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“What’s the best method to study Spanish?”
Spanish was the first language I learned to a conversational level, so I get this question a lot. People often want a magic bullet – what's the one best method or technique to get the Spanish language into their heads?
Here's a secret: there is no one best way to study Spanish. There are almost as many effective ways to learn Spanish as there are people who have learned it.
With that being said, for every effective way to learn Spanish, there are even more ineffective ways. Take it from me – I tried and failed repeatedly for years to gain a passable level of Spanish, and kept falling flat on my face. Even six months of living in Valencia didn't help.
Eventually, I managed to learn Spanish to a high level of fluency, and even have a C2 diploma (the highest level) in the language. So I can assure you – just because you've failed in the past, doesn't mean you're doomed.
If you're struggling with Spanish, it's not because you “don't have the language gene“. You probably just don't have the right study method.
In this post I'll outline some of the most common and effective methods for studying Spanish. I can't tell you what the “best” program is for your specific needs – only you can figure that out. Experiment with different approaches until you discover what works best for you.
1. My Favourite: Study Spanish by Speaking From Day One
In my first six months in Spain, I hardly learned anything in the language. It wasn't for lack of trying. I'd put the effort in (or so I thought) but I just wasn’t able to make it work.
Then, I hit upon the most important realisation I've ever made in my journey to language-learning success. Once I made this discovery, everything changed – and before long I was having confident conversations in Spanish.
What was the secret?
I needed to speak Spanish.
That might sound obvious, but it's advice that many would-be Spanish speakers (like my 21-year-old self!) struggle to follow. Instead, they attempt to learn Spanish by burying their nose in books, occasionally watching a Spanish movie (with English subtitles), then speaking English all day with their friends, family and coworkers. No wonder I learned so slowly!
At Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M) I've always advocated that you speak from day one. Speaking Spanish is a skill, and to learn any skill you must practise it! Just open your mouth, and don't be afraid to make a few mistakes.
If you speak from day one, you'll find it's possible to have real (albeit imperfect) conversations with native speakers far sooner than you think. In my Conversation Countdown course, I'll take you from a total beginner in Spanish (or any language) to the point where you can have your first conversation with a native speaker in as little as a week.
2. Stop Speaking English! Study Spanish Through Immersion
When I broke through my barriers in Valencia and finally started making progress with Spanish, there were two reasons why I succeeded. It wasn't just that I started speaking Spanish as much as possible – it was that I completely stopped speaking English. For one month, I committed to speaking no English whatsoever, and succeeded. Not a single word of English escaped my mouth during these 30 days.
I've since used the same this approach for many other languages: living in the country and having a strict policy of speaking only the language I'm learning.
This is the immersion approach, and it's extremely effective. The reason is simple. Not all hours are created equal; forty hours of intensive Spanish immersion in a single week will be far more valuable than forty hours spread out haphazardly over a few weeks. The more often you immerse yourself, the less time you waste trying to remember what you learned last time you spoke Spanish.
My friend Scott Young took this approach to its extreme when he learned four languages in a year (three months per language). The cardinal rule that helped him succeed? No English.
“But Benny,” you’re probably thinking, “you got to live in Spain! It must have been easy to immerse yourself there. What about people who can’t do that?” Don’t worry, you don't have to travel to a Spanish-speaking country to immerse yourself – I’ve learned several languages while living nowhere near the countries where they’re spoken. In fact, travelling to the country is no guarantee that you'll be immersed. It's easy to get trapped in the expat bubble (like I initially did in Valencia). It’s definitely possible to achieve immersion in your home country – which I'll cover below.
Also note that immersion doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing. Depending on your job and your lifestyle, it's probably impractical to avoid English 100% of the time. Just try to minimise the amount of English you do speak, even if you can't eliminate it completely.
3. Study Spanish by Listening to Podcasts and Audio Courses
Spanish podcasts and audio courses are no substitute for speaking practice – but they make a great supplement, and can give structure to your learning.
My favourite Spanish podcast for Spanish learners of all levels is SpanishPod101. The creator, Innovative Language, offers courses in more than 30 languages.
I'm also a big fan of Mimic Method Spanish that will help you master the 39 Elemental Sounds of Spanish, so you can ace your Spanish pronunciation.
Finally, you might like to check out LingQ, which has thousands of hours of Spanish listening resources for all levels. LingQ is especially good if you like to read along while you listen.
4. Study Spanish by Taking a University Course
I have a degree in Electronic Engineering, and didn't have any success with language learning until after I'd already graduated. But many universities offer degrees in Spanish, and if you're serious about getting your Spanish to a high level, this is a legitimate option.
The advantages of a degree are:
- You'll learn to speak, read and write Spanish at a very high level.
- You'll learn to understand the language and all its inner workings, going deep in your study of Spanish grammar and the subtleties of the language.
- You'll study more than just the language itself – you'll learn about Spanish literature, the language's history, and the culture and history of countries where it's spoken.
- You'll typically spend part of your degree – maybe a semester or an entire year – living and studying in a Spanish-speaking country. A perfect opportunity for the immersion that I mentioned above!
At some universities you may be able to study Spanish alongside something else – e.g. as a “minor” in the American system. Sometimes it's possible to get a degree in two languages simultaneously – often, you study one language that you've already started learning (e.g. in secondary school), and another ab initio (from scratch).
The obvious disadvantages of a bachelor's degree are that it takes three or four years to earn one and, depending on the country, can be very expensive. There are faster, cheaper ways to get your Spanish to an impressive level.
A bachelor's degree in Spanish is definitely not for everyone – but it’s the right choice for some people.
5. Study Spanish in the Sun: Take a Spanish Summer School Course
If you don't have the time or desire to get a full degree in Spanish, consider a shorter course in a language school.
Many schools offer intensive programs, which can be a great way to gain the kind of immersion I described above.
What's even better is a “total immersion program”, in which you and your fellow learners live on the school's premises and pledge to speak only Spanish for the duration of the course. Middlebury College in the U.S., for example, is well-known for its intensive immersion programs. Remember I said that you don't need to travel to a Spanish-speaking country to gain immersion!
I can't give advice on specific schools, because it obviously depends on where you are. Read online reviews and try to talk to former students to see if you can learn a bit about the programme and decide whether it suits your learning style before you sign up.
6. Learn Spanish With a Tutor (Online or In-Person)
With classroom learning, you generally move at the pace of the slowest learner. That's why small class sizes are better – and best of all is a class size of one.
One-on-one tutoring is often surprisingly close in cost to group lessons in a classroom. This is especially true for online tutoring, since your tutor doesn’t have to spend time travelling to meet you. If you can afford it, I highly recommend seeking a one-on-one tutor.
italki is a popular platform where you can find one-on-one Spanish tutors who can give you lessons over video chat. The cost of lessons is very reasonable, with tutors available from just a few dollars per hour.
Different Spanish teachers have different styles; don't be afraid to shop around and try a few different teachers before settling on one that you like.
In-person Spanish lessons aren't necessarily better than online lessons; it's very convenient to be able to have lessons from your own home. In fact, while learning Mandarin in Taiwan I ended up switching from in-person to Skype lessons with the same tutor. Even though we lived in the same city, it wasn't worth the effort and travel time to meet in person.
7. Free Option: Study Spanish with a Language Partner
“But Benny, I can't afford Spanish lessons with a tutor or at a language school! And no one in my area speaks Spanish! How can I practise?”
Death to your excuses, I say! There's a still a way: find a language exchange partner (sometimes called a language tandem partner or a conversation partner).
If you're reading this, you speak English. That means there's a lot of Spanish speakers who'd like to practise their English with you. In return, many of them would be happy to let you practise Spanish with them.
If you can find a Spanish-speaking language partner in your city and can meet up in person, great. If not, you still have no excuse – it's easy to find someone online to chat with on Skype italki isn’t just for paid tutors. You can also find thousands of language exchange partners to help you practise Spanish for free.
A language exchange can be structured any way you want. You might just want to casually converse with your partner about whatever comes to mind, switching languages at a predefined interval (e.g. every 5 or 10 minutes). Or you could work through a series of structured exercises or language games together. It's up to you.
Many people end up becoming good friends with their language exchange partners – even visiting each other in their home countries!
8. Go to Spanish Language Meetups
A language exchange doesn't have to be one-on-one. In many cities you can find “language exchange” events, where people from all over the world get together to speak and practise many languages together. Meetup.com is a good place to find events like this.
The popularity of Spanish as a second language means that most major cities have meetup groups that are just for Spanish speakers who want to learn English and visa versa. Some meetup groups are more open-ended, open to speakers of all languages.
The danger of events like these is that you can end up having the same conversations over and over with the people you meet – “where are you from?”, “what do you do?”, etc. The best language exchanges avoid this problem by adding some structure, for example you may play some language games together or be given specific conversation starters or topics to talk about.
If there are no Spanish language groups in your area, go ahead and create your own. Anyone can create a group on Meetup.com, and you’re bound to get several members joining up who have been hoping for a group like this for ages.
9. Keep the Energy for Spanish Pumping: Join a Language Learning Challenge
Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint, and learners sometimes struggle with motivation.
One great way to solve this problem is to join a language learning community. If you surround yourself with other people who are on the same journey as you – whether they're learning Spanish or any other language – you'll all be able to support and encourage each other in pursuit of your shared goal.
Learning communities can be offline or online. If you're having classroom lessons, then I hope your class feels like a learning community! You're all in it together, so why not help each other out and support each other?
Online communities can be powerful too. At Fi3M we run a regular event called the Add1Challenge (now the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge), where people from all around the world commit to have a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker of their new language after just 90 days of study. Our participants have seen great results.
10. Make Spanish Words Stick in Your Brain Using Mnemonics
Mnemonics isn't an entire study method in itself, but it's still a powerful tool that every language learner should be familiar with.
Languages require a great deal of memorization – vocabulary, grammar rules, phrases, idioms, etc. There are better and worse ways to get all this information into your head – and the best way is to become skilled at mnemonics.
A “mnemonic” is a memory technique that uses imagery or other mental cues to help you quickly recall information. There are many different kinds, but they all use the same underlying principle: when something is hard to remember, find a way to associate it with something that is easy to remember.
The topic of mnemonics goes deep. One advanced technique is the memory palace, in which you construct a mental image of a building (or buildings) you know well, and then imagine placing items at different locations in the building to remind you of certain words or concepts.
Mnemonic techniques like the memory palace take practice to get good at. Once you're good at them, they easily repay the initial time investment. They're an extremely effective way to memorize large amounts of vocabulary.