How to Learn Spanish: Tried-and-true Courses and Study Hacks

If you’re not using the right study tools or following a smart learning path, you’ll start getting confused and frustrated on your language-learning journey. 

In this post, I’ll show you how to start learning Spanish on the right foot and grow your Spanish skills successfully towards fluency.

I’ll cover a range of learning resources you can adapt to your own learning style, plus tips to keep your motivation up and prevent learning roadblocks before they appear.


1. Lay the Groundwork with Go-to Spanish Courses

These courses are tried and true, get-the-job-done options. They’ll get even absolute beginners comfortable with the sounds and structures of Spanish, and then take you all the way to advanced Spanish and beyond.

They’re all a bit different so, as with most things, there’s no one-size-fits-all program. Consider what each one offers and choose the one that best meets your personal learning style and goals.

Free FSI Courses for Self-study

These are the courses that the Foreign Service Institute uses to teach languages to diplomats and officials who travel internationally. You’ll get an absolute goldmine of first-rate audio and reading materials that you can follow on your own schedule.

And it’s all available for free!

I’ve used one of the courses to fast-track my German and that particular 30-day course gave me enough of a foundation that I was able to get by and converse in the language. It was interesting, if intense because of my own schedule, but I would definitely use these courses again.

The Spanish section has six different courses including basic language courses and courses especially for different Spanish-speaking regions.

FluentU’s Authentic Spanish Program

Ouino’s Non-linear Language Course

Ouino bills itself as a “core method” for Spanish learning—the idea is to use Ouino to learn language essentials and then supplement or reinforce your learning with other resources (like reading in Spanish or having a language exchange) alongside it.

Ouino is also a non-linear language course, meaning you can take the lessons in almost any order you want. This helps you target your personal language goals and define your own levels of proficiency.

Of course, maybe you benefit from structure. Ouino also has a “recommended path” for a more traditional learning course.

There are over 300 interactive Spanish lessons, about 1,000 exercises and more than 3,000 sentences designed for pronunciation practice.

Busuu’s Bite-sized Spanish lessons

Busuu’s idea is that any free time in your schedule—even if it’s only 10 minutes—is enough to improve your Spanish. Their lessons are designed to be comprehensive but also concise, so you can learn while you’re between meetings or waiting for the bus.

The Spanish program has more than 80 units so it’s enough to cover the basics and much more. They offer writing, review, repetition and offline learning with downloads, so this is a mobile program.

2. Prevent Ser/Estar Struggles Before They Start

One of the most common problems for native English speakers learning Spanish is confusion between ser and estar, which both mean “to be.” You’ll be using these verbs all the time right from the get-go, so learn their differences early and you’ll thank yourself later.

Ser (to be) describes a permanent issue or situation. Another word that comes to mind when I think of “permanent” is “solid.” Like, solid as a rock, basically unchanging. Ser describes time, relationships, people or things, occupations and ownership—unchangeable items. I remember the “s” in solid and the “s” in ser and it eliminates any confusion.

Son las ocho. (It is eight o’clock.)

Dona es mi hermana. (Dona is my sister.)

El gato es rojo. (The cat is red.)

Juan es electricista. (Juan is an electrician.)

Ese carro azul es mío. (That blue car is mine.)

Estar (to be) is even easier to use because it describes anything that’s temporary. How do I recommend beginning learners remember that rule? The word estar has a “t” in it—and that makes a connection to the word temporary. It sounds silly, I know—but it works.

Use estar to describe location, an action that’s taking place at the present time or something very temporary like a mood or feeling.

El libro está sobre la mesa. (The book is on the table.)

Estamos bailando. (We are dancing.)

Ella está enojada. (She is angry.)

3. Memorize the Key Features of Written Spanish

This is an easy hack to make your Spanish writing look fluent and professional even when you’re still a beginner. Just like learning ser/estar early on, building good writing habits now will make your life much easier as you progress.

Spanish punctuation and accent marks can be intimidating for new Spanish writers, but they really shouldn’t be. There are three diacritical marks used in Spanish and their usage is pretty clear-cut.

The tilde, which English speakers recognize as the little squiggle in the word piñata, just differentiates the letter “n” from “ñ.”

Accent marks go above vowels to indicate emphasis on the syllable that they highlight, as in árbol (tree). And the umlaut, the least common punctuation mark, shows the pronunciation change from “gu” to “w”—for example, in the word pingüino (penguin).

I hear you wondering about the “upside down” punctuation marks Spanish uses. The inverted exclamation point and question mark appear at the beginning of any statement or question that ends with either of those marks.

If you’re going to exclaim, you need two exclamation points.

¡Maravilloso! (Wonderful!)

And if you’re going to question, you need two question marks.

¿Por qué? (Why?)

4. Diversify Your Learning with Out-of-the-box Lessons

As noted earlier, it’s easy to lose your motivation once you get past the excitement and information explosion of a new language and the concepts start to get more difficult. These handy, unique Spanish lesson resources will mix things up and keep it fun so you don’t lose your momentum right when you need it most.

Language Zen’s Spanish Music Lessons

Nothing grabs your attention and gets your energy up like music. Language Zen takes popular Spanish songs (and Spanish versions of popular English songs) and uses them to teach vocabulary.

As the song plays, you’ll see the accompanying lyrics with an English translation available as well. Language Zen will then quiz you on the vocabulary you just heard.

This tool is currently offered in Latin American Spanish but there are plans to add European Spanish in the future.

Gritty Spanish for Real Talk

Gritty Spanish isn’t a tame and traditional language course. It’s designed to teach you the real, sometimes salty Spanish that you’ll hear on the street.

It features audio narratives, acted out by “eccentric” native Spanish speakers. Not only will you hear a variety of accents and totally unique stories, Gritty Spanish even includes background noises on the audio so you’re prepared to actually go out and have conversations in real life, not just in the quiet classroom.

Of course, to make sure you’re actually learning from what you’re hearing, Gritty Spanish includes PDF notes and trascripts.

The core Gritty Spanish course comes in two versions, original and censored. Created for advanced and somewhat mature learners, the original version features true-to-life scenarios and dialogue. The vulgarity is removed from the censored version.

It’s been so popular there’s now a Gritty Spanish Beginnings course, which is suited for beginner learners.

Bueno, entonces’ Lessons Disguised as TV

Bueno, entonces translates to “Well, then” and is an animated Spanish learning series for adults.

Its website asks, “What if learning Spanish was like watching a funny addictive TV show?” The programming incorporates solid grammar and vocabulary exercises under the guise of a fast, funny TV series.

There are more than 50 videos and they definitely have enough content to bring a beginning learner to a comfortable conversational stage.

David, a Londoner in Buenos Aires who needs to learn Spanish, asks the right questions of his Argentine teacher, Jimena. The cultural tension and budding relationship between this pair makes for interesting learning! They have a definite chemistry!

5. Immerse Yourself in the Spanish-speaking World

One of the most effective (and most enjoyable) methods to achieve fluency is immersion in a Spanish-speaking region. Being surrounded 24/7 by a target language and its cultural delights is a win for nearly everyone who does this.

Of course, not everyone can jump up from jobs, families or budgets and travel across the globe. But if it’s possible for you to make the journey, you should. Here are three great options to consider:

This cosmopolitan port city hosts one of the biggest carnivals in the world as well as several other cultural events, so along with educational opportunities it provides a vibrant immersive experience.

  • Agualivar Spanish School provides an immersive experience in Malaga, Spain. Students live in a homestay that stresses a Spanish-only speaking environment. The option of staying at least one week or a maximum of 12 weeks is entirely dependent on the learner’s schedule.

This seems like an ideal option, especially considering the small group setting (four students maximum at any time) and beachfront villa accommodations!

  • Intercultura Costa Rica Spanish Schools in historic Heredia is a customizable immersive experience. They offer one-on-one tutoring either at the homestay location or on their campus. There’s also a small class option (four or five students).

Learners at any stage of learning are welcome so whether you’re going for the absolute basics or to deepen language abilities, this is a good spot for it.

  • And if learning to play la guitarra (the guitar) is also on your to-do list, Celas Maya Spanish School in Guatemala combines both courses—Spanish and guitar—so you can strum while you speak!

6. Put Your Spanish Skills on Your Resume

Whether or not you travel to a Spanish-speaking region, you have an additional option to intensify your studies. Credited online Spanish courses give you that push towards fluency that you can also use for academic credit or professional advancement.

Coursera's Certificate Spanish Classes

On Coursera, you can find classes from top universities throughout the world, without the giant tuition costs. There are many options for Spanish students that’ll teach you Spanish and culminate in a certificate you can highlight on your resume.

There are specialized classes you can adapt to your needs, like Spanish vocabulary for careers and social events. It’s a great way to put those final touches on your Spanish—and have the paper to prove it afterwards.

Of course, there are also more basic or comprehensive Spanish language courses—check out Coursera's full course list to see what works for you!

University of Wisconsin’s Spanish Distance Learning Courses

The University of Wisconsin at Madison offers a dozen online or email Spanish courses. The distance learning program courses are all university level, taught with flexibility of schedule and at the student’s convenience.

“Your pace, your place” is their tagline for the Spanish language program. It seems to be an exceptional choice for picking up some college credits without stress.

So, What’s the Holdup?

You’ve made this epic decision—learning to speak Spanish—and now have all the information you need to get started. Choose a class, grab a few extras and get to it. ¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)

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