Here are (more or less) the steps I took to learn conversational Spanish.
I’ve toyed with many resources over the years, and found these ones to be the most helpful.
If you’ve always wanted to learn Spanish, but weren’t sure where to start, this article is for you – if you proceed through all of these stages, you’ll come out the other side pretty damn fluent!
Step 1: Spanish with Michel Thomas
If you are green as nopales when it comes to Spanish (i.e. 50 words or less) start with Michel Thomas. He’ll quickly introduce you to the basics and provide you with a strong foundation. The learning process is surprisingly effortless and with each lesson you’ll feel like you are making real progress. He also insists on not taking any notes, so it’s an easy course to complete on your morning commute.
Michel Thomas is without a doubt the best place to start if you are completely new to the language.
Step 2: Pimsleur AND Duolingo
Step 2 will ruin you, but it’s important that you stay strong and don’t give up. I recommend working through the Pimsleur Spanish program and Duolingo Spanish concomitantly. This will take awhile, but you’ll pretty much be conversational afterwards. I think Pimsleur consists of 120 thirty-minute lessons (60 hours) and I estimate that Duolingo takes 100+ hours to complete the ‘tree.’
Do one or two Pimsleur lessons a day. Take Duolingo a bit more casually. Just do it when you feel like it. Don’t stress. Pimsleur will give you structure and Duolingo will give you vocabulary to plug into that structure (we’re not too worried about vocabulary yet; it’s more important that you get structure down at the beginning stages). I recommend Duolingo because it’s a good way to shake things up. Michel Thomas and Pimsleur are audio recordings, whereas Duolingo is more visual and interactive. By doing these two programs at the same time, you should be able to figure out which method is more conducive to your style of learning. This will be important for advancing in the language your own way.
Step 3: Rocket Spanish
Rocket Spanish is one of the best resources for learning Spanish because they really help you nail down the pronunciation, while reinforcing the basics of the language. I made the mistake of trying this program after I had formed bad pronunciations habits that were extremely hard to undo. My pronunciation remains bad because of this. I Strongly Recommend Picking Up This Program Early On In Your Spanish Learning. It’s worth the cost and is one of few Spanish learning resources that will vastly improve your accent. Because of step 1 and step 2, you’ll be able to zoom through the beginning stages of Rocket Spanish. You’ll think “wow, I’m actually progressing.” This confidence will encourage you to soldier on. By the time you finish this program, you’ll be able to handle yourself in Spanish pretty damn well.
Step 4: Memrise and Cue Cards
By now you should have a strong understanding of how the language is structured. This is the best time to plug in some vocabulary that you’ll easily be able to incorporate into your Spanish lexicon. This is a lot more fun than sorting out structure, so if you make it to this step, you’ll find the learning process much more enjoyable. Memrise is a great app for quickly picking up new words, and cue cards are always a great way to expand your vocabulary. Tape cue cards to household items, rooms or utensils to learn new words fast. If you do this, in a week’s time you’ll know the translation for every item in your bathroom, bedroom and kitchen without even making an effort. Your roommates will think you’ve gone insane, but this is an amazing language learning hack.
Step 5: Destinos and Ben y Marina
Destinos is an educational television program for Spanish learners, and Ben y Marina from Notes In Spanish is a podcast of real Spanish conversation…like Pimsleur but more interesting and without the handholding. It’s likely that the first lessons of Ben y Marina will be too easy for you at this point, so skip ahead. I would, however, encourage you to watch Destinos from the start, even if you think it’s beneath you. The intermediate levels of Coffee Break Spanish are also good.
The point here is getting you used to hearing the language and tuning into the manner in which people speak it. This will allow you to more easily determine the meaning of words you don’t know through context, and help you more easily understand people in everyday conversation. Just play this in the background while you clean your room or drive your car. Focus on the rhythm and flow of the language and try to sort out what’s being said through context. If you get good at doing this, you’ll be able to talk in person without getting flustered.
Step 6: Spanish films with Spanish subtitles
Although it’s tempting to watch Spanish films with English subtitles and call it learning, it’s not going to do much for you. The only way films will help you become more proficient in Spanish is if you already have a strong foundation, use Spanish subtitles with a pen and paper close by to jot down what you don’t understand (this is important), and if you watch the same films over and over again. That’s why I don’t condone using films as a learning resource until this step. I suggest watching a film you like a few times with English subs so you know what they’re saying, a few times with Spanish subs so you know the translations, and finally a few times in Spanish without subs to help you internalize it and get a good feel for the beat of the language. Make sure it’s a movie you can stand watching ten times over.
There are also some Great Telenovelas From Latin America. These are ideal for learning Spanish because the episodes are chock-full of dialogue, and there is a wide selection on Netflix with both English and Spanish subtitles.
Step 7: Skype, Interpals and Spanish-language literature
Now is the time to start connecting with other Spanish speakers. Get on the website Interpals (Tinder plus also works) and start chatting in Spanish with native speakers to improve your reading and writing. There are plenty of people on the site who are willing to do Skype language exchanges too, which is a good way to practice your conversation skills for free. Also pick up a Spanish book or online periodical and translate it every once in awhile.
****You can reach out to other Spanish-speakers earlier in your Spanish speaking journey if you’re comfortable enough to do so. It will only help the process.
Step 8: Immersion
After this stage, the only way to improve rapidly is through full immersion. During your Spanish learning journey, you’ll find that there will be lull periods during which, regardless of how much you are studying, you don’t seem to be improving. This is normal. This is also when you book that ticket to Mexico, Colombia or Argentina and really lean into it. Talk to as many people as you can. Use any excuse to practice. Hop on Tinder or Latin American Cupid to improve your reading comprehension…among other things 😉. A good two or three months of immersion after the base of knowledge you’ve accumulated will get you over that lull period and should be enough to officially call yourself a Spanish-speaker.
This is essentially the path I took (albeit in a more confused order). My biggest regret is not focusing at all on pronunciation. My logic was that I’d focus on pronunciation after comprehension and after I’d learned the Spanish I’d need to get basic things done in LATAM. Big mistake. To this day, I’m still misunderstood by Spanish speakers due to my poor pronunciation, and I’m finding my bad habits difficult to undo this late in the game.
That being said, I’m not too bad in the ol’ Spanish. I can understand most everything of what’s said to me, and I can express myself adequately in nearly all situations. In short, it’s good enough. But it’s not as good as it should be for someone who’s spent so much time in Latin America.
In fact, I’ve kind of flatlined. As I mentioned before, this is common for intermediate Spanish speakers. You’ll have months where you don’t feel as though you’ve made any improvement, and then all of a sudden…BANG! You’ll burst through and find yourself speaking more fluidly. My little e-commerce project is forcing me to become better in written Spanish, so hopefully I will break through that barrier soon.
Spanish isn’t a difficult language to learn for English-speakers. Folks more intelligent than myself can become conversational in a matter of months (it took me about 8 months to become comfortable in conversation, and that was with immersion on my side).
As for me, I’ve picked up the books again after about two years of coasting by with my intermediate abilities. Part of My Income Now Depends On It, after all.
If you’re ready to put the excuses aside and start your Spanish learning journey today, you can with Rocket Spanish!
(Also, I came across an excellent, no nonsense, no excuses post by QUINTUS CURTIUS about language learning. It’s valuable advice and I’d be at fault not to link it: 7 Reasons Why You’re Not Reaching Your Foreign Language Learning Goals.