We all know not to “look a gift horse in the mouth.”
But do we know why we say that? Or what it even means?
If you listen to an episode of “A Way with Words,” you can see how much of our past is reflected in just that one common phrase.
Realizing how much history is in a phrase you probably never even questioned just goes to show: When we study a language, we learn more than words.
If you’re embarking on a journey to learn Spanish, congratulations! You’re about to open a whole new world.
The rich depth, history and culture infused in languages are why we don’t always understand jokes translated to another language and why we’re prone to making language mistakes during the learning process.
So, by deciding to pursue Spanish, you’ll gain more than a few words and phrases to impress your friends or date. It’ll inevitably lead to a deeper appreciation and knowledge of the cultures of the Spanish-speaking world.
And, okay, you’ll probably also learn a few punny Spanish jokes to tell at the office Christmas party on the way.
Why Should You Learn Spanish?
A greater appreciation of the world is nice and all, but you probably want to know the practical reasons for learning español.
If reading the famous works of Miguel de Cervantes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and countless other Spanish-speaking authors in their native tongue isn’t compelling enough, I get it.
Here’s one for you: Studying Spanish can make you smarter.
Studies have shown that there are benefits to learning a language—at any age. Bilingual people tend to show better focus and concentration and perform better on standardized tests.
The cognitive function required for language management increases a learner’s analytical skills and expands their working memory and problem-solving abilities.
Apart from exercising the brain, learning Spanish can also help you build your social network. In 2017, there were over 500 million Spanish speakers worldwide, including 53 million in the United States. Take a second to think about what that means.
Not only will you have lots of new friends to add on Facebook, but it also means there are many resources out there that cater to this population and that you can use during your language-learning journey.
From podcasts to television series, there’s plenty of Spanish material at your disposal. And since we’ve already mentioned how many Spanish language speakers there are, you won’t have any issues finding someone to practice with.
This ability to communicate will also make you more marketable. Bilingual employees tend to make more than their monolingual counterparts and there are many jobs out that specifically seek Spanish speakers.
You might be thinking that it’ll be a while before you’re fluent enough to see the benefit of being bilingual. While there’s some truth to that (you certainly won’t learn Spanish overnight!), the advantages of learning a language at any stage can’t be ignored.
Your willingness to learn a new skill and openness to learning about a different culture show that you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone.
That’s a valuable trait for potential employees!
How Long Does It Take to Become Fluent in Spanish?
Learning a language isn’t like building a birdhouse. It’s not a finished product you can see at the end of completing a YouTube tutorial. And that can be frustrating to some.
Others think fluency is a point that can be reached, and once you get there, you’ll stop making mistakes and conversation will spill out like rivers of rainbow colors. Unfortunately, that’s just not true.
Some days the words will come easy, and other days you’ll kick yourself because you forgot the word for “shoes.”
It’s important to seek progress over perfection.
The word fluency comes from the Latin word fluentem, which means “to flow.” This equates to writing and speaking “quickly and easily in a given language.”
While that’s nice to know, it isn’t particularly helpful in terms of classifying where you are and where you’re going in your journey.
It’s better to think of language learning in stages, or levels. This helps you know what you’re aiming for. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) divides language into six levels, from A1 (beginner) to C2 (proficient).
There’s even a handy language self-assessment grid to help you determine where you are at any particular time. Use this tool as a motivator to help you note your progress over time.
Another factor you need to keep in mind is that there are four different language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. And these can develop at different rates: The receptive skills (listening and reading) tend to develop quicker than the expressive skills (writing and speaking).
However, your proficiency level in each of these skills depends on a number of factors like practice, resources, comfort level and time.
So, instead of asking yourself how long it takes to learn Spanish and whether you’re now “fluent” in Spanish, it’s better to monitor and periodically assess your growth in each language skill individually.
Learn Spanish by Yourself Using Apps, Online Resources, Books and More!
Spanish Basics: What You Need to Know Before You Start
Here are some things you need to know about Spanish right off the bat. Keeping them in mind as you move forward will give you the momentum you need to gain proficiency.
The Royal Spanish Academy
One institution you’ll hear a lot about is the Spanish Royal Academy, or the Real Academia Española (RAE). This organization is responsible for defining the norms that govern the Spanish language.
For example, they’re the ones who decided to remove the ll and ch from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, reducing it to 27 letters. They also ultimately make the decision of whether or not to include English words like “selfie” into the language.
Once you feel more confident in your reading skills, you’ll want to follow along with the RAE Twitter account to stay up-to-date on the most current decisions.
Spanish alphabet and pronunciation
Many would argue that learning a language by starting with the alphabet isn’t the most efficient way. To an extent, I agree. I’m not sure if a native Spanish speaker will ever walk up to you and say, “Quick! What letter follows ñ?”
However, due to many similarities between the Spanish and English alphabet, it’ll be relatively easy for you to pick up. And, knowing a few things about the alphabet will help you tune your ears to the sounds of the language and facilitate reading and understanding the language.
Listen to this Spanish alphabet rap song to hear the letters, and note the sound of the vowels as you hear them.
They’re pronounced short and sweet. This attributes to the flow of the language and why it seems like Spanish speakers talk at a really fast rate.
And, as opposed to English, Spanish vowels (almost) always sound the same, making reading and pronunciation a little simpler. (This’ll give you some more time to focus on learning to roll your r.)
Frequently used words and phrases
As you start off, it’ll be important to have a few words and phrases in your arsenal to get by.
To determine which basic words and phrases you’ll need, think of your most pressing goal.
If you’re planning on going to a foreign country, you’ll need some travel phrases. But if you just want to have a simple conversation, then learning a few survival phrases and basic greetings should be enough to get you started.
When it comes to grammar, there are a couple of hurdles new learners have to jump over. One is understanding basic Spanish sentence structure.
Although English and Spanish sentences are constructed in a similar fashion, new students struggle with mastering word order, negation and punctuation. Mastering these is what you’ll need to get closer to the advanced level.
Another hurdle is Spanish verb conjugations.
As you know, the idea of conjugating isn’t brand new because we do this in English, too. It just means changing the base form of the verb. For example, the verb in the sentence “I sit” changes to “he sits” to match the subject.
So while this isn’t a new concept, the memorization of a new set of rules can seem daunting. But the sooner you learn your Spanish tenses and their respective forms, the better.
However, one aspect of Spanish that works in your favor is the presence of English-Spanish cognates. Cognates are words that look the same in Spanish and English and have similar meanings, like comunicar (communicate) and adoptar (adopt).
They’ll really help as you begin to read and understand Spanish. Hey, any head start helps!
Of course, you’ll have to stay away from those false cognates.
How to Learn Spanish Quickly
In her TED Talk, Lýdia Machová attributes her fluency in multiple languages to two facts: She began speaking the new language right away and she made learning fun.
What this looks like depends on you. Do you love music? Have an interest in writing? Prefer podcasts?
The best way to learn quickly is to find something you like that you can stick with. A little bit of language practice every day is much better than trying to cram hours at a time.
Thinking of becoming fluent can be overwhelming and all-consuming. Doing a little each day brings you closer to your goal without taking up all your energy and time.
You also need an effective method. Spaced repetition has been shown to help you learn more information in a short span of time. Difficult information is reviewed at gradually increasing intervals, while the information you’re more familiar with is practiced less and less.
This ensures your study time is spent focused on the more challenging aspects of the language.
Certain apps and learning programs like Anki and other Spanish flashcard apps use spaced repetition to help you memorize new words, grammar concepts and more.
If you want a program that’s both fun and effective, you’ll be interested in FluentU:
FluentU combines all of these elements into one fun platform.
A selection of powerful tools for learners makes learning fun and effective.
Interactive subtitles and video-enhanced flashcards ensure that you learn new vocabulary in context and review it regularly. Adaptive quizzes use fill-in-the-blank style activities to reinforce your learning, then track your progress to provide you with questions that are actually relevant and useful.
A full transcript, key word lists, authentic pronunciation and so much more make this an all-in-one learning program that’ll set you up for Spanish learning success.
How to Learn Spanish by Yourself
There’s more than one way to learn Spanish. As I’ve already stated, you have to find learning methods that make it fun for you and work within your schedule.
Create a habit of practicing Spanish each day at a time that works for you. Do you learn best when you study during your commute? Right after dinner? While you’re washing dishes?
Below are some ideas for how to learn Spanish by yourself. Just remember: Don’t get overwhelmed. Incorporate one idea at a time from the list below instead of trying to include multiple tips into your already busy schedule.
Start by labeling the things around the house. Then, challenge yourself to create a sentence with those phrases at different moments throughout the day.
Even if you can’t construct a whole sentence in Spanish, you can sneak words in. One way to do this is to use your labels to describe your daily activities as you do them. (For instance, you’re not eating dinner at the table, you’re eating it at the mesa!)
Once you’ve learned all your labeled words, the Spanish/English Visual Bilingual Dictionary is a great resource to help visual learners study new words.
Since you’re incorporating these phrases into your daily routine, you’ll quickly internalize them.
Watch Spanish TV
With or without subtitles, vegging out with a Spanish TV show after a long day at work is a great way to tune your ears to the language.
If the regularly scheduled programs don’t get your attention, you can find tons of Spanish material on YouTube, Hulu, Netflix or Roku.
From Spanish language telenovelas (soap operas) to cooking shows, these programs will add some spice to your day.
Listen to Spanish music
Maybe you’d rather learn through music?
That was definitely my preferred method when I began learning Spanish. I loaded my then very hip iPod shuffle with the likes of Juanes, Shakira, Jullieta Venegas, Paulina Rubio, Celia Cruz, Maná and others.
While there’s still research being conducted about how music affects second language development, I know it was the perfect medium for me!
If you’re not quite sure what you like in terms of Spanish music, head to Lyrics Training. It’s a website and app that lets you explore hundreds of different songs and artists and improve your Spanish (as well as other languages).
After selecting a song, you’ll choose a game level (beginner, intermediate, advanced, expert) and start a fill-in-the-blank activity in which you fill in the missing words by listening to the song’s lyrics.
Try not to get too hooked on watching the video or dancing, because you’ll need to keep up with the lyrics. Playing back the audio or taking too long to fill in the words causes you to lose points!
Read, read, read
Reading in Spanish is an excellent way to expose yourself to the language. To improve your Spanish reading skills, you’ll have to find something on your level that sparks your interest.
This can be a comic book, children’s story, Facebook page, Twitter account or a novel, but it needs to be something you can read on a regular basis.
I’ve found that on busy days it’s easier for me to digest a story or paragraph rather than part of a full work of literature, so I sometimes prefer to keep up with social media in Spanish. You can, too!
The Learn Spanish community on Facebook is great for beginners, as well as @SpanishDict on Twitter. Join a group and ask questions or tweet away. There’s no reason to feel like you’re the only one out there learning, so join a community!
There will be other days when you crave longer texts. So, once you increase your Spanish reading endurance and ability, check out “Short Stories in Spanish for Beginners.”
Since reading and writing go hand-in-hand, there are also some grammar resources to help you do both, like “Spanish language tutorial” (e-book) and “Spanish Grammar: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced.”
Get out of your comfort zone
If you feel great about your at-home learning but you need to speak to something else besides the mirror, then local meetups are a good way to meet other Spanish learners and get feedback.
I’ve found local Spanish groups on Facebook, but I’ve also found some on the Meetup website. These groups typically vary in size and language levels, from native speakers to beginners.
In-person meetings can be incredibly helpful in developing your understanding of some of the trickier aspects of Spanish. There’s nothing like talking grammar over an espresso or hot cup of queso (cheese)!
Maybe you’re one of those all-or-nothing folks. Dipping your toes into the waters of Spanish by looking at resources and listening to music is nice, but you want to be up to your eyeballs in it.
Then the best thing for you to do is to get away for a while and immerse yourself in the language.
And it’s not like it used to be, where college study abroad or going as a tourist were your only options. There are tons of Spanish learning programs in other countries that will allow you to stay for days or even months, depending on your needs and schedule.
And if you’d be interested in teaching English abroad, you might even find a way to finance your trip.
How to Learn Spanish Online
I like information divided into chunks and separate units. I like to see what I’ve learned and what I need to learn. And although I love the immersion experience, sometimes I just need someone to explain to me why something is the way it is in Spanish.
That’s where courses and online instructors come in. You might need to try a few platforms to determine which one easily fits into your schedule and lifestyle, but if you’re trying to learn Spanish online, here are a few places to get started.
Foreign Service Institute
This option is a great course for someone who wants the organization and order of learning to be decided for them but can work independently through the material.
The FSI offers six free courses for all types of needs. If you’re headed to Spain, there’s a Spanish Headstart for Spain course. Perhaps you’re looking at somewhere in South America? Then the Spanish Headstart for Latin America course would be right up your alley.
The courses are organized into modules with audio, and there are PDF downloads available for the texts they’re referring to. You can even download the entire course at one time.
Note that these courses are designed for beginners—perfect for those just getting started.
Although it doesn’t have that many options for Spanish, the courses on edX are free.
At the time of this post, there are currently three choices: Spanish for Beginners, AP Spanish Language and Culture and Basic Spanish 2: One Step Further.
These courses are self-paced and last about six weeks if you dedicate five to six hours each week to them. You’ll even see the objectives and who the course is designed for.
If you prefer to study material independently, but would like focused time to practice and gain clarity, italki might be the best place for you.
This service connects you to Spanish teachers and lets you take lessons via the italki platform. To choose the best teacher for your learning needs, you can watch their introduction videos and read reviews from other students.
These one-on-one lessons will be tailored to your personal goals. You’ll also be able to book your lessons for the days and times that suit you. As the site says, you can take lessons “anytime, anywhere.”
How to Learn Spanish with YouTube
As you can see, the best way to learn Spanish quickly is by finding a variety of resources or activities that you enjoy.
There are going to be difficult times, and some days will be better than others. You might not always be up for an entire lesson, and that’s okay.
YouTube to the rescue! There are channels that cater to Spanish learners, as well as authentic channels you can use as you become more fluent.
Learn Spanish with Señor Jordan
On this channel, you’ll find videos created by Señor Jordan for his students. This Spanish teacher no longer updates but the channel is a treasure trove of videos that cover different levels and topics. Some videos even go all the way up to the advanced level, so the videos can grow with you as you progress.
I especially like the fun learning songs, which help learn key elements of the Spanish language—like the difference between ser (to be) and estar (to be)—in a catchy way. Trust me, this is a huge concept in Spanish!
This is another channel to add to your list. There are tons of videos here, including 100 phrases you need to know in Spanish.
The videos here aren’t categorized by level, but you can choose the topic you’d like to explore more.
This channel by itself isn’t enough to master the Spanish language, but it’ll help you delve deeper into trickier aspects of the language.
HolaSoyGerman is an authentic channel dedicated to entertainment. This one-man skit show touches on a topic a week, like how to find a job.
Once again, the channel seems to have stopped uploading, but the sheer amount of videos available make this channel a valuable learning tool (plus, 39 million subscribers still hang on, perhaps hoping to see more of HolaSoyGerman again someday!)
HolaSoyGerman is hilarious but talks really fast, so you might need to use the subtitles to keep up. He has a ton of energy, but it makes the videos pass by so fast you won’t realize you’ve watched two or three… or 10.
The Best Spanish Podcasts for Learners
Currently, there are over 750,000 podcasts out there. We’d be remiss not to incorporate at least a few into our language learning routine.
If you’re at the beginning of your Spanish journey, try a podcast that’ll guide you through the language in a sequential manner, where you can get exposure to the language and the rules.
Like any resource, jumping into all-Spanish material might overwhelm you. As your skills improve, though, you can begin to incorporate some Spanish-heavy podcasts, or even dive into authentic podcasts intended for native Spanish speakers.
Try these Spanish podcasts on for size!
Coffee Break Spanish
One of the most comprehensive podcasts I’ve seen, Coffee Break Spanish was obviously created by a master teacher. Each quality episode gives you a lot of information in a short amount of time, making it easy to digest.
There are four seasons with approximately 30 episodes available in each one, with more being released regularly.
This is another great podcast to keep in mind as you try out different titles. It offers audio material in the form of podcasts and video lessons that vary by level. You can access the first three lessons for free and get new lessons each week without a subscription. However, the other membership levels give you a lot more material.
A beginner could start with the first pathway for absolute beginners, but you have the option to skip around the lessons. You might check this out if you’re just starting out and trying to narrow down your list of resources.
News in Slow Spanish
News in Slow Spanish is another great option for learners. In each weekly episode, native speakers talk about current events at a pace you can understand.
You can choose Spanish from Spain or Latin America. Select the level of your subscription (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and with it, you’ll get access to grammar lessons and a catalog of expressions.
For more advanced learners, HabloGeek focuses on a technology theme to help those of us who aren’t so advanced when it comes to technology.
This is a podcast for those who want to explore the planet without leaving home. Each episode focuses on a different place and tells you everything you need to know about what it’s like to visit it.
Best Apps to Learn Spanish
You already spend a lot of time on your phone. Why not make it productive?
If you want to feel like you’re learning without a lot of effort, apps are the way to go. There are no textbooks—it just feels like you’re playing a game.
It’s also an interactive activity you can do on your lunch break or while waiting at the doctor’s office. There are tons of Spanish apps on the market, so be selective about what you choose. Here are a couple of suggestions.
This app teaches you “to read and speak a new language with audiobooks.” You’ll have a choice of different genres and can select texts that interest you.
The stories are read in Spanish, but learners can access the English translation as they go. You can even flip the audiobook into karaoke mode for speaking practice.
Memrise offers free and paid plans, and really gamifies learning new vocabulary. It uses spaced repetition to help you learn and internalize new words in a short period of time.
Previously, Memrise used mostly community-created decks, which can still be accessed from their new home on Decks. The main Memrise program now features a more robust selection of learning programs and courses which use authentic video and audio, specially designed lessons and more.
I hope you can walk away from this post feeling a little more confident about the journey ahead of you. You now have all the tools and information you need to learn Spanish effectively and efficiently.
Welcome to the group! Keep up with your studies and you’ll be proficient in no time!
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