How Did I Learn Spanish (And How Can You)?Jan 12, 2020
I totally understand how you feel. You want to learn Spanish. Or improve your Spanish. But learning and studying a language is hard. And daunting. Where do you start? Are you even capable?
First of all, yes you are capable. The fact that you’re reading this blog show’s you’re a very smart person.
But. And there is always a but. I faced this same dilemma when I met my wife Yoly, and we decided to move to Spain from my home country of New Zealand. I had never studied Spanish before. And had zero knowledge of the language.
But our plan was to move to Spain within a year or so. So I HAD TO learn Spanish – otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with her mother, her brother or, well, anyone!
So how did I learn Spanish? And what are my tips for learning Spanish? And what tools do I recommend?
Yoly and I made the video below with our tips and experiences. And also I’ve written this blog post to provide a little more information, as well as links to all the tools I recommend.
Note: Some of the links below are affiliated, which means that at no extra cost to you, you are helping to support the free content I provide on Spain Revealed. I only recommend tools and services I use and/or are recommended to be my trusted sources. Your support is very much appreciated. Gracias!
Tip 1: Find Someone To Talk To
This is really important.
You need to start practicing speaking with someone in Spanish as soon as possible. Don’t try and get to a certain level before you find a conversation partner. Speaking to someone bring the language to life, and motivates you. And also create some accountability given you need to get better to be able to communicate with the person.
When Yoly and I decided to move to Spain, we immediately started speaking in Spanish as much as possible.
Keep in mind, my Spanish was almost non existent that this point. So it was very simple stuff. But this really helped me get a head start, and start hearing the language in action. It also helped bring it alive.
Where Can You Find Someone To Talk To?
Of course, not everyone marries a native Spanish speaker (thought it’s always an option!) So what are the other options for starting to speak Spanish.
Through Conversation Exchange you can find people who want to do language exchanges (in Spanish these are called intercambios). That means you find a native Spanish speaker who wants to also learn English and you have conversations over Skype where you speak English half the time, and they speak Spanish half the time. The upside? It’s free. The downside? It’s a much slower way to learn. And they’re not necessarily professional language teachers.
I’ve had a lot of readers and YouTube viewers tell me they get a lot of value out of paid conversation classes over Skype. There are A LOT of companies that offer conversation classes. To help narrow them down for you, I surveyed my audience to see which companies people found most helpful.
The two most recommended were italki and LiveLingua. Both have similarities and differences. LiveLingua pairs you with actual professional teachers, and offers a free trial class. While with Italki you can browse different teachers and their profiles (more like a marketplace) as well as watch an introductory video for each one before you choose who to select (and of course you can always change teacher).
Tip 2: Know What Kind Of Language Learner You Are
This is an important one and took me a while to realise. You have to figure out what type of language learner you are. What I mean by this is whether you’re a visual learner or auditory learner.
Let me explain.
Only when I read a new Spanish word do I feel like I truly grasp and learn it. I need to see the letters and the spelling to really get it engrained into my memory. However, when I hear a Spanish word, while it helps me to learn it, I don’t truly grasp it. It doesn’t get engrained into my memory in the same way.
This is because I’m a visual learner.
By realising this, I quickly learned that I need to be proactive about ensuring reading is a big part of my Spanish learning system.
So now I’m very conscious of including lots of Spanish reading into my learning. For example, I try to make sure that every second book I read is in Spanish (I don’t always succeed!).
How do you figure out what kind of language learner you are? Just be conscious of whether hearing or reading a word really helps the word stick in your mind – that’s all!
Pro Tip: When I’m choosing Spanish books to read, I make sure to pick titles that will be easygoing and enjoyable for me to read. Reading in a foreign language is hard enough, so make sure you’re choosing material that’s engaging for you. For example, I love murder mystery and thriller books. So I like to read novels in Spanish by the crime drama author author Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (it helps that his main character the private detective Pepe Carvalho loves to eat and drink – so that part also connects with my interest in food)
Tip 3: Make your learning experience non-academic
If you’re like me, it’s been a fair few years since you sat in a classroom. And you don’t want to go back.
That’s why you need to make your Spanish learning experience as non-academic and fun as possible.
So I try and work Spanish into my everyday life.
Obviously I speak to Yoly in Spanish (though sometimes she wants to speak English so she doesn’t loose her English – so there’s a bit of a tug of war here!). But when we watch series or movies on Netflix in Spanish, I make sure the subtitles are on (it just helps reinforce the language). I listen to the news in Spanish. I read the news in Spanish. And I listen to music in Spanish (if you feel like a challenge, the lyrics in flamenco are really hard to understand!).
Coffee Break Spanish Has Excellent ‘Non-Academic’ Courses
There’s on online learning platform that I’m using a lot and think is fantastic. It’s called Coffee Break Spanish and it was recommended to me by a few YouTube viewers. I think it’s a highly effective learning tool for people who don’t want to take an overly academic approach to learning Spanish, and want it to fit into their everyday life.
So, how does it work?
It’s a series of courses going from beginner right up to advanced built around engaging, interesting audios designed for your level. Each audio has different sections, including conversation, stories with recurring characters and moments in English to ensure you’re understanding. And each story revolves around a practical language learning point – so it’s not just audio for audio’s sake.. And then each audio also comes with a transcript, and bonus learning material.
I really like how easy it is to integrate Coffee Break Spanish into daily life. I listen to the audios while I’m jogging or doing the dishes. And then I listen to them again while following along with the transcript. I then also work through the helpful bonus audio that tests your comprehension. And for some of the courses there are also videos.
Plus, I like how they feature Spanish from a variety of Spanish-speaking countries, so you get exposed to different accents. Most of the language is Spain Spanish though.
It’s a paid course, but has been really beneficial for my Spanish learning.
Tip 4: Always Carry a Dictionary
This one may seem obvious, but it’s important.
Once upon a time you had to carry an actual dictionary with you, to check words you didn’t understand or prepare for conversations that might be outside your comfort zone.
But now of course there are lots of dictionary apps. And I have had one particular (free) app on my phone for the last 3 years, and use it often.
It’s called SpanishDict (kind of a crappy name, but anyway). It’s totally free, and I use it to check words I don’t understand while I’m reading, or I also check it when I’m about to have a conversation with someone in Spanish but there’s a word that I don’t know that I know I will need to use.
And it’s so much more than just a dictionary.
It also has audios for how to pronounce each word, videos for certain, brief lessons that cover commonly asked grammar questions (such as when to use “soy” or “estoy”, or the difference between “por” and “para”). Plus, it has a word of the day that sends a notification to your phone each morning with a new word. A great way to learn at least one new word a day. Also, the daily words are thematic given the time of year – the other day I learned “copo de nieve” or snowflake. Appropriate for winter and Christmas (when I’m writing this.)
Tip 5: Learn the 100 most common words
I read about this the other day and it seems like a logical idea.
The theory is that you should make sure you learn the 100 most common words in a language to get a really good base. Makes total sense.
In the end a lot of the 100 most common words in Spanish are words like “el”, “la”, “con”, “por”. So there are no earth shattering words here, but it wouldn’t hurt to make sure you have a good grounding in all these words and how they’re used early on in your Spanish journey. In the end, these words are the foundation of the language.
Tip 6: Immerse yourself as soon as you can
I think this is perhaps the most important one if you’re serious about learning a language.
When Yoly and I were in New Zealand and I was starting to learn Spanish, the language felt very theoretical. Like something you study.
But once we moved to Spain (and even when we visited), suddenly the language and the culture came alive. Speaking Spanish in New Zealand is one thing, but walking into a tapas bar in Madrid and trying to order a beer is another!
You start to understand the language as an expression of culture. And everything just starts to click! Even when you go back to studying Spanish in your own country.
Below is a video where Yoly and I teach you some of the key Spanish words and phrases you need to know to order in a Spanish tapas bar or restaurant.
Any Local Spanish MeetUps?
But you don’t need to travel to a Spanish speaking country to immerse yourself in Spanish. What about hanging out with other native speakers in your own country (is there a Meetup for lovers of Spanish culture in your area?).
When I was learning French I would go to the Alliance Française for French-language breakfasts. It was a mix of native French speakers and learners. Why not check out if the Cervantes Institute has any experiences in your area./
I think also immersing yourself in the culture and visiting the country helps keep your enthusiasm for learning the language up. Because that’s the point of language right? To be able to speak to other people who speak that language.
Tip 7: Get Uncomfortable
So you followed tip number 6 and you’ve decided to immerse yourself by travelling to Spain. Or Mexico. Or Colombia. Wherever.
At this point it’s so easy to chicken out and not speak to anyone in Spanish in that Spanish speaking country. Especially in a place like Madrid or Barcelona where a lot of people in hotels and restaurants and tapas bars have enough English for you to get by in English.
But be brave! Get uncomfortable. It’s the only way to truly learn Spanish.
Yes, you will make mistakes. You will feel silly (I still do often when I speak Spanish!). But put yourself in the listener’s shoes. When a non native speaker is trying to talk to you in English, you never think they’re silly. You think they’re brave and outgoing and what they’re trying to do is admirable. And you expect them to make mistakes!
Let me tell you a story. When I first met Yoly’s mother back in 2011 it was her birthday. So I wanted to say “feliz cumpleaños” to her. As Yoly and I rode the bus to their apartment I practiced and practiced what I would say (I had practically zero Spanish at this point). And finally when the moment came I said “feliz cumpleano” instead. What does that mean? Well, nothing really. But “años” means years, while “ano” means, well, anus.
But who cares?! We all laughed. I felt a bit silly. And the next time I said “feliz cumpleaños” to someone, I got it right.
So if you’re travelling in a Spanish speaking country, try to order in Spanish, talk to the hotel clerk in Spanish. Head to the local market. Yes, sometimes you’ll get it wrong or they won’t understand. And sometimes they’ll reply in English. But you need to get your feet wet!
So remember, discomfort is all part and parcel of learning and using a language. If you stay in your safe zone, you’ll never get anywhere.
Tip 8: Commit and Keep Going
I’m not going to lie to you. It’s not going to be easy to learn Spanish. Learning a language is hard.
BUT. And yes, there’s a but. You can do it.
In my Spanish learning language journey, I’ve gone through phases where I’ve really felt on top of the language. And then two weeks later I’ve felt like a complete idiot. Why? Because the more you learn, the more complex the sentences you try and say, and so the harder it feels. Eight years ago saying “feliz cumpleaños” was hard. Now that’s – thankfully – easy. But my new challenge is being sure to use the subjunctive tense correctly (I swing between underusing it and overusing it, something that’s apparently quite typical).
And yes, your brain will hurt sometimes.
When I first met Yoly’s dad and brother, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Her brother uses a lot of slang, and her dad uses certain words that aren’t very common (such as “gaucho” for man). So after sitting at the lunch table for a couple of hours, I would be exhausted. Because my brain was working so hard to understand what everyone was saying.
But hey, at least I slept well that night!
So just know that it’s not supposed to be easy. But learning Spanish is so rewarding. As they say, 437 million people can’t be wrong.
Remember, learning a language isn’t easy for anyone. But hopefully these tips and tools will really help you learn Spanish.
I really do encourage you to start your Spanish learning journey if you’re curious. Worst case scenario? You decide it’s not for you and you stop.
Best case scenario? The whole Spanish speaking world and the various Spanish speaking cultures open up to you. You meet some great people. You have some amazing experiences.
All The Courses & Tools Mentioned Above
These are all the tools I mention and recommend to help you learn Spanish:
2. For really well designed Spanish courses with great audios and texts (that don’t feel academic), check out Coffee Break Spanish.
3. For free language exchanges with native Spanish speakers, check out Conversation Exchange.
¡Suerte! And let me know how you’re going in the comments below!