After four years of high school French, I was able to describe my neighbor as a communist, watermelon, and little else.
So when I decided to learn Spanish, I wanted to see if I could do a better job of teaching myself.
Within five months, I was reading my daily news in Spanish. Within eight months, watching Spanish films without subtitles.
And within a year, I’d made my first friend speaking only Spanish.
- Why Teach Yourself Spanish?
- 18 Powerful Tips to Teach Yourself Spanish
- 1. Learn the basics of Spanish grammar
- 2. Learn Spanish vocabulary the right way
- 3. Label your house
- 4. Keep a Spanish notebook and translate words throughout the day
- 5. Create your own Spanish flashcards
- 6. Use apps for learning Spanish
- 7. Use Spanish social media
- 8. Listen to Spanish podcasts
- 9. Find Spanish songs you like and sing along with printed lyrics
- 10. Do dictations
- 11. Watch “The Simpsons” in Spanish
- 12. Find a Spanish-speaking conversation partner
- 13. Read the news in Spanish
- 14. Think in Spanish
- 15. Watch Spanish films
- 16. Change the language settings on your devices to Spanish
- 17. Try journaling
- 18. Go to a Spanish-speaking country
Why Teach Yourself Spanish?
Understanding why you want to teach yourself Spanish has two components: why teach yourself and why learn Spanish.
You might choose to teach yourself Spanish because:
- It’s much cheaper than taking weekly classes.
- There are no good courses available in your area.
- You might’ve had a bad experience with language classes in high school.
- A busy schedule or family commitments might prevent you from making it to evening classes.
- You love the freedom of learning at your own pace.
Another important question to ask yourself is why you want to learn Spanish:
- It’s the official language in over 20 countries.
- Learning Spanish can help you get a promotion or land the job of your dreams.
- You love Spanish culture and literature.
- It’ll come in handy if you decide to study abroad.
- Learning Spanish will make learning other Romance languages easier.
This motivation will guide you through some of the important choices in designing your program of Spanish study.
- If you’re primarily interested in visiting a Spanish-speaking country, it’ll be a good use of your time to practice understanding that country’s accent and perhaps learn to speak in that accent as well.
- If reading complex works of literature is your goal, your time will be better spent studying literary vocabulary.
- If you’re planning on studying or working in a Spanish-speaking country, you could focus on getting a solid grammar foundation.
18 Powerful Tips to Teach Yourself Spanish
Learning a language involves understanding its grammar, building a working vocabulary, adding a light dusting of idioms and profanities and then putting it all together.
Here are the strategies I used to teach myself Spanish, presented more or less in order of difficulty.
Try to use and implement as many of them as you want, and feel free to add any others from your own language-learning repertoire.
1. Learn the basics of Spanish grammar
Grammar is the scaffolding of a language, but it’s also the most technical aspect of language learning.
Unfortunately, unless you’re an infant or toddler, you’re unlikely to pick up Spanish grammar with the natural ease with which you learned your first language.
Fortunately enough, Spanish generally has very simple grammar, and the basic tenses (present simple, future simple, preterite and imperfect) can be grasped in a day or two.
2. Learn Spanish vocabulary the right way
Grammar would be useless without words, so learning vocabulary while you teach yourself Spanish should also be a priority for you.
When you start teaching yourself Spanish, you need to also teach yourself how to learn in an efficient way.
Start by learning Spanish core words. This’ll help you maximize your results while you save precious time.
Next, learn Spanish cognates. You’ll be amazed at the huge number of Spanish words that look identical in English!
After this, make a list of basic topics you want or need to learn and look for vocabulary lists on them.
Some examples can be:
3. Label your house
A fun and efficient way to teach yourself Spanish is to label your house.
In other words, buy a ton of post-its and stick them to as many items as you can with their names written in Spanish.
Resist the temptation of adding any translation. The purpose of this strategy is to only see Spanish words wherever you look at!
Once you’re familiar with the vocabulary around the house, you can challenge yourself in different ways:
- Ask someone to stick the post-its to the wrong objects and try to put them back to their right places.
- Create a simple sentence in your mind when you see a word.
- Remove the post-its altogether and try to mentally name the objects you see.
4. Keep a Spanish notebook and translate words throughout the day
Ten new vocabulary words per day is sometimes quoted as a realistic target.
However, the worst possible way to go about this would be to arbitrarily pick 10 common words, put them on a list and spend 20 minutes trying to force them into your long-term memory.
Instead, translate new Spanish words during idle moments in your day.
If you have a smartphone, install a Spanish translation app. If you don’t, carry a pocket English/Spanish dictionary with you. Also, carry a small notebook and note down your translations as you go.
Creating memorable visual associations is one way to commit new vocabulary to memory at the start (for example, you might remember that cabeza means “head” by imagining a taxicab full of bees swarming around the taxi driver’s head).
Translating words continuously throughout the day has a similar memory-hacking effect. It taps into the much more powerful visual memory. Instead of needing to remember a cab full of bees, you can remember whose head you saw that prompted you to translate the word.
5. Create your own Spanish flashcards
Flashcards are a superb learning tool if you know how to use them right.
Many learners use flashcards to write a word in their native language on one side and its translation into their target language on the other side.
While this isn’t wrong, it’s just a way of wasting a valuable learning resource!
Flashcards can include as much info as you want them to. A translation is a good start, but what about adding sample sentences, too?
Even better, what if we normalize using flashcards to learn not only Spanish vocabulary but also the conjugation of difficult Spanish verbs, or synonyms and antonyms, or even Spanish grammar rules?
Flashcards can be whatever you imagine.
If you don’t feel like making them from scratch yourself, download a Spanish flashcard app to your phone.
6. Use apps for learning Spanish
Language apps are possibly one of the most popular ways of learning a language nowadays.
They fit perfectly into the self-study system, and they have a lot of advantages over other methods, namely:
- Once on your phone, they can be taken with you everywhere.
- They allow you to have micro-learning sessions, so they’re perfect for breaks and while commuting.
- They’re often free or not very expensive.
- Some of them can be used offline.
- They’re interactive, engaging and fun.
There are tons of great apps to learn Spanish. When choosing yours, remember to go for one that’s compatible with how you’re learning the language (by yourself) and comprehensive enough to take you through at least two language levels.
For example, you may want to opt for the gamified app Duolingo if you want to go from complete beginner to intermediate, while other apps may be better suited for advancing existing Spanish skills.
If you already have some background in Spanish, the immersion program FluentU tests your reading and listening abilities through Spanish media clips, interactive subtitles and other learning aids.
Ultimately, you’ll find what works best for you through trial and error, so get out there and start experimenting!
7. Use Spanish social media
Social media arrived into our lives a few years ago and it decided to stay.
The vast majority of us have a profile on one (or all) of the main social media platforms available, and since we spend so much time glued to our screens every day, what better way to learn Spanish than to use those platforms to our advantage?
There are several social media platforms where you can learn Spanish by yourself.
My top three are (in no specific order):
- Twitter: You can use Twitter to follow Spanish people you admire and learn with Spanish tweets written by native Spanish speakers.
- Pinterest: Pinterest is perfect for visual learners. Besides, there are literally millions of pins on learning Spanish. Find your favorite ones!
- Facebook: Facebook is the most used social media platform, so it’s no surprise that it has thousands of groups devoted to learning Spanish.
8. Listen to Spanish podcasts
Spanish podcasts are a great way to practice listening to native Spanish speakers.
There’s a variety of good, free Spanish podcasts available on iTunes. We’ve put together a great list of Spanish podcasts. Go check them out!
Many of these podcasts are targeted at Spanish language learners, meaning they contain simple vocabulary, spoken slowly and clearly. This is a great way to get started with Spanish comprehension, before moving on to more complex forms of comprehension.
Once you get better at it, you can start listening to Spanish podcasts for native speakers.
They’re different from podcasts for Spanish learners in that the vocabulary is harder and the podcast hosts talk at a normal, native speed. However, using this type of podcast will boost your listening comprehension skills to the stratosphere.
9. Find Spanish songs you like and sing along with printed lyrics
Spanish music is enormously diverse.
It includes salsa, tango, reggaetón, banda, as well as variations on common Western musical styles such as rock, rap, pop, and more.
There should be something to suit all musical tastes!
Start by listening to some Spanish songs on YouTube. Once you find one you like, find the lyrics online, print them and try to sing along.
Spanish music will fit into one of your key areas of mental downtime: exercise time.
You probably won’t want to listen to podcasts while running, walking your dog or lifting weights, but you might find a reggaetón playlist is just the thing you need to keep you motivated during your weekly workout regimen.
10. Do dictations
Sometimes, going back to traditional language-learning methods works wonders.
Dictations are an example of one of those activities most of us disliked when we were kids, but our teachers insisted on doing them for a reason: they work!
Dictations will help you improve your Spanish spelling and Spanish writing skills, allowing you to practice your listening comprehension along the way.
Some online resources you can use to practice dictation are:
- Speechling: This is a free dictation-practice page that lets you choose the speed, language variety, level and topic of the dictation, among other cool features.
- Lingua.com: This site offers six free dictations. You’ll get access to 49 additional ones if you go premium.
- Spanish Circles: Spanish Circles is a great place to practice Spanish dictations because it allows you to choose the level and the topic of the dictation. The topics can be related to vocabulary (like the days of the week and the months of the year), people, places and even grammar topics (like irregular or reflexive verbs). Each sentence of the dictation includes an English translation.
11. Watch “The Simpsons” in Spanish
What child of the ’80s or ’90s wouldn’t be fluent in three languages if they’d devoted every half hour of watching “The Simpsons” to more worthy pursuits instead?
The good news for Simpsons fans is that your accumulated knowledge is useful for something!
While watching “The Simpsons” in Spanish, I was surprised at just how much of what happened in the episodes I could remember. I suspect up to 10% of my memory may be occupied by old episodes of “The Simpsons.”
If Spanish is your first foreign language, one important obstacle for you will be getting used to the feeling of comprehension.
Remembering the basic content of old Simpsons episodes will give you the impression of understanding more, which is a great confidence booster.
Episodes of “The Simpsons” dubbed in Spanish can be found here.
12. Find a Spanish-speaking conversation partner
There are more than 460 million Spanish speakers in the world. You can be sure there’s at least one near you!
You can find your Spanish speaker in any number of places.
Many universities run language exchanges for their international students, which are often open to non-students. Other places to look at are classified sites such as Craigslist and Gumtree.
Nowadays, there are even sites that specialize exclusively in helping you find the perfect language partner. One such place is MyLanguageExchange, which has over three million users from all around the world.
If you’re ready to go one step further and want to find a language exchange group for an in-person experience, you can check out the Meetup website and join people meeting near you!
Practicing Spanish by talking to a Spanish speaker will be the single most important part of your study program.
The experience of conjugating verbs and recalling vocabulary as part of a flowing conversation will extend your abilities and improve your comprehension.
Best of all, your Spanish conversation partner will be able to point out mistakes as you make them, as well as teach you idioms and slang.
13. Read the news in Spanish
Newspapers and news websites are a great place to start reading Spanish, because they tend to use simple language and a fairly restricted vocabulary.
Starting the day by reading the news in Spanish is also a great way to fit in the 20-30 minutes of Spanish practice that’ll be your bread and butter as a self-taught student.
Some good Spanish news websites include the major Spanish daily El País, CNN’s Spanish service and Madrid’s ABC newspaper.
14. Think in Spanish
Start thinking in Spanish as soon as you can to accelerate your learning.
You don’t need to think about complex things, just do it in Spanish!
Whether you’re mentally making a grocery shopping list or thinking about what to wear to work tomorrow or how loudly your neighbors talk, try to use Spanish while doing it.
You can also talk to yourself in Spanish (not necessarily out loud).
When you’re walking or commuting to work, describe what you’re seeing.
When you’re cooking, tell yourself which ingredient to grab next.
When you’re having a shower, have an internal conversation about the meaning of life (or the price of gas).
The topic isn’t important as long as you do it in Spanish.
15. Watch Spanish films
Spanish films are a great way to build your vocabulary while improving your comprehension.
Borrow a film per week from your local video store or public library, find Spanish movies on Netflix or watch a movie on TV if you have access to any Spanish TV program.
Whenever possible, turn on the Spanish subtitles and use these as an aid to your comprehension. Try to get used to hearing the words as they appear on the screen, and feel free to pause and translate unfamiliar phrases.
Watching films in Spanish is also a great way to improve your knowledge of regional accents while sampling different Spanish-speaking cultures. Thankfully, two of the countries with the clearest Spanish accents, Mexico and Spain, are also the most prolific producers of Spanish language features.
16. Change the language settings on your devices to Spanish
Most modern electronic devices support a range of languages, and Spanish is sure to be among them.
Changing the default settings on your phone, laptop, e-book reader, game console, etc., to Spanish is a great way to incorporate a range of common vocabulary into your day.
Meanwhile, the necessity of interacting with a program or, better yet, a video game in Spanish will give you a sense of what it’s like to live in a Spanish-speaking country.
17. Try journaling
Simply put, journaling is putting our thoughts into words.
Journaling is also a great way of practicing and improving your Spanish writing skills, and since you normally won’t show what you write to anybody, it’s also the perfect environment to make spelling mistakes, so be careful!
Writing a journal can be quite a challenge for beginner learners of Spanish. For this reason, try not to rush into it. Do it when you’re ready.
However, there’s a way to use journaling even from day one of your self-learning journey: make lists!
There are lots of topics you can use to write your lists. Here you have some examples:
- Your life goals.
- Your dreams and fears.
- Your bucket list.
- Your favorite animals.
- Your favorite Spanish cities.
- Your favorite Spanish foods.
- What makes you happy or sad.
18. Go to a Spanish-speaking country
After following all these steps for several months to a year, you’ll probably find your progress reaches a plateau.
You might start to feel like you’re not learning anything new, or even that you’re going backwards.
The good news is that this means you’re ready to take the next big step in your study of Spanish: going to a Spanish-speaking country.
When you do, almost every moment is an opportunity to practice comprehension and communication.
You’ll be shocked first at how much vocabulary there’s left to learn, and second at how quickly you improve.
You’ll return from your holiday with the confidence to call yourself a true Spanish speaker.
Try to add as many of these strategies as you can to your Spanish-learning routine and you’ll definitely succeed.
Teaching yourself a language isn’t an easy task if you don’t know how to do it, but now that you have the necessary tools to make it a reality, nothing will stop you.
Stay curious, my friends, and as always, happy (self-)learning!