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Strategies for learning Spanish

The resources I used to go from complete beginner to intermediate speaker in just under two years.

Caro Griffin
5 min read
Strategies for learning Spanish

Learning another language has been on my bucket list for years, but in that hazy “someday” kind of way. It wasn’t until I started traveling in Latin America last year that learning Spanish became a priority.

Thankfully, there are lots of resources for language learning these days, many of them free or low cost. I’ve amassed a slew of tools that I use to learn and wanted to share them for anyone else who’s trying to learn a language while staying at home.

Setting goals

I currently spend about ten hours a week on Spanish, between lessons and self-guided practice. It’s a lot! And yet, I don’t think I’ll ever really be fluent.

I have zero aptitude for foreign languages. I’m also slightly hard of hearing, which means understanding is a lot harder for me than reading or speaking. (There’s nothing like learning a foreign language to make you realize how much you rely on lip reading!)

My actual goal is to become what I think of as “legit conversational” over the next few years. Since that’s obviously a longer term goal, setting smaller ones along the way has helped.

My first goal was to pass my Spanish A1 exam earlier this year. This article has a great breakdown of the different levels, but A1 is described as “breakthrough proficiency.”

This is enough to get by in a Spanish-speaking country, but not enough to really live there. I can handle every day conversations but I have to seek out English speaking people for all my less-routine needs, like renting an apartment or going to the doctor.

I want to be able to have more in-depth conversations and a better grasp on future tense, so I’m currently.focused on passing my A2 Level this fall. I’m about 40% of the way there!

Language Learning Apps

Google Translate

An obvious  pick, I know! But the Google Translate app is unbeatable for looking up words or phrases on the fly.

Running errands in Mexico often involves psyching myself up to use Spanish, especially when I know follow-up questions or an explanation will be required, like when I take some clothing to an alterations shop. I often practice these conversation on my walk over so I can use the app to look up any new vocab I might need.

The photo scanning feature is also great for menus and signs, and I often use the Chrome Extension to translate whole websites or highlighted phrases without having to open another tab.

SpanishDict

SpanishDict is a free app with thorough word definitions, example sentences for different use cases, and conjugations charts for every tense. Every Spanish teacher I’ve ever had has loved this app and I’m so glad they introduced me to it!

While Google Translate is helpful for quickly translating phrases and sentences, SpanishDict is much better for individual words. Especially when I think Google Translate is translating too literally, or I’m trying to memorize an irregular conjugation.

Duolingo

I’ve used Duolingo for years but never stuck with it until last spring. Now I’m on a closing in on a one-year streak!

The trick for me was using it as a supplemental tool versus my primary method of learning. It’s great for practicing conjugations and sentence structures that I’ve already learned, and introducing new vocab.

I also love the offline functionality so much that I pay for the Pro version. I’ve been known to spend hours on the app over the course of a travel day - I’ll pull it up for quick bits of practice while standing in various lines at check in and baggage claim, and even on the flight itself. It comes in handy on long haul flights when I need a break from movies or books.


Private Lessons

IRL Teachers

I took in-person classes or private lessons twice a week for my first few months in Latin America, and continued them when I settled in Mexico City. Unsurprisingly, they’ve made a way bigger difference in my learning than any mobile app ever could.

Being able to learn one tense at a time, get thorough explanations, and ask questions has been key. I’m also not someone who cancels plans if I can avoid it so having them booked with a real person helps hold me accountable.

I’ve learned that I pick up a lot more when I break my learning into chunks. I will always choose a one hour class twice a week versus one longer class. After an hour, my brain maxes out. And if I don’t practice new material again within a few days, it’s gone.

Chatterbug

I often describe Chatterbug as a more robust Duolingo, but the premise is is that you can’t learn a language without talking to native speakers. So, in addition to a platform full of self-guided exercises (flashcards, reading passages, etc.), they offer “Live Lessons” with native speakers and exercises based on your level.

A friend of mine started working at Chatterbug around the same time I was leaving Mexico for a few months last fall. I was worried about losing momentum (and my favorite teacher) so she hooked me up with her plus one account.

I’ve been doing 4-5 Live Lessons per week with Chatterbug for about six months now, and supplementing with the self guided exercises in between. I have a favorite instructor that I usually book, but the fact that there are instructors available at any time of day is a real win when you have a weird schedule or time zone hop as much as I do.

While Chatterbug is more expensive than some local teachers, it’s cheaper than most US-based options. The accountability and goal setting features are big selling points for me, but the most helpful part has been that the Live Lessons. The exercises you do with your tutor are tied to the self-guided exercises. For example, I learned some directional vocab a few months ago (corner, turn, right, left, etc.) and, in the following Live Lesson, my instructor and I did an exercise where we gave each other directions.

I find this method really helpful for how I learn, and much prefer it to the more casual online lessons that a lot of independent teachers tend to use.

However, that’s not to say that my favorite instructor (a college student in Costa Rica) and I haven’t been known to chat for forty-five minutes (in Spanish) without completing a single exercise. #sorrynotsorry #itscalledpractice

Full disclosure: I don’t currently pay for Chatterbug but you can use my referral link for 25% off your first month.


Other Language Learning Tools

Language Learning with Netflix

Language Learning with Netflix is a free Chrome extension that allows you to turn on two sets of subtitles - one for your native language, and one for the language you’re learning.

You can even grey out less common words based on your level (so you can prioritize more useful words) or click on a word to learn the definition.

This is super passive and I haven’t learned a lot from it - but it doesn’t hurt!

Instagram

You can do pretty much anything on Instagram these days, including practice a new language!

Everyone talks about how immersion is the best way to learn, but that can be hard if you don’t live in a place where you can use the language every day. One way to do this from afar is to follow foreign language Instagram accounts so that they’re just mixed into your feed. Instagram captions have a translate button that you can use to check your translation. And Instagram Stories are great because they don’t have a Translate option. 😉

The accounts of language learning apps like Chatterbug are great places to start, but you can also follow the same types of accounts you normally would (fashion bloggers, food folks, etc.)… just from a country where your new language is the default. Hashtags are a great way to discover these accounts.

If you’re learning Spanish, Time Out Mexico and Mexican Food Porn are a good place to start.

SpanishExpat LifeMexico

Caro Griffin

Caro Griffin is a senior operations leader who writes about remote work, no code, and building calm startups. She's a recovering web developer and digital nomad who calls Mexico City home. 🇲🇽