Tuesday, 24 July 2012

How to Learn Spanish for Free!

I learnt Spanish in six months, without one lesson, with no previous knowledge (“tacos” and “hola” excluded, obviously) and without spending a penny/cent. How did I do it? Here are my simple steps to becoming fluent in Spanish.

1)      The Basics. Familiarisation is the first item on the agenda. I joked about tacos, but actually you probably know hundreds of Spanish words. Try to list them. Jot them down when you think of them. Every Spanish dictionary, learning pack or other resource starts with a pronunciation guide, so get practicing. Spanish is an easy language when it comes to pronunciation as there are only 5 vowel sounds (unlike our 26 or so) and very simple rules. So once you’ve learnt the rules, you’ll never come across a word you can’t say and you’ll always know which syllable to emphasise. The first beginners’ mistake is to speak quietly in your English accent if you’re unsure of something. Don’t do this. Be loud and proud from the beginning. Put on your best Antonio Banderas (or Selma Hayek for the ladies) voice and start throwing it around like [insert amusing Spanish-related metaphor here]. If people can hear you clearly and see that you’re trying, they are more likely to give good feedback and to speak back to you in Spanish. Every English-speaker knows that annoying paradox that we are the worst in the world at learning languages and yet when we try to learn, everyone wants to practice their English with us instead. Well, for starters, don’t mumble. Give it your all. The trick to learning a language (or learning anything for that matter) is to commit yourself to it, 100%! Watch some Spanish movies (there’re some really good ones!), take a look at a native copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude or anything you can get your hands on. See if you can see any patterns already. Check out the free language learning resources available to you. The BBC website has loads, including my favourite by far, Mi Vida Loca! MiVida Loca is an interactive, online drama show where you play a character and take part in the action. You unwittingly get caught up in a chain of events that involve a plot to destroy the Spanish wildlife, a kidnapping, the subsequent rescue attempt and even a little potential romance. By the time you reach the end you’ll have gone from complete beginner to seasoned Spaniard.

2)      Vocab. Now you’re ready for the meat of the pie. Vocabulary and grammar (see point 3). Vocab is everyone’s problem. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how much you know about language in general, you’re never going to be able to speak one without it (vocab, that is). This means a lot of work, and a lot of time. You’re never going to be able to learn it all overnight, so this is where the mixture will separate and those who really want to learn will rise to the top of the bowl. So how do you learn vocab? Write, write, write. Write down everything! Everything you hear. Everything you see. Though, remember, it’s no good on a piece of paper alone. You’ll have revise often, re-writing, speaking aloud, categorising the words to make mental links, testing yourself to make sure they’re there for real and there to stay. Push yourself but don’t over-push yourself. Try to learn too many words in one day and they’ll go straight out the other ear. It’s a good idea to learn a certain number of words every day or so (probably not more than 50) and then come back to them the next day after a good night’s sleep and see if there’s any you couldn’t remember. Then go over what you know at the end of every week and then every month. You’re your own teacher now so you’ll need to come up with your own ways to stay motivated. Don’t be ashamed to play games. Plus there’s always the flash cards thing.

3)      Grammar. This should be learnt alongside the vocab. Like all great partnerships, one is useless without the other. A great website, and the one I used, is www.studyspanish.com/tutorial.htm. You can also find it by Googling “Spanish Grammar”. It’s the first result these days. This has free lessons with clear explanations and examples, with units ranging from the very basic to the very advanced. As you work through these you will no doubt experiment and start to put your own sentences together. If you can’t think of the word you need, it means you need to give yourself a vocab lesson. Whereas if you have the words but aren’t sure how to put the sentence together, that means it’s time for the next grammar lesson. It’s a delicate balance but you’ll get it just fine, I’m sure.

4)      Identify your weaknesses (and strengths). Like I said, you’re your own teacher and so it’s also your job to keep tabs on your own learning. Everyone is different and what worked for me (above) may not work for you. It’s never been so important to listen to yourself. Be aware of what you need to work on and plan your lessons accordingly.

5)      Go there! If I’m honest the real secret to my success (besides dogged determination) was that I was in Latin America for six months. Back home in an English-speaking country, you’re never going to be exposed to any foreign languages. No matter how hard you try you’ll be forgetting it faster than you can learn it (kind of a depressing thought and maybe a little hyperbolic. Certainly don’t stop trying on my account). What I’m getting at is, you need to be in a Spanish speaking country to get the most out of your learning. Once there you will be consistently challenging yourself. Every day’s tasks will be a test and every stranger can be a teacher. Soon you’ll be thinking and dreaming in Spanish. Be curious. Ask questions. Socialise. And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of speaking English and hanging out with only the expat community. There are many Spanish immersion programs that can get you out there, give you a kick up the arse and the confidence to stay on your own accord. The language schools are also a great place to meet people, make friends and get involved in the local scene. Remember to be aware of the regional differences between the Spanish spoken in different countries.

6)      Keep it up! Finally, don’t let it all go to waste. The longer you learn Spanish for, the longer it will cement in your head and stay with you. You never know when you might need it again. If you must come home, try to get involved in the Spanish-speaking community where you live, even if it’s just going for tacos every now and then.

¡Buena Suerte!

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  1. ¡Hola!

    I think your article is very useful. Moreover you explained everything very well. Bravo! :)

  2. I think that if you want to learn something you are capable of doing it! I've been learning Spanish for some years in Barcelona at BCN Languages school and I've enjoyed the experience a lot. I recommend you to do teh same :) I also read books which I think is a good way of improving vocabulary and expresions!


  3. Well done. Agreed! A lot of the time, if you are determined enough, you can learn a language on your own steam. However, this comes with language learning experience. It's a good idea to learn your first language or two under the help and guidance of a professional. At a language school you get the benefits of expert guidance and group support, not to mention you get to travel to an exciting new country/city. Also, there are often leisure and social programs that you wouldn't get access to while learning on your own.