Teach Me Spanish: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners
Benny, teach me Spanish!
So you want to learn how to speak Spanish? Good choice!
Spanish is relatively easy to learn, because once you’ve learned how to pronounce the letters, you can sound out any word. There are no complicated pronunciation rules, unlike in English.
On top of that, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.
Spanish also has a special place in my heart, being the first foreign language that I ever became fluent in.
Where should you begin with learning Spanish?
Starting a new language can be daunting, especially if it’s your first time trying it outside of a classroom environment. Where to begin? What’s the most important material to learn right away, and what can wait until later?
Here’s what we’ll talk about:
Table of contents
Let’s take a look at what you should do in the first hour, first day, first week and first month of learning Spanish.
Before we begin, you will need the following:
- Computer or tablet with internet connection
- Spanish phrasebook
- $10 – $20 per week to spend on language teachers
To follow this guide, you’ll need to set aside around four hours each weekend (I recommend scheduling out Saturday mornings), plus around 45 minutes per day on weekdays.
I also suggest you start at the weekend to give yourself a “first day” boost.
Here’s where to start on that first day…
Your first step in learning Spanish is to create a personalised Spanish phrasebook.
Why do this? In my approach to learning Spanish, you’ll focus on learning Spanish that’s relevant to you, your life, and your reasons for learning Spanish.
Get a fresh notebook, and a pen, and write “My Spanish Phrasebook” on the cover.
This notebook will contain the Spanish phrases that you need to know, rather than the one-size-fits-all phrases found in most Spanish courses and phrasebooks.
Let’s get that first page filled! Head to thes Spanish phrases section of the Omniglot website, and write down the translations for:
- Good Morning
- Good Afternoon
- Good Evening
- Good Night
Whatever your reasons for learning Spanish, these are likely to be the words and phrases you’ll use more than any others.
As you write down the translations, click the Spanish word on Omniglot to hear the correct pronunciation. Say the words out loud as you write them down.
Also as you write out the phrases, pick apart what you write. In other words, look inside the phrases and see how the language works. Which part of the phrase means “good”? Which part means “morning”? Figuring this out for yourself is really powerful, because the act of doing so burns the vocabulary into your mind.
Your first day studying Spanish is a Scavenger Hunt of Spanish words and phrases.
Your aim for this day is to collect essential Spanish phrases that are specific to you and your life.
In other words, you’re preparing to talk about who you are. By the end of the day, you should have gathered phrases that allow you to answer the questions:
- What’s your name?
- Where are you from?
- What do you do for fun?
- What’s your job?
- Where do you work?
As you write down the answers to these questions, don’t get too fancy. Keep the sentences simple for now, so they’ll be easy to remember.
Remember: you’re looking for the words and phrases that enable you to answer these questions. When you’ve discovered a useful phrase, add it to your personalised phrasebook.
Where should you look? The internet is a fantastic resource, particularly if like me you’ve got a job or hobby that’s not in most phrasebooks (I’m a travel writer, author and speaker at conferences). Browsing Fluent in 3 Months’s Spanish posts can get you started.
A phrasebook can also be helpful, as most phrasebooks include a pronunciation guide. Sticking with an old-fashioned paperback phrasebook also means you avoid the potential distraction of Facebook and email.
Finally, if you’ve got any friends that speak Spanish, give them a call and ask for their help.
Also, during your research, don’t worry about collecting every phrase you discover. Ignore irrelevant phrases and pick only the ones that you think you’ll use during your first conversation in Spanish (I’ll get to that part in a minute).
Try to memorise a few phrases as you write them down. That means speaking them out loud to yourself. Go over the phrases one final time once you’ve collected them all.
A word of warning: Don’t stress about grammar. That will come much, much later.
I like to think of learning a language as similar to learning to drive. You could spend weeks studying the inner workings of combustion engines, and reading books about the principles of driving, and still not be able to drive around the block.
You learn a car by driving. The same is true of learning a language. There’s no substitute for just doing it.
On your first day, you started creating your personalised Spanish phrasebook. Now you’re ready to start using it!
You’ll use it in several ways:
First, revisit your phrasebook every day and work through the phrases you’ve noted down. This is the key to fluency: exposing yourself to the language over and over so that thoughts, phrases and responses come to you automatically.
Second, you should add five words to your phrasebook every day. Again, focus on adding words and phrases that are relevant to your life. If you’re not sure what to add, the following are useful for most people:
- Days of the week
- Months of the year
- Greetings and pleasantries (such as “How are you?” and “Pleased to meet you”)
Finally, you’ll use your phrasebook for your first Spanish conversation.
Before the end of this week, have your first conversation with a native Spanish speaker. I know it’s a scary prospect, but don’t skip over this part! It’s the only way you’ll actually learn Spanish.
Where do you find native speakers to practise with? I recommend italki, which will hook you up with Spanish speakers with whom you can chat over Skype. It gives you the option of meeting with a Spanish teacher (paid, though not expensive) or a language exchange partner (for free).
Whatever you do, do not skip this step. It’s essential to learning the language, and the earlier you get started, the quicker you’ll progress.
If you’ve got the money (it can be as little as $5) I recommend you do your first Spanish conversation with a teacher rather than a language exchange partner. Teachers are more likely to be patient with your slow speaking speed and your mistakes. They’ll also be experienced in helping you focus your learning efforts.
Language exchanges, on the other hand, are free. However, the downside is that you have to spend half the time helping your exchange partner speak your native language. Plus language exchange partners are likely to be less experienced in teaching a language.
Be sure to arrange with the tutor in advance to keep the lesson entirely in Spanish. This ensures that you’ll have a chance to practice all of the Spanish you’ve learned so far.
Once you practice them with a real person, you’ll never forget them. Trust me.
Need help building your confidence to take this step? Then sign up for my free Speak in a Week course.
This week is all about embedding the vocabulary you’ve already learned, and expanding the tools you use to learn Spanish.
Your personalised phrasebook is brilliant for collecting new words and phrases, but it’s not ideal for helping you memorise vocabulary. There’s where Anki comes in.
Anki is available for iOS and Android, and it allows you to create your own deck of virtual flashcards to help you memorise words and phrases. What makes Anki really powerful is that it uses a Spaced Repetition System to help you memorise vocabulary. That means it prompts you to memorise words and phrases when you’re just on the verge of forgetting them. This is the most effective way of keeping them in your memory.
An added benefit with Anki is that you’ll have a study aid you can use anywhere. You can pull out your phone to review a few flash cards whenever you have a few spare moments, such as in an elevator or in line at the grocery store. By the end of the day, you’ll have memorized quite a few new words and phrases without ever having to set aside any actual study time.
This week, you should start reading in Spanish too. Check out my list of Spanish reading resources for ideas on where to start.
Don’t expect yourself to understand everything – you’re just starting out, so you’ll need help with most words. Keep a virtual Spanish-English dictionary so you can look up new words as you read.
When you read any phrases you’d like to learn, add them to your personalised phrasebook and your Anki flashcard deck.
Finally, keep speaking! Aim for two conversations with native Spanish speakers this week.
By now, you should have a sizable repertoire of you-specific vocabulary. It should be enough for a short, simple conversation in Spanish about one or two topics that interest you.
That is, if you’ve kept up your practice. Have you?
Chances are you’ve had some days when you felt super motivated, and some days when life happened and you didn’t do any language learning.
If you feel like you’ve stalled, this week is the time to put things right.
I’ve done many language missions over the years, and they’ve taught me something important about weekly studying. It’s far more effective to distribute your total weekly study time over every day of the week than to do all of your studying in one or two days. Studying less often means you have to spend more time in each study session reviewing what you learned last time. You also risk falling out of your routine and giving up on your language mission.
So keep up the daily studying! Even if you can only commit to a few minutes each time. That’s where Anki comes in handy.
Your main task this week is to create a study schedule that works for you.
In your study sessions, keep adding to your Anki deck and your personalised phrasebook.
Did you know? On your Anki deck, you can add words or phrases. I’ve found that complete phrases are more helpful on a flash card than an individual word. Phrases give you context for the words along with correct examples of how to use them.
Finally: Don’t let this week go by without at least one conversation with a native speaker. Ideally, aim for three conversations this week. You should schedule as many face-to-face conversations (either in person or on Skype) as you can fit into your schedule. When you look back at the end of your first month and see how far you’ve progressed, you’ll find that conversations with native speakers were the cornerstone of your learning.
This week is all about maintaining the healthy study habits you set up last week. Follow the schedule you set for yourself, and see how it works.
What if you find you’ve been too ambitious? Tweak your schedule so that it works for you. The important thing is that you study every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Set your sights too high, and you’ll overwhelm yourself and end up quitting.
Here’s what to focus on this week:
- Keep adding to your personalised Spanish phrasebook and your Anki deck
- Listen to a Spanish podcast or radio show (we’ve collected some of the Internet’s best Spanish listening resources). Don’t stress about understanding what you hear, just treat it as an immersion experience.
- Find a Spanish song that you enjoy. Write out the lyrics then sing along.
Most important of all: aim for four conversations with native speakers this week.
Speaking should always remain top on your list. After all, your goal is to learn how to speak Spanish.
Follow the schedule above, and you will surprise yourself with your progress. It’s amazing what having real conversations with native speakers does for your confidence.
Keep that confidence and swagger!
Around two thirds of any given conversation, article, song, podcast or article (in everyday use) is made up of just 300 words. Here are 101 Spanish core words to get you started on your vocabulary journey
Fluency could be much closer than you think.
No matter what route you take to learning Spanish, just be sure to do what works for you. That’s the only sure-fire way to learn, and keep learning, your new language.