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How to Learn Spanish (The Ultimate Guide)

By Anthony / March 29, 2016

Overview of the Spanish language

Spanish is the official language of 21 countries and holds special status in 6 others. ​Well over 400 million people speak Spanish across the globe, making it one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. 

If you're a native English speaker you will have a big advantage learning Spanish as a second language.  The two languages are closely related (more so than other languages like German or asian languages), and share many similar words and sounds.  

More than just being popular or easy to learn, the Spanish language is a large cultural force.  It has a long history of literature and art, as well as a modern influence in music, movies, and television (telenovelas anyone?)  

What You'll Learn in This Post


  • The steps you'll need to take learn Spanish effectively
  • Different learning methods, tools, and resources for your journey

1) Set clear goals 

Why do you want to learn Spanish?

This a basic question, but don’t let that make you think that it isn’t important. It’s very important. This one question will set the tone for your entire Spanish learning experience.

Do you want to learn just to travel for a week or two in a Spanish speaking country? Do you want to learn to better connect with relatives or loved ones? Do you need to use the language in the workplace? Maybe you just love the Spanish language.

What you want determines what you need

There are tons of reasons people want to learn Spanish. Use your reason to help determine how much Spanish you want to learn. If you’re just traveling through Spain for a couple weeks you won’t need to nearly to know as much Spanish as you would if you plan on speaking the language for the rest of you life.

When most people think about learning a language they imagine fluency, but you don’t always need to shoot for fluency right away, even if you plan on using Spanish for a long time.

So what should you aim for?

Goal setting

This is where goal setting comes in. In language learning setting goals can make or break your journey. The right goals will help you work effectively and track your progress, but wrong goals could set you up for disappointment.

There’s a common acronym used for goal setting and it works great with language learning. I’ll briefly cover it here but for a more detailed look check out our article on how to learn Spanish fast.

You want to set SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Time specific.

Specific:

Avoid general goals like “I want to learn Spanish”. Try something more detailed. What level of proficiency do you want to reach in the language, how do you want to be able to use the language? Maybe you want to travel or make friends. Breaking it down this way can help prevent a lot of unneeded frustration.

Hmmm...not that kind of Spanish goal

Measurable:

Instead of setting a goal like “I want to learn more Spanish this week”, try thinking of a goal with a specific number of new words you’d like to learn. Having a measurable goal will help you track your progress. This way you'll feel good about the work you put in and it’s easier to see a result.

Achievable:

Be realistic with your goals. You want to stretch yourself and step out of your comfort zone, but at the same time you don’t want to overwhelm yourself! Trying to be completely fluent in Spanish in a month is a noble but unrealistic goal.  Aiming to be conversational within 3 months is still difficult, but much more achievable. 

Relevant:

Make sure your goals actually help you learn the Spanish language. Going salsa dancing once a week is great, but it won’t necessarily help your Spanish learning. Taking salsa lessons in Spanish, on the other hand, would be fun and help your learning!

Time specific:

This is the difference between a goal like ”I want to be able to have basic conversations in Spanish”, and “I want to be able to have basic conversations in Spanish in 6 weeks”. Having a time frame keeps you accountable, and again it helps you keep track of your progress.​

2) Choose a Good Method (The HOW)

Now that you have your goals you can pick the method that you’ll use for learning Spanish. What exactly is a “method”? For the sake of this article a method will be anything that you use to learn Spanish. It could be a book, a course, a Spanish class, or even a teacher.

This method or material should the resource that will be the foundation of your Spanish learning. Everything else you do to learn the language will be centered around it.

5 Types of methods for learning Spanish

If you’re a native English speaker then you might have heard the old adage “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”. Well there’s also more than one way to learn a language, though some ways might be better than others. Here at Spanish Hackers we divide the methods into 5 categories:

1) Classes

Classes are the traditional Spanish classes you’d think of in a high school or college setting.  Teacher, chalkboard...you know the drill.

2) Personal Teachers/Tutors​

At one time the only way to have a Spanish tutor was to have someone work with you in your own home or maybe during extra hours at a school. Now in addition to real world tutors we also have to option to take Spanish classes on the web. Whether it’s real world or web, personal teachers work with you one-on-one to develop your Spanish skills.

Italki is an online marketplace​ that connects language learners with language teachers from around the world. It's also probably the most popular site for online Spanish classes and is recommended by most language learning blogs.  It is also the largest site providing online classes. Check out our in-depth review!

3) Courses & Curriculum​

​Typically Spanish courses allow you to study by yourself and at your own pace. There are a wide range of options for Spanish courses. Some use books and pictures while others might use only audio or video. Duolingo is a popular course that allows you to learn Spanish in a game format on your phone or pc.

Duolingo is an effective course that teaches languages in the format of a game.  Research has shown that it to be very effective at teaching grammar and vocabulary, and best off all it's completely free!

4) Immersion

Learning a language through immersion means surrounding yourself with your target language and learning and using it to interact with your environment. If learning Spanish were a job, immersion would be on the job training.  When you immerse yourself in Spanish instead of learning a language and then using it, you learn the language while  you use it.

You can either sign up for an immersion program or create your own. Most immersion occurs within a foreign Spanish speaking country, but it doesn’t always have to.

5) DIY Spanish

 The blogosphere is beginning to feature more and more language learners who have developed their own learning approaches independent of a course or class.  For the sake of this article we'll call these DIY methods. DIY methods  tend to be  different from the normal Spanish class, courses, or programs, in that they focus more on how   you learn versus what  you learn.

For instances a DIY method might require you to learn basic words and phrases and talk with native right away, another may involve focusing on pronunciation first and forgetting about vocabulary.  Each method is different, but most do not focus on formal vocabulary or grammar in the beginning, whereas courses and classes would.

DIY approaches are also focused more on self-study.  You're pretty much an independent learner when you follow a DIY method.  This provides flexibility in the learning process. ​

Here a couple popular DIY methods you can check out:

Fluent in 3 Months is the brain child of Benny Lewis, the most popular polyglot blogger in the world.  In it he shares the approach he used to learn 14+ languages.  His approach centers about speaking a new language from day 1.

The Mimic Method focuses on learning pronunciation through music. It breaks down a language into it's smallest parts syllable by syllable so that you can get into "the flow" of your target language.   

How to choose a method

If you’re considering a course, or anything else you have to purchase, search around for what other language learners are saying about them. You should be able to find reviews via Google or Youtube. Spanish Hackers also has a growing number of product and course reviews.

There are also some other popular language learning blogs that offer reviews and tips:

Benny Lewis' site is one of the largest language learning blogs in the world. He offers some great insights on how to learn a language and what tools/methods to use.

Donovan, an applied linguistics graduate, shares learning insights as well as product reviews on his site.  He also tells some interesting stories too.

Also, remember that dedication and hard work are the best ways to learn a language, no method or course can cut that part out. There are no short cuts.​

3) Practice what you learn

Here’s where it really starts to get fun! Once you’ve chosen your method and started learning Spanish, now you get to practice what you’ve learned. There are two main ways you can do this, and I recommend you do both!

Spanish Arts, Media, & Entertainment 

​The first is through media. Start diving into different cultures through movies, TV, books, music, online videos, and other media outlets.  The Spanish speaking world is full of awesome entertainment, history, and culture. Here’s some places to start:

Fluentu provides native Spanish videos with a built in subtitle and vocabulary system.  You can watch real Spanish videos (commercials, tv clips, music, etc) and learn words in a real life context. It also has its own flashcard system and other learning resources.  Check out our in-depth review!

 Lyricstraining is a free site that helps you learn vocabulary through music videos with subtitles. The site is set up as a game. Some of the subtitles will be missing and as a video is played you have to type in the missing words in real time.

Native speakers​

In addition to enjoying Spanish culture through books and entertainment, you also have to start talking with real people. This is where the rubber meets the road. Even though it can a little intimidating at first, this is where learning Spanish comes to life and gets very exciting.​  There two places you can find native Spanish speakers: in the real world, and on the internet. 

Real World​

Language is a living thing and one of the best parts about learning one is that it opens the door to new experiences and meeting new people. This is especially true if you live in the USA, the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world!

Most major US cities have some sort of hispanic community where you’re bound to find food, music, maybe some dancing (and probably soccer); so get connected to the community and live out your new language. Try searching for Spanish language exchanges on meetup or facebook, or maybe stop by your local taqueria to practice, buy a taco,  and maybe even make a new friend 🙂

Internet

​Can’t find local native speakers? Use the internet! there are plenty of free language exchanges where you can practice your Spanish with native speakers from around the world .

This is a great option if you’re under a tight schedule. You can practice Spanish one on one with a native without even leaving your room! It’s not a substitute for in person communication but it is definitely a valuable asset to your learning.

Wespeke is a free online language exchange where you can practice with Native Spanish speakers from around world via video or text chat. 

4) Remember What you learn

Whether you learn a new word in class on or on a soccer field you will want to remember it. Remember if your Spanish vocabulary isn’t growing then it’s dying. The process of remembering (memorization) is so important to learning Spanish that we it its own step.

You will remember new words and phrases best after you use them in a real conversation. But I also highly recommend you start using a spaced repetition system to give you an extra edge on Spanish vocabulary.

 These systems allow you make your own digital flashcards and then they automatically test you. The system will base the next day’s review on which words you got right and wrong so that you practice the harder more and the easier ones less.  This way you practice words the moment before you forget them.  This is a powerful and efficient way to review your vocabulary.

This technology is fairly easy to use and there are a couple free apps for it.  Memrise and Anki are a couple great memorization tools to look into.

5) Use Tools and apps

There are an array of online tools and apps available to Spanish learners, and just like the methods some are better than others. That being said, there are some truly awesome learning tools out there. Some tools live up to their name, are very practical, and make parts of learning easier. Other apps and tools are just really fun to use.

 Take advantage of these apps and tools to help make sure the learning process stays interesting and keeps you engaged with the new language. Or just use them to have fun.  Here’s some great tools to get you started:

Spanishdict is the one of the best free Spanish to English dictionary I've come across online​. It also offers conjugation charts , lessons, and practice quizzes on Spanish grammar. A great free resource.

SpanishPod101 teaches Spanish primarily through audio based lessons. Their site also has a lot of extra features like in-site flashcards and vocabulary quizzes. Their lessons are especially good at helping you developing your listening skills and are great you have to learn on the go.​ Check out our in-depth review!

6) Avoid burnout and push through plateaus

While learning Spanish you will inevitably hit a wall where it feels like your hard work isn’t paying off. Especially as you become more advance in your learning, it will take more work for less return. To avoid burnout try incorporating a new way of engaging with the language such as a new app, different method, or podcast; anything to help spice up your learning and keep things interesting.

Travel was a big reason I learned Spanish

Also, it couldn’t hurt to take a day or weekend off if you are really burnt out. A short break can work wonders for the weary language learner, just make sure you don’t give up!

7) Plan a trip to a Spanish speaking country

By this point you have put a lot into your Spanish learning. Why not reward yourself with a trip to a Spanish speaking country? There are tons of immersion programs where you can spend a week or longer living, learning, and speaking completely in Spanish.

You could also book your own trip and travel for a short time and test your new skills. For a lot of Spanish students this is the dream, to speak your new language in another country and experience another culture.  I know it was a dream for me!

8) Keep learning and use what works

Once you have reached a higher level of Spanish proficiency, the only thing left is to keep going. Use the parts of learning that have worked the best for you, and always look for new ways to continue engaging with the language.

Learning a new language is a lifetime journey, not a destination. Enjoy it! You will see fruit along the way, not just in your fluency but also in the person you become.

About the author

Anthony

Coffee drinker, Spanish speaker, habitual traveler, taking life one beautiful day at a time.

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