Whenever anyone says, “Wow! Your Spanish is so good! How did you learn?” I always say, “I taught myself.”
Sure, I made sure that I had Spanish natives to talk to, picking their brains about grammar, vocabulary and local expressions whenever I could, and a few other means of language learning support.
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 18 simple steps—is how I did it.
What Is the Best Way to Learn Spanish?
Since I’m about to share my tips on how to learn Spanish by yourself, you might be thinking about whether a self-taught program is the best way to go about learning the language.
There isn’t really a straightforward answer to this. Teaching myself was just the method that I went with.
There are tons of ways to learn Spanish, and the reality is there isn’t a singular method that is better than the other. It’s about finding what works for you, what matches your goals and what you need to do to reach those goals.
But no matter if you go down the DIY route like I did or opt for something a little more structured like a course, there are a couple of things you have to maintain throughout your Spanish learning journey. And those two things are immersion and consistency.
By learning Spanish, you’re welcoming a change in lifestyle, which means that you have to surround yourself in all things Spanish. It’s like all five of your senses have to be saturated in the language, which can be done by moving to a Spanish-speaking country, or by following the steps I’ve outlined below.
Consistency is also a huge factor. Regardless if you study on your own or through a class, nothing will stick in the long run if you don’t practice on a regular basis. Doing a little bit every day is way more effective than having an extremely long review session every weekend.
So whatever you decide in terms of learning methods, just remember that the name of the game is consistency and immersion. When I struggle with either of these two areas, I always look to FluentU for some help.
With features such as authentic Spanish content and a progress tracker, FluentU has allowed me to explore the Spanish-speaking world through my phone while helping me stay on track with my daily learning goals—but I’ll talk a little more about how this worked for me later!
How to Learn Spanish by Yourself in 18 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 at 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, here’s how you can use FluentU to learn Spanish via 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 gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve 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 hometown 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.
Another great strategy is to transform your home into a Spanish learning hotspot! In fact, to learn Spanish, one of the ultimate strategies is to change your environment into a place that promotes Spanish learning and education. And the best part? This can be achieved whether you live in a Spanish-speaking country or not!
For some hot tips on how to achieve an immersive environment, check out the video below. The video is from the FluentU Spanish YouTube channel, which provides key insights into Spanish learning from native materials. If you want to learn Spanish by yourself, go ahead and subscribe to the channel!
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 have 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 is 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 isn’t 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 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 a 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!
14. Sing along to Spanish songs
I love finding ways to study Spanish without feeling like I’m actually studying.
Arguably one of the easiest methods for learning Spanish is by listening to Spanish songs over and over again to the point that the words are stuck in your head. Through music, you’ll refine your pronunciation and accent, as well as learn new expressions, slang and grammar structures. Song lyrics also tend to be geared towards the masses, making the language accessible and applicable in real life.
Of course, there are going to be songs that are nearly impossible to sing along to, even if you’ve heard them a thousand times. Daddy Yankee songs were especially difficult for me, even though he includes English in his songs sometimes. Spanish rap just wasn’t my jam.
Bands like Maná and singers like Juanes were more my cup of tea. They never sang too fast and were clear in their pronunciation, so it was pretty easy for me to learn the lyrics. Plus their songs are super catchy!
15. Learn Spanish through food and recipes
Food has always been a great entryway into new cultures. By eating the national dishes, you’ll get a taste of history, social customs and the language itself. Besides, you have to appeal to different senses to make Spanish more memorable.
This was also a great excuse for me to try new restaurants in my area, but this wasn’t the only way I learned through food.
I love to cook. I also read cookbooks in my spare time, so it made more sense to me to learn Spanish through my love of food. At first, I worked with dishes I’d made in the past, only they were in Spanish instead of English. I thought it was best to start with familiar, everyday recipes—if I tripped up on any vocab, I could make an educated guess based on my experience.
Once I felt pretty comfortable with the kitchen and cooking lingo, I moved onto completely new recipes. Soon after, I felt brave enough to buy “Cocina en casa con Martín Berasategui: 1100 recetas básicas” (Cooking at home with Martín Berasategui: 1100 basic recipes) and “De Tapas con Quique Dacosta“ (Tapas with Quique Dacosta).
Generally, cookbooks are very accessible for beginners, since instructions are all in the infinitive, so go for whichever book piques your interest. I just found those ones helpful since the recipes require less than 10 ingredients and have very few instructions.
If cooking isn’t your forte, no worries. You can still do translation exercises with recipes, writing Spanish recipes into English or vice versa. Learning all these new food vocabulary and names of dishes will also make it miles easier when you’re ordering meals at Spanish or Latin restaurants.
16. Talk to yourself in Spanish
Unless you move to a Spanish-speaking country, you won’t always have a lot of opportunities to talk to others in Spanish. You need all the practice you can get, so when there isn’t anyone around to converse with, you can (and should) talk to yourself.
We all talk to ourselves from time to time anyway. I can’t remember how many times I’ve left my place, asking myself if I’ve unplugged my curling iron and locked the front door. If you’re anything like me, you might as well do the same thing in Spanish.
Because I love to cook, I’d sometimes narrate what I was doing in the kitchen, like I was giving a tutorial. I took notes if I didn’t know the Spanish word for an ingredient or some kitchen equipment. If I had a busy day ahead of me, I’d run through my schedule out loud while I was getting ready.
I’m not saying you should have full conversations with yourself in public—that’s just silly. But the next time you need or want to voice out your thoughts, try to say them in Spanish. And if you stumble upon any words or translations, be sure to take note of them and look them up later.
And if what I did is too advanced for you, another thing you can do is talk to yourself in the mirror to boost your confidence for future conversations with native speakers.
17. Translate as often as you can
Learning Spanish isn’t just about understanding and conversing with native speakers. You have to be able to think in the language as well, which means translating in your head any chance that you get.
When I’m surrounded by Spanish road signs and locals, my brain will automatically try to decipher everything I see and hear into English. And that’s exactly what you need to work up to.
But if it’s not possible for you to be in a Spanish-speaking environment, try to translate everything you read into Spanish, whether it’s a social media post or a restaurant menu. Once you build this habit, your mind will want to translate everything you see into Spanish.
You don’t have to write these translations down every time, although you’re totally welcome to do so! This trick is mostly just to encourage you to think in Spanish throughout the day, rather than limiting your learning to designated study hours.
In the beginning, I did it out of habit because there was so much new information to process. Any time I was out and saw new signs and instructions, I’d type out the translation on my phone.
When I had a little more time to spare, I’d look on Twitter and write out what Tweets would look like in Spanish. I’d also check out the latest posts from @TheSpanishMemes and the word of the day on @SpanishDict.
18. Change the language on your phone to Spanish
Okay, I know this one sounds a little scary, especially if you’re a beginner. But if the goal is to include Spanish in your day-to-day life, then wouldn’t it make sense to make that change on your phone?
I rely on my phone for almost everything, so instead of cutting down on my screen time, I made the most out of it. I digitally immersed myself by changing my phone to Spanish.
The switch was a challenge at first, but it didn’t take too long to adjust. I remembered where the different settings were, so I learned smartphone-related vocabulary by association.
Once you’ve adjusted to the switch, the next step would be changing the language settings on the rest of your devices.
If you’re a newbie in Spanish, this is definitely going to be a struggle. I waited until I had a better grasp on Spanish, but if you know where everything is on your phone anyway, just give it a shot. You can always change your settings back to English if you feel like it’s too difficult for you.
So there you have it, 18 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.