Six Secret Weapons for Learning Spanish

I’ve been studying Spanish for just over a year, and have sought out the best tools to expedite the process.

I’m admittedly a slow learner when it comes to learning languages, but using the methods below I’ve really sped up the learning process. That’s why this post isn’t a ‘Learn Spanish in Six Months’ post — I think everyone learns at their own pace, so I thought it’s better to share the tools I use rather than promise results.

I’m the kind of person that responds well to structure and exercises, rather than just picking up a language by un-planned practise. I can now hold a fairly rudimentary conversation in Spanish, but find most of my comprehension development still comes from using the tools below.

Here’s the six tools I’d recommend to anybody that is wishing to learn Spanish quickly. The first three can be used immediately by absolute beginners, the rest require a little bit of vocabulary.

1. iTalki — Skype lessons

The best way to learn a language, as everyone knows, is through talking. This is why having an experienced and qualified tutor is still the best tool you can employ. It’s an immediate and direct interaction — you have to listen, comprehend and respond in real time. A tutor also guides you through the rules and idiosyncrasies of a language in a way that no textbook or app can.

iTalki brings face-to-face tutoring into the 21st Century, using Skype to connect you to teachers all over the world — in a time and place that suits you. Check out their database of teachers — you can check out their complete profile, including their prior teaching experience and reviews from past students. Using the database I was able to find a teacher that spoke Spanish as they do in Spain — exactly what I was looking for, with the ‘thhh’ — as opposed to Mexican/South American Spanish, which most of the apps and other teaching material are geared towards.You can do a trial class at a cheap price, too.

I love the convenience of my iTalki lessons — each weekend, I check out my teacher’s schedule for the upcoming week and book in lessons that suit me. My teacher — Miguel, from Gijon, Asturias in the North of Spain — sends me electronic study material which I print out and go through. Our classes are informal and enjoyable, usually opening with 10–20min chat on any given subject (in Spanish, obviously) before moving on to the study material.

2. Duolingo (App)

Duolingo is a language-learning app and website which makes language learning fun — it’s cartoony interface and short lesson structure makes it easy to use from day one. It is consistently rated as the best language-learning app online — and its free.

Their Spanish course takes the form of a ‘tree’, which means you work through various subjects — when you complete a set of subjects, you unlock the next ones. Duolingo never explicitly explains the rules or structures it is exposing you to, instead it gives constant examples and allows you to experiment and intuit how to respond. For this reason, I feel that Duolingo isn’t enough on its own — a student needs to be able to clarify points and ask for explanations.

One of the beauties of Duolingo is it’s goal setting and progress tracking. It allows you to set daily goals, and rewards you for ‘daily streaks’ — when you complete your goal on several consecutive days. My best run was a 112-day streak, which I only lost when I travelled to a different timezone and Duolingo never tracked this. You are rewarded with the in-app currency, which doesn’t really provide you with much — but is still an incentive.

Each individual lesson takes me around 3–5 minutes to complete, so I have a daily goal of 5 lessons (takes me 15–20 minutes, I usually do it on my morning commute).

I find Duolingo is great for an easy dose of daily exposure to Spanish — these days it keeps my Spanish topped up, rather than advancing my skills.

3. Flash cards (App / paper)

I first learned about flash cards when I was studying Hindi a few years ago — there are various ways to use them, but in the simplest form they are pieces of card which has a word in English on one side, and the same word in Spanish on the other side.

I’ve found flashcards most useful for learning verbs — though other people use them for all different subjects. If I have a verb that is irregular, I make notes on the back of the card.

How I use the cards depends on my familiarity with the content — if it’s new words, I read the Spanish side first, try to guess the English translation, and flip it over to check my answer. If it’s words I’m more familiar with, I start with the English word, guess the Spanish equivalent, then flip it over.

This was working well until my pile of flashcards got a little unwieldly. I had a huge pile of verbs, and didn’t want to go through them every day.

Thats when I discovered the ‘flash cards’ app by BrainScape. Their Spanish card sets are great — they have sets with around 200 verbs in each set, and at the start of each session you choose how many cards you want to run through. You rate your familiarity with each word, the idea being that gradually you become more familiar with each set.

What’s great about the BrainScape cards is that they have different sets for each tense — so if I want to focus on the Future tense, I just go to those cards.

I find that if I want to ‘prepare’ the Spanish-speaking side of my brain (before meeting a Spanish friend, or having a Spanish iTalki lesson, for example) then running through a few BrainScape flash cards from each tense really gets my gears turning, so later when I have to think and speak in Spanish it flows much easier.

Parallel Texts

Parallel texts are a great, great tool for improving your Spanish. They are simply books written in both Spanish and English, with the Spanish and English pages side-by-side, so you can directly reference words that you don’t understand. I’ve found this method much more enjoyable and smooth for reading Spanish stories, rather than just using the source text and a dictionary.

Imagine the process of using a dictionary — stopping at every unfamiliar word, changing to another book, scrolling through a bunch of pages until you find the correct translation, then returning to your story. Its a bit stop-start.

The beauty of parallel texts is that they are written and translated with the language learner in mind, so the translations tend to stick closely to the original in terms of meaning and sentence length — making it very easy to check and compare sentences and phrases.

Penguin have published several collections of short stories in parallel text form. For whatever reason, parallel texts don’t seem to be well known or very popular. I love them because they combine the chance to read some fiction in your target language with learning the vocabulary, in an accessible way. It would be great to see more books published in this format — especially popular books that I’d like to read anyway, instead of collections of semi-obscure short stories.

Netflix

This one is great.

Start up your Netflix, and set up a new profile called ‘Spanish’.

Then login to that profile and change the language preferences so Spanish is the default.

Now, you have access to hundreds of TV programmes and movies in the Spanish language.

Most new or headliner English-language titles (House of Cards, Breaking Bad, etc.) are quickly translated into Spanish.

You have a few options for how to configure your Spanish Netflix viewing:

1/ Watch in Spanish with English subtitles.

2/ Watch in English with Spanish subtitles (the easiest method if you’re tired). You can also use this method to watch normal shows with your non-Spanish-learning partner, without disrupting their viewing very much.

3/ Watch in Spanish with Spanish subtitles (requires concentration!)

Normally I’ll watch in Spanish with English subtitles as it’s not too taxing.

Books in Spanish

My final tool for learning Spanish is …reading books in Spanish.

To be honest, I’ve had mixed luck with this one. The trick, I’ve found, is to find a book which you’d be interested to read in English anyway, and get the Spanish version from Amazon.

I followed the normal advice and turned to kids books initially — I read some Spanish book aimed at 6–8 year olds (Las Palabras Magicas) and the translated version of Matilda. They were both great for increasing my vocabulary, but to be honest I never got much out of reading them, and it always felt like I was doing homework.

I read a lot of books anyway, so I decided to find a book I’d like to read in English anyway, but pick up the Spanish version.

Luckily, a friend of mines recently published his first book — ‘Finding Gobi’ / ‘La Búsqueda de Gobi’ — his account of meeting and eventually adopting a stray dog while running an ultra-marathon in the Gobi desert. Given the subject matter and the fact it was written by a friend, I was keen to check it out. Not only that, but his tales of travelling through the desert were fairly simple to follow — there was no dense prose or hard-to-translate metaphors.

Although I still find a lot of words (mainly verbs) that I don’t understand, depending on my mood I might just skip past them and continue enjoying the book rather than stopping and starting.

When I finish La Búsqueda de Gobi, I think I’ll pick one of my favourite books that I want to re-visit, and check out the Spanish version.