How to Learn Spanish for Beginners
“Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar.”
(Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks.)
― Gloria E. Anzaldúa
When I visited New York for the first time in 2015, many things were just as I had imagined: the frenetic pace, the impressive Manhattan skyline, the buzzing nightlife. What I didn’t expect, though, was to find entire parts of the city where Spanish was the primary language.
It happened in Queens. I entered a shop, and for a second I thought I had crossed over into a different country. The employees, patrons, the products on the shelves, even the radio rattling in the background—everything and everyone communicated in Spanish.
“Is this the US or Mexico?” I asked myself.
I realized then how important the Spanish language has become on a global scale. It’s everywhere, spoken as an official language in 21 countries, and by half a billion native non-native speakers worldwide.
Spanish, like English, is one of very few languages that is useful on every continent. The language is like a bridge; it help connect you to an incredibly diverse array of people, cultures, industries, and more. You can live in Spanish, love in Spanish, work in Spanish, and make friends in Spanish, practically anywhere.
Perhaps it is one of these things that has led you to this article. You want to learn Spanish, so that you can take advantage of one of the millions of opportunities it offers.
Today, I want to help you do that. I want to help you build your Spanish “bridge.”
I learned Spanish many years ago, and still speak it almost daily. It is a fixture in my life which has led to many, many incredible experiences. And through coaching other language learners, I have helped many people learn and enjoy the Spanish language in their own unique ways.
I’ve written this article to help you begin learning Spanish in a way that is both effective, and enjoyable. The following are five powerful tips that you can use to start learning Spanish today…
…and learn it for life.
Let’s get started.
1. Form an Emotional Connection with the Language
First of all, When it comes to setting upon the long journey of learning Spanish, you need to create a deep connection with the language that will keep you interested and motivated for a long time. Something that makes you say “from now on, I want Spanish to be part of my life.”
You need an inner, emotional push to stick with the language.
My heart received that emotional jolt when I visited Spain for the first time.
Tasting delicious tapas while sitting outside on a warm day in Madrid, admiring the spires of the picturesque Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, dancing with a huge crowd in the streets of Malaga.
I did all that and more, in Spain.
And to this day, all those sounds colors, faces, places and feelings remain fresh in my mind, as they have been all throughout my Spanish learning journey.
For you, before you begin worrying about platforms, methods, apps, or anything else about learning Spanish, I recommend that you seek out experiences that will help connect you emotionally to the language.
I’m talking about:
- Visiting a Spanish-speaking country
- Tasting some delicious hispanic cuisine
- Making friends with native speakers of Spanish
- Reading books originally written in Spanish
- Involving yourself in hispanic cultural activities, like cooking or dance classes
If you live at least one of these experiences—and truly enjoy yourself—you will be motivated to explore the Spanish language and culture further. If you can take these experiences, and make them regular aspects of your life, then you’ll have the motivation to learn Spanish and keep using it for the rest of your life.
So, get out there. Look for Spanish-language Meetup groups in your area, and make some friends.
Pick up One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, and get carried away by the magic prose within.
Get lost in the cheerful and sensual music of bachata, salsa, or tango, and let their rhythm move you—not only physically, but emotionally as well.
The goal is to build such a strong bond with hispanic culture that you’ll always want to keep it as part of your life. This bond, if powerful enough, will help maintain your motivation to learn the language, and, in turn, help you become even closer to hispanic culture, renewing the cycle.
2. Focus on Short-Term Systems over Long-Term Goals
“I want to learn to speak Spanish fluently within the next 9 months.”
When you ask most beginner Spanish learners what their goals are, you’ll probably hear something like that. Maybe your own goals are similar. And that’s great.
But, let me ask you something: how many times have you come up with a long-term plan and actually followed it to completion? How many times have you set a goal more than six months out in the future, and actually achieved it in just the way you imagined.
Not often, I’d bet.
It’s not just you. It happens to most of us. Practically all of us.
Goals and plans have a tendency to change, to morph over time. Sometimes they break, or split, or integrate new parts. And that’s okay.
However, my goal today is to help you come up with something that is more concrete, and less prone to drastic change, so that it will just as reliable ten years from now as it can be today.
So, instead of asking you to focus on long-term goals, I’m going to ask you to focus on building a short-term Spanish-learning system.
What you need to do is commit to a daily Spanish learning process.
In order to do that, you need:
- To organize and manage your learning time.
- To create powerful habits
- To track and evaluate your progress over time.
Organizing your time is one of the essential elements of regular, daily language learning. Always try to plan your learning sessions beforehand.
Every Sunday, (or Monday, depending on when you officially start your week), organize your daily Spanish sessions for the following seven days.
When planning your time, it’s helpful to ask yourself two questions for each day of the week:
When do I have time to learn on this day?
How am I going to divide this available time into productive Spanish-learning sessions?
In my experience, one of the best approaches to managing learning time is to:
- Keep learning sessions to 30 minutes each, maximum.
- Complete at least one or two of these half-hour sessions per day
- Schedule sessions for when you are most alert and active
- Learn every single day
Once you’ve put in the work to determine when you can learn Spanish, you’ll then be able to start developing the next part of the learning process: powerful habits!
Habits are patterns of behavior that have become ingrained in your life and your mind through regular repetition and practice. Brushing your teeth is one such habit. Locking the door before you leave your house might be another.
To learn Spanish successfully, you need to make it a habit, just like those things. You need to do it so often, with such regularity, that after a while it just becomes a normal, natural part of your day.
Luckily, the science of building habits has become better understood in recent years. For example, we now know that every habit is made up of three components, (as author Charles Duhigg explains in his book, The Power of Habits):
- A cue – A signal that tells us when to “do” the habit
- A routine – The set of actions involved in the habit
- A reward – A tangible or intangible benefit that motivates you to complete the habit regularly
To build your powerful Spanish habit, you’ll need a daily system that incorporates each of the above three things.
For example, when I started learning Spanish, I was using a learning series called “Lo Spagnolo per te” by De Agostini. I had committed to the process of regularly learning Spanish after I got out of school in the afternoon. To make that happen, I needed to develop a cue-routine-reward system to get everything started.
My cue was simple: having only the learning materials on my desk at any given time. When I got to my desk, I had those materials ready, and nothing else could distract me.
My routine was to apply my bidirectional translation method to the materials, so that I could learn how to read, write, think, and speak in Spanish.
My reward was the personal satisfaction of making progress. Every day, I completed a new lesson, which made it very easy to see and track my improvement over time.
And that brings me to my last point: tracking and evaluating progress.
At the end of every learning session, I took out a notebook and carefully wrote down three things:
- Which learning activities I had completed that session
- How long it took to complete each session
- Comments and notes about that particular session
Taking notes like these is an often-overlooked but essential part of developing your daily Spanish-learning system. If you use them to track your learning, they will help you evaluate your routine and make necessary changes as time goes on.
3. Focus on Learning a Specific Variety of Spanish
As I mentioned earlier, Spanish is an official language of many, many different countries—21 countries, in fact, as of this writing.
Since Spanish is so widespread, it is spoken in a slightly different way according to the country it is spoken.
Now, as a Spanish learner, it is a good idea to focus on speaking one specific variety of the language.
This choice will dictate:
- How you pronounce words (i.e. your accent)
- What kind of idiomatic and colloquial phrases you will uses
- Which words (formal, informal, and slang) you will use to express certain ideas
- and more
In my case, being Italian and living in Europe, having visited and lived in Spain, the choice of Castilian Spanish was an easy one to make.
But things are not straightforward and easy. If you live in the US, you there is a good chance that you will come into contact with the Spanish spoken in Central or Latin American (Mexican, Colombian, etc..).
I know of people who first went to South America and learned the Spanish spoken there. My American friend Kemy comes to mind. She moved to Argentina for one year and speaks with a thick Argentinian accent. She loves it, and would never change it for the accent of, say, Castilian Spanish.
Although all versions of Spanish are mutually intelligible, different versions of Spanish carry with themselves a cultural heritage, a way of living, being, and expressing oneself.
It is important to note that all versions of Spanish are equally viable, and beautiful, and worthwhile to learn. However, there maybe some varieties that have more in common with your goals, experiences, and your geographical location than others.
So, stick to ONE version of Spanish first, immerse yourself in it, build a consistent linguistic framework.
This important decision will inform the types of learning material you will use, with whom you will learn, and speak, and what material and resources you will expose yourself first.
As you become more comfortable and proficient in one variety, you can then expand into other varieties, if you’d like.
Even if you stick to just one “version” of Spanish, you can rest easy knowing that you’ll be able to comprehend speakers of other varieties with little or no trouble.
4. Choose the Resources That Work Best for You
For the reasons I have stated above, there are countless resources for learning Spanish. So I am not going to spend here adding yet another list of resources, platforms and tools but rather, give you some important guidelines on how to choose one of them to start with.
In fact, it is quite simple:
You need to a resource that:
- Is enjoyable and pleasing to use.
- Offers comprehensible, progressive input.
There is no best resource for everyone, since there is no one resource that pleases everyone.
If you like flashcards, great!
If you prefer printed courses and books, wonderful!
If you like audio courses, that’s good, too!
In the end, you should choose the resource/tool that you enjoy learning from. The best resource is always the best material for you.
With that in mind, you have to factor in another important feature: that resource must offer content that you can understand and that you can progressively absorb and build upon with time.
If you like listening to the radio, that will probably be a good resource for you at some point. But at the beginning, when you still understand few words? Listening to the radio will probably not help you at all.
With that in mind, here are some key rules of thumb:
Rule # 1: Invest time into finding your first Spanish resource
Do a search online, looking at a wide range of resources. Ask yourself: what do I want? Look for other experienced learner’s advice and comments.
Rule # 2: Check out the resource in person
Once you have narrowed down your search, actually sit down with the book, course, or other resource and actually determine if you think you’ll like it enough to use it.
Rule # 3: Find a different resource, if necessary
In case you don’t like that resource for some reason, don’t hesitate and look for another one. Investing time in this search is definitely worth it.
Rule # 4: Finish one resource before moving on to another
Don’t make the mistake of downloading ten different apps, using ten different websites and buying ten different books. That might only confuse you. Once you have found a good resource, stick to only that resource for some time.
Rule # 5: Add more challenging resources and activities over time
Learning Spanish is the result of many activities, resources and experiences. So, using only one resource for learning is simply not possible. That’s why after using your first resource for some time, you need to move to another activity and/or resource. Normally a good time is after a few months.
5. Find the Method That Works Best for You
Choosing a good and efficient learning resource which you enjoy is a fantastic way to get started, but another key aspect of learning is understanding how to use that resource efficiently.
Once again, it boils down to who you are as a person, and what kinds of activities you like doing.
In other words, knowing WHAT to use is GOOD, but also knowing HOW to use it GREAT.
When you hear say that some people are more auditory, some are more visual, think again:
We are ALL these things.
It is just that we prefer doing some things more than others.
For example, you might like listening to a language and not reading it. Some people like reading much more than they do listening.
The truth is, you need to find a way to do all those things because they are necessary to speak, understand, read and write a language, but you need to find the right combination of actions.
Invest time in figuring out which learning activities you enjoy the most. Try to zero-in which kinds of experiences and actions help you learn most effectively.
You can then use that knowledge to help you approach any language learning resource or material in a way that works best for you, personally.
Let me give you an example.
Say you have a bilingual language course, featuring dialogues in both Spanish and your native language. The course also comes with audio of all the dialogues.
What kind of activities can you do with this course?
Think about it for a second. Before continuing on, try to come up with a list of possibilities.
Ok, here is my list:
- Just listen to audio in Spanish
- Listen to the audio in Spanish while reading in the target language
- Listen to the audio in your Spanish while reading in your native language
- Read the text out loud in Spanish
- Translate the text from your native language into Spanish
- Write out the text in Spanish by hand
- Create sentences in Spanish out of words in the text
And these are only a few examples, of many!
Realistically, you can use any Spanish resource in countless ways, the number of which are limited only by your imagination and ingenuity. The sky’s the limit!
So, take your one Spanish resource, and experiment with it. See if you can use the material in a way that resonates closely with you, and how you like to learn. And don’t forget to have fun with it!
That’s the ultimate secret to effective learning: finding things you like doing that tackle all areas of language learning in an organic, holistic way.
- Spanish is a world-wide language and relatively straightforward to learn.
- The popularity might play a role in your motivation to learn it, but the connection you establish with the language is what will makes the difference in your language journey
- In order to start learning Spanish you need to ignite a spark of motivation within you. Usually, having one powerful emotional experience related to the Spanish language makes a big difference in this regard.
- Setting up precise goals for Spanish is great, but not enough. You should focus first and foremost on setting up a solid daily learning routine
- In order to that, you need to plan your plan time and energy, and get into powerful habits, which start with meaningful cues and rewards
- When you start learning Spanish, you need to be aware of the huge variety of accents and versions of the Spanish language, and sticking to one is important for reasons of consistency.
- In order to start learning well, you need to learn how to find the right resource for you, stick to that, and move on to other resources with time.
- Once you find the right material, you have to experiment and learn the best way to learn. Listen to your inner voice. This is a highly personal, trial-and-error process that you refine with time.
So there you have it!
With these five tips, you have everything you need to get started learning Spanish, and keep doing so for a long time. So get going, and keep me posted on your progress by leaving a comment below!
Written by Luca Lampariello