FOREWORD: This post is for those who asked for advice about how to learn Spanish. I’ve tried to outline a Spanish learning strategy that does not involve classroom time since many people’s work schedules do not allow it. The following advice worked when I was learning Spanish and continues to work as I study Portuguese, but it’s not the end all knowledge on language learning. Use these tips, but stay alert to what works for you.
I began my Spanish studies with university classes and ended with a Spanish major. I’m qualified to be a high school Spanish teacher, have worked as a contract translator (written), medical interpreter (spoken), and director of study abroad students in Costa Rica where I dealt constantly with a variety of problems in Spanish, including police reports and academic issues. I mention my past experience partly to prove my qualifications, but moreso to emphasize that I know both sides of the argument: formal vs. informal language study. Even though I took formal classes I do NOT believe you need to pay expensive tuition to become fluent in Spanish. Below are several alternatives that are as effective and more interesting than hours in a classroom.
Language learning is multifaceted. Following one strategy alone will guarantee failure. You must approach Spanish the way a baby observes, listens, speaks, and absorbs a language in its formative years. Many of the university classmates who completed my same Spanish degree couldn’t maintain a fluid conversation with a native Spanish-speaker upon receiving their diploma. This isn’t because the university language learning system doesn’t work—these classmates simply thought a few hours of classroom time a week was enough. They mistook a four-year degree for four years of contact with the Spanish language. They failed because they didn’t immerse themselves completely the way I’m urging you now if want to participate in a Spanish-speaking environment. Participation is a key element in this plan.
I’m now applying the same strategies I used to learn Spanish to learn Portuguese—with a success rate I hope to prove to you once I arrive to Brazil.
NOTE: this advice was written for U.S. readers who want to learn Spanish. If you are in another country or want to learn a language other than Spanish, the same advice can be used by swapping country/language names when applicable.
1. Identify Your Motive: You won’t follow through with your Spanish studies if you have no clear reason for wanting to learn it. Think about your motive. Identify it. Write it down in a clear, simple sentence. Post it on the fridge, on the calendar, anywhere you’ll be constantly reminded of your goal. If your goal is to have a Spanish-speaking girlfriend/boyfriend salsa teacher, I salute you. If your goal is to be the future United States ambassador in Mexico, then clean up that corruption. Be specific. I would love to learn Mandarin, but since I can’t honestly identify a personal motive my chances of success are slim. You must be honest with yourself: do you just like the idea of knowing Spanish or are you willing to dedicate time and effort to learn it?
SUMMARY: Write down your motive and constantly remind yourself of it. (Time needed: 5 minutes)
2. Assess Your Language Level: This important step will determine how intensely you approach my following advice. Be honest about your current Spanish knowledge. Doing too much, too soon is frustrating. Like quitting smoking cold turkey, it rarely gets results. Oppositely, doing too little will bore you away from your ultimate goal. How do you assess your language level? By being honest with yourself when beginning your studies, then paying attention to your progress. If I recommend listening to music in Spanish but if you can’t understand a word of the hip hop artist’s fast-flowing philosophical rap with an Andalusian accent, then you must recognize that perhaps slower, simpler pop music or even children’s songs would be more appropriate music for the time being. The same applies to the books, movies, and conversation partners I’ll recommend later. I listened to mind-numbing Cristina Aguilera lyrics and read Disney children’s books when I began my Spanish studies. I’m not ashamed—I now speak fluently.
SUMMARY: Be honest about your language level and follow the next steps accordingly. (Time needed: 5 minutes)
3. Keep It Simple: Have you noticed mens’ fitness magazines have an average of four new abdominal exercises each month? Do you honestly believe sculpting a six-pack is as complicated as continually rotating 48 different exercises yearly? Just as fitness is much simpler than we make it, so is learning Spanish. Don’t waste your time with every new gimmick. I’ve outlined tried-and-true, straight-forward advice below. Focus on the basics. Focus on deconstructing the Spanish language first.
SUMMARY: Don’t complicate things—just follow the steps below. (Time needed: 0 minutes)
4. Deconstruct the Language: Spanish can be approached using a scientific method. That is to say, the Spanish language is rule based. Once the rules are learned, the rest comes easy. Once you understand the underlining principles your progress will speed up considerably. For me the Spanish language code revealed itself through the 501 Spanish Verbs Book—by far the most important tool I’ve come across for language learning.
A. Buy the 501 Spanish Verbs Book. Read the introduction carefully until you generally grasp Spanish verb conjugation. The present, past, and future are expressed quite differently in Spanish than in English. This book will demystify verb conjugations, explain consonant and vowel pronunciation, and provide a solid base from which to build your understanding. Don’t be scared away by the academic layout of the book. With study it will begin to make sense.
(Time needed: use the 501 Spanish Verbs Book as a continuous reference)
B. Compare the following sentence constructions until you begin to see patterns. They will make Spanish grammar, in particular verb conjugations, much easier to understand as you read the 501 Spanish Verbs Book. Do not worry if you don’t understand the sentences right away. Come back to these sentence constructions throughout your studies until they make perfect sense. For the reasoning behind this method feel free to read Tim Ferris’ informative article.
(Time needed: continuous study until learned)
The apple is red.
La manzana es roja.
It is John’s apple.
La manzana es de John.
I give John the apple.
Yo le doy la manzana a John.
We give him the apple.
Nosotros le damos la mananza a él.
He gives it to John.
Él la da a John.
She gives it to him.
Ella se la da a él.
C. Using the 501 Verb Book study the following power verbs until their present tense conjugations make sense: dar, necesitar, querer, gustar, poder, tener, estar, ser. The ‘apple’ sentence structures will make more sense after studying these eight verbs. Study these verbs as you continue with the rest of my advice.
(Time needed: continuous study of eight verbs until learned)
D. After having learned the present tense conjugations of the above eight power verbs use the 501 Spanish Verbs Book progress through the provided tests as indicated in the instructions. You will naturally move on to ‘past tenses,’ ‘future tenses,’ etc. by following the book’s suggested plan. Complete these tests as you continue with the rest of my advice.
(Time needed: use 501 Spanish Verbs Book as a continuous reference; each test takes approximately 10 minutes)
E. Buy The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice workbook. Preferably before bed each night when long-term memory is significantly increased complete the exercises as indicated until you’ve finished the entire workbook. After using many bad textbooks, I’ve researched this workbook as top-recommended by professors and learners alike.
(Time needed: approximately 30 minutes daily)
5. Immerse Yourself in Sounds: As you’re learning or building upon your Spanish knowledge with the advice in step #4 you must constantly hear it. This should be enjoyable. Listen to music and movies that interest you. This is extremely important in order to stay focused on your studies.
A. Listen to Music: Whether you download legally with the iTunes Store, illegally using torrents, pay a small monthly fee to online radios such as Lastfm.com or Pandora.com, or purchase traditional compact discs, not a day should go by in which you don’t listen to music in Spanish. At first you may not understand the songs. Print off the lyrics to your favorites using Songlyrics.com. Read along as you listen. Soon you’ll understand and memorize these songs—while building vocabulary in an enjoyable way.
(Time needed: listen daily as much as possible)
B. Watch Movies: Watch your favorite DVDS—those you have memorized by heart—with Spanish audio. When watching movies with friends and family who cannot be bothered with mix-matched lips, politely ask to add subtitles. Always use Spanish subtitles with movies in English. Also, there is a whole world of Latin American and Spanish (from Spain) cinema waiting to be discovered. Use the Listmania lists on Amazon.com to find movies from Spanish-speaking countries you’re interested in. Watch at least three movies per week in Spanish. Rent them for free at your local library, download them at (Scrapetorrent.com), stream them free on the Arentine site Cuevana, or take advantage of the considerable Spanish-language selection by streaming through U.S. site Netflix for US$8 per month. Use subtitles on the Spanish-spoken movies if you don’t understand. Rewind certain scenes to better understand the Spanish if necessary.
(Time needed: approximately 4.5 hours weekly)
C. Talk to Yourself: Pimsleur audio language lessons use repetitive dialogue that builds in difficulty on the previous lesson. In most instances, you answer a question the narrator asks, as if you are having a conversation with a Spanish-speaker. These lessons are engaging and fun (for short periods). Upload them to your iPod and complete one 30-minute audio language lesson daily, at the park, over your lunch break, in the car, wherever you can. Ethics aside, download the torrents on websites such as Scrapetorrent.com or purchase them at the iTunes Store.
(Time needed: 30 minutes daily)
6. Immerse Yourself in the Written Word: The most effective way to approach Spanish is as a code that can be broken. Since codes are based on rules and logic, they can be deciphered. Reading is key to understanding this code. With practice, you won’t even see the Matrix anymore.
A. Buy two of the same book—one in Spanish, one in English. The book’s topic should be something you’re passionate about in order to maintain focus. Before bed each night when long-term memory storage is significantly increased, read ONE PAGE in English, then read the SAME PAGE in Spanish. Do not use a dictionary. Compare the same page in English when you encounter a word or phrase you don’t understand. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything. Progress to two pages, then three, etc, etc. As you progress you’ll refer less and less to the English translation, grammar understanding will greatly increase, and soon you’ll read entire chapters each night instead of just one page.
(Time needed: 20 minutes daily)
B. Buy the Latin American Spanish Lonely Planet pocket phrasebook (Latin American Spanish is more applicable to the Spanish in the United States). Bring it everywhere. Read it on the bus, when stuck in traffic, in a restaurant, over your lunch hour—anywhere you have a spare moment. Read the section that applies to your current situation (e.g. the “Transportation” section when stuck in traffic or the “Eating Out” section when in a restaurant). This helps you relate to the subject matter, thus increasing long-term retention of the material learned.
(Time needed: minutes daily; whenever possible)
7. Talk to Others: This is the most important step toward learning Spanish. It is the reason for your studies. You must not be afraid to practice your Spanish with native speakers. You’ll never learn if you never speak. In my experience Spanish-speakers are friendly and patient with those who want to learn their language, unlike native English-speakers who tend to be hostile and impatient with those who communicate with them in less than perfect English.
A. Become a regular at a local sit-down restaurant/bar where the staff speaks Spanish. Mexican establishments are the most common, but there is also Latin American/Spanish cuisine available. If costs are an issue, purchase just a drink or appetizers. Go the same days, at the same hour, to develop a relationship with the staff. Get to know the waiter/waitress. Introduce yourself to everyone you meet with a handshake. If the staff addresses you in English, kindly explain you want to practice Spanish. They’ll be thrilled you have an interest in their language. If they continue to speak English despite your continued requests for Spanish, tell them you’re a customer there specifically because you want speak Spanish and will take your business elsewhere if not addressed in Spanish. If they continue to speak English with you, then find a new establishment.
(Time needed: 3 hours weekly; more if possible)
B. OPTIONAL: Use Couchsurfing’s local groups, Meetup.com’s Spanish groups, and your town’s university language department to find a native Spanish-speaker with whom to practice Spanish. An e-mail or inquiry can lead to a regular Spanish partner. I don’t recommend the Meetup.com Spanish group meetings because you’ll surround yourself with those who are not fluent in the language, thus slowing your progress. Stick to one-to-one meet-ups. Keep in mind these encounters will likely be a language exchange, meaning you will also help the individual with their English, say 45 minutes of each language twice weekly. Make sure English does not sneak into your Spanish conversation time. These meet-ups can be the best opportunities for gaining Spanish fluency. However, I’ve listed it as optional because it can be difficult to coordinate schedules. The key to success with your Spanish-speaking language partner will be setting a practice time and sticking to it no matter what, as if it were a required course.
(Time needed: hours weekly; whenever possible)
8. Go Native: By the time you reach this final step you’ll know whether you want to follow this last piece of advice or give up altogether on Spanish. You must visit a Spanish-speaking country. It is essential you dedicate money and time to visit a new country. Whether a short vacation or an extended time abroad, the key will be to speak Spanish and avoid English during this time. The simple fact that you visit a Spanish-speaking country is more important than the length of time spent in-country. Your Spanish will improve dramatically with even a short immersion stint, but this first trip’s importance goes beyond perfecting your accent: it will give meaning to all your study efforts. Once you return from said Spanish-speaking country, that once tedious workbook grammar exercise suddenly becomes a gateway to a new world. Your studies will become invigorated with renewed purpose. You’ll finally understand how important Spanish is in the United States. You’ll realize the opportunities available to a bilingual professional. You’ll become more aware and involved in Latin culture in the United States. You’ll want to make Spanish-speaking friends (and girlfriends/boyfriends). You’ll want to continue to travel to other Spanish-speaking countries whenever possible—where your Spanish will then improve exponentially. All these things that happen after your first visit to a Spanish-speaking country will naturally keep you on track toward fluency. Spanish will cease to be just an abstract goal, but an important part of your everyday life.
(Time needed: your allotted vacation time; more if possible)
TIME NEEDED BREAKDOWN
TIME NEEDED WEEKLY: 16 hours
TIME NEEDED DAILY: 2 hours 30 minutes
MONTHS OF PLAN: approximately 3
The above time estimates do not include the initial eight verb conjugation studies, the minutes spent reading the Latin American phrase book during down times, your constant musical immersion in Spanish, or the very important vacation to one of many beautifully diverse Spanish-speaking countries.
It does however include three 1.5 hour movies and three one hour visits to your Spanish-speaking establishment of choice per week, both of which are fun activities. It’s important to balance the book studies with these more active, engaging Spanish activities in order to maintain interest in your ultimate goal.
After three months many of your less engaging book studies will taper off. You’ll have completed the grammar workbook. Your enjoyable Pimsleur audio lessons will have advanced to a surprising level and ended almost too soon. Perhaps you will have finished your first book entirely in Spanish (with the help of your English edition).
At this point you’ll be free to focus entirely on fun “studies” such as movies, music, conversation, vocabulary building, and more interesting literature because you—hard to believe it now—will have all the base knowledge necessary to engage the Spanish-speaking world. More importantly, you’ll have all the tools to engage actual Spanish-speakers. And that’s the whole point.
CONCLUSION: When trying to describe my personal strategy for learning Spanish with step-by-step instructions, I became aware that many fail to learn Spanish because they lack motivation. People don’t fail because Spanish’s complexity is too difficult or the pronunciation is too foreign from that in English. People fail to learn Spanish because they don’t connect to the language on a personal level, cannot find motivation to study, and therefore convince themselves fluency is an impossible goal.
Due to Spanish’s similarity to English it’s an extremely learnable language. I wouldn’t have taken the time to write this post if I didn’t believe it could be successfully used by those willing to dedicate themselves fully to the language.
Now that you know it will take time, effort, and even financial resources to buy books, chat up Spanish-speaking restaurant staff, and eventually vacation abroad, I would like to conclude with one last thought: do NOT begin your path toward Spanish fluency with a negative attitude. You’re about to work toward a goal that is entirely within your reach, that is fun once you break the initial code, that will expose you to an undiscovered world that you’ve been deaf to until now, one populated by over 330 million vibrant and culturally different speakers in 23 countries worldwide. Is one of them your future spouse? Is one of them a future business partner? Anything is possible.
The United States is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world with a steadily growing 22,500,000+ speakers. Make your life more interesting by talking to them. Not tomorrow, today.