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When I first moved to Spain I thought that I would have no problems learning Spanish. My favourite subject at school was French which I studied until I was 18, and I also speak some Italian, so I thought this would give me an advantage as they’re all Romance languages.

Not really the case at all! While it has been a help at times, as some Spanish words are similar to either French or Italian (sometimes both), in other instances it’s been nothing but a hindrance. I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve known the French and Italian words so thought I could guess the Spanish only to find that it’s totally different.

Just look at the verbs to eat – manger (French) and mangiare (Italian) but comer (Spanish) – to see what I mean.

After almost four years living in Spain I am quite embarrassed as to how little progress I’ve made in learning Spanish. However, I’m getting there slowly but surely so thought I would share the best ways I’ve found of learning Spanish if you want to get beyond ‘dos cervezas por favor’.

Download an app

Language learning apps are a popular way to pick up the basics of any new language.

The first one I downloaded was Duolingo and, although I was progressing through it rapidly, there are limitations to it. For starters, it’s primarily stand alone words that you learn at the beginning and once you do progress to sentences they tend to be quite random based on the words you’ve learnt and not ones that you’re likely to use on a day to day basis.

Babbel is another good app. Unlike Duolingo, you do have to pay for anything beyond the basics, but there are often good offers to be had. Learning Spanish with Babbel is much more based on real life conversations that you’re likely to have and each lesson is short so there’s no chance of getting too overwhelmed.

The downside to learning Spanish through an app is that it lacks the human element – repeating words and phrases back to a computer is never going to be as helpful as learning from an actual person, particularly when it comes to getting the pronunciation right.

However, if apps are used alongside another form of learning then they’re certainly worth it if only in terms of increasing your vocabulary.

Take a language course

I took an intensive beginner’s course when I arrived in Spain as I knew I wouldn’t progress far enough solely using apps, and studying in a small group of others at the same level was a great way to properly get to grips with the basics.

Some language courses place a lot of emphasis on learning the grammar which doesn’t suit everybody. Personally, that was always one of the things I loved about my French lessons at school but now it’s more important that I get the conversational basics right so, for that reason, I now go to a conversational class each week where the emphasis is on being able to function in normal everyday situations rather than on learning all the associated grammar. I’ll worry about the grammar later once I’ve reached a higher level.

One of the positives of attending a class is that it helps to get your pronunciation right which is really important in Spanish when the absence (or otherwise) of a tilde over the letter ‘n’ can make a huge difference in the meaning of a word!

Listen to podcasts

Listening to a Spanish conversation can feel overwhelming at first with everyone seeming to talk nineteen to the dozen and, when you’re very much at the beginner stage, you do wonder if you’ll ever manage to understand what’s going on or even be able to contribute.

Podcasts are useful here as they get you used to hearing real spoken Spanish in action. They’re a great resource as, not only can you find one tailored to the level you’re learning at, but you also get used to the speed of speech as well as the intonations and the pronunciation.

Of course, the best thing about a podcast is that you can listen to it anywhere whenever you have some free time. If you’ve got a busy schedule and can’t commit to attending classes at a specific time each week, you can at least listen on your way to and from work or in the gym.

Don’t stop talking

Once you’ve mastered the basics remember that if you don’t use it, you lose it. So find any opportunity to speak it – the more you practice, the better you get.

Bars and restaurants are the best places to start, as are shops and local markets, as these are the places you’re more likely to spend time. It’s also a more relaxing atmosphere as, trust me, having that first conversation in another language is stressful so it makes sense to do it ordering food than trying to negotiate Spanish bureaucracy.

When I’m in a new situation I always rehearse what I’m planning to say and hope that the person I’m speaking to a) understands me and b) doesn’t talk back too rapidly.

‘Mas despacio por favor’ (‘slower please’) is a very handy phrase to have for your first forays into actual interactions with others!

I still have frequent mental blocks but I do surprise myself more and more with how much I can understand on a day to day basis.

If all else fails there’s Google Translate to fall back on but it does have its limitations so isn’t really to be relied on unless it’s an emergency.

Immerse yourself

Watch TV, listen to music, or read a book or newspaper.

It’s best to resist the temptation to fall back on your favourite shows and try instead to watch genuine Spanish programmes and use the subtitles (until you don’t need to!). If you do decide to watch English programmes that have been dubbed into Spanish it’s worth remembering that some words and phrases don’t translate well between the two languages, not to mention how strange it can be to hear your favourite characters with another person’s voice.

Reading in Spanish might seem daunting at first so try it online. Find a news site and see how much you can understand. Then click the translate button in your toolbar and see how you got on.

Don’t worry if it seems as though you’re not making much progress. Learning another language, especially as an adult, isn’t a quick fix. You won’t be fluent overnight but don’t worry about it. If you’re doing something most days to achieve your goal then you’ll eventually be having conversations so forget spending hours hunched over books and go for little and often. Make your learning bitesize (like tapas!).

Useful Resources

These are all the resources that I use in my quest to learn Spanish.

Apps

Duolingo

Babbel

Books

AULA Internacional 1

This was the textbook from my intensive course so is probably most suitable for if you’re having some form of tuition rather than trying to learn yourself.

15 Minute Spanish

This book has got 12 themed chapters with each chapter made up of five lessons (so in theory you could study Monday to Friday and complete one chapter per week). It has vocabulary, handy phrases, and a practice section in each lesson plus conversation tips.

Spanish Phrasebook and Dictionary

This Lonely Planet phrasebook is so handy as it’s small enough to carry around with you to help if you get stuck and covers a whole range of situations you’re likely to encounter as a learner.

Learn Spanish Quickly and Easily

Darran’s a friend of mine and wrote his book based on years of experience in how the mind works when you learn, and how you can harness these ‘learning to learn’ techniques to increase your learning capacity.

Podcasts

Coffee Break Spanish

Websites

These two websites were recommended by my first Spanish teacher and, although I don’t use them religiously, they’re handy to dip into.

Practica Espanol

Habla Cultura

What has been your experience with learning Spanish? If you’ve got any handy tips you’d like to share please leave a comment below as I’d love to hear what has worked for you.

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There are lots of ways of learning Spanish and, since moving to Spain, it feels like I've tried them all. Here are some of my favourites.

11 Comments

  1. I had never used podcasts to learn a language before but I’m doing it now for Portuguese. I’m loving it! It took a while at 1st to find the right one for my level (and to swap when I got better) but it works very well! I make sure I listen to each episode at least twice and also write down the words & expressions I want to remember.

  2. I agree that the similarities between the Latin languages can be a hindrance. I constantly mixed up ‘y’ (‘and’ in Spanish) and ‘y’ (‘there’ in French) between the two languages, to the consternation of tutors. Then there are the ‘false friends’ too, like ’embarazada’ (pregnant, not embarrassed, which can lead to some hilarious misunderstandings 🙂 )

  3. I totally agree with you on your methods. They speak very fast in Andalusia, so it takes time to get used to it! Talking is the only way forward!

  4. What a great article! I would be so confused at the Latin languages, which is why I took Sign Language in college. However, now I want to learn Spanish, Japanese and Russian to start.

  5. These are great ideas, Alison! I wouldn’t have thought about podcasts, but I can see how they’d be a helpful tool. It’s interesting that speaking French and Italian hasn’t been helpful. Though I can see how that would be the case. I learned French and Spanish simultaneously and sometimes found myself speaking Frespañol instead! 🙂 Or pronouncing Spanish words with a French accent or vice versa. But I commend you on your continued efforts to learn it! I’ve haven’t learned any Cantonese after 3 years of living in Hong Kong and don’t feel great about that.

  6. I have the same issue with Spanish. French was also my best subject, but that just confuses me. I’ve used Duolingo for Hungarian but it’s a bit rubbish. As you said there’s nothing like talking to people to further your skills. This is a really helpful blog Alison.

  7. Duolingo is indeed a great way to start – François my boyfriend started from scratch before our trip to Costa Rica and within a month, it was pretty amazing how many words he knew and how we could easily be part of casual conversations.
    The hardest part though is always to keep practicing when you don’t live in a Spanish-speaking country! Great tips though, I should check that again when we plan to go to Mexico!

  8. surprisingly, I found some podcasts that make learning a language easier! I also try to watch shows in their native language with English subtitles. I find that easier to understand.

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