactly, and that’s how we do it now at Spring Spanish and it’s much easier because it doesn’t make sense that. I don’t know, how people use the language every day, right? They use it to live their life, to work, to talk, to communicate with their family, also to find love, to laugh or to make fun of someone, I don’t know, or to fight. All that, they use it for that, don’t they? They live their life through the language and it’s not just like grammar, no, it’s something that you need to communicate and so I wanted to use it, because I wanted to, I don’t know, use it in situations, right? I want to talk to someone, someone asks me “Why are you in Mexico?” I want to be able to answer, and the way it worked for me, to learn it, was to listen a lot more, right? Listen to people, see what do they say, how do they say it? What words do the natives use to say it? How do they use it to live their life? Because I want to say the same things. If you tell me, well, I ask you, Mariana: What are you doing here? You say “I’m on vacation“, what would you say?

MarianaI’m on vacation.

Lukas: Exactly, I’m on vacation, and I can’t explain it, why it’s “I’m on vacation” with grammar rules. I can’t, I don’t know why it’s like that. But if you say so, I trust you, don’t I? Teaching in Spring Spanish, you say “I’m on vacation”. I know, “Ah, that’s how I have to say it! That is what it means.” Well, “I’m on holiday”, then I’m going to use it, too. I’m on vacation. I can say it now without thinking about grammar, without thinking about all that stuff about ser or estar, why? I don’t care. I already know it’s correct because you used it. And that’s the way that we use it that also helped me to overcome those challenges and to learn Spanish.

Mariana: Very well, these are challenges that we always face when we are learning a language. But what would be interesting to know, for you in particular, what did you do step by step to overcome them?

Lukas: So as I said before, for me, the biggest difference, what helped me a lot was to start listening a lot, I wanted to observe the natives in their conversations, what do they say? Because that’s where I’m going to find the things that I want to say, in those conversations, not in grammar books, but literally in sentences of the natives. So that’s the first step. By the way, that’s called Conversation Based Chunking, those four steps that I am now going to explain. That’s what we use in Spring Spanish as well.

Then, you always have to start observing people. Observe sentences, conversations, dialogues between native speakers. You can find it in some courses, ours for example. But also in Spring Spanish, or in other channels on YouTube, also in telenovelas, in series, also in music, it doesn’t matter where, but you have to listen a lot. You have to get your brain, your ears, used to Spanish.

And that’s the first step, the second step is to identify those phrases. Like “Estoy de vacaciones,” or like, I don’t know, “Mucho gusto,” for example, “Nice to meet you” that you can’t explain with grammar all the time. but the things that you hear that you think “Ah, that’s how the natives say it.” Always try to identify those chunks, what they are called. Chunks is the linguistic name of those phrases, of word combinations. Always try to look for it, to identify them in everything you hear. And there are a lot of them, in every sentence you use there are many. “Por cierto“, for example, is “By the way” in English, three words in English, in Spanish it’s two, right? Por-Cierto.

Or “Mucho gusto” or “Estoy de vacaciones” or well, there’s a lot more. For example, if you are in a restaurant: “¿Me traes la cuenta?“, “Would you bring me the bill?” Literally, literally. All those things that you can watch and you think: Ah, I want to say it too! I see myself using it too. I see a situation where I can use it too. Those things, you have to identify, you have to pay more attention to those things.

And the third stage, the third step is to memorize them, somehow. In Spring Spanish we usually use flashcards. I don’t know how to. How do you say “flashcards” in Spanish, Mariana?

Mariana: It would be like… “Study Cards“.

Lukas: Study cards? Something like that. So, those flashcards, you know them for sure. That’s what we use, to learn those chunks. You’ve probably already seen it in our videos, there are other ways too, no matter what, but you have to memorize those chunks in some way or another. That you have it all ready in your head, ready for when you get to the fourth step, right? Which is to put it all into practice, you have to talk and you can use those same chunks that you’ve used before or you’ve heard before. If you tell me “I’m on vacation“, then I put it into practice the next time somebody asks me I’ll say “Ah, I’m on vacation” or “Can I get the check, please?” at a restaurant or that sort of thing. Or “by the way,” those things, right? Then you use it yourself, without thinking about grammar and those are the four steps you can use. And like this you can learn the language from scratch, you’re still going to need a little bit of grammar, of course, but not that much, actually, you can learn quite a lot of a language just like that.

Mariana: Hey, but well, they’re like steps in broad strokes, right? But would you have a way to describe what was your routine for learning Spanish? I guess they are like mini steps within these big steps that you just explained.

Lukas: Yes, exactly, so well, my routine for Spanish, because there were two phases, when I started 8 years ago, I didn’t do it like that, but now I do it with all the languages I learn, I do it with a fairly easy routine, to be honest. I try to do that, what I just described, I don’t know, like every day for 15 minutes, maybe. I try to do it with a dialogue, about a situation that I see myself, I think that I’m going to find myself in a situation so I look for a dialogue about that situation. I think I’m going to need something to introduce myself, or to be in a restaurant or talking about sports, or talking about anything. I try to look for dialogues. You can also find it, for example, in a course. If you are a beginner, you can always use a course, and there are many situations that you are going to need and I try to do that. I look for a dialogue, I read it, I listen to it, I try to identify those chunks that I’m going to need or that are important to me, where I think: “Ah, okay, that’s how you say it, I want to say it too, I can imagine that I’m saying it too.” Those chunks I look for, and I use flashcards, 5 or 10 minutes every day. At Spring Spanish we use an application called Brainscape. It’s pretty cool because with Brainscape you can put all those chunks inside, in flashcards and every day it teaches you 5 or 10 new flashcards that you have to memorize, but it also helps you to review the flashcards, that you have to review because it’s been like 5 days, 10 days already that you haven’t reviewed them. So that’s what I use every day, 5 or 10 minutes, and that’s the most important thing to study. And besides that I try to listen a lot, listen to everything I can find to get more accustomed to the language, so that, I don’t know, my brain absorbs the language a little bit, to improve listening comprehension, and it can be anything, I like series but also music can help you or podcasts or… what else is there, Mariana? Videos on YouTube, we have a lot of videos also in Spanish, in Spring Spanish, other channels, but that’s more like exposure. You need a lot of exposure to the language and it’s not studying. You don’t have to always listen and try to identify chunks and memorize it and write it down, you can also just listen, listen and listen, And I don’t know, in a very natural way you’re going to learn a lot about the language.

Mariana: Sure like when we were learning our mother language, we didn’t have the linguistic resources to understand what it was that we were hearing, but at some point the brain was able to kind of make sense of them, right? But well, you say that 15, 10 minutes a day is enough, maybe to people in general, that would seem too little, right? And maybe there is this idea that you need to spend 5 hours per day or at least an hour a day or something like that, but let’s say that with this routine that you have just told us, more or less, how long did it take you to get to this level of fluency that you have?

Lukas: Well, then it’s important to say that there’s a difference between studying, right? Studying for an hour every day, you can do it for a while but there are not many people who can do it for a long time because it’s a lot and it’s studying, it’s not that much fun, you know? So, what is important is that you listen a lot, so it could be that I only study 15 minutes a day but I have 45 minutes, or an hour that I’m listening to Spanish but in a more casual way, right? I’m not like, I’m not studying, I’m just watching a series, for example, but that also helps a lot and the important thing is to do it every, every, every day, it’s no good to study 2 hours a day for 2 weeks and then you don’t do anything. So that’s why it’s more important to study a little bit every day. And you can learn a lot, especially if you focus on those chunks, you will see a lot of progress from the beginning because you can already speak much more easily much more fluently from the beginning, right? But in general, if you do it like that, with 15 or 20 minutes a day, but every day, or at least 5 or 6 times a week, I would say 6 or 12 months at best to get to a high enough level so that you can talk about most of the topics. And it is not so much, really, 6 to 12 months, but you have to do it every day a little bit.

Mariana: Of course, of course, in the end it’s a lot less than it takes us to learn our mother language, which we were saying, it’s at least 12 years in which we really.

Lukas: Exactly, yes, people always think “Ah, it was easy to learn my language or my mother language in a few years and now I’m having a hard time.” But no, it’s like: You needed 12 years to get to a pretty high level with enough vocabulary to talk about a lot of topics. Now it takes you a year, you can master another language. If you take 12 years to learn Spanish, you’re going to speak it like a native, you don’t need 12 years, 2 years maybe, 1 year, I don’t know.

Mariana: Hey and well, I guess all these challenges that you are explaining somehow inspired the book you wrote.

Lukas: Yes, exactly, so it wasn’t the Spanish that inspired me that much because Spanish came much later. But well, in college I studied English and German. I studied translation and interpretation, like you, I think, don’t you, Mariana, too?

Mariana: Well, I studied applied linguistics and I work in translation.

Lukas: Yes, exactly, me too, so I learned a lot of grammar there too, like you. German was like, it wasn’t horrible, but it was very difficult to learn and memorize all the grammar but it didn’t work out. Then later I had my master’s degree in Interpreting and I couldn’t say anything in German. Every day we were like “What, I don’t know how to say it.” “Ah, I have to say something in German and I don’t know how to, it doesn’t feel good, it’s not what the natives say.” We were always like very uncertain, uncertain?

Mariana: Yes, there was a lot of uncertainty about: Is what we say correct or not? I don’t know. Yeah, there’s grammar that’s correct but they don’t say it like that.

Lukas: And that was for me like frustrating, I don’t know, you spend many years in college and you can’t say anything. And then after that I moved to Italy and there, I don’t know, like I decided to learn the language differently, to try to do it more in that way that already, I don’t know, I had that intuition that it makes a lot more sense to listen a lot more. And to think: “Okay, if I want to know how the natives say it, I have to listen to the natives and not just learn grammar.” And I tried to do that and it worked really well, I was in Italy and after 6 months, 12 months it was like that people say “Yeah, you speak very well” and also, I don’t know, I could speak with those chunks, those things that only natives say. Quite natural, right? Because I was listening and repeating almost what the natives are saying and I wasn’t just speaking very artificially, making up sentences.

Mariana: Of course.

Lukas: And after that I thought: Well, it works super well, I already had a company, like a website about learning languages, and I thought: Well, I want to think a little bit more about how that method works, and I wanted to know how it works, and there is also research, scientific research on that and yes there is, there’s a lot of chunks and a lot of people talking about it, like a lot of linguistic scientists. It’s called linguists, right, Mariana? And there is something that well, if anyone is interested, it’s called The Lexical Approach, which is a theory about language acquisition, how it works, and they talk all about chunks, so there are a lot of people who talk about that and it works well, but a lot of schools and a lot of courses don’t use it, they’re still very focused on grammar and vocabulary. So I thought: Well, I’m going to write a book, I’m going to do my own courses on that. And that’s why we also now have Spring Spanish, to teach everybody Spanish with chunks.

Mariana: Well, yes, I think it’s good for our audience to know that the method has a basis, right, let’s say, a scientific basis? and it is good that here we have, that you are the author, “El mero mero” as we say in Mexico.

Lukas: Yes, and then we also have, well, we have already done many language courses for Spanish but also German, French, Italian and yes, we already had, I don’t know, like thousands of students in those courses, 3000 I think, and it worked super well and that’s why we are also now we are very happy that we can make so many videos on YouTube too, about that, now that we have a proven method, you know?

Mariana: Yes, of course, it works. It works, it works.

Lukas: Listen, and you were talking about your experience in Italy was what it helped you a lot to rethink and finally materialize it in a book. But I would like to know in particular about Spanish, the fact that you lived in Mexico, how did it help you?

Lukas: Well, it helped me a lot, and it’s not because I was living in a Spanish-speaking country, yes of course that helps, but it’s more like, the important thing is how many opportunities you have to listen to Spanish and to practice speaking it, right? And that’s easier in the Spanish-speaking country, but you can also do it at home. If you were in your house you have the internet, you can watch, I don’t know, 4 hours of telenovelas and you’re going to hear a lot more Spanish than I heard in Mexico. It also depends on what your experience is, At the beginning I was always in Mexico, with my friends from Belgium, or foreigners. So I was always speaking English and I didn’t even hear that much Spanish. Sometimes I didn’t hear any Spanish all day, right? And sometimes when I’m abroad, yes I’m learning Spanish. I focus a lot, I’m trying to listen a lot, and I listen to podcasts and all that, and I have way more exposure to the language. But in general, of course it helped me a lot, when I had a Mexican girlfriend, every day we were speaking Spanish all day long. I learned a lot too, but it’s more because I had a Mexican girlfriend, so you have to talk about everything in Spanish, about feelings, sometimes you fight in Spanish, if you can fight in Spanish or in another language, you know you’ve mastered it, don’t you? Because it is very difficult. No, those things do help a lot, but it’s more about how much exposure you get every day and how, I don’t know, how you organize your day to have that exposure, in the country or in your country where you live. You try to find it and with the internet it’s much easier.

Mariana: And I guess that’s what you’re doing now that you’re back in Belgium, right? You keep doing things so that you don’t forget about it because, well, you’re not in a Spanish-speaking country anymore.

Lukas: No, exactly, so I don’t have many opportunities to speak, for now, but I don’t speak so much Spanish now, but I try to, first we do the Spring Spanish videos, that we prepare everything, so that’s my practice in Spanish every day. And I also try to watch a lot of series, that’s what I do now to keep up my SpanishI love telenovelas, not always because of the plot, but because it’s good, because there are a lot of episodes, right? In telenovelas there are always 5 seasons and sometimes 20 or 30 episodes, so you can watch an episode every day for a long time. It can be part of your routine, if you have a series that is only 5, 6 or 10 episodes, after an hour you can’t continue, but with telenovelas you can, there is something you can watch or do every day. It’s almost a habit, that’s good, and that’s why we are also doing it, we are preparing a Spanish course which is also a telenovela. We don’t have it yet but we are going to have it soon for all Spring Spanish students. Yes, wait for it!

Mariana: Well, very good, I hope that our audience will be there interested about the topic of the telenovela in Spring Spanish. And to conclude, I don’t know if you have any advice for our audience, either for beginners or for people who are at the intermediate or advanced level, What advice would you give them to continue with a successful learning process?

Lukas: Well I have 2 pieces of advice, the first piece of advice, which is very important: It doesn’t matter what level you have but you have to listen a lot. Yes, if you like grammar then learn all the grammar, but you have to listen as much as you can to native speakers, conversations, everything you can find, you have to listen to the language. That way your brain will get used to it, you will learn a lot, you’re going to understand how people think, you’re going to learn how they speak, how they express themselves with those phrases, what words they use, that’s super important and there’s no other way to find it or learn it, you can’t learn that from grammar alone, so that’s the most important thing, you have to listen a lot.

The second tip, which is a little bit more specific is: Try to make a list, create a list of all the situations in which you see yourself using Spanish. Then you think, “I’m learning Spanish, why?” “I’m going to move” or “I’m going to travel”, so I’m going to need it at the airport, or maybe at customs, I’m going to need it at the hotel, at a restaurant, I’m going to need it if you have a relationship with a Spanish-speaking person. you’re going to need it to talk about feelings, or with in-laws or at family dinners. If you are learning Spanish for your job, well, you’re going to need vocabulary or chunks of it for those situations in your job. So, that’s what you’re going to need, and it’s not like: “Ah, now I’m going to learn Spanish, now I’ve got to learn all the vocabulary and I have to be able to speak or be able to speak in all the situations in Spanish.” No, it’s not important. You don’t have to learn how to talk to a doctor about, I don’t know, a super difficult procedure for something with the brain. You can’t even do it in your native language, so you don’t need to. Yeah and that’s a really weird thing I think, when you think: Okay, I’m going to learn a language. You think: Now I have to know everything. No, just the things that are important to you, so try to make a list and try to focus on those things. If you are going to travel, well, start with situations about traveling and that will help you a lot and you don’t need to know everything about everything else. So that’s always good, a good way to be very disciplined and think about the things that are important to you. You’re going to see a lot more progress that way.

Mariana: And it’s important what you say because you have like that control over your own process, because of course, in the books, in the courses, there are situations and they teach you phrases that are used in those situations. But maybe these are situations in which you are never going to be in or in which you can’t even imagine, because you are not interested in them or because no, it will never happen.

Lukas: Yes, it gives much more satisfaction, doesn’t it? So if I think “I’m on vacation” and I go on vacation, it’s like: Sure, I’m going to use it! I can already see myself telling the waiter at the restaurant in Cancún or wherever, right? That gives a lot more satisfaction.

Mariana: Sure! Excellent. Well, thank you very much for this talk, Lukas, it was very interesting to know all your secrets and your process of learning Spanish and it will surely be of great inspiration to the people who listen to us. Because even if they are just starting, they can see that with this perseverance that you talk about even if it is only 15 or 10 minutes a day, they can reach a level of fluency in a very short time.

Lukas: That’s right, I hope it will help a lot of people.

Mariana: Yes, I’m sure it will! And well, stay tuned for the telenovela!

Lukas: That’s right. Well, goodbye!

Mariana: Goodbye, Lukas, thank you!

Lukas: Bye!

Mariana: What did you think? Impressive, wasn’t it? Well, I’m sure you’ll love to hear from Gabriel too, the other co-founder of Spring Spanish, he also speaks Spanish and if you want to know how he learned it? And what advice does he has for you? Watch this video. Like this one, it’s completely in Spanish.

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