November 29, 2014

How to learn Spanish: My Story

La Rioja

La Rioja, Argentina

I have been studying Spanish since May 2010, that is 4 and a half years. Back then I didn’t know that “C” on the tap meant ‘caliente’. I now consider myself fluent because I can speak Spanish easily and accurately. I don’t speak perfectly, I have a strong Canadian accent and I still make mistakes. That being said I feel comfortable speaking the language. Here is how I learned Spanish and got to this point.

Of the past 4 and a half years I have spent 3 living in South America. 2 years in Argentina, 6 months in Ecuador and about 6 months in total backpacking across Latin America. Without a doubt the best and fastest way to learn a language is immersion combined with classes. My first 6 months in Latin America were spent in Ecuador. I was teaching English and learning Spanish. I learned the basics from my classes during these 6 months. Being immersed forces you to speak another language. If I wanted to go out, buy anything or take the bus I had to speak Spanish. Backpacking forced me every day to use what I had learned too.

While I learned the basics in Ecuador and put the language into practice backpacking, during this last year living in Argentina the language fell into place. Over the year I was able to understand more and more of what was being said. To be honest I really learned a lot from watching and listening to the TV. I also learned a lot from my Argentine girlfriend. Having a partner or living with someone that speaks the language you want to learn is extremely advantageous. Not only can use ask them questions about the language, but you hear every day, real language including slang and sayings that are very hard to learn by yourself. The daily conversations that you have living with someone you now have in a different language. This gives you plenty of opportunity to practice.

I haven’t taken a lot of classes during these 4 and a half years, only 6 months of classes twice a week and a 1 month intensive course. Actually I would like to take more classes, but sometimes because of time and money it isn’t possible to take classes. However, you can always study on your own. I have studied by myself using Spanish textbooks. The textbooks from the University of Buenos Aires were extremely helpful as was Colloquial Spanish of Latin America by Roberto Rodriguez-Saona. I asked my partner whenever I had questions. I got tired of the textbooks after I while and decided just to read. It can be hard to find a good book that is right for your level, but I found a few that really helped me: El Principe y El Mendigo, Cuentos de la Selva, Cuentos de Amor, Locura y Muerte, 10 Años con Mafalda, Bestiario and El Metamorfosis to name a few. You consider reading in Spanish books that you have already read in English. This way you already know the story and you don’t have to focus on the plot. The best thing you can do while reading is to take notes of new words and phrases and review these words over the next few days and weeks. I also recommend only noting down around 10 words and phrases per day. You shouldn’t worry about understanding everything in the book, this will come in time, but try to understand the gist and you will still enjoy the book. I have to stress how important it is to review. You should review your notebook at least twice a week.

Listening to podcasts and the Pimsleur Spanish “tapes” have proven to be helpful. Check your library for the Pimsleur and other language learning CD’s. Still, I think I learned more just from watching and listening to the TV; the news, documentaries, the Simpsons, watching TV really tests your ear and your knowledge of the language and if you can find Spanish shows with subtitles in Spanish too, even better. That being said, maybe I watched too much TV, but it is a good way to be lazy and learn a little at the same time.


So I became fluent in Spanish in 4 years for 6 reasons:

  1. Immersion: I was immersed in the language.
  2. Practice: I practiced speaking with my girlfriend and roommate who is a native speaker.
  3. Classes: I took classes and tests.
  4. Study: I used textbooks and read books in my free time.
  5. Listen: I watched Spanish TV and listened to the radio and podcasts.
  6. Review


I consider myself fluent, because I am no longer thinking about how I am talking, I just talk. I know my Spanish is not perfect, but it doesn’t matter as I am able to communicate in an accurate way. I also notice my mistakes and correct myself a lot more than in the past. Sometimes with hard subjects, I still struggle during a conversation. The time it takes to become fluent  depends on the person, the language and the amount of time dedicated to studying. After more than 4 years I am still studying Spanish. I want to improve my vocabulary and my accent. Learning a new language is not something that can be done in a short amount of time. The truth for most people that start learning a new language is that they will be learning it for rest of their lives, but the methods listed above are how to become fluent in Spanish.


P.S. You may have noticed that I haven’t listed any online methods to help me learn. I think that, in my case, being immersed was enough. Recently I have signed up for some online language learning programs like Duolingo and Memrise, the only thing they have helped me to improve is my writing, I now know where most accents go on Spanish words. They have not helped my listening, or speaking skills. Perhaps these programs are designed for beginners and not for those who have been immersed in the language for 3 years. A language exchange website is also useless to me. Being in Argentina, I would rather go talk to my neighbour. Of course the internet will play a more and more important role in language learning, but besides podcasts and dictionaries the internet has not helped me that much.

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