How to Learn Spanish (My Process)

Last Updated on June 7, 2018 by Alex Birkett

I’ve spent the last several months learning Spanish, and I’ve actually made tangible progress (level B1 → B2 in a few months, moving towards C1 currently).

(Edit March 2018: just took a test and reached level C1. Now on to level C2!)

I didn’t plan on writing a post about it because I’m not moving faster than anyone else, nor do I have a hack that helps me learn faster or better. I’m a normal dude with a job who is learning Spanish on the side, which is why I decided to write the post (and also because Luiz Centenaro told me to write it).

Lots of others are written by “language hackers” who have systems they want to teach you (if you pay them).

How to Learn Spanish: Prerequisites and Preparation

I think of learning in two parts: the planning and the execution.

If you spend a bit of time (not much) planning on how you’ll learn Spanish, you’ll waste less time actually doing so. You can also better gauge the effectiveness of your program if you outline goals ahead of time.

So there are three points here:

  1. You need to have a strong reason to learn Spanish.
  2. You need to set specific and measurable goals.
  3. You need to build a habit of daily practice.

1. You need to have a reason to learn Spanish.

The allure of a superficial reason will fade fast, so you need to find a strong why.

Trust me, you’re going to hit plateaus, where it feels like you’re not getting any better day-to-day. To combat that, you need to do as George Leonard says, learn to love the plateau. You can only love the plateau if you have a good reason for going through it in the first place.

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For me, I fucking love traveling and have ambitions to travel South America (have a trip coming up to Peru and Mexico in February). Also, I love the culture in Spain, have been twice, and hope to spend a ton more time there in the future (most likely a another trip coming up this summer). I love the way the language sounds so there’s an inherent desire to learn it.

I’m also somewhat strange in that I like learning for learning’s sake, and I’m not super affected by plateau disappointment.

Whatever the case, know your reason and make sure it’s strong enough to withstand future distraction and disappointment.

2. Set reasonable but ambitious SMART goals.

Most people know that, when seeking to lose weight, they need to be specific. 10 pounds by Christmas is better than “lose some weight.”

Those same people that understand that tend to set a goal to “learn Spanish,” as if there is some magical end point where you kick back and say, “ahh I’m done learning Spanish!”

I’m not done learning English yet (I like to think I’m getting better all the time), so it’s important that I set discrete goals for Spanish, even though the process itself is continuous. In my case I used CERF levels (B1, B2, C1, C2, etc.) and a specific date to attain each. My exact goals:

  • B2 by December 1st (succeeded)
  • C1 by March 1st (pending)

Yours could be different, such as “be able to carry a 3 minute conversation in Spanish with a native by X date.” It just needs to be specific, measurable, attainable, results-focused, and time-bound (SMART).

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3. Build a habit of daily practice.

Spaced repetition is better than binging (though don’t stop yourself from binging if you desire). Do something every day, the more the better, and the more varied the better.

How to Learn Spanish: My Daily Routine

Your routine can obviously differ, but here’s exactly what I did (and do) every day:

  • Read a book in Spanish in the morning with my coffee (15-20 minutes)
  • 1 Spanish podcast per day (usually Coffee Break Spanish, but sometimes Radio Ambulante) (20-30 min)
  • 4 lessons of Duolingo (5-10 minutes)
  • Flashcards before bed (5-10 minutes)
  • Skype lessons with an instructor twice per week (Monday and Thursday – 1 hr each)
  • Informal Spanish conversation with my friend Svitlana on Friday afternoons (20-30 min)
  • Saturday Spanish meetups at the local library (I started this after attaining B2 level, but don’t go all the time – 1 hr)
  • 1 Spanish movie each week (1.5-2 hours)

This adds up to about 12.5 hours per week, or a little over 1.5 hours per day. Highly do-able even if you’re not a full time language hacker or a language student.

In addition to this, I’d listen to Spanish music (Amaral is solid) when I could. I’d also squeeze Spanish into other activities, like watching Spanish dubbed movies on flights). I’d take every chance for a conversation with someone who knew Spanish as well. All the practice I can get.

And that’s pretty much it. That was and is my practice.

It’s really about 1) motivation 2) specific goals to keep your focus and 3) repetition and getting in the reps each day. There’s nothing hacky or sexy about it, but I’m moving forward every day and will be at a C1 level by March 1st.

Assorted Notes and Tips to Help You Learn Spanish

Once you have your reasons, goals, and daily habits down, the rest if pretty much just putting in the work. However, I can give a few tips for learning more efficiently and optimally.

Most important: Listen & Speak as much as possible.

I studied Spanish in college for a few years, but when I went to Spain I found out I couldn’t really speak it. Huge bummer for me.

I was afraid of making mistakes, and while I could read it on paper (to an extent), I couldn’t speak at all. This is, of course, a problem when your main goal is traveling and conversation (not reading the Mexican newspaper). Start speaking as soon as possible. Read Fluent in 3 Months for a good primer on this “speak first” approach.

Also, don’t be afraid to sounds stupid. That was by far my biggest barrier to learning, but getting over that made everything else possible. A good way to get over this is to get a professional instructor. Which leads me to…

Get professional lessons and pick the right teacher

Do your Skype lessons in the morning, or at least at the same time each day/week. Mine were (are) always Monday and Thursday at 730am and this helped get me in the habit of doing them every week. Also, my teacher gives me homework, so having the same lesson days each week helped me plan out when I would get my homework done.

Also, have an awesome teacher. I have an awesome teacher. How to get an awesome teacher: try out a few different teachers to start with and keep the one (or two) you like best. If you just go with one then you may think you go a great one but you won’t know until you compare your teacher to other potential teachers out there.

Use Italki to source instructors. You can also use Italki to find language exchange partners for free. Use this link to sign up and we both get $10.

Read in Spanish

Get books you’d be interested in even if it was your own language. I’m rereading 48 Laws of Power in Spanish because I’d like the book in English anyway. In school we always had to read these ridiculously boring and poorly written short stories, and it made it such a chore. Kill two birds with one stone and read something you’re actually interested in.

On the other hand, try to read materials that were originally written in Spanish. Source recommendations from a teacher or friend.

Also, note that you can translate most New York Times articles to Spanish.

Let your interests lead you

You’re going to find that certain methods of learning are more fruitful than others. I’m weak at listening and speaking, so classes and intercambios are the most important for me. But if you’re a big movie buff, you may find that replacing a movie or two per week with a Spanish one drastically improves your understanding of the language. So go with it. Be fluid. Learn how you want to learn. It’s about practice, exposure, repetition, so get your time in how you can.

Travel if you can

Setting travel plans months ahead of time makes me really excited to learn Spanish. I’ve got a Peru/Mexico trip coming up, and that excitement lends itself to learning; I approach learning sessions with that much more vigor. If you can’t travel, at least try to set time and goal based rewards for yourself. It helps to have a carrot as well as a stick when learning.

How to use flashcards the right way

Flashcards are a core part of memorization for most Spanish language students. Some people use apps, though most I think still just use traditional paper flash cards. I know there are a few software solutions out there, like Memrise, but honestly, I haven’t found any of them satisfying. There’s a certain lack of control with flashcard applications. Though what I do like about them is their automated ability to use spaced repetition to help you really learn a few words well.

So here’s what I do with physical flashcards:

  • I make flashcards using words that I find when reading books in Spanish. Words that come up frequently that I don’t know. This way I know they’ll be useful for me to understand in the near term.
  • At this point, I’ve created a few hundred cards using this method.
  • To start chopping them down and learning/memorizing the words, I grab a stack of about 7-10 cards per day.
  • So, for example, on Monday, I grab a stack of 8 pre-made cards, put it in my back pocket, and those are my words to learn for the day.
  • Then, several times throughout the day (work breaks, waiting at a cross walk, etc.), I simply review those cards.
  • The next day, I move on to the next stack.
  • I keep 7 stacks of 7-10 cards on my desk, and grab one stack every day (shuffling them so it’s somewhat random), and I use them for about two weeks. This ensures I really nail down this set of words.
  • Then, after I feel confident with that set of cards, I move onto another set of 7 stacks of 7-10 flashcards for the next few weeks.

I find this allows me to really focus on a few words at a time, use them in conversation, and incorporate them into my arsenal of usable Spanish (and not just be retained as “recognition” words that I’d know if I saw them in a newspaper). They become actionable vocabulary. This is the best way to learn Spanish via flashcards I’ve found yes.