Beginning Spanish learners are often paralyzed by the sheer number of learning resources available to them.
Spanish is one of the most popular languages to learn, especially in the United States, and a truly staggering number of books, websites, apps, and CDs have been produced to fill the endless demand for Spanish lessons.
How on earth can you choose which is best?!
Many young learners have this choice made for them: Each year, millions of U.S. students enroll in Spanish lessons which follow approved curricula with set textbooks.
But what about the rest of us, who are learning Spanish later or independently of school? Or those of us who did study Spanish in school but never really absorbed anything?
If this describes you, you’re not alone: According to The Atlantic, “Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom.” Yikes.
In any case, what should you do if you’re in the position of designing your own Spanish curriculum? This guide is here to help you out. I will walk through common questions such as:
- How long does it take to learn Spanish?
- Can I learn Spanish on my own?
- Should I sign up for a Spanish class? Or hire a tutor? And how can I find one?
- Where can I find opportunities to practice conversation?
- How can I teach my kids Spanish?
Next, I’ll offer specific advice and information geared toward people who are studying Spanish on their own. You can of course follow this advice even if you are taking a class and you’re looking for supplementary activities to accelerate your progress. I’ll discuss:
- General tips for learning as efficiently as possible.
- Available Spanish learning resources, from textbooks and CD programs to apps and music—including multiple free options.
- Language drills and exercises recommended by well-known polyglots and language learning experts.
- Advice for refining your Spanish skills once you reach the intermediate level.
Note: This guide covers Castilian (castellano), the Spanish language that developed in Castile and has since spread throughout Spain and the Americas to become one of the most commonly spoken languages of today. There are other languages spoken in Spain, however, such as Galician and Catalan. While the advice in this guide is useful for language learning in general, it is most useful and relevant to Castilian.
Why learn Spanish?
You likely have your own reasons for wanting to learn Spanish. Perhaps…
- You hope to work in a field that requires Spanish language skills.
- Your new partner’s family speaks only Spanish, and you’d like to get to know them better.
- You vacation every year in Mexico.
- You’re a graduate student, and a working knowledge of Spanish is essential to your research.
- You love Spanish music and want to understand the lyrics as you sing along.
- You’re a budding polyglot and Spanish is one of a dozen languages you’ve chosen to study.
- You’ve decided to retire to Spain or Costa Rica.
- You need to learn a second language to graduate from college.
- You’re a frequent traveler and know that Spanish will let you communicate with millions of people in dozens of countries.
- You plan to visit Colombia next month and would like to pick up some Spanish basics.
Whatever your reasons, you’re in luck: Because Spanish is such a widely-spoken language, there are countless resources (free and otherwise) that can help you gain fluency quickly and effectively. Plus, the Spanish language benefits from a wealth of film, television, music, and literature that will give you language practice and keep you inspired.
Top 5 tips for learning Spanish (no matter which method you choose):
1. Consistency is key
Make time for Spanish every day, even if you can only manage fifteen minutes.
2. Speak early and often!
Speak Spanish aloud even if you don’t yet have a conversation partner. It’s never too early to speak: Practice expressing simple thoughts (“I’m hungry,” “This is a table,” etc.) out loud.
3. Read aloud
Whether it’s a paragraph in your textbook, a children’s story, or a novel, read it aloud. It’s great reading comprehension practice, and you’ll also improve your pronunciation.
4. Listen to Spanish music
It’s extremely common for beginning language learners (of virtually any language) to struggle with comprehension. The more you surround yourself with the sounds of Spanish, the better your ear will develop.
5. Have fun!
Learning a new language opens a whole new perspective on the world. You have the opportunity to meet and speak with new people, read new books, watch new films, travel with ease to new places, and much more. Whenever you’re getting bogged down in grammatical intricacies, take a step back and remember why you began this endeavor in the first place.
How long does it take to learn Spanish?
That depends on what you mean by “learn Spanish,” and it also depends on how much time per day you have to devote to your studies.
How long does it take to learn the basics and hold simple conversations?
In just a few weeks, you can learn basic words and phrases, enough to say hello, order a coffee, and ask where the bathroom is. If you’re simply hoping to learn “travel Spanish” to take on vacation, then one month is about all you need to cover:
- Greetings and basic manners
- Question words (“Where is…? How much…? What is…?” etc.)
- Common verbs in the present tense
- Common nouns
- How to introduce yourself, talk a little about your trip, order food and drinks, count to 20, ask directions, request help, and so on
How long does it take to become fluent in Spanish?
The U.S. Department of State estimates that becoming reasonably fluent in Spanish will take 23 to 24 weeks, or 575 to 600 classroom hours.
23 to 24 weeks doesn’t really sound like much—That’s just six months or a little under! But if you look at the classroom hours required, you’ll notice that this timeframe assumes you’re studying around 25 hours per week…Maybe not the most realistic if you have a full-time job or other responsibilities.
If you manage to fit in 10 hours per week (a little over one hour per day), then you’ll be fluent in about a year. That’s also not so bad!
Now what exactly does it mean to be “fluent”?
First, remember that “fluent” doesn’t mean “perfect.” After all, plenty of people make mistakes even in their native languages!
So don’t worry about having an accent so perfect you could be mistaken for a local, and don’t beat yourself up if you misuse the subjunctive once in a while. Silly slip-ups and linguistic fumbles are a part of the process, so learn to laugh at (and learn from) your mistakes.
For our purposes, “fluent” means that you can communicate with other people.
You can express yourself in a variety of situations with a good level of detail and nuance. You can understand what people say to you, even if they’re speaking relatively quickly or informally. You can read a book or watch a movie and come away understanding most of it. You can state your opinions, discuss your interests, and ask questions.
Essentially, fluency in language exists on a spectrum, and it’s pretty much always ebbing and flowing. For example, I used to be fluent in French, back when I took regular classes and even lived with a French host family. But that was years ago now, and while I can still speak French decently, I’d say I’m more rusty than fluent at this point.
Can I learn Spanish on my own?
Many of us have our first experiences learning languages in a classroom setting. Often, we associate formal classroom instruction with language learning and assume that we can’t progress as well on our own.
This is completely untrue. You can teach yourself Spanish. While classes and teachers certainly have their benefits (as I’ll get to later in this guide), independent learning also has its pros. Teaching yourself Spanish…
- Is cost-effective.
- Encourages you to take an active role (rather than passively relying on a teacher).
- Allows you to move at your own pace.
- Lets you focus on your own goals and priorities.
Let me expand a little on that last point. Many of us have quite specific reasons for learning Spanish.
Let’s say you’re a medical student who wants to be able to communicate with patients in Spanish. If you sign up for a run-of-the-mill basic Spanish class, you may spend weeks learning how to order train tickets and make small talk about the weather. But what you really need is a specialized vocabulary (medical terms) and the ability to ask certain questions (e.g. “How much pain are you in?”).
Classes really can be beneficial, especially if your goal is to increase your overall Spanish fluency. However, it is 100% possible to up your fluency through self-study. And moreover, you’ll be able to focus in on remedying your own weak points and learning the vocabulary that’s most useful for you.
Another wonderful thing about self-study: The ability to move right at your own pace. If you’re a self-motivated learned with big ambitions, you can breeze through lessons way faster than you would if you were beholden to the slower pace of a group class. If you work well independently, you will be able to learn a great deal of Spanish simply on your own.
And finally, self-study runs very cheap to free. Down below, I’ll get more into detail about the many high-quality, completely free programs you can use for independent study.
Should I sign up for a Spanish class? Or hire a tutor?
Now all that said, you might prefer to take a class or hire an instructor. Here are a few indications that signing up for a class (whether through your local university or a language school) is right for you:
- You enjoy structure and routine.
- You find it easier to stay motivated when you have a regular class to attend.
- You like the social aspect of a group class.
- You feel shy about conversing in Spanish and want to practice with other people.
- You would like an instructor present who can correct your mistakes.
- You can afford group classes.
I’ll be honest: In my personal experience, group classes are not the most time-effective way for me to learn a foreign language. When I’m feeling focused, I can cover ground much more quickly with independent study than with group lessons.
Regardless, I still love them! With a good teacher, group classes keep you accountable and provide a fun, social atmosphere for learning, conversation, and cultural immersion. I’ve taken group classes in French, German, Latin, and Swahili, and if I can scrape together the cash, I plan to take a few in Spanish too.
Hiring a tutor to work with you one-on-one is yet another great option. How to know if this route is right for you?
- You would like to get extensive conversation practice with a native speaker who can correct your mistakes on the spot.
- You feel more motivated to learn when you have regular lessons and an instructor to keep you accountable.
- You want to learn quickly and efficiently.
- You can afford to pay a private tutor.
- You are especially concerned with perfecting your accent, learning idioms and slang, or other aspects of Spanish best learned from a qualified native speaker.
One-on-one lessons are a fantastic way to improve your Spanish fast. Personal attention from a skilled teacher can help you bust through plateaus and clear up any confusion or pesky errors.
Furthermore, private tutoring doesn’t have to be super expensive. Yes, it will cost money, but often not as much as you might expect. With the power of the internet, and a little luck, you might be able to afford a handful of tutoring sessions.
I’ll get more into how to locate a group class, private instructor, and conversation partner below.
How to find a group class
Whether group classes are available to you depends heavily on exactly where you live. If you’re based in a major city like San Francisco or Houston, or in an area with a large Spanish-speaking population, you should be able to locate a language school. If you live in a more remote area, you may or may not get lucky.
In addition to language schools, try searching the course listings of your local community college. You might be able to join in for a semester of Spanish there.
What if you’re abroad? If you’re in a Spanish-speaking area that receives a lot of visitors, international students, and expats, then you’ll probably have an easy time finding a language school. A couple examples: Think Spanish in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Total Spanish in Medellín, Colombia.
How to find a private tutor
There are several ways to go about finding a private Spanish tutor. First, you can always try Craigslist! The site might be better known as a place to find cheap used furniture, but there are also tons of professional tutors and enthusiastic native speakers who list their services on Craigslist too.
In addition, the site is very simple to use, and you can easily narrow your search down to tutors in your area. This is a plus if you’re hoping to receive in-person (rather than Skype) lessons.
Next up: Wyzant, a website that specializes in connecting people with tutors in a variety of subjects. Wyzant makes the tutor-finding process easy: Just answer a few questions about your goals, and select a suitable tutor. You can opt either for online or in-person lessons.
Italki is another useful platform, and from what I can tell, tends to run slightly less expensive. You can choose between professional teachers (usually more expensive; best if you’re looking for structured lessons from an expert) or community tutors (usually more affordable; great if you’re in need of speaking practice or less formal tutoring). Lessons generally take place via Skype.
Finally, you can always use old-fashioned methods to find a great teacher. Ask your friends and family for recommendations, or get in touch with the Spanish department at a nearby university to see if any professors or graduate students are available for tutoring.
How to find conversation opportunities
Formal lessons and classes are useful, but don’t forget about informal conversation practice. To reach fluency in Spanish, you need to use the language on a regular basis in a variety of situations. Twice weekly classes won’t cut it.
Once you’ve reached a basic level of proficiency, I recommend seeking out conversation opportunities in your area. If there are none where you live, then you can always find conversation partners online.
One place to look: Nearby colleges and universities, which may have programs accessible to you. If you’re currently a student, or otherwise affiliated with a university, you will likely find plenty of Spanish-learning opportunities, from Spanish-language movie nights to Spanish-speaking dinners.
Just as an example, Yale University runs Tandem Language Café, a program that pairs up aspiring language learners (i.e. If you are a native English speaker who wants to improve Spanish, you will be paired with a native Spanish speaker who wants to improve their English). This program is open to all Yale community members, including students, faculty, staff, spouses, and visiting scholars.
Not affiliated with a college or university? In that case, a quick Google search is your best friend. A search for “Spanish conversation” in your area will turn up any available language exchange programs and Spanish conversation meet-ups.
You can also use italki to find a conversation partner. The website connects people who want to learn each other’s languages. Simply search for Spanish language partners, and you’ll find dozens of people just like you who are looking for conversation practice. All you need is a Skype account and a decent internet connection.
What’s the BEST way to learn Spanish?
So, what’s the overall takeaway? What is the #1 best way to learn Spanish? Well, there really isn’t just one right answer. The best method will be the one that works for you.
Choose a method that you can afford, that keeps you motivated, and that keeps you moving forward consistently. Bear in mind that you can always mix and match methods.
For instance, you might be on a budget and therefore studying on your own, but once a month you find the cash to pay for an hour’s conversation practice with a native speaker.
Or, you start off with eight weeks of structured lessons and then transition to independent study.
Or, you want to learn as fast as possible, so you hire a private tutor for five hours a week and study on your own in between sessions.
My preference? I’m pretty self-motivated when it comes to language learning, and I like to take the reins of my learning process.
At the moment, I’m studying Spanish independently, with a combination of textbooks, Rocket Spanish, music, and language drills (such as shadowing and scriptorium—explained below!). In the following sections, I’ll outline in greater detail the many different programs and tools you can use to learn Spanish independently.
In an ideal world, I would also spring for intermittent classes or occasional conversation practice with a native speaker too—maybe that will be in the budget eventually! However, I will be spending significant time in Spain over the next several months, so I know I’ll have chances to practice and immerse myself.
All in all, it’s up to you to experiment and discover the precise combination of methods you prefer.
How can I teach my kids Spanish?
Learning a foreign language together is a great activity for the whole family—especially if the whole family is relocating to Spain! But even if you’re not planning an imminent move, there are tons of good reasons to teach your children a second language.
The research is in, and learning a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) language is undeniably good for you. So go ahead and include your children in your mission to acquire Spanish. Here are some tips to get you going:
1. Start early
No point in wasting time—If your kids are still babies, in their first year of life, then they’ve got an ideal chance to grow up bilingual. Don’t worry if your kids are older though, as it’s perfectly possible to learn a new language at any age.
2. Use music
Music allows your children to listen to native speakers, even if they don’t understand at first. Just as importantly, music acquaints them with the specific sounds and rhythms of Spanish. Your kids will have an easier time discerning Spanish sounds and repeating them if they’ve been listening to hours of music.
3. Speak Spanish with your child
Even if you’re still learning Spanish yourself, you can teach what you know. Teach your kids how to count to ten, say their favorite foods in Spanish, ask basic questions, and name the items in your house. If you child is took young to talk back, you can also narrate in Spanish as you go about your day (e.g. “Now I’m making pasta…now I’m taking the dog for a walk…”). Bonus: This is great speaking practice for you too.
4. Introduce Spanish books, games, and TV
Chances are your kids will spend some time each week reading, playing games, and watching television…So why not have them do all that in Spanish? Shows like Dora la Exploradora and Mundo Zamba are popular and family-friendly options. As for books, check the list of 30 books here and this list of 50 children’s books.
Those are some simple, at-home methods for helping your child learn Spanish alongside you. Now what if you want to take it up a notch? Read on, because these next tips are for you:
5. Find an immersion program
Across the United States, language immersion programs for young children are growing in popularity. See if one of these programs is in your area.
A family vacation to Peru, Costa Rica, or Spain will create unforgettable memories and also give your kids (and you) a chance to put their Spanish skills into practice.
6. Host an exchange student
Your child will be able to learn from their new Spanish-speaking “sibling.”
How can I learn Spanish as quickly as possible?
Are you moving to Peru next month? Do you have an exam coming up fast? Fallen in love with a Spaniard? Then it’s time to go all out and learn Spanish FAST. But how?
Tips to accelerate your Spanish progress:
Put in more time. Honestly, there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned time. Yes, there are more and less efficient ways of using your time, but ultimately, you need to put the time in.
Aim to spend at least an hour per day studying, ideally more. And make sure you really do allot some study time every day, not just intermittently. Consistency is a key part remembering what you’ve learned and building on it.
Give your full attention. There’s no use allotting extra time to study if you don’t maximize it.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to zone out when we’re supposed to be studying, or to pretend to study by putting on some Spanish music in the background without really paying attention. If your attention tends to wander, then you might need to switch up your study habits and activities.
For example, instead of doing a passive activity (e.g. listening), switch to an active one (e.g. speaking). Write out sentences, read aloud, formulate your own opinions—In other words, do an activity that requires your brain to concentrate.
Another strategy is to use a time management technique like Pomodoro, which breaks your work into intervals (typically 25 minutes in length) punctuated by short breaks. Many people find the Pomodoro Technique to be an effective way of organizing the work day and staying laser-focused during each 25-minute work segment.
Narrow your focus. Which specific words and phrases do you need most imminently? Prioritize learning those.
For example, let’s say you are an exchange student preparing for a semester abroad in Ecuador to study biology. Do you know how to introduce yourself and chat a little bit about your studies? Can you explain your research project? Can you make small talk (about family, hobbies, favorite foods, and so on) with your new classmates? Focus on learning exactly the Spanish you need to cover those situations.
Now on the other hand, let’s say you desperately need Spanish fluency so you can read a new journal article in Spanish on 19th-century architecture. In that case, forget learning small talk and niceties and start cramming specialized architectural and academic language.
Learn key phrases. On a similar note, focus on learning simple common phrases by heart. At Omniglot, you can find a list of useful Spanish phrases; scan down them and identify those that you use often. There are similar phrase lists available via the BBC and Travel Phrase. Again, narrow your focus to just those phrases that are relevant for you.
By memorizing key phrases (instead of just disjointed individual words), you speed up the process of becoming conversational.
Think of the phrases that tend to arise often when you speak English. For me that list would include phrases like “Sounds good,” “That depends,” and “What do you think?”
If you’re learning Spanish to use in the workplace, that list might include, “How can I help you?” “What time is the meeting?” and “Thanks very much for ___.”
Just think how awesome it would be if you knew those vital phrases backwards and forwards in Spanish and could say them with no hesitation.
Stay organized. Good organization is one key to success in basically any learning endeavor. This is especially true if you decide to use multiple learning resources. It’s easy to let all your papers get disheveled and to forget where exactly you learned something essential.
So how to stay organized?
First, don’t hop from resource to resource without any plan. I like using multiple sources and being able to rotate activities, but I try to streamline the process so I’m not using twelve programs simultaneously. Instead I might use one textbook and one audio program, supplemented by Spanish music and vocabulary flashcards.
It’s also important to stick with the programs you’ve chosen. Once you find a book you like, stick with it and follow it through to the end. You don’t want to have five different textbooks open at any given time.
Finally, I like to keep a dedicated notebook just for Spanish exercises. I try to keep it divided in two parts; this way it’s relatively easy to find things again when I need them.
Starting from the front, I copy out texts and jot down important vocabulary. I add new words I’ve noticed and want to remember, whether from books or television.
Starting from the back, I do grammar drills and compose my own (hopefully correct) sentences. If I have trouble wrapping my head around a particular rule, I might write it out again in my own words with examples that illustrate the rule extremely clearly.
Another possibility: Type your Spanish notes, exercises, and essential words and phrases into a Word document. You can easily search it later.
Back when I was studying Latin, I compiled a humongous study guide encompassing all the grammar and vocabulary I learned in my 101 class. Everything was meticulously organized and subdivided into sections. Sure, this information might all be available in the textbook, but my Word doc had a few advantages.
It was searchable (unlike the paperback textbook). It was organized in a way that made sense to me. And the act of typing it all out helped reinforce many of the grammatical concepts and new words in my memory.
What methods are there for learning basic Spanish on my own? Which is best?
I’ll begin by discussing textbooks, CD and audio programs, and combinations of the two—in other words, resources that provide full-length, comprehensive Spanish courses.
Then I’ll move on to supplementary resources and methods, such as dictionaries, apps, specific drills, music, and television. These activities are important additions that help keep you motivated and hone your Spanish skills.
Currently, I’m using my dad’s old textbook from the 1970s—and I love it! It’s almost entirely written in Spanish—almost no English explanations—but its clear layout and examples are more than enough for me to absorb the grammatical point in question.
Some pros of using a textbook:
- Textbooks provide structured grammar instruction and explanations. If you’re having trouble grasping a grammar point intuitively, a textbook can help you out with an explanation.
- A textbook can give you a solid foundation.
- Working through a textbook lets you make steady progress (as long as you stick with it).
- Textbooks can supply a variety of learning activities, from sample dialogues to writing exercises.
There are tons of Spanish textbooks on the market, so do your research and read through reviews before buying to figure out which is best for you. A couple recommendations:
- Easy Spanish Step-by-Step, by Barbara Bregstein. This popular book structures your learning in a series of logical steps that all build on each other. You’ll gain a firm grasp of grammar, develop a decent working vocabulary, and hone your reading skills with sample passages. I suggest following the book’s “step-by-step” organization; don’t skip around, especially if you’re a beginner!
- Language Hacking Spanish, by Benny Lewis. Dubbed the “Irish polyglot,” Benny Lewis is known for his “Fluent in 3 Months” blog, which outlines his favorite strategies for learning languages quickly. Language Hacking Spanish brings you his techniques for studying Spanish, such as key words and phrases that will let you start having conversations from the very start. Lewis’s goal? To get you speaking confidently right from Day One. This book is not a conventional textbook, but it’s absolutely worth picking up if you’re an independent learner with a focus on conversation.
Finally, you can also opt for a Spanish workbook if that’s more your style. Something like Spanish Tutor: Grammar and Vocabulary Workbook gives you hundreds of exercises to reinforce your Spanish skills. Bear in mind that workbooks typically don’t contain lengthy grammar explanations or vocabulary lists, so you’ll need another resource (textbook, audio course, etc.) to help you there.
CDs and audio programs
I don’t have space here to describe and review every single CD or audio-based program, so I’ll go with Pimsleur as my example since it’s one of the most popular. So what are the benefits of audio-intensive programs?
- They’re great if you have a long commute that would otherwise be spent raging unproductively at traffic.
- They reinforce correct pronunciation.
- They drill common phrases and sentences into your head, so that they are readily available when needed. Answering basic questions thus becomes more automatic.
- They provide speaking practice and expose you to “real-world” dialogues.
What about potential downsides?
- Because these programs are primarily oral, you may assume (incorrectly) how to spell some words: For example, is it “quantos” or “cuantos”? And is there an accent?. Answer: Cuántos.
- The pace is often quite slow and the dialogues repetitive.
I find that Pimsleur, for example, moves relatively slowly with a lot of repetition. Overall, I appreciate this pace because I know that the things I’ve learned truly are cemented into my brain. However, the glacial pace can be frustrating when, after ten or so lessons, you’ve only really learned how to handle a few conversation scenarios.
My advice would be to use Pimsleur alongside a traditional (faster-moving) textbook. That’s what I’ve done in the past, listening to about three Pimsleur lessons for every one textbook lesson. My textbook has rapidly taught me basic grammar and a large amount of vocabulary, while Pimsleur reinforces what I’ve learned and gives me practice speaking.
While I’m on the subject of audio-based programs, I also want to give a shout out to SpanishPod101, which is a good way to work on listening comprehension. You can opt for a free membership, or pay to upgrade your account. Once you select your skill level, you can start listening to conversations tailored to your level.
SpanishPod101 has a mind-boggling number of dialogues suitable for everyone, from total beginners up to super advanced speakers. These lessons also include explanations, discussions of grammar and vocab, and transcripts.
Combination programs (text + audio)
Some programs, such as Rocket Spanish and Assimil, combine text with audio lessons. One benefit to this kind of combo program is of course that you get practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking all in one coherent course.
You also get more flexibility: You can listen to the audio during your commute or while you go for a walk, and you can work through the text when you’re in the mood to sit down and read. Some lessons also work in “bite-size” portions, say if you only have fifteen minutes to spare. In essence, it’s easy to fit this program into a busy lifestyle with an irregular schedule.
That said, you can achieve pretty much the same effect by mixing and matching other programs. The main benefit of packaging together a textbook and audio program is that this work is already done for you.
Now that I’ve worked my way through Pimsleur’s Spanish Level 1, I’m giving Rocket Spanish a try, so stay tuned for an in-depth review!
So far, I’ve been very impressed with the comprehensiveness of the program. There’s a seemingly endless amount of material, and the dialogues are engaging and natural.
Apps and software
Again, this isn’t the place for an exhaustive review of every single app and software available, so I’ll make some general points using Duolingo, one of the most popular apps, as my example.
Here are the pros of using Duolingo:
- Easy to use
- Good for learning vocabulary
- Can be used on-the-go
Cons of using Duolingo:
- Not ideal beyond the beginning stages
- Sentences often aren’t very practical or natural in real life
- Computer does not always take into account that there may be multiple correct translations of a sentence
Other apps and programs to look into include Mosa Lingua and Rosetta Stone. Mosa Lingua is a free app that uses spaced repetition to expand your vocabulary and teach you grammar basics. Rosetta Stone language-learning software is also quite effective at giving you a foundation in Spanish, introducing essential grammar and vocabulary in a structured and user-friendly format.
In general, I wouldn’t rely on any app or software to bring you all the way to fluency, but they can be valuable as supplements.
One major benefit of Duolingo, Mosa Lingua, and Rosetta Stone is that they all offer quick, self-contained lessons that you can easily squeeze in when you’ve just got 15 free minutes. For this reason, they’re a great way to increase your study time if you have a busy or irregular schedule.
As you encounter new words, you’ll of course be unfamiliar with many of them. A good dictionary will fill in these gaps, as well as help you understand each new word fully (how do I conjugate this verb? Is that noun masculine or feminine?). What are your choices?
- Traditional paper dictionary (such as Webster’s Spanish-English Dictionary for Students)
- Word Reference.
- Google Translate.
Take your pick. Personally, I’ve always liked Word Reference, since after using it for years, I’m very familiar with the format. It has fairly detailed definitions along with sample sentences and even compound forms.
For instance, if you search the word “home,” you’ll also find out how to translate “all the comforts of home,” “at home,” “away from home,” “to be home alone,” “bring home the bacon,” “broken home,” “feel right at home,” “hit close to home,” “home free,” and many other idiomatic phrases.
Word Reference also has extensive language forums providing even more help with comprehension and translation. Overall, Word Reference is my favorite way to learn the subtle shades of meaning surrounding a particular word.
I stumbled across SpanishDict more recently, but so far am extremely pleased with it as well. It has over a million vocabulary entries in addition to verb conjugations, helpful articles, and plenty of phrases and idioms. Overall, it’s a wonderfully thorough and comprehensive addition to my Spanish-learning toolbox.
Old-school? Yes. Effective? Also yes!
Either make your flashcards on actual paper index cards, or just use a flashcard app, whichever you prefer. Then, if you’re stuck in line or in a waiting room, you can always pull out your flashcards for some quick vocabulary practice.
Drills and exercises
I am a huge fan of language drills and exercises. Whenever I’m feeling unsure about a particular concept, I make sure to tackle it head on!
Struggling with the conjugation of irregular verbs? Grab a notebook and a pen, and write 100 sentences using irregular verbs. Having difficulty formulating questions? Again, grab that pen and paper and write 100 questions. Or, pretend you’re on Jeopardy! and turn everything you say into a question for the next half hour.
Point is: Whenever you find a word, phrase, or concept difficult, make a point of using it more.
Over the years, I’ve come across some tried-and-true language drills developed by expert language learners. Once such learning technique is called shadowing. Alexander Arguelles (a hyperpolyglot who knows dozens of languages) is a proponent of this method.
How does shadowing work? Acquire audio of a native Spanish speaker, a book on tape, for example. Listen to it while walking and repeating the speaker as perfectly as you can. Repeat each word verbatim, copy the speaker’s accent and intonation, and so on.
In this video, you can find Dr. Arguelles demonstrating this technique with Mandarin Chinese. He recommends walking briskly and articulating crisply to get the most out of this exercise.
A second method recommended by Dr. Arguelles is the scriptorium technique. He outlines three basic steps for this method:
- Read one full sentence from a Spanish-language text aloud.
- Write it down, repeating each individual word as you write it.
- Read the full sentence once again.
As he writes on his website, “the whole purpose of this exercise is to force yourself to slow down and pay attention to detail.”
It therefore is an excellent exercise to use when you’re having trouble with a tricky grammatical concept or if you find it difficult to construct longer, more complicated sentences. This technique helps you break down what’s going on in each sentence, instead of skimming mindlessly through a given text.
There’s no need to wait until you’re more advanced: Listening to Spanish-language music can help you pick up Spanish faster. You can also find plenty of songs and videos specially geared toward beginning learners.
Here are some great options:
This YouTube channel is a gem, featuring plenty of music to kickstart your learning, plus tons of other fun, quirky lessons!
“Amarillo” by Shakira: Learn your colors with this catchy song by popstar Shakira. The video includes the Spanish lyrics with their English translation.
“Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee: Assuming you’re not yet sick of this 2017 earworm, you can put it on repeat to improve your Spanish! This video places Spanish lyrics and English translations side by side, and it color codes the words and phrases so you can see exactly how the translation corresponds to the original.
Videos, films, and TV
Once again, YouTube is a sensible place to go if you want to hear some simple spoken Spanish. For instance, try watching:
Easy Spanish YouTube channel: These short, fun videos are easy to squeeze in no matter how busy your day. You’ll get a sense of how Spanish is actually used by real people in their daily lives. They cover all sorts of topics, from the Mexico City metro to embarrassing stories to childhood memories.
Oh, and did you know that The Simpsons has been translated into Spanish?! You can watch Los Simpsons here.
Another thing I like to do is watch Spanish versions of movies I already know well: For example, Disney movies. If you already know the basic plot, you’ll be able to follow along more easily and focus on the Spanish dialogues you hear.
If you have a Netflix subscription, odds are you’ll find some Spanish-language material available, though it may be quite advanced. Luckily, however, many shows are available with subtitles, so you can give them a try! Make sure to use Spanish subtitles though; resist the urge to use English.
A word of advice before you begin a telenovela marathon: It’s all too easy to become a passive viewer of video content. You’ll learn the most from videos and TV if you remain an active learner. This means:
- Don’t understand a scene? Watch it again.
- Learn a new word or phrase? Pause the video and write it down.
With a little effort, you can learn huge amounts from watching Spanish video and TV content—and have a lot of fun in the process.
As a huge Harry Potter fan, one of the first things I do when I reach intermediate proficiency in a language is acquire a copy of Harry Potter in that language. Because I’m so familiar with the plot (and have all but memorized entire portions), I’m able to understand sentences that would ordinarily be way over my head.
Children’s books are also good for beginners. You can find a list of 30 Spanish children’s books here to get started with titles like Cali y Mona, Chimoc en Machu Pichu, and Cuadros de Familia.
You’ll also see some familiar favorites that have been translated into Spanish, such as Donde Viven Los Monstruos (Where the Wild Things Are), La Oruga Muy Hamrienta (The Very Hungry Caterpillar), and Un Pez, Dos Peces, Pez Rojo, Pez Azul (One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish).
I’d like to acquaint you with a couple tools for improving your Spanish pronunciation:
Every language has its particular rhythms and sounds, and Spanish is no exception. Mimic Method teaches you the basics of how your mouth works to produce sound, teaching you exactly how to pronounce Spanish sounds. You’ll also gain a better ear for listening comprehension. Consider this course if you have difficulty with Spanish pronunciation, or if it’s a high priority for you to speak smoothly, clearly, and correctly.
The idea behind this website is simple: It’s almost like a dictionary of sound! If you don’t know how to pronounce a certain word, search for it on Forvo. A native speaker will demonstrate correct pronunciation.
What are the best free methods for learning Spanish?
Now let’s revisit this question—“What learning resources are available?”—from a new angle: Which of these resources are free? How can someone with a low or non-existent budget learn Spanish?
Some of the programs and methods listed above are totally free, such as using an app like Duolingo, looking up a word on WordReference or Forvo, or listening to music on YouTube. Plus, you can use the shadowing and scriptorium techniques with basically any text: Just pull up a Spanish blog or a page on the Spanish-language Wikipedia, and you’re golden.
But what about free full-length courses? After all, methods like using an app or listening to music are best when they’re used as supplements to a more comprehensive course that advances steadily. The sections below will focus on free courses and comprehensive programs for learning Spanish.
Resources from your local public library
Do you belong to a local library? If not, I highly recommend it. That’s where I’ve acquired countless Pimsleur courses and the occasional language textbook. Many libraries also have Spanish-language sections, where you can find Spanish novels and Spanish translations of popular books like Harry Potter. So sign up for that library card and start learning Spanish!
Free online resources
Libraries aside, thanks to the internet, there are still TONS of freely available resources at your fingertips. Here is a list of free online learning programs and tools:
- Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Spanish language courses:
FSI courses will get you up to speed fast. They’re very thorough and come with hours of recorded audio, including real-world dialogues and scenarios.
FSI courses often contain a lot of drills designed to have you repeating key phrases until they really sink in. Some people might find the drills excessive, though personally I love them—they’re an excellent way of internalizing what I’m learning so that I can produce it quickly in the real world. Plus they help my pronunciation.
The main drawback? These courses were mostly created in the 1960s and 70s, so sometimes the language can be a bit dated. They’re also aimed at diplomats, who may have different language needs and priorities from you.
- Language Transfer’s Complete Spanish course
Created by Mihalis Eleftheriou, Language Transfer is an awesome platform that provides free high-quality audio courses, based on up-to-date research on how people learn, for multiple languages. LT’s Complete Spanish course is excellent, so give it a listen.
The platform does depend on user donations to keep expanding and improving. Donate what you can if you like the program and feel so inclined.
This beloved online resource has existed since 1988. It’s practically as old as the internet! Thirty years later, it remains an outstanding educational site, offering lessons in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. Click here to get a free membership.
As I mentioned up above, SpanishPod101 is an amazing audio resource that can accompany you from beginner to advanced. Even better: You can sign up for a free membership!
The site’s podcasts encompass all sorts of real-world situations, immersing you in both Spanish language and the culture of the Spanish-speaking world. Each podcast includes dialogue, plus lesson notes, vocabulary lists, and a transcript.
Once you’ve finished a lesson, you can mark it complete. The site tracks you progress, gradually increasing the difficult and complexity of the audio.
Don’t let a lack of funds get in the way of your Spanish aspirations. Between these three options—FSI, LT, and StudySpanish, even a cash-strapped Spanish learner can make incredible progress. If you add in some free video content and music, and take the time to read your online news in Spanish or peruse Spanish Wikipedia, you’ll be well on your way to fluency.
I’m at the intermediate level or above: How can I improve my Spanish?
Continue seeking conversation practice, whether through in-person meet-ups or Skype sessions with an italki language partner. If at all possible, consider living with a host family for full immersion.
Lessons and tutoring
Intermediate and advanced learners often benefit immensely from a lesson or two from a skilled professional. A good teacher can explain nuances and finer points of the language clearly and accessibly. Need help with complicated grammar? Want someone to identify and correct the tiny mistakes you make that prevent you from impersonating a native speaker? A good professional tutor can help you out.
Videos, films, and TV
Many of the resources mentioned up above (Los Simpsons, Disney films, Spanish Netflix offerings) will continue to serve you well up through intermediate and advanced Spanish.
At this point, you’re probably ready for more complex films (with or without Spanish subtitles). You might like:
- El Laberinto del Fauno
- Y Tu Mamá También
- Todo Sobe Mi Madre
- El Espíritu de la Colmena
- La Comunidad
- No Se Aceptan Devoluciones
- Diarios de Motocicleta
Again, continue to write down new words and phrases as you encounter them, and don’t hesitate to rewind to give tricky scenes another listen. Don’t worry if you can’t understand everything perfectly the first time; just do your best, and aim for progress instead of perfection.
You can begin reading authentic Spanish-language novels as an intermediate learner. Just have your dictionary handy along with a healthy dose of patience. I’ve made a short and selective list of awesome novels to try the next time you have a free afternoon:
Books by Spanish authors:
- Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
- Corazón tan blanco, by Javier Marías
- Niebla, by Miguel de Unamuno
- Los santos inocentes, by Miguel Dilibes
- La catedral del mar, by Idlefonso Falcones
Books by Chilean authors:
- La casa de los espíritus, by Isabel Allende
- El obscene pájaro de la noche, by José Donoso
Books by Colombian authors:
- Cien años de soledad, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
- El amore en los tiempos del cólera, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Books by Mexican authors:
- Como agua para chocolate, by Laura Esquivel
- Diablo Guardián, by Xavier Velasco
I’ve barely scratched the surface, but you get the idea. Hispanic literature is vast, varied, and often magical. Your new Spanish skills will allow you to explore a whole new world of literature and appreciate the beauty and wordplay of the original language.
In addition to all this phenomenal literature, you can also enjoy plenty of easier material: Beach reads and murder mysteries, thrillers and romances. No matter what kind of books you prefer, Spanish-speaking authors have you 100% covered.
Murder mystery fan? Take a break from Agatha Christie and give José Carlos Somoza a try. Looking for a book that’s quirky and a little bit absurd to bring to the beach with you? Grab Gabriela Aleman’s Poso Wells.
Again, there’s no shortage of options. Grab a copy (or read the online versions) of:
As I’ve mentioned YouTube is an endless treasure trove of (free!) Spanish-language music videos. As you become more advanced, you’ll be able to listen to a wide variety of songs and understand them easily, without even skimming through an English translation.
Often, of course, songs can be hard to understand: Syllables get added or dropped to fit the rhythm of the music, words get crammed together quickly, and many songwriters take considerable poetic license or fill their lyrics with idioms and slang.
So don’t worry if, even as an intermediate learner, you still struggle to understand your favorite songs! When you’re first learning, you’ll likely need a little help from English translations to understand exactly what is being said.
As you grow more advanced, try to move away from English: Look for videos with only Spanish subtitles and read along. Pick out a few of your favorite songs and take the time to learn them by heart. Once a song is stuck in your head, all the vocabulary and grammar it contains will hopefully stick in your head too.
Mixing and matching resources
Fundamentally, you address four basic skills when you learn a new language:
As you design your Spanish curriculum, put some thought into covering all four of these areas.
Note: A possible exception to this would be if you are learning Spanish for a very specific purpose, e.g. so that you can read Spanish legal texts, in which case you might focus heavily on reading comprehension.
Assuming your goal is all-around fluency, however, you’ll want these four major bases covered. Many standard textbooks are great at teaching you how to read and write. You’ll learn essential grammar, read sample texts, and write out answers to questions at the end of each lesson.
You’ll then want to add an audio course, video lessons, and/or music sessions to practice your listening skills.
Finally, it’s so important to speak. Good audio courses will often prompt you to speak in response to various cues and questions. Another option is to find a conversation partner or to commit to speaking to your pet/spouse/friends only in Spanish.
Alternatively, you might decide to make an audio course (e.g. Pimsleur or Language Transfer) the centerpiece of your curriculum. In this case, you’ll get good practice speaking and listening, but you’ll need to find supplementary materials to practice reading and writing.
A more comprehensive program (incorporating both text and audio) can make this whole process easier. I’ve decided to start working through Rocket Spanish, for example, because it combines text with audio in steadily progressing increments. Plus, its materials are extensive—I get the feeling that even after a few months, I won’t have exhausted it.
An example: My plan for learning Spanish
I’ll use myself as an example since I’m currently in the process of drastically improving my Spanish. What am I using?
A standard textbook – To learn grammar and vocabulary, to read sample texts, to advance at a steady pace, and to have a structured setting in which to compose my own sentences
Rocket Spanish – To provide a thorough foundation in Spanish and practice my listening comprehension skills.
Drills and exercises – such as shadowing and the scriptorium technique, using texts drawn from subjects of interest in the Spanish-language Wikipedia
To practice speaking, to improve my recall of words and turns of phrase, to expand my vocabulary, and to hammer home grammatical points I’ve learned
Music – To practice listening and to get a better ear for understanding Spanish
Easy Spanish YouTube videos – To hear Spanish spoken in a variety of real-world situations
SpanishPod101 – To practice listening to realistic dialogues and to expand my vocabulary
And soon I hope to add a Spanish Harry Potter (and perhaps a genuinely Spanish novel) to that list as well. One final piece I need to add to my plan? Finding opportunities to converse with native speakers!
My primary learning tools are the textbook and Rocket Spanish courses, which combine reading, writing, listening, and speaking. I generally aim to work through the textbook a few times per week and Rocket Spanish lessons every day.
I’ve added supplementary drills, music, and videos because I find that, for me, these are the fastest ways to reach fluency and feel comfortable communicating in a language. While I don’t have time for them every day, I manage to use these supplementary resources three to four times per week.
So that’s my plan for learning Spanish quickly and effectively. I hope this guide has helped you put together a plan of your own! There are so many resources out there that it can be hard to know where to start. This guide is meant to give you an overview of what’s available, and then support you in putting together a plan that fits your goals and needs.
I’ve also done my best to highlight the excellent free programs that exist; even on an extremely tight budget, you can make significant headway in your journey to Spanish fluency. Perhaps the most important factor is time: Set aside time—even just ten or fifteen minutes—every single day. You’ll make steady progress that eventually adds up to something truly rewarding.