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Tips & Tools for Learning Spanish

I’ve studied a silly number of languages in my life, starting with Spanish from age 6 to 14. I returned to studying Spanish in 2017, when I was working with an Argentine client. We spoke primarily in English (I was far too rusty for the alternative), but I quickly became frustrated with not knowing how to speak in the past tense in Spanish. I hurriedly crammed “yo …é, tú …aste, él …ó” into my head and tried to keep up.

In the last 5 years, my Spanish has gotten a lot better. One of my friends started studying last year, and I’ve been sending her tips and resources as I find them, so I thought I should write them down.

The most important take-away is that no single tool will be sufficient. You need to use many different tools to exercise your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills.

Just use it

First off: don’t underestimate the importance of actually using the language you’re learning! Using the language, even if you’re making mistakes, is extremely important.

I remember a conversation in New York City in June 2019 where everyone understood both English & Spanish. Only two of us spoke out loud in our second language. The other person for whom Spanish came second was surprised I would use it without being fluent. “How will I ever be fluent if I don’t use it now?” was my response.

iTalki (referral link) lets you connect with both certified teachers and community tutors anywhere in the world to learn or practice a language. I learned about this one from a friend who was studying Japanese. I chat with Esmeralda for an hour a week about all manner of topics. I wish I’d started doing this back in 2017 when I decided to start relearning Spanish. Do not put it off.

I also have a bunch of friends I’ve been texting with in Spanish for years, but I can’t really tell you how to make friends.

Grammar & Vocabulary Lessons

Like many people, I turned to Duolingo to start studying. Spanish is probably the best course on Duolingo. It has podcasts, interactive conversational stories, explanations of grammar, and grammar lessons that correspond all the way up to CEFR B2 (high intermediate) level. Even so, one tool cannot be sufficient.

I have added in SpanishDict both for spaced-repetition flash cards and to go more in-depth on certain grammar topics, like “Por vs Para” and the subjunctive mood. I highly recommend a paid SpanishDict account.

I’ve also found Real Fast Spanish’s YouTube videos helpful for explaining some tricky bits of grammar.

Finally, on long road trips I’ve been using the Learning Spanish Like Crazy advanced bundle from Audible during the long, boring highway bits to settle some new grammar into my head.

Reading

Reading is likely to expose you to vocabulary you wouldn’t otherwise bump into. Keep in mind that different types of writing use different types of vocabulary and complexity of grammar. You won’t see the same things on social media, Wikipedia, a memoir, and a novel. In my opinion, novels (and sometimes social media) are the hardest category of those. Particularly fantasy and historical fiction use a lot of weird vocabulary. And of course, people on social media use slang and abbreviations.

Short Stories in Spanish for Beginners and Short Stories in Spanish for Intermediate Learners are well worth it. Those books start out with tips stressing the importance of muddling through words you don’t know without looking them up.

By the way, I’ve seen “books where you know 98% of the words” recommended before as a comfortable pace to learn from. So, if you’re in the Spanish section at the book store, you can always count and pull out your phone’s calculator to decide if it’s a good book to try.

In early 2021, I switched my phone to Spanish for work reasons. I never switched it back to English. My apps were in Spanish. My Google results were prioritizing Spanish Wikipedia, so it was just plain more convenient to read about things in Spanish. I was getting a lot more passive exposure to reading in Spanish.

Listening

Training your ears is an entire exercise of its own. And you have to repeat it for different accents. And listening to your conversation partner one-on-one in a quiet room over Zoom is so much easier than listening to group of people chat in a crowded restaurant.

Extra en Español is an extremely cheesy show on YouTube set in Barcelona and designed for advanced beginners. It is so cheesy. I’m sorry. If you’re not ready for that yet, my friend recommends Buena Gente, also on YouTube.

News in Slow Spanish is a subscription news service with reporting in both Latin American and Spanish dialects, at 3 different skill levels, with 3 different speed options available in the app. As the news cycle changes, you’re introduced to new vocabulary. I should really use it more.

LingoPie kept showing me ads, so I tried it out. It’s a streaming service made for language-learners. You can slow down the playback, and the captions are interactive, so when you click a word it tells you what the word means. You can even view captions in two languages at the same time. (Similar functionality is available for Netflix & YouTube via the Language Reactor extension, but I’ve found it hit-or-miss. Netflix does have a large selection of media from Spain, though.) LingoPie also tells you what country each piece of media is from, in case you’re focusing on understanding a particular accent.

A friend recommended that I watch Disney movies in Spanish, first with the captions on, then with them off as my listening improves. His reasoning was that the dubs are very clear with neutral accents and minimal background noise.

Important note: subtitles and captions are not the same thing. Captions exactly match what’s being said on-screen to provide accessibility for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people. Subtitles are independently translated. So, if it doesn’t say “[CC]”, be aware the words might not match.

Top 3

If you want my top 3 recommendations, they are:

  1. SpanishDict for vocabulary & grammar lessons
  2. iTalki (referral link) for conversational speaking & listening
  3. Graded readers for increased exposure to that grammar and finding words to add to your SpanishDict vocabulary list

In the end, there’s no shortcut past just plain spending a lot of time on it.