The Best Way to Learn Spanish: From Beginner to Conversational!
Learning a new language can be a daunting prospect.
If you’ve never put the time in to learn a language before the challenge is intimidating and you often don’t know where to start. You certainly won’t feel comfortable guessing the best way to learn Spanish!
When I moved to Spain from the UK I had 3 words: “hola”, “tapas”, and “cerveza”.
I won’t bore you with my personal journey learning Spanish because, honestly, I went about it entirely the wrong way and wouldn’t recommend anyone to follow the steps I took. I didn’t prepare, I didn’t study, and I found myself gravitating to English at every opportunity.
But I’ve learned from those mistakes.
And knowing those mistakes existed encouraged me to ask others how they approached learning the language. Loads of people have reported different strategies and techniques, but the ones that interested me most involved enjoying learning the language and enjoying speaking it.
It was that revelation of the importance of having fun with native speakers which led us to start idyoma in the first place.
But having fun is just a part of a larger process. In this article, we’ll cover:
- The importance of having a process for learning a language
- The 5 steps of learning to move to conversational
- The best free tools out there to help you master a language
The importance of having a process for learning a language
There are a whole host of cheesy quotes I could use to start this section, but I’ve chosen:
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
If you want to do something well then it is a good idea to be deliberate in your actions.
Plan how you want to tackle the task of learning a new language. This is a plan you’ll want to stick to for months so you need to make sure it fulfills the following criteria:
- It is realistic: Don’t plan to spend 3 hours a day every day learning vocabulary. I promise you, it’s not going to happen. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to learn too much too quickly otherwise you may lose some of the fun.
- It is varied: Like above, if you have a chunk of time available to learn then attempt to do a number of different activities. You would be pretty annoyed if you had paid for a language class and the teacher hadn’t prepared an effective lesson plan. You are your own teacher. Keep yourself stimulated.
- It is progressive: The activities you’ll need to do in the first few weeks will be different to the ones required after 3–4 months. You don’t need to plan your progression exactly; you don’t know what you’ll need to learn at any given time. But you should look to keep the plan flexible and open in order for it to be effective while not becoming restrictive.
There are multiple different ways you can approach this plan.
People learn differently and benefit from a range of approaches. You could make a wall chart and hang it up in your house so that you can’t forget your learning responsibilities. You could use a notebook to outline your approach and note down your progress; bullet journaling can be really useful for getting stuff done and tracking your progress over time.
Or you could use technology to help you along. Simple free software like Google Calendar can let you block time each day, or at least multiple times per week, for you to spend learning. Then the app will notify you 10 minutes before you’re supposed to start studying.
These handy reminders can keep you in check. Other tools like Process Street can be used if you want to set out recurring structures for your study time, or want to set out your progress targets over time.
Time management and task management tools or approaches are good to incorporate. It’s the start of you taking the task seriously.
The goal is to build a learning routine.
As we’ll see, this routine doesn’t have to be spent with your head in a book. It can be entertaining, social, and fun.
The 5 steps of learning to move to conversational
We’re going to run through the 5 steps you’ll need to take to get to conversational.
These are chronological and there’s no need to burst through them. Take each one at a time and enjoy it.
Let’s jump in.
1. Learn the basics in a fun way
You don’t need to go out and buy a textbook. Though, if you have one already then that’s fine too.
I’m going to recommend that you lean into technology for this early stage.
Picking up the initial words and grammar is an easy process if you have a guide walking you through it. Mobile apps and online platforms can be really helpful for this as they provide you with gamified ways to keep you interested. They often also use audio, textual, and visual learning all combined.
Exposure to the sound of the language, the spelling of the language, and visually associating words to images can build a really strong foundation which can grow far faster than you would expect.
The key mobile app tools you could utilize are:
Personally, I love Duolingo and think it’s great for beginners. The UX of the app makes it very easy to just lose hours ploughing through the game-like system. However, that also presents a challenge — sometimes I power through so much that I’ve taken on a bit too much information to retain it all. Pace yourself.
Memrise is another which compliments Duolingo well. They achieve similar ends but Memrise works really well for picking up vocabulary and has more variation in the kinds of activities it asks you to do.
I recommend giving both of them a try and using them concurrently. As well as them, Mondly offers courses and also has VR and AR options for language learning. Definitely one to check out too.
If you’re someone who likes to listen to podcasts or the radio a lot, you could consider swapping your regular listening for some guided courses.
A few good ones:
Taking advantage of these courses and guides for beginners will gradually lay down the foundations of the language for you, and you’ll quickly feel like you’re already becoming conversational!
But you’re probably not.
If this isn’t your first time learning a language then you’ll know this already. All language learners have confidently walked up to someone at some point in time and thought “I will use my language skills!” — then the person turns round and you don’t understand a word of what came out of their mouth.
These moments will happen. Don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal.
By the end of the process, you should be ready to dive in and attempt conversations with a justified confidence!
2. Build your vocabulary
There are many schools of thought on this one.
But that brings in questions of how to conjugate them — and that’s a whole other challenge!
A simple step is to concentrate on just knowing words. Learn the infinitives for as many verbs as you can. You can use games to do this, or you can just copy them into notebooks and test yourself on them old school style.
Whatever you want.
One thing I like to do — which never stops being useful — is to make a list of 50 words I want to know in Spanish every week. Then throughout the week I dedicate time to learning the words and trying to use them in sentences.
Expanding your vocabulary with verbs is a useful way to be able to use your Spanish sooner. Broken sentences with verbs are typically more useful than broken sentences without them.
Check out some of these resources which you can use as you increase your vocab study:
Of course, other tools like Memrise and Fluentu can be used for this too.
These kinds of vocab builders can slot in nicely alongside your other learning tools to give you quick games to boost your knowledge in the key areas you want to learn. This means you can focus on gaining an understanding of things that interest you while you continue absorbing vocabulary from the other forms of learning you’re doing.
3. Study your grammar
Now, this is a surprisingly controversial topic.
The classic wisdom of language learning was that grammar was of super importance. Many of you may remember, as I do, sitting in school learning in-depth analyses of the grammar of French and German even though we had no idea how our own worked.
Modern teaching tends not to be too obsessed with grammar — thank God!
But some go even further.
Spanish to Move make a very good case for the idea that grammar study isn’t even needed at all.
“Grammar should be learned the way a native speaker of any language learns it; that is, by listening again and again and copying the words that he or she hears, just as babies do. Thus, when a child is five or six years old, he or she can already use the grammatical structures correctly, even without being able to read.”
This kind of thinking runs counter to what we expect, but it makes sense that intuitive learning would be effective for something so… well… intuitive.
But it’s not just a few claims about the way children learn which informs this position. Research from the Centre for Languages, Linguistics, and Area Studies (LLAS) suggests that listening alone, when provided with context, can lead to high levels of comprehension with or without high-level grammatical understanding.
Nonetheless, I’m not fully sold on the idea of abandoning grammar learning altogether.
Learning how regular verbs conjugate in Spanish and knowing that immediately off the top of your head is the most satisfying moment of progress you’ll have after learning to properly roll your Rs.
You suddenly live in a world where you have command of verbs. You can construct and manipulate sentences like some kind of language God. You can be understood.
It’s a magical feeling.
For Spanish, learning the conjugations and learning why we say me gusta instead of yo gusto is basically the level of grammar I’m claiming is important to have at this point.
If you want to write essays in Spanish and construct complex sentences then, by all means, commit yourself to the world of subjunctives.
I’m just saying you don’t need to take that burden upon yourself at this point. Learn what you need to enjoy the language.
I recommend checking out Rocket Languages’ quick set of grammar guides if you want to catch some essential grammar knowledge quickly: Free Spanish grammar lessons.
4. Get your ‘ear in’
As Spanish to Move and the LLAS make very clear, learning through listening is a huge part of the process.
I refer to it as ‘getting your ear in’.
When you first start learning a language, you can know all the words that someone is saying yet be entirely unable to hear anything other than “kepazateeostabyen”.
The Andalusian accent just lost me every time!
Somewhere deep in your brain you haven’t made the connection yet between your cognitive advancement in remembering words and a more subconscious process of understanding those words naturally. It just hasn’t happened.
That’s fine. It takes time.
This is where we need to start adding in some more audio stimulus to keep your brain hearing Spanish as much as possible.
So, let’s start off with some podcasts:
- Kerapido — Some good informal language courses
- iVoox — Loads of Spanish podcasts and audiobooks
- Lengalia — 30 minute episodes about different Spanish speaking places
- Ecos del Balon — a football (soccer) podcast
- HistoCast — History but in Spanish
- Coffee Break Spanish — Very beginner stuff and not native speakers, but good conversational materials
- Nadie sabe nada — Two Spanish comedians talk about topics sent in by the audience
- ERA Magazine — Spanish language Indie music podcast
- Mi Vida Loca — BBC miniseries for learners aimed at beginners
And we’ll add on top of this a couple of television and film recommendations from yours truly. I apologise in advance if you don’t like them:
- Gran Hotel
- Pan’s Labyrinth
- All About My Mother
- Talk to Her
- Y Tu Mamá Tambíen
- Amores Perros
- Bad Education
- The Motorcycle Diaries
- The Skin I Live In
- El Internado
On top of this, you can watch Spanish news and listen to Spanish language music.
All of these activities will help you gradually get accustomed to hearing the language and differentiating the words.
5. Practice your conversation
This is where you can start trying to put your newly learned skills into action.
The important thing here is putting yourself into environments where you’re able to learn.
These kinds of environments might be ones where the other people there are happy to repeat themselves, to correct your pronunciation, or to wait a little as you make your way through a particularly tough sentence.
What I’m saying to you, baby, is you’re ready to start your first language exchanges.
There are two main kinds of language exchanges to try. The first is a group language exchange where you should expect a decent sized group of people and a bit of awkward standing around. Group language exchanges are a great way to get to know people and to test your Spanish in different environments, or to get used to different accents.
You can find group language exchanges via Facebook groups or sites like Meetup.
I’ve run a lot of group language exchanges (too many!) and my advice would be that you get out what you put in. No one requires you to be good at a language. That’s why you’re here! To practice. So don’t be shy and just dive in.
The second approach is to organise your own language exchanges.
This is where idyoma comes into play.
Idyoma helps you find other language learners in your area to meet with to practice, share cultures, and have fun.
You just simply swipe through the profiles of users in your area and message ones you might want to meet with. You can chat a little through the app to get to know the person and then arrange a meetup.
There’s an article here about our key tips for using the app well: 10 Steps To A Successful Language Exchange.
My key recommendations are to define before the meeting what you want from the exchange and what the other person wants. Some people want relaxed exchanges to just chat and practice their fluency. Others want a more structured exchange where you correct each other and put rules on using which language when.
Make sure you’re both on the same page before you meet up, and then just have fun!
The key tools to help you on your way
If you didn’t give the full article a read — and I don’t blame you if you didn’t — then here’s my 5 key tool summary:
- Duolingo: Great for starting off. An absolute beginner can use it and take themselves up to being ready for a language exchange. So many languages available.
- Memrise: Like Duolingo as it’s for everyone. It uses a slightly different teaching style to Duolingo and certain users prefer its approach. I really like their mobile app.
- Italki: If you want to hire a teacher online then check them out. You can get professional teachers or community teachers, so there is a price point for everyone. Excellent way to get classes online.
- Idyoma: Language exchange app which shows you users nearby you who you can meet with and practice with in real life. It’s super valuable to learn languages through speaking and listening. With Idyoma you can meet native speakers and learn from them.
- Meetup: Idyoma is great for one on one language exchanges, and it does have group chat functionality, but if you want to meet big groups of learners at group exchanges then check out Meetup. There are regular language exchanges in most cities.
Hopefully, you’re feeling invigorated and ready to tackle the Spanish language!
Get out there and give it your all!
Let us know your top tips for the best way to learn Spanish in the comments below!