In this article I am going to teach you a technique you can use to become fluent in Spanish in as little as 30 days. I grew up only speaking English. At 28 I am now fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic. I am a professional interpreter and translator in all three of the mentioned languages, although the bulk of my work is in Spanish. I have used this technique extensively in learning all three of the foreign languages I speak, and am currently using it to learn French.
My technique will improve your vocabulary, pronunciation, and fluency all at the same time. It can be used to learn any foreign language, but in this article we are going to focus specifically on learning Spanish. With this technique you can rapidly improve your Spanish while studying alone. You don’t have to travel to a Spanish-speaking country, take formal classes with a teacher, or practice with native speakers to become fluent. Of course I don’t want to discourage those things. They will enhance your language learning even further. However regardless of your study options, you need to make a committed effort to self-study in your spare time to become fluent quickly. Even if you have no access to formal classes or native speakers, you can learn Spanish quickly all on your own. This guide will teach you how.
In this guide you will learn:
- How to begin studying Spanish on the first day
- The best technique for studying by yourself
- Which resources you should use
- When to write down new vocabulary words
- How often to study
- How to train your ear to understand Spanish
- Why you should focus more on vocabulary and less on grammar
- Along with several additional tips
Where do you begin?
In my opinion, the most difficult day when learning a new language is the first day. You have nothing to build on. Once you begin learning basic phrases, you can add in new vocabulary words that fit the phrases you’ve learned. However on the first day, you may have never heard a single word in Spanish. So where do you begin if you know nothing and are studying on your own? I recommend you find a resource with basic words and phrases in Spanish accompanied by their translation in English. It should also have an audio option so you can hear a native speaker pronounce the words. Here is an example of a site with Basic Spanish Phrases.
On the site, simply click on the Spanish phrases in the left-hand column and you will hear a native speaker pronounce them. The next step is what separates average language learners from those who speak fluently with good pronunciation: repeat each word or phrase out loud after you listen to the audio. Practicing by speaking out loud is the first step in using my technique. I recommend you start speaking on the first day of learning Spanish. Obviously the words and phrases you say will not be very long, and you will not pronounce them the way a native speaker does on your first day. But speaking the new words out loud helps your brain memorize them much faster than simply looking at them and hearing them without saying them. By saying the words and phrases out loud and trying to imitate the native speaker, you begin to naturally improve your pronunciation. With time your pronunciation will become much clearer than that of learners who do not practice by speaking out loud.
There are many resources you can use for your studies. Narrowing it down to one or two would be difficult for me because there are so many options. The site I mentioned above is one of many similar sites that are great for learning the basics of Spanish. There are also many books and videos that can provide you with similar beginner guides. You can learn using any of them. In my experience the most important aspect of learning any new language is your study technique. Soon I’ll show you how the technique can be used as you advance further in your studies. If you’d like a list of resources recommended by an accredited university, check out Stanford University’s Spanish resources list.
Many teachers recommend learning the alphabet before learning any words or phrases. I don’t disagree with the idea, but I don’t think the alphabet necessarily has to be the first thing you learn. When I learned Arabic, for example, I started off by learning Arabic words spelled with English letters, a concept known as transliteration. I learned a lot of Arabic vocabulary this way and later learned the Arabic alphabet. The nice thing about learning Spanish is the Spanish alphabet is almost the same as the English alphabet with just a few different letters. If you are interested in learning the alphabet right away, you can easily find it on the internet. Here is an example of a Spanish alphabet video.
Many people trying to learn a new language tell me they don’t know what order to study in…which words or phrases should I learn first?…what should I study after learning basic greetings?…when should I begin learning grammar and verb conjugations?, etc. The answer I give them is it doesn’t matter that much. If your goal is to become fully fluent in Spanish, you’ll need to learn all the vocabulary and other language parts at some point anyway. So why stress yourself over what to learn first? Obviously it makes more sense to start with basic words and greetings, but if you stumble across a vocabulary list with more advanced words, there’s no harm in learning them right away. You’ll need to learn them at some point either way.
The best advice I can give if you are not sure what to study is study anything that comes to mind or is available. If the next section in the website or book you are using is on Spanish travel vocabulary, practice speaking those words out loud in short sentences. If the next section is about restaurant vocabulary, study those words. The important thing is to keep studying. Keep trying to memorize new words, whatever they may be, and practice your pronunciation and fluency at the same time.
This is where the technique comes in. Regardless of what aspect of the language you are studying, an effective technique is how you memorize words quickly. I advise you to begin by listening to the correct pronunciation of each new vocabulary word and then pronouncing it out loud yourself. Combine the new word with another word or two that you already know and create a short statement or question. Remember to pronounce all the words out loud. As you learn more vocabulary, the sentences and questions you form will become longer and more complex. The most important thing, in my opinion, is to keep speaking out loud every time you study. Speaking the new words out loud helps log them into your memory faster.
Writing new words down is another technique recommended by many. I don’t always write down all the new words I am learning when studying a new language. Usually the resources I use show each word with the letters spelled out. I look at each word while practicing to get a visual in my brain of how it is spelled, and of course speak it out loud in complete sentences. However if you learn a new word only by hearing it and not seeing it spelled out, I highly recommend you write it down as soon as possible before you forget it.
Here is an example of why: I was in Colombia recently with another American who is also fully fluent in Spanish, along with a local Colombian friend. We came across a local word my American friend and I had never heard before. Our Colombian friend explained the meaning to us several times, and my American friend and I both repeated the word out loud several times. Then several hours later, my American friend and I tried to remember the word and neither of us could. We both agreed that had we seen the word spelled out we would have remembered it.
Whether or not you choose to write new words down, I recommend you speak them out loud in complete sentences and questions. This technique is the best way to improve your language skills quickly. It also offers added benefits in addition to memorization. When you practice out loud and in complete sentences, you naturally improve your pronunciation and your fluency. You can use this technique from day one until the day you become fully bilingual.
Benefits of my technique:
- Vocabulary: Speaking out loud helps you memorize words faster. So does using them in complete sentences, because you are then putting the word into a proper context.
- Pronunciation: When speaking out loud you are by default practicing your pronunciation. The more you practice the better you become at making sounds that don’t exist in your native language.
- Fluency: Speaking in complete sentences is the definition of fluency. By practicing this way you learn to speak with more fluency every day.
How often should you study?
Studying more frequently will of course ultimately lead to faster results. However I’d like to give you a few tips regarding the time you spend studying. For another expert opinion see the University of North Carolina second language study tips.
Their article suggests that you should begin by reviewing each new word five times per day, then down to three times per day, and eventually down to once per day to maximize memorization. Following that exact routine may not be necessary, but the point is that practicing each new word various times each day will help you memorize the words faster.
The article also refers to what they call “distributed practice”: the idea that you should spread out your studies into multiple small sessions throughout the day instead of having one long study session. This helps to improve memorization and eliminate the feeling of exhaustion that your brain, ear, and tongue will feel during long study sessions. When studying a language intensively, it is very difficult to maintain the same concentration and effort level for a long time. In my experience, after about half an hour my focus and effort level drops. The exact amount of time might be slightly different for you. As you get further along in your studies, you will find what routine works best for you.
The North Carolina article also suggests that self-testing or “recall” is better for your memory than simply reading notes. You shouldn’t simply read over each list of new words you wrote down or found in a study guide. A more effective way to learn is to quiz yourself at various points of the day on the new words you are learning. You can also incorporate these new words into the sentences and phrases you are speaking during your study sessions. Racking your brain for a word or phrase instead of just seeing it on paper helps boost memory more quickly.
Getting your ear accustomed to Spanish
Listening is arguably the most important aspect of becoming fluent in a foreign language. It makes sense because as children we spend hours and hours listening to our parents speak our native language before we speak a word of it. I recommend you begin listening to native Spanish speakers from day one of your studies. You can use websites with an audio button to hear native speakers pronounce vocabulary words and phrases. Listening to more complex language will benefit you as well. Even if you don’t understand a single word at the beginning, your ear will get accustomed to the sounds, rhythm, and tone of the language.
So what should you listen to? Spanish-language movies? Television shows? Music? News? Radio? The short answer is that you should listen to whatever interests you. That being said, here is a guide to each type of media and the benefits of listening to it:
- Spanish language movies: learn person-to-person communication, everyday vocabulary, slang terminology, culture, hand gestures and body language used by native speakers.
- Television shows: similar benefits to movies.
- Music: colloquial language and culture, some learners find that listening to songs boosts memory.
- News: formal language spoken by articulate native speakers, political events in the specific country you might visit, more complex and technical vocabulary.
- Radio: colloquial language specific to the country you plan to visit, as well as events taking place in the country.
I’d like to make a few specific points about listening to radios from a Spanish-speaking country. Many language learners don’t even realize this is a possibility if you aren’t living in one. But if you have a smartphone, you can go to your app store and search (for example) “Radio Mexico” and a list of free apps with different Mexican radio stations will appear. You can browse dozens if not hundreds of radio stations from any country and listen live via your smartphone at any time. I often listen to foreign language radios when I am in my car to keep my skills sharp.
The reason I recommend radios for learning colloquial language is because radio personalities speak less formally than news reporters. Plus, the radio often features local commercials and advertising. These are a great way for you to pick up on colloquial language if planning to travel to a particular country. You also learn more about the culture and events taking place on the ground in the country. When you download a radio app from a foreign country, you are listening live to the exact same broadcast as people who live there.
Of course early on in your studies you will not understand much of what you are listening to. Perhaps the most important aspect of learning any new language is the willingness to keep going when you feel you are making no progress. I can assure you this will happen at times. You will study tons of vocabulary words, then go listen to native speakers, and understand literally nothing when you thought you knew a lot of words. This can happen especially if they are speaking slang. Later on when you consider yourself 50 percent fluent or more, you will listen to certain dialogues and only understand ten percent if the speakers are using slang or speaking very quickly.
The only advice I can give you is to keep studying and not get too frustrated. Learning a new language is a full of ups and downs. Even when practicing your pronunciation you will have good days and bad days. Some days your tongue just might not be able to to roll those Spanish Rs. There will be bad days when you feel you are making no progress, and you’ll ask yourself if it is really worth it to keep studying. If you embrace the challenge and continue studying, you will eventually speak fluently and understand virtually everything native speakers say.
Listening will also help you in other aspects of your language studies. First, it reinforces vocabulary you have recently learned. If you just learned a new word or phrase but still don’t have it logged into your memory, oftentimes hearing the word spoken by a native speaker will ingrain it into your memory permanently. You also may have doubts about how native speakers pronounce some of the words you are learning. When you hear these words spoken over and over by natives as you listen, you will learn the correct pronunciation. As you get more advanced, you will likely even begin picking up new vocabulary words based on the context if you hear them repeatedly. Even if you still aren’t sure what a new word means after hearing it several times, you can quickly look it up and learn. Listening will help you in many more ways than just training your ear.
Taking it to the next level
Okay, let’s say you’re now an intermediate Spanish speaker. You’ve mastered the basics and have a decent amount of vocabulary. Your pronunciation is at least understandable to native speakers. You are also beginning to understand a decent amount when they speak. Where do you go from here? At this point you could probably get by during daily life in a Spanish-speaking country. But how do you reach the level where you can maintain a fast-paced, more complex conversation?
My simple answer is to keep practicing with the technique I explained. Add more vocabulary, and continue listening to native speakers whenever and however possible. There are however several other aspects of language-learning I should mention here, the first of which is grammar. You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned studying grammar up to this point. The reason is because I believe, in general, learning vocabulary is much more important than learning grammar. The experts at UNC agree with me. They explain it based on three aspects of language learning:
- “Comprehensible input”: being exposed to the language (hearing or reading it)
- “Comprehensible output”: producing the language (speaking or writing)
- “Review/feedback”: identifying errors and making changes
Their article says that knowing more words equals more input, which in turn equals more output, which then leads to more opportunities for feedback. My simple explanation is that knowing more words is more important than knowing how to properly conjugate verbs.
Think about the following example: if you were in a Spanish-speaking country and looking to rent an apartment, would you rather have great grammar but limited vocabulary, or a lot of vocabulary but weak grammar? In the first case, you would likely know how to politely say “I would like” along with several key vocabulary words such as apartment. Yet you might not know the difference between the words for buy and rent or subject-specific terms like security deposit. You would have a difficult time expressing your needs to the landlord as well as understanding everything he or she says. In the second case, you’d likely speak broken, improper Spanish. You’d say something that sounds like, “I need rent apartment, six months.” The landlord would obviously know you are not a native speaker, but your message is still understood. Then when he or she begins asking you specific details with more complex terminology, you’d have a better chance at understanding everything and expressing more of your exact needs if you have focused on learning vocabulary.
I don’t want give you the idea that grammar isn’t important at all. If you want to sound like a native speaker or close someday you will of course need to master Spanish grammar. However, in my experience, many language learnings don’t realize that grammar can be acquired without formally studying it (for example, with verb conjugation tables). As you continue listening to native Spanish speakers, you will learn a lot of verb conjugations and grammar items just by listening and imitating them. It’s similar to the way we learn the grammar of our native language. If English is your native language, did your parents ever make you conjugate verb tables in English? I doubt it. In my opinion you should try to learn Spanish in the same natural way you learned English. You should listen to native speakers and imitate what they say.
There are many different opinions on the best way to teach grammar in a foreign language. Here’s a more in-depth article from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The article suggests that young children may need less structured grammar lessons, and as we grow older we may need more. If your study guide includes verb conjugation tables, I won’t discourage you from studying them. However I recommend you do so with the technique I’ve been preaching: pick words or phrases you already have memorized and use them in complete sentences or questions with the verb conjugations you are studying. You will improve your grammar and at the same time reinforce your vocabulary, pronunciation, and fluency.
If you are an adult learning Spanish, or any other language, you might like this article from the University of California-Santa Cruz. Their research shows that adolescents and adults learn languages better than children under controlled conditions. This runs contrary to popular belief, but I agree with them. I began learning Arabic (which is much more difficult than Spanish) at age 20, and was fluent within one year. Children do not speak their native languages fluently at one year of age. The article suggests that what holds most adolescents and adults back from learning foreign languages is fear of making mistakes and embarrassment. Many adult language learners I’ve spoken to cite this same problem. Children are not affected by it.
The article does suggest that learning correct pronunciation may be more difficult with age. The neurophysiological mechanisms and motor skills needed for correct pronunciation are difficult to change after a certain age. That being said, I know many people who have learned foreign languages as adults and have native or near-native pronunciation. If you want to speak fluent Spanish, fear of making mistakes and embarrassing yourself is probably your biggest obstacle. You will make mistakes. You will embarrass yourself from time to time. The more you embrace those mistakes and embarrassing moments, the faster you will become fluent.
I have many friends who speak various foreign languages fluently. Almost every one of them, when asked how they got so good at the language, says something like, “I just always went for it, kept talking whenever I could, and never worried about making mistakes.” Every time you make a mistake and are corrected by a native speaker, you learn something new and get closer to your ultimate goal of speaking fluently.
From mediocrity to fluency
Once you’ve reached an intermediate level, it’s all downhill from there. Your study technique doesn’t need to change. The only things that change are the vocabulary words and language items you are studying. As you learn more complex vocabulary, keep practicing each new word by speaking it out loud in complete sentences. Enjoy the snowball effect of learning a new language: the more you learn, the number of words and phrases you can incorporate into your practice sessions increases, and speaking becomes easier and easier. For each new word you learn, you now have tons of ways to use it in different examples as you practice. So continue doing just that, and you will be fluent before you know it.
- Change everything you can into Spanish
The more exposure you get to the language, the quicker you will pick it up. In the modern world, so much of the media we use can be changed into Spanish and a variety of other languages. Change the language of your smartphone, laptop, and other electronic devices into Spanish. Listen to Spanish-language music and radio. Watch Spanish-language television and movies. Read books in Spanish. Do whatever you can to surround yourself with the language every day and you will understand more of it quickly.
- Find a study partner or group at a level similar to yours
This may seem like a contradictory piece of advice since I’ve been telling you to listen to native speakers as much as possible. However in some cases a non-native study partner can help even more than a native. The experts at the UNC language center suggest that having a non-native speaking partner of your level can help you feel more comfortable when studying. You’re less likely to be afraid or embarrassed because you’ll know your partner is going through the same process. Non-native speakers who are learning the language are also often more patient with you if you don’t speak very fluently. Sometimes native speakers, even friends who are trying to help you, become impatient when you don’t know how to say something they’ve known since they were a child.
- Don’t be afraid to use Google Translate
The translation purists may disagree with me here, but in my opinion Google Translate can help you learn a new language. I’m not suggesting you use it as your main resource for new vocabulary. There are times when it misinterprets words or phrases without understanding the context. However, for non-ambiguous single words, Google Translate will give you a consistently reliable translation. This is especially true for a common language like Spanish. It also offers an audio button you can press to hear a native speaker pronounce the word or phrase.
If you are looking for a translation website that is more accurate for more abstract terms, try Wordreference. It offers multiple translations for most words depending on the context along with example sentences. It is also good for translations of colloquial phrases and multiple-word figures of speech in many languages.
- Feel free to watch Spanish media with English subtitles
I’ve heard some language experts recommend not using subtitles when watching movies and television in a foreign language. They claim it’s better to try and understand without using subtitles to better train your ear. However I believe watching foreign language television with subtitles can be useful. You can learn new vocabulary words instantly rather than simply hearing the new words while remaining in doubt about their meaning. You can mix it up, using subtitles sometimes and going without them other times, or whatever works for you.
- Find a Spanish-speaking community where you live
Wherever you live, there are undoubtedly Spanish speakers somewhere nearby. Spanish is among the top five most spoken languages in the world. If you are from the US like me, for example, every major city has a large Spanish-speaking population. Many small towns do as well. Try checking out a site like Meetup if searching for local Spanish-speaking groups in your area. If you can’t find Spanish speakers to practice with in person, there are also websites that offer live chats with native speakers, often for free.
- Use an app like Duolingo
There are many smartphone apps now available for learning foreign languages, and Spanish is always available. I had never used an app to study languages until last year when I started learning French. I downloaded Duolingo on my phone and became fairly fluent in French within two months. All I did was study with the app for about half an hour each day. The app is great because it teaches you all four language-learning skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing-in this case typing on your phone’s keyboard). It forces you to pronounce words correctly, otherwise you will not pass the lessons. It has an organized lesson structure and keeps you on task by sending you daily reminders to continue your lessons. If you are looking for an entertaining way to continue learning Spanish or need some organization in your lessons, try downloading an app such as Duolingo.
- MAKE IT FUN!
As human beings, we learn our best when we are positively engaged in what we are learning. If you enjoy yourself while studying Spanish, however you choose to study, you will become addicted to the journey and see faster results. Find a study method you enjoy and stick with it!