Absolutely anyone can learn Spanish.
I’m totally serious.
It doesn’t matter what your excuse is. Maybe you think you stink at languages. Maybe you think you’re too lazy. Maybe you flunked out of high school Spanish, or maybe you can’t finagle your mouth around the word gracias (thank you).
If you really want to learn Spanish, and you’re willing to make a concrete plan to study, keep it fun and stay motivated over the long haul, you needn’t have any fear.
It isn’t much harder than that.
The chances are quite high that you can achieve any realistic goal you set for yourself with the language. I say this as a former language teacher and a language learning addict who has had my own share of successes—and spectacular failures—with learning languages.
“I Want to Learn Spanish!” A Guide for the Complete Beginner
This guide will hand over the keys to learning Spanish for any and all potential learners, but in particular it’s for those who think they might face more trouble than most. It will be more than enough to get you up and running.
However, for an academic’s book-long take on the process of acquiring a new tongue, I highly recommend “How Languages are Learned”.
Motivation: Defining Your Overarching Goal
This must be central to everything that follows. Good, motivating reasons for learning Spanish include:
- “I want to understand people at salsa events.”
- “I want to flirt with that cute Ecuadorian at work.”
- “I want to read Borges in the original.”
- “I want to understand people at my local taquería (taco stand).”
- “I need Spanish for work so that I can communicate with clients.”
These are all great reasons for learning Spanish because they include personal, compelling motivations that will keep you coming back to it when the going gets rough. They also guide you to specific, achievable goals for study (more on this in the next section), like focusing on reading or focusing on vocabulary used in conversations on the dance floor.
Here are a couple of bad—but rather common—reasons for studying Spanish:
- “I want to be able to tell people I speak Spanish.”
- “I want to have Spanish on my CV.”
- “I want to look smart.”
These are very likely not going to be truly motivating reasons when you can’t seem to find time to crack open that workbook. They also don’t give you any concrete desire to pay careful attention to, for example, a new tense that you’ve come across and how it might allow you to express yourself better.
If looking smart is your honest reason for wanting to learn a language, perhaps you could just lie and say you speak something like Quechua, which few people are going to be able to call you on. Learning a language is a serious commitment, and rarely is it possible without a genuine motivation towards some sort of authentic communication.
Achievable Short-term Goals
Once you’ve nailed down your overall motivation(s), these should then be translated into achievable short-term goals.
You’re not going to immediately get every joke passed around at the taquería and be able to respond in kind, but you should be able to more quickly arrive at goals like:
- “I’m going to place my favorite order in perfect Spanish.”
- “I’m going to memorize and use three words of Mexican slang.”
Once you achieve those goals you’ll make new ones, and continue in the same way throughout the Spanish learning process. Each of the goals should be a step towards your overall motivation(s). For example, if you’re already able to hold a basic phone call in Spanish, and you’re learning the language for professional reasons, one such step might be:
- “I want to be able to explain our most requested product’s specs in passable Spanish.”
Notice how difficult it would be to create such interesting short-term goals without a concrete, personal and compelling long-term goal for the language?
Resources for Efficient Learning
Your long-term and short-term goals will determine the learning tools that you’ll use. Here’s an overview of which tools you might choose. Your range of tools might, however, be different depending on your goals.
If your goals involve any kind of real-world communication with humans (as opposed to the also-valid goals of simply consuming books, music or film), you’re going to want to include a learning method in the mix that involves give and take with other humans.
No, talking to flashcards or a smartphone app isn’t enough.
Seek out one of the following:
- An online tutor
- An in-person tutor
- Spanish classes in your local area
I have a strong preference for online language learning, because it’s cheap and usually one-on-one, so you can really stay focused on your individual goals. I’ve argued that you should design the lessons yourself.
2. A textbook or self-teaching guide
If you’re doing one of the above options, your teacher may provide you with a written grammar guide, exercises or textbook, but even then you may want to investigate getting your own that’s best for you.
These guides can save you a lot of time; Spanish conditional tenses, for example, can be pretty simple to master once the rules are explained—and take forever to figure out if they’re not.
If possible, make sure that your textbook teaches the register and regional variety of Spanish that’s most relevant to your goal; you don’t want to bother learning European Spanish’s vosotros (informal plural “you”) for example if your goal is to hang with Cubans.
To answer specific grammar or vocabulary questions the Internet has a trove of answers too, of course. You can find the best answers to innumerable Spanish conundrums—written by the most handsome Spanish experts on the Internet—by typing into the search box to the right of this post.
Unless your goals involve strictly the written word, videos are an invaluable learning tool. They give you visual feedback while simultaneously showing you the correct pronunciation and context.
They’re also a lot of fun, and that’s so important for staying motivated as you continue in your Spanish-learning adventure (see the next section).
FluentU offers a system in which you can watch native-language videos on all sorts of topics and targeted to all difficulty levels. Each one is integrated into a learning system that allows you to practice your new vocabulary and track your progress. Kind of beats trying to wade through YouTube to find something interesting and also at your Spanish level, huh? We think so too.
4. The written word
Textbooks usually include written materials for the beginning learner, but once you’re at an intermediate to advanced level you can start looking for native materials in the form of blogs, magazines, news sites and short stories that are of interest to you.
You can thus target your reading to your personal goals and interests, and have the learning experience be that much more rewarding.
For some things, unfortunately, rote memorization is still the best option. You still want to use the other, more fun, more communicative options more heavily, but I’d still recommend flashcards (or a flashcard app like Anki) for problems like nailing down irregular conjugations and for burning troublesome new vocabulary into the back of your brain.
New to electronic flashcards? Don’t be intimidated—they’re definitely worth trying! Check out a guide on the subject, like Olly Richards’ “Make Words Stick,” which tells you exactly how to get set up with an electronic flashcard program and how to use it most effectively.
Staying Motivated as You Learn
If you’ve taken the advice above, you might now have a very personal overarching goal, small achievable steps to take on the way, and fun tools that are directly related to those steps.
But let’s not lie to ourselves—learning Spanish takes a very long time and a lot of commitment. Even the best-laid plans are going to run into roadblocks.
Aside from personalizing your goals and tools, as mentioned above, it can be extremely useful to create a personalized routine that you can stick to. When in your day do you have at least 15 minutes that you can devote, free from interruptions, to learning Spanish? (If you can’t even spare this much time, I urge you to quit now while you’re ahead!)
When you create your routine, think also about what has previously tripped you up with language goals, as well as other goals like exercise. What kept you from achieving them, and what has been proven to work for you? How does family or professional life get in the way, and how can you adjust in advance for that so that you’ll still have time for Spanish?
In my personal experience, even a short amount of time every day (I devote a half-hour per language) is far superior to a large chunk of time once a week, as short lessons are more fun and easier to squeeze in—and most importantly I forget nearly everything new if a week has passed.
I hope that you’re ready to jump headlong into an achievable and fun goal with the Spanish language.
Your fling with an Ecuadorian lover, your first Borges novel or some adventures at the taquería are guaranteed to be well worth the effort.
Mose Hayward blogs about 20-minute “fluency” as well as other Tipsy Pilgrim adventures in Spanish-speaking lands and around the world.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.