We get asked a lot – how’s your Spanish? Which is inevitably followed by, how are you learning? So, we thought we’d give an update on our progress, our experiences, and share our favorite methods to learn Spanish.
We arrived in Spain in July of 2016, and began our journey to learn Spanish (Castilian/Castellano). We’re from California where there are lots of Spanish names for places, streets, Latino owned businesses, Latino radio and TV stations, and lots of Spanish speakers. We were familiar with a few basic words, and some pronunciation, but were starting from knowing near-zero Spanish. So how do you learn Spanish in a hurry – at least enough to get by?
Here in Valencia, very few people speak English, and that’s true in most of Spain. Castellano is the first language, and while the youngest generation are also learning English, older locals grew up learning Valenciano (similar to Catalan) as their second language. Since we had no possibility of using English, we very quickly learned what we think of as Survival Spanish. These are the words and phrases necessary to get through everyday challenges, such as checking out at the supermarket, receiving a package from a delivery person, or ordering and paying at a restaurant. We prepared for these interactions by translating phrases and learning some basic vocabulary. If we had an unexpected conversation, which still happens frequently, we fall back on Google Translate. We feel pretty comfortable with our Survival Spanish now, but still haven’t found a good resource specifically focused on learning Survival Spanish.
We quickly figured out that learning a language isn’t simply a matter of dropping yourself into a foreign country, taking intensive Spanish classes, and frequenting local restaurants and stores. Despite being fairly immersed, we haven’t learned the language through osmosis. It takes real effort, and all three of us dedicate many hours each week to learning Spanish.
Our son goes to a school where they speak English in the classroom, but Spanish is spoken during lunch and recess. When it’s time for Spanish class or Social Studies, which are taught in Spanish and Valenciano, he goes to Spanish as a Second Language (SSL) class.They read, sing, play, do crafts, projects, and structured learning, so he’s getting quite a variety too. He gets approximately 8-10 hours a week in SSL, which is 100% Spanish. He’s doing really well, and when we speak Spanish together as a family, he is constantly correcting our grammar and pronunciation, which he seems to really enjoy.
Our biggest revelation so far: avoid burn out by using a variety of learning methods in order to keep it fresh and interesting.
Everyone knows that the fast track to learning a language is to surround yourself with native speakers all the time (including at home) – in other words, full immersion. But unless you’re spending your whole day with native speakers, it’s almost impossible to get fully immersed. We’re making efforts to get out and interact with the public daily. We try to set up dedicated conversation time with local native speakers every day during the week. That, combined with some more structured learning at home using various tools, has really helped us progress.
We’re not sure how big a part of learning the subconscious plays in learning a new language. We dream about ordinal numbers and conjugating verbs. As we walk through the streets, we pick up parts of conversations and read signs. We can’t help but overhear the TV news and music in Spanish around us. Surely it helps, right?
Language Proficiency Levels (for Spanish, may apply to other languages)
- A1 – communication at a basic level
- A2 – novice Spanish in simple contexts
- B1 – low intermediate level
- B2 – independent, spontaneous
- C1 – fluent Spanish in complex manner
- C2 – same abilities of a native speaker
We’re currently in the early A2 range. We’ve set a goal to be a solid B1 by the two year mark (Eddie’s goal is to get to B2).
Our Favorite Methods To Learn Spanish
Our pre-conceived notions about how we’d learn were wrong, and we’ve been surprised by how many ways we’re finding to help us learn Spanish. It seems that we’re constantly discovering new ways, which keeps it interesting and fun. Here’s a list of our favorite methods to learn Spanish.
Traditional Language Schools
Before we arrived, we expected we’d be enrolled in intense courses for our first few months, assuming this was going to be the best way to learn. We tried two different language schools and attended each for a couple of weeks – 4 hours each day, 5 days each week. Both schools had totally different styles. One was less formal, with more natural conversation incorporated into it. The other was more structured, with larger class sizes, a formal text book, and a faster pace. Both focused heavily on grammar and memorization. When returning for consecutive weeks, we found the intensity and speed to be too high for retention. This is the most expensive way to learn, but in our opinion, it’s the least efficient. From 150-200€/week per person.
Conversation Exchanges (1:1 conversation)
Conversation Exchange This has become our favorite way to learn Spanish. It’s kind of like a dating service that allows people to connect for the purpose of learning each others’ languages. You can meet in person or virtually (using Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime). We prefer to meet local Valencianos in person at cafés, and have made a number of new friends through this service. We arrange several of these meetings each week. They normally last about an hour, and we spend time talking in both languages. The locals are a great resource for learning about Spain and our new city too. (Web) Free!
Language exchanges (Intercambios)
We attend lots of Meetups, including: Boardgames in Spanish, Short Film making in Spanish, Guided Conversation, Tapas Nights, and Meetups for day trips to nearby towns for hiking, biking or city walks. Beyond Meetups, there are lots of language exchanges/intercambios in Valencia, every day of the week. Anywhere from 10-40+ people break into smaller groups for the language they want to practice. Almost all of them are scheduled weekly, at craft beer pubs or other interesting restaurants/bars. Expats from all over the world participate, so it’s a good way to meet new people too. Most of these are free, but a few charge between 2-5€.
Paid language lessons from experienced teachers using online video chat (e.g., Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, etc). There’s a nice interface and ability for the instructor to create flash cards on the fly so you can study them later. (Web) $12-15 for a one-hour lesson.
There are many options on YouTube, but we’ll mention just one that we really like – Spanish In Episodes. We like the style and pace, and that it is made in Spain. Another nice thing about this one is the show transcripts are available to download. (iOS, Android, Web) Free for the videos, PayPal donation for the transcripts.
Independent Structured Learning
We’re continuing to use text books at home to study grammar, do exercises, and listen to accompanying audio recordings. We agree that we’re retaining more of the material through independent study than we did in the language schools. We’re considering returning to the classroom at intervals to reinforce concepts and to meet other students. 10-20€/book per level (A1, A2, etc.)
This one is indispensable. The mobile versions are always handy, quick and easy. It translates to/from colloquial phrases rather than just literal translations. The mobile version also allows you to use the phone’s camera to get real time translations, e.g., when pointed at a sign or menu. If you use Google Chrome as your browser, Google Translate can translate entire webpages for you. (iOS, Android, Web) Free.
We like Duolingo because it’s good for when you only have a few minutes, like when waiting in a line. It offers vocabulary, listening, and speaking. It has categories, so you can practice specific vocabulary as needed. (iOS, Android, Web) Free.
Another one that’s good for when you only have a few minutes. It allows creating and importing decks of flash cards. We have several decks that we’ve made and share with each other, and some that others have created. Its cloud service syncs across all instances of AnkiApp. (iOS, Android, Web, Mac, Windows) Free.
In addition to being a good dictionary, we like the Word of the Day feature, and how it displays all verb conjugations in all tenses. (iOS, Android, Web) Free.
Another good dictionary, and active user forums for discussions. (iOS, Android, Web) Free.
Global and Spanish news you can listen to at slow or normal speed, as you read along with the transcript. Expressions, grammar lessons, flashcards, transcripts, and pronunciation practice. Monthly/Yearly subscriptions in a choice of languages. (iOS, Android, Web) From $14/month.
A couple from Madrid (she: Spanish, he: British) teach you useful colloquial and traditional vocabulary/phrases and then have an actual conversation in Castellano. Offers 100+ free podcasts that help take you from Beginner to Advanced. It helps us that the Spanish they’re teaching is from Spain, rather than Latin/Central America. (Podcast, Web) Free podcasts, with optional paid supplemental worksheets with transcripts.
Heather discovered this website before arriving in Spain and really enjoys the video tutorials. You get 3 levels, with 10 videos per level. Similar to Notes in Spanish, it’s purely conversational Spanish. And in this case, you’re given short mini-lessons and are walked through a series of “how would you say” questions using what you learned. Content from earlier lessons is constantly reinforced with each new lesson. (Web, download video lessons) $27 for the full set of videos (levels 1-3).
Our friend Ryan turned us onto this gem, and I really like it. Paul starts you off with an incredible boost of confidence by teaching you that you already know more than 2000 words in Spanish! Paul offers some free mini-lessons on YouTube to see if you like them before purchasing. His style is simple, but I find it very effective. No note taking, and no books. (Web video lessons) $99 for the full course, and worth it!
Global online newspaper, written in Spanish, with the option to read in English. Free online.
Our favorite streaming and download service for music. In addition to all of the features you’d expect, it allows you to get playlists of the most played songs by country. We’ve been enjoying listening to popular Latino music from different countries. It’s a great way to relax while (hopefully) absorbing some Spanish. In Spotify, choose Browse > Charts > Top 50 by Country > Spain (or other Latino music countries).(iOS, Android, Web, Mac, Windows) $10/month subscription.
Carpooling with Locals
During a recent trip to Andalucía, our planned transportation fell through. We scrambled to find a bus or train, but instead decided to give a carpooling service a try. BlaBlaCar is very popular in Spain and other parts of Europe, but it was totally new to us (Google recently launched Waze Carpool, which seems similar). We scheduled a ride with Juan, who turned out to be a bombero (firefighter), really friendly, and interesting. The 3-hour ride from Granada to Ronda flew by as we bla bla’d all the way. Eddie used Blablacar again when he went snowboarding in Andorra, and spent several hours chatting in Spanish with guys from Murcia and Venezuela. It’s a good way to practice, meet people, and learn something about the local history. Prices vary, but it’s pretty cheap at just a few euros per hour.
Spanish books for adults and kids
Once we got a Library card, we began checking out kids’ books, and reading them with our son at bedtime. We take turns reading aloud, and doing our best to translate. This is really fun for both of us. We also have been reading Spanish “Readers” written for adults at specific language levels, A2, B1, etc.
Adult Education enrichment courses
The Universitat Popular de Valencia is similar to a local community center in the U.S., where they offer adult classes on things like arts and crafts, computer literacy, self improvement, etc. Since the majority of students attending are Spanish natives, this is yet another way to get immersed in Spanish for 2 hours, twice a week. We haven’t tried this yet, but we’re considering taking classes in Arts & Crafts, Photography, and Spanish for Foreigners.
Spanish TV and Radio
We’ve only watched a bit of Spanish local TV, but intend to make this a more regular part of our routines once our Spanish is a bit better. Watching Spanish TV and movies with subtitles in English and Spanish is really helpful for understanding colloquialisms and expressions. Free.
Mix It Up!
We really enjoy the variety of ways we can study and learn, to avoid getting bored or tired of any one particular method. We try to keep learning fresh and so far it’s been enjoyable and fun! Challenging and pushing ourselves to learn a new language is helping to keep us fulfilled and happy.
Did we miss any methods that you’ve found helpful? Tell us in the comments!