Whenever anyone says, “Wow! Your Spanish is so good! How did you learn?” I always say, “I taught myself.”
But, essentially, I learned Spanish on my own.
So, what were my tricks? How did I do it?
There’s no getting away from the fact that it took a long time and a lot of personal dedication. Anyone who says you can learn a language in just a few months is lying.
You might be able to find your way around a Spanish-speaking city while on vacation after a quick crash course in the classroom, but it won’t be enough to engage in fluid conversation, go for a job interview or even sing along to music without stumbling over the words.
The key is to throw yourself into the deep end.
I decided to live abroad and get a job teaching English at a small institute in Venezuela. Too many people speak pretty good English in Caracas, so I made sure my position was completely isolated from any kind of English help, high up in the mountains.
I remember crying a lot during the first six months, sometimes even fearing simple tasks, like buying a loaf of bread.
“What will the baker say to me?”
“What happens if he tries to spark up a conversation like he did the last time?”
“How can I manage to just walk into the shop, ask for some bread, hand over the money and get the hell out of there?”
It was a stressful time not having anyone around me who could speak my language, but I knew it was the only way to really become fluent in Spanish.
So, my seven-year do-it-yourself Spanish program really did work, and this—in 13 simple steps—is how I did it.
How to Learn Spanish by Yourself in 13 Simple Steps
1. Spend an hour a day on grammar exercises from a textbook
I found a really simple grammar book and CD for beginners called “Hugo Spanish in 3 Months.” It’s full of short explanations and exercises. All the answers are in the back of the book, and it was an excellent source for picking up the basics: past, present and future tenses; prepositions; popular phrasal constructs and explanations related to plurals and gender.
I set aside one hour at the end of every day to go through the exercises. Whenever I came across a section that troubled me, I’d keep going back to repeat the exercises until the grammar began to sink in.
It’s also worth noting that I kept going back to this grammar book for reference well into my third year of living in Latin America. By that time I was really quite fluent, but little grammar doubts would pop up here and there when in conversation with friends.
I carried a notebook with me at all times, made notes for myself in the moment and then looked them up in “Hugo” later on that same day. In fact, I still carry a notebook with me!
2. Read, underline, look up new words and read again
Reading at home was, without a doubt, the single most useful activity I made time for in the early stages. I read anything I could get my hands on, but I loved reading novels by Paulo Coelho, translated from Portuguese to Spanish.
Why choose a Portuguese writer? Coelho’s writing is just so simple that it’s perfect for beginners. His sentences are short and easy to understand. His vocabulary is pretty basic too. For me, he was the perfect choice.
We didn’t have a TV or the internet in our apartment in Venezuela and, having lived through it, I highly recommend getting rid of other distractions when learning a language. I read every evening and weekend for about eight months.
Most Sundays I read from the moment I got up to the moment I went to sleep. Nobody does anything in the mountains on Sundays, except worship, and that really wasn’t for me.
So, I read and read and read and read.
I’d read a chapter, underlining anything I didn’t understand. Then, I’d look the words up in my paperback dictionary, note down the translations and read the chapter again. I learned so many new words and phrases, and it thoroughly prepared me for stringing sentences together.
3. Watch movies and TV shows with subtitles
I used two TV techniques.
The first is for beginners: watching Spanish movies with English subtitles.
The second is for advanced speakers: watching Spanish movies with Spanish subtitles.
It might seem odd to watch in Spanish and read in Spanish at the same time, but it really does work wonders. Reading skills develop a lot faster than listening skills. By reading and listening at the same time, I was really able to improve my pronunciation.
It also helped me to speak like the locals. After a year in Venezuela, I moved to Argentina, where I lived for five years. Spanish in Venezuela is very different from Spanish in Argentina. Watching Argentine movies and looking for typical Argentine phrases helped me to fit in more and make friends.
One of my all time favorite Argentine movies from the ’80s is “Made in Argentina.” I love listening to the Argentine accents in this movie and watching them drink mate from their PH patios.
For a super learning boost, use FluentU to watch subtitled videos.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos topics, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
Plus, if you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and recommends examples and videos for you based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re studying with the same video.
4. Listen to the radio in Spanish
Listening to the radio in Spanish is something you’ll find enjoyable after about two years of being fairly fluent. I found it impossible at first, but I recommend sticking with it. Understanding what someone says in a foreign language without seeing their lips can be tricky.
I managed to fit in a good hour and a half every day, listening to the radio on my phone when traveling to and from work in Buenos Aires.
It was a great way of making the journey go faster, it gave me loads of stuff to talk about with my Argentine friends, plus it got me hooked on some awesome Spanish-speaking musicians. In particular, Andrés Calamaro, Vicentico, Joaquín Sabina, Anita Tijoux, Calle 13 and Gustavo Cordera.
At home, I always leave the radio on in the background and even after seven years in Latin America I still hear phrases that I don’t understand. I note them down and look them up later. The learning process with the radio really doesn’t ever stop.
5. Travel to Spanish-speaking countries
Travel, travel and keep on traveling. I spent around seven years traveling to Spanish-speaking countries before I made the move to Venezuela and it gave me lots of confidence. I got better at sharing with locals and recognizing through context what they were trying to say to me. It was always a real buzz and kept me wanting to improve my language skills.
Also, it’s important to travel to a variety of countries to hear different accents and different kinds of Spanish.
Before moving to Venezuela, I’d already visited Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Spain. Since living in Latin America, I’ve made time to travel to Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Mexico.
The more Spanish you hear, the easier it becomes for you to understand it in any context.
6. Spend time in Spanish-speaking environments
If you can’t travel abroad, travel to places in your home town where Spanish-speaking people hang out. Before leaving London, I used to go to a lot of salsa clubs, and I remember having a really great time.
I’d also eat in Spanish restaurants, drink in Spanish cocktail bars and I even joined a Spanish conversation group at one point. It was a group organized by native Spanish speakers as a way of bridging the cultural gap between Londoners and foreigners who were living a long way from home.
That particular group doesn’t exist anymore—I’ve checked—but there must be plenty of others.
7. Volunteer for a long-term project in a Spanish-speaking country
When I first visited Argentina I volunteered for The South American Explorers, an NGO dedicated to raising money for local charities and projects. I volunteered for about eight months and particularly enjoyed working to support Fundación Ph15, a volunteer photography organization for children in Villa 15 of Buenos Aires.
The time I spent with these children as a volunteer opened my eyes and ears to new expressions and natural vocabulary that I wouldn’t have had the chance to access otherwise.
8. Keep a Spanish blog
The idea of keeping a Spanish blog is something I’ve only been considering for the past couple of months, but I think it’s something anyone can do, even as a Spanish-speaking beginner.
The idea is to create a free, basic blog (Blogger and WordPress both have great platforms for this) and begin by adding an editor’s note explaining that you’ve set up this blog to help you improve your Spanish writing skills and to document your progress.
You should then commit to writing one post a week, or once every fortnight, but—and here’s the key—make sure you write it in English first and then translate it into Spanish before you publish.
By writing each post in English, you won’t restrict yourself to the Spanish vocabulary you already know. You’ll benefit from the freedom of your native language, and then have the tricky task of turning the post into Spanish.
I’ve no doubt that this exercise will help to broaden vocabulary, test grammatical knowledge and build confidence when it comes to writing in Spanish.
9. Take some online Spanish courses
A highly effective method for learning Spanish on your own is to take some online Spanish courses. Let’s face it; we pretty much travel with our laptops, tablets and phones at all times—which means that any online course will be at your disposal anytime, anywhere.
What’s not to love about that?
Keep in mind that you’re more likely to devote time to a program that holds your interest. For me, I enjoyed from time to time using Coffee Break Spanish and Fluencia. They both incorporate Spanish culture into their lessons, which really helps spice things up—at least it did for me!
Coffee Break Spanish has several options for Spanish courses. Their Coffee Break Academy offers courses ranging from beginner level to intermediate. There’s even a “master” course to help push you to toward total fluency.
The Coffee Break Spanish Reading Club is a fantastic way to build vocabulary skills. The focus of this course is to use weekly texts to introduce cultural insights while building reading skills.
Fluencia is another excellent course for Spanish language learners to consider using. This site is heavy on cultural information, so if you’re looking to learn more than just the mechanics of the Spanish language, this course if for you.
Lessons use native speakers and are broken up into topics that make for an organized, efficient method for learning. Lessons include conversations—perfect for pronunciation practice!—as well as vocabulary and cultural segments.
10. Learn conversational Spanish with a partner
Many of us do really well partnering up to learn. A language partner will help challenge you and make your language learning journey less solitary and more social! I was fortunate enough on my language journey to be surrounded by wonderful native Spanish speakers, but if that’s not your reality, specifically seeking out a language partner is the next best route.
If you’re not currently living abroad in a Spanish-speaking country, you can find a partner using a site like Conversation Exchange. Language learners upload personal profiles that list gender, age, hometown, native language, practicing language, hobbies and purpose for partnering up. Most express a desire to practice a language with someone more fluent, with the hope of both partners gaining language skills.
It’s a marvelous method to chat with someone in Spanish—and maybe even form a life-long friendship!
Having a language exchange partner will definitely help you with pronunciation, grabbing idioms and learning about the Spanish culture. It’s amazing how quickly you’ll progress when you start spending time with your language exchange partner. It’ll hardly feel like work when you’re enjoying the language learning process.
If you’re in an area with a Spanish-speaking population, consider going local for a language partner. Join a local club—maybe dance, cooking or even a book club!—to speak face-to-face in Spanish instead of digitally.
11. Get a Spanish tutor to help you out
Sometimes when you’re learning by yourself, hitting a plateau is not entirely uncommon. That’s when you might consider enlisting a little help on the side. Getting a Spanish tutor to help you is the perfect way to power up your language learning progress again, especially if you’re not being exposed to Spanish regularly as I was when I was learning.
Depending on where you live, access to a native Spanish tutor, even just a short-term one, might be limited. Fortunately, there are plenty of digital tutors.
Spanish via Skype offers Spanish tutoring with fully qualified language teachers. Their lessons come with training materials, and their scheduling is intended to be flexible so that you can book a session to suit your needs. I love that feature—who wants to be stuck to someone else’s schedule? Language learning on your time will fit into your schedule!
12. Download Spanish apps to help build your vocabulary
I’m a big fan of Spanish apps because they really are workhorses for vocabulary building. Also, they’re mobile and convenient, offering tiny bites of learning whenever you have a free moment.
LingQ is a sensational app to try out. It offers so many features, including the ability to track how many words you’ve learned, a playlist to shuffle content, targets so you know what you’re working toward and so much more. There’s a lot of downloadable audio material, so if you’re somewhere without internet access, you can still study Spanish.
Also, they feature vocabulary review using Spaced Repetition System, or SRS, which means that words you’ve learned keep showing up in your lessons. That way, those words stay in your mind, and you don’t forget them. As vocabulary grows, the SRS accommodates that by offering different words for reinforcement.
Reword is also a neat app to have if you’re a fan of flashcards—which I personally am. There’s something old school about flashcards, but they endure as a solid learning tool because they work.
The Reword app allows users to create word lists, track progress and more. With over 4,500 words and phrases offered, this app will keep most of us busy for quite a while.
13. Try some Spanish learning games
Spanish learning games are an ideal addition to any language program. Who doesn’t love to play? I know I do! And even though you’re competing against yourself when you use this option, it’s still loads of fun that translates into stress-free language learning!
Drops will definitely add a level of entertainment to your learning program. It’s a visual method, which means that they use concise illustrations to show word and phrase meanings. You’ll see what words mean, instead of reading the translation.
This is a convenient learning and practicing Spanish method that can be done in five-minute increments. It’s a blast to see how far you can get in that time frame! See what I meant about a little friendly competition against yourself?
Digital Dialects is a go-to spot for Spanish learning games. There are many to choose from—and they cover essential topics that learners will need to know. Numbers, colors, nouns, basic phrases, food and so much more are up for grabs here.
The games vary by topic, but all are worthwhile and interesting. There are options for additional games within each topic, so once you finish the first games that are offered, you then have chance to play more difficult games. It’s a smooth way to transition from basic Spanish to more intermediate learning materials.
I spent more time than I care to admit playing the games at Digital Dialects! It’s so entertaining with the added benefit of reinforcing your Spanish language skills. Sometimes one of the best things you can do as you’re learning a language on your own is to give yourself permission to play, and this site encourages that!
So there you have it, 13 simple steps to learning Spanish by yourself.
Follow these steps, and there will come a day when someone compliments your Spanish and inquires how you learned the language so well.
And then, you can proudly respond, “I taught myself!”
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.