How to learn Spanish (or any other language) in your free time

I love languages, I love words, and I love their sounds. I love to read and I love to write and I love to learn foreign expressions.

I wanted to write about language learning for so long. Although I remember exactly how I improved my English, I felt like I couldn’t relate to the struggles of a beginner anymore. I was too afraid I was going to write a very superficial list of methods you could use to learn a foreign language. Now that I am in the process of brushing up on my very rusty Spanish, I felt like I could actually share some useful tips and tricks to learn Spanish in your free time.

learn spanish in your free time

Language learning has been a big part of my life for years. I’ve started studying English in elementary school. I’ve also studied Spanish for three years in middle school. But the truth is I actually learned English through tv shows and songs. And I totally forgot how to speak Spanish as soon as I didn’t have any more exams to write.

Last summer, while working with some kids from South America, I was so surprised I could still understand a lot of Spanish, even though I could not speak it anymore. That was very annoying for me, so I decided to download Duolingo and I started teaching myself Spanish once again. After a while, that app was not enough anymore. Here I’ve outlined all the steps I’m taking in the hope of becoming an intermediate Spanish speaker.

Step 1. Download a spaced repetition app

The first step I took was to get familiar with some of the most common Spanish words and expressions. I’ve downloaded Duolingo and learned a lot of basic words that could be used in everyday life. Another one of my favourite app for language learning is Memrise.

To build your vocabulary, you could also create your own themed lists. An online translator or even Pinterest could be helpful.

Step 2. Find a TV show/podcast/audiobook

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the language and learned some basic vocabulary, it’s time to have some fun with it. I watch a lot of tv shows, so I searched for Spanish TV shows. I am currently watching Velvet (mainly because Miguel Angel Silvestre is in it). You should keep the subtitles on at first. You could start with subtitles in your first language, but you should switch to Spanish subtitles as soon as possible.

If TV shows aren’t your thing. You can opt for a podcast. I have never listened to a podcast before, until I found one completely in Spanish. I listen to it while on the subway. I love it not just because I now get to do something productive like learning a language while commuting, but also because each episode has a different scientific, political, or historical topic and I am always learning new things.

Audiobooks are another resource you could use. In the Spanish podcast I am listening to, they read chapters from a book. Personally, I find it easier to understand the podcast when the speakers are discussing a topic compared to when they are reading the book, as the language is more formal and complicated. So you might want to start with a book you’ve already read/listen to in your first language.

Audio resources are great because you get to listen to the right pronunciation of words. You also get to take notes of the intonation of different sentences.

Step 3. Study the grammar

When I was learning foreign languages at school, there was always a big focus on grammar. I totally agree that you need a good knowledge of grammar rules to be fluent in a language. But if you are just a beginner, having a wide vocabulary is better. That being said, the sooner you start studying your grammar, the sooner you’ll become a very effective speaker.

Nowadays, you don’t really need to go out and buy books. You can find tons of free resources online. There are a lot of free websites with complete lists of grammar rules. What I like to do is to take notes on a notebook and make my own little Spanish grammar book.

Step 4. Read a book

Once your vocabulary has grown past survival level and after you’ve learned some grammar, you can challenge yourself and read a book in Spanish. Even if you totally love books and reading, I wouldn’t suggest starting learning a language from a book. This is because written language is very different from spoken language. If you don’t know enough words, you’ll spend all your time looking up words in a dictionary. Also, it is harder to learn the right pronunciation of a word if you just read it.

Once you’re past the survival stage, books are a great way to get to an intermediate level fast. In fact, in books the language register is more formal, richer and more polished. By reading novels, you’ll be able to learn so many new words. In addition, you’ll be exposed to proper grammar and you’ll be able to find some exceptions as well. Finally, you’ll be able to take your time to understand the construction and the meaning of a sentence.

Step 5. Travel where the language is spoken

I have to admit it, I am not totally convinced that you can learn a language by simply moving to where the language is spoken. I’ve been to Germany and the German-speaking part of Switzerland many times and I still don’t know any German beside kartoffeln. That being said, if you’re actively studying a language, there’s nothing better than visiting a country where they speak it. This way you’ll be able to practice all aspects of the language and you’ll learn even more from locals. My travel plans are also what are motivating me to learn Spanish. I know that my trip to a Spanish-speaking country will be so much better and authentic if I’ll speak the local language instead of always relying on English.

I know that travelling to another country isn’t always possible. Then, you can travel to your nearest language exchange meetup. There are usually conversation clubs in every major city, you can find either a general language exchange group or language-specific clubs.

Final tips

  • Accept that progress isn’t linear. This is something to always remember, not just for language learning. When learning a language, you might practice every single day and still not see all the results you’re expecting right away. Or sometimes you think you’ve mastered something and then, the next day, you don’t feel as confident as you felt before. For example, I like to consider myself an advanced speaker of English, yet I have so many bad English days when I can’t even put three sentences together.
  • Establish small goals. So, your goal for 2018 is to become fluent in Spanish. That is amazing! But now you need to establish some smaller goals in order to create an action plan. You can create weekly or monthly goals. For example, finishing a whole unit on Duolingo by the end of the week, studying a different grammar rule each day, being able to watch and understand a whole movie, etc.
  • Keep practicing. Especially when you’re just starting learning a language, regular practice is key. You should aim to learn at least one new thing (it can be as simple as a new word or as big as verb conjugations) every single day and then review what you’ve learned before. Make sure to have a set time for language learning. For example, I know I spend at least 30 minutes in total on the subway every day. I decided to use that time for language learning so I uploaded vocabulary lists, grammar notes, and the Spanish podcast on my phone. Then, during the weekends, I usually spend an hour or even two, reviewing everything and practicing my writing and speaking skills.

Have you ever thaught yourself a foreign language? What steps did you follow?

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