What’s the best way to learn Spanish?
That’s a common question, and it’s the question I’m attempting to answer in this article.
Who’s this for?
This page is for anyone who wants to learn Spanish.
The focus of this website, of course, is to help healthcare professionals learn to communicate with their patients in Spanish. But whatever your reason for wanting to learn Spanish, the starting point should be the same: learn the fundamentals. Doing so will make the next stages (such as learning medical terminology) smoother, easier, and more fun.
Does it matter whether I’m a beginner or already know some Spanish?
Either way, you’re in the right place. Whether you’re starting from scratch or honing your skills, the tools and tips in this article are meant to help you learn as efficiently as possible. If you already know some Spanish, you can probably move through the material more quickly, or skip ahead in certain areas. But anyone, even advanced speakers, can benefit from the extra review and practice using the suggestions below.
How long does it take to learn?
You may be wondering, how long does it take to get the basics down as a beginner, or get to the next “breakthrough” as an intermediate speaker?
That depends on several factors, such as your past experience and how much time you’re willing to spend. But whatever your starting point and however slow learning may have been in the past, it can be different now. Why? Because you’re more motivated and mature; you have a good reason to learn; and if you didn’t already, now you have excellent learning resources at your fingertips.
While it won’t come overnight–that’s not realistic–if you put in consistent effort over a period of time, you can expect substantial progress over weeks or months, rather than years.
What resources should I use?
The Resource guide works hand-in-hand with this guide, so using the two together is highly recommended.
Here’s what’s included on that list (for the actual resources and links, go to the list):
- Books – They tend to be the best organized and most comprehensive learning resources, so I think everybody should have a book to study, even if reading isn’t your favorite way to learn. Pick at least one book to start.
- Podcasts – Not only is active listening an essential part of learning a language, using a podcast means you can learn on the go, such as while driving or working out. Pick one or two podcasts to start, and listen to them conveniently from your smartphone.
- Apps – There are some great apps for practicing and reviewing Spanish. They can be very effective for repetition, practice, and learning on the go, and they’re a fun way to augment what you learn elsewhere.
- Websites – They have practically unlimited information, so they can be great references. Some are helpful for practice as well.
What should I do with these resources, exactly?
Start by picking one or two from each category. Using too many at once will be overwhelming, so don’t overdo it or you may get burnt out. Choose one book, one or two podcasts, an app or two, and a couple websites to refer to or practice with. This will make for an excellent combination to apply the principles and suggestions below.
What about the expensive or trendy courses out there?
There are also plenty of expensive systems and courses out there for learning Spanish, such as Rosetta Stone, Michel Thomas, and Pimsleur, to name a few. While I’m sure they work well for some people, the purpose of this article is not to review those systems. Rather, I’m introducing fundamental principles and free or low cost resources with which you can apply those principles.
Feel free to check those premium products out if you’re looking for something more “all-in-one” and you don’t mind spending the money. Even if you do that, the suggestions listed below are still relevant.
Three Keys for Learning Spanish Effectively and Efficiently
1. Be Consistent
Learning a language is a lot like learning to play a musical instrument. It may seem daunting at first, but if you start putting in a few minutes each day to practice and learn, it gradually gets easier and more fun. The main key is to be consistent, because you’ll retain more, and things will make more sense after you’ve been exposed to it a few times and seen it from different angles.
To be consistent, think about how you can set aside 15-30 focused minutes a day, and pick a time to do it, such as first thing in the morning or during your lunch break. Establishing a habit of regular study and practice will lay the groundwork for success.
2. Use All Your Senses
Another huge key to success in language learning is to involve as many senses as possible. While people have different learning styles, everyone will benefit from a combination of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic stimuli. The more ways you experience something, the more you’ll remember. How does this apply to language learning? Make sure you do a combination of reading (visual), writing (visual and kinesthetic), speaking (auditory and kinesthetic), and listening (auditory) during your study sessions. And for good measure, find a way to move physically and handle objects some of the time while you’re learning.
By using multiple senses, you’ll retain more, and you’ll be better prepared for various modes of communication in Spanish.
2a. Read and Talk Out Loud
Be sure to read out loud whenever possible from whichever book, app, or website you’re using, and repeat words out loud when prompted by a podcast.
Don’t be embarrassed if you feel silly at first, that’s completely normal. Talking out loud is an oft-neglected but important way to use more of your senses and train your vocal muscles.
2b. Listen Carefully
When you’re listening to people or audio recordings, listen intently, even if you don’t understand all the words. Your ears and brain will adapt much faster if you focus while listening and try to pick out any words or syllables that you can.
This is difficult to do when you’re first starting–it’s a lot easier to tune out what you don’t understand–but it will be well worth the effort in the long run.
3. Don’t be Afraid to Mess Up
The final key to success is not to be afraid to make mistakes. Because you will. It’s inevitable, but it’s part of the learning process. And if you say something wrong and get corrected, you’ll probably remember it the next time.
So get out of your comfort zone, and get used to the idea of using language skills that you haven’t fully mastered. It’s an essential part of learning, and people are usually just glad you’re trying.
How Can I Put All This Together?
Now that you know the keys to success and have the right resources available…what do you do next?
As mentioned in the resource guide, I think you should start with one learning tool from each category, and no more than two from any category. Then write down a study plan that incorporates each of your learning tools, so as to consistently use all your senses and approach learning from various angles. You should create a daily schedule, or plan, regardless of your initial skill level, but you can tailor it to you skill set and goals.
Here’s an example of a daily study schedule you might use as a beginner trying to learn the basics of Spanish:
Notice with that plan you’d spend a total of 30 min of focused study time each day, or about the time it takes to watch an episode of Modern Family. The other activities are done on your commute, at the gym, or in the shower, so you’re taking advantage of your time by multitasking, while also staying consistent.
Naturally, each person’s situation is different, and this is just an example, but I think it’s doable for most people. Feel free to make changes to the schedule, but having some type of schedule is essential for success.
Ideally, tell someone about your plan so you’ll be held accountable–studies have shown you’re more much more likely to keep going if you share your goals. If you get side-tracked for a few days, don’t get frustrated. Just remember your overall goal and the reason why you want to learn, and gently ease back into it.
Is learning Spanish like learning to be a doctor (or a PA, nurse, etc.)?
In many ways, it is. In school, you had to memorize and apply information, and you’ll be doing that again. And when you were in school you tried different study approaches until you found something that worked for you. You’ll be doing that again as well. And if you studied medical topics using a combination of methods to involve multiple senses where possible, you probably retained more of what you learned.
During your medical training, things made a lot more sense after you saw a condition in real life and applied what you knew. After that, it was a lot easier to remember, and you were more motivated to keep learning.
The same is true of language learning. So look for chances to apply what you’re learning, even if it’s something really simple.
What do I do when I’m ready for the “Next Steps”?
After a few days or weeks of consistent study, it will be time to move further out of your comfort zone, and start using what you’ve learned. You don’t have to be in Spain or South America to practice the language. You can simulate a lot of the same experiences through what I’ll call “Virtual Immersion”. This means gradually engaging in situations where you’ll be exposed to Spanish and be forced to use it (or at least given the option), without actually traveling abroad.
Start simple, by using a few phrases at the Mexican restaurant, finding a friend to practice with, or just talking to yourself, out loud, in Spanish. Read a Spanish newspaper out loud, even if you don’t understand all the words. Then try a couple sentences with your next Spanish-speaking patient before the interpreter comes, or during a procedure–when they’re a “captive audience”. 😉 Repeat these steps when opportunities arise.
After you’ve tried some of these simple steps, you can gradually advance to more of the suggestions listed below.
What else can I do to practice Virtual Immersion?
- Use any other Spanish books (or magazines) to read aloud for pronunciation and comprehension practice. Your favorite children’s book, an early chapter book, or a magazine can all work.
- Additional podcasts or audiobooks in Spanish, to practice listening intently and improve your word recognition and comprehension.
- YouTube videos, TV shows, or movies in Spanish, preferably with matching Spanish subtitles so you can listen and compare. Here’s one example from YouTube, kind of a silly show but somewhat amusing, and you can turn on Spanish subtitles.
- Go to a Hispanic grocery story, read the signs and ask simple questions in Spanish
- Meet up with a friend and practice; make a rule that no English is allowed for 15 minutes.
- Make Spanish-speaking friends and try speaking their language…maybe even someone who doesn’t speak much English.
- Skype or other video chat with someone who speaks Spanish. Here’s a site called The Mixxer that helps you find language partners to Skype with.
- Join some kind of group, club, or other organization that mainly operates in Spanish. For example, some local church meetings are in Spanish and open to visitors.
With a little discipline (and creativity!), you can gradually expose yourself to more and more situations where you’ll be hearing, reading, or speaking Spanish, even without traveling to a Spanish-speaking country.
Whatever you do, don’t be scared. Remember that getting over the fear of messing up in front of people is a huge step in your road towards competence, so the sooner you start crossing that bridge, the better. Ultimately nobody’s going to laugh at you, at least not to your face. 🙂 Most people will just be impressed that you are trying.
And don’t panic if you don’t know how to say something. Calmly brainstorm for a moment, and if you can’t figure it out, ask for help. Then look it up afterward and write it down, or repeat it to yourself a few times.
What about “Actual” Immersion?
Ultimately, when you’re ready, you can try real immersion by traveling to a Spanish speaking country.
Only this time, don’t stay in a resort. 😉 Resorts tend to be pleasure immersive, but not language immersive. Get out there among the common people, make a new friend or two, and order some tacos.
Better yet, stay with someone who only speaks Spanish (via AirBnb, for instance). Then you’ll really be forced to practice. 🙂
Regardless of your starting point, you can make rapid progress with consistent effort.
Remember Five Keys for Success:
1. Be consistent.
2. Use all your senses.
2A. Read and talk aloud.
2B. Listen Intently.
3. Get out of your comfort zone–don’t be afraid to mess up.
Make a simple schedule using the resources you’ve chosen, and commit to the schedule. Put in a little time every day, even just a few minutes. Set reminders and have an accountability partner. Try to use all your senses, and don’t be scared to make some mistakes. Every little bit will help, and chances are you’ll progress faster than you expected.
Now go get started. Roughly 470 million native Spanish speakers await!
Note: I welcome any feedback, if you have any questions or suggestions for improvement, just use the contact form. Thanks!