How To Teach Yourself Spanish

I’ve been studying Spanish on and off since December 2005 and often get asked what materials I use. While I’m far from being an expert in Spanish, I think I’m stumbled on a formula that makes studying easy and relatively inexpensive. This method is for individuals who want to study at their own leisurely pace without taking classes.

pimsleur-spanish.jpg

Pimsleur audio courses. Pimsleur is a language instruction brand that teaches you through 30-minute call and response audio lessons. For Spanish and other popular languages, there are three units, each with thirty 30-minute lessons. At thirty minutes of practice a day, it took me about nine months to knock out all three units (some lessons need to be repeated several times). If you finish one or two units and study a Spanish phrasebook that has the most common tourist sayings, you will be comfortable getting around in a Spanish-speaking country. The downside of Pimsleur is that your comprehension of native speakers is low—they often talk much faster than the speakers in the course.

You can download the torrent or buy the courses from about $152 a unit (Google around).

Reading materials. After you finish Unit 1 of the audio course, it would be a good idea to know how the language looks. The Spanish For Beginners textbook fills in gaps from the audio course, and if you study one chapter a week by three months you will be able to read and write in Spanish. Everyone, especially Spanish speakers, will make fun of you for having a book written in 1958, but it’s the best Spanish textbook I’ve found and you can find it used on Amazon for under a dollar. I think the author is dead.

ISBN: 0064632717
Spanish For Beginners

The Bertlitz phrase book’s travel chapter is most helpful, with phrases like No me siento seguro aquí and ¡Eso es un escándalo!

ISBN: 2831578434
Berlitz Spanish Phrase Book

Throw in an idiom phrase book and a common word book to expand your vocabulary.

ISBN: 0486291138
1001 Most Useful Spanish Words

ISBN: 0844273252
Guide To Spanish Idioms

Another helpful book is a reader.

ISBN: 0844270512
Easy Spanish Reader

This reader defines new words in each new passage and builds off previous lessons until you are reading semi-difficult works in Spanish.

Finally, something handy to have around is a verb conjugation book. It’s optional because you can always look up conjugations online.

ISBN: 0658014870
The Big Red Book Of Spanish Verbs

Make a notecard for every word you don’t know in the textbook or reading materials. It’s important to make a notecard of a word regardless if you think you’ll use it in conversation or not because you can’t predict when you’ll hear the word in speech. Maintain a “living” stack of notecards, where you regularly add new words and take away ones that you’ve memorized.

notecards.jpg
Words I know

It’s helpful to use a mnemonic to memorize words. For example, the word for crab is cangrejo. That’s hard to remember until you tell yourself that crabs come in cans that are grey. Eventually the word sticks in your brain and you no longer need to use the mnemonic. Once you know the words, the next challenge is to use them in a conversation with someone. Example: Creo que tengo cangrejos (I think I have crabs).

Spanish media. To get used to the tongue, rent movies in Spanish and listen to salsa or reggaeton. This helps your brain get used to hearing the language, and perhaps you’ll pick up on a few words through osmosis.

Recommended Movies

Music

There is no secret to studying a language other than spending time to memorize and practice the material. After a few months of a few hours a week of study, you can travel through a South American country and not feel lost and confused trying to get around. With one year of study, you’ll be able to read menus, understand directions, and have conversations with the locals. When I went to Venezuela I had completed Unit 1 of the Pimsleur course and studied the phrasebook and got around without too much difficulty. Between my bad Spanish, their bad English and hand signals, the gist of things were understood.

If you want to put in the least amount of work to learn the language, only get the Pimsleur audio course. You can convert the audio files into MP3′s and do them while you are stuck in traffic. Once you are ready to be tested, go to South America where there are much fewer English speakers than in Spain. You will feel insecure about speaking for the first couple days, but you get comfortable fast once you realize that other people understand what you are saying. Buena suerte! (Good luck!)

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  • Rajia

    1. It’s reggaeton, not reggaetown. And I actually found it easier to listen to music that isn’t sung so fast, like Ranchero or Norteno (try Intocable, for example), then look up the lyrics online and follow them with the music. Of course then you’re learning some Mexican dialect. You’ll also know how to woo the ladies and sing about it after they cheat on you.

    2. The only real way to learn a language is to surround yourself with the people who speak it. There are thousands of latinos in this area. Try going to an hispanic restaurant and ordering in Spanish. Books should really be a supplement, not the main course. Bueno, eso digo yo.

  • http://roissy.wordpress.com/ Roissy

    ¿los clavos agradables son ellos verdaderos?

    during my time in a french-speaking island nation i noticed the supposed haughty french loved it when i at least attempted to speak their tongue, no matter how garbled. plus, an american accent is very sexy to them.

  • shadi s.

    ahh, juanes. many a good dream he has provided me.

    i have a friend who found a craigslist ad of an argentine girl who was willing to give free spanish lessons for english lessons. if you had more time that is definitely the way to “learn spanish.” could pick up some slang and authentic accents (among other things) as well.

  • cyaustx

    Check out, http://www.fsi-language-courses.com/, the home for language courses developed by the Foreign Service Institute. These courses were developed by the United States government and are in the public domain. And it’s cheapest way to learn the languages available there.

  • Sudamericana

    The term “cangrejos” refers only to the ones you find in the sea/rivers, not the ones you can have in your own body (at least in Argentina). If you say “Creo que tengo cangrejos”, the other person would think you keep them as pets, or to eat, them, etc. In case you need to use the phrase in the other, more “itchy” sense, you would say “Creo que tengo ladilla”. I really hope you do not need to use this phrase during your trip, though!

  • Sweat P.

    Volver is a chick flick? Damn, I totally watched that.

    I’m gonna have to lift some weights and eat a steak to make up for the blow to my manliness.

  • not a brainwashed idiot

    Hmm, this post seems awfully similar to this page I made several years ago:

    http://wso.williams.edu/~klichtma/teachyourself.html

    Why the hell would you pay $152 for Pimsleur when you can check them out of the local library for free and upload them?

    Also, books (or classes) should be the main course. Real life goes way too fast for you to learn a language that you truly don’t know. Only once you’re intermediate can you pick up stuff on your own.

  • Rajia

    I disagree. I’ve learned Spanish nearly fluently simply from surrounding myself with Spanish speaking people. It’s how children learn to speak. Every time someone asks me “donde aprendiste espanol” and I tell them “en la calle”, they don’t believe me, but it’s true. I learned French the same way. Books are wonderful for learning grammar, but they won’t teach you to communicate. There’s a reason immersion programs work.

  • not a brainwashed idiot

    Right, so you start out knowing nothing at all, and then go order in Spanish in a restaurant and surround yourself with people speaking way faster than you can understand (and why do these people have an interest in interacting with you?), and all of a sudden you’re fluent.

    Immersion programs work with people who already know something before they start. I did the Middlebury summer Spanish program for 7 weeks after I had taken Spanish for years. I learned a ton and became fluent. The “principiantes” looked like they were utterly miserable.

    Many books are useless and do only teach grammar, but others teach real language- for instance, Basic Spanish Reader.

  • Rajia

    Well I’m a girl, so amazingly, Spanish-speaking men seem to have an interest in interacting with me. It’s how I learned Spanish, believe it or not. I spent time living in Mexico, interacting with the locals. I was enrolled in a spanish school there, and dropped it within 3 days because I learned so much more at the local cantina. Teachers of course want to believe you need a book and a professor to learn.

    Spanish is not something I translate English into. It is something that comes naturally, because I never learned the language by making association with written words, but rather with objects or actions, just like a child does.

  • http://roissy.wordpress.com/ Roissy

    there are millions of latinos in the US, 2nd 3rd and 4th generation, who have been immersed in an english speaking culture for years… in some cases, decades… and still cannot speak a lick of english.

    my guess is that immersion works when you are young and your brain more pliable and when you have the inclination plus the smarts to learn. all avenues where you can resort to using your native tongue must be cut off, as well. it doesn’t help spanish speakers in the US that their native language is catered to with bilingual government forms and service workers.

  • Rajia

    4th generation latinos that don’t speak English? I don’t know a single second generation latino that doesn’t speak english, so I wonder where you got that data. As I saw on craigslist the other day, show me a second generation mexican-american that doesn’t speak english and I’ll show you my boobs.

    Most of the Spanish speakers in this country that do not speak english do NOT interact with english speaking people. They live in their enclaves of other spanish speaking people.

  • OG Sally

    I’d also recommend the Earworms language lessons for iPod. I downloaded French Vols. 1 and 2 from iTunes before I went to Europe (you can also download a free paper-copy tutorial on their web page, helpful for visual learners like me) to re-familiarize myself with basic phrases, pronunciation, and accent. They use musical cues, which I didn’t really understand, but the lessons were very helpful.

  • http://roissy.wordpress.com/ Roissy

    “4th generation latinos that don’t speak English?”

    in those cloistered spanish-speaking enclaves you will find generations of spanish speakers that have not grasped more than a rudimentary use of english. restaurants, post offices, and schools now have signs in spanish along with english to accommodate large swaths of the US population. then there is the growing market proliferation of spanish language TV. this is a national trend.

    the percentages of immigrant non-english speakers in the US obviously get smaller with each generation (although not as small nor as quickly as other immigrant groups have in the past) but this gets to my point that immersion as a language learning tool seems not to work on first generation immigrants (whose experiences are similar to a traveler going to south america for 6 months) who’ve been here for years and are either incapable of learning, uninterested in doing so, or disincentivized from doing so by government-sponsored bilingualism. children of immigrants born here pick up english relatively quickly because children in general pick up any language they are exposed to quickly.

    i contend that immersion worked for you because you wanted it to work, and you had no other choice. but as a policy for teaching second languages to the masses, it may not live up to the hype.

  • http://nullp0inter.wordpress.com Nullpointer

    Maybe I am just bad at logic, but being in a Spanish-speaking enclave wouldn’t be immersion. I’m also pretty sure what you just said, was equivalent to: immersion doesn’t work, because most people when given the option will isolate themselves into a familiar environment. Followed by: immersion worked for you only, because you had no option that allowed you to isolate yourself into a familiar environment.

    Thus immersion works, but like any stress people will avoid it if they can.

    I’m still curious about these 4th generation latinos that don’t speak English. That’s some pretty hardcore isolation. I’ve never encountered it.

    Also, Rajia sounds like you might jut be good with languages. Most people past the age of seven cannot learn a language with as much ease as you describe.

    Pero yo sujero que si quieres apprender Espanol, no escuches reggaeton. Seria como trater de apprender Ingles escuchando Jay-Z (or cualquier rapero).

    If you want anecdotal evidence for immersion. I was born in MO, but grew up in Chile until I was 5 . I came to the US never having been exposed to English. Before I was 6, I was reading chapter books like Across Five Aprils, which I remember being painfully long. Plus, I got punished in school, because I finished the entire spelling book in a week as retaliation for them getting me in trouble with my parents for not doing homework.

    I still wonder how that made any sense.

  • http://roissy.wordpress.com/ Roissy

    “immersion doesn’t work, because most people when given the option will isolate themselves into a familiar environment.”

    you’ve attributed a false premise to me.
    the majority of recent spanish-speaking immigrants aren’t living in socially isolated linguistic ghettos (although So Cal has some notoriously isolated hoods) yet still are not picking up english from immersion in the predominant US culture. the latest census has 1st wave immigrants speaking english in a useable manner in the 10-20% range. these are the people for whom immersion seems to be doing nothing. and these are the people who are most similar in circumstance to an american traveling overseas to spend 6 months or more in a foreign land learning another language.

    it is not a data point in favor of immersion as a policy to teach language to large numbers of people, though it will work for motivated lone travelers.
    thus, there have to be other factors in play besides cultural immersion — the immigrants’ willingness to learn, for instance, and incentives to encourage them.
    or, at the very least, avoiding disincentives that discourage them from learning english.

  • Rajia

    I never suggested that people don’t use books at all to learn a language, only that book learning will not teach you to communicate. I know too many people who spent years learning languages in high school and college, and can’t speak a damn word. However, I know several adult Salvadoreans who never went to school, can’t even read or write in Spanish, don’t even know the alphabet, yet communicate beautifully in English.

    As for fourth generation hispanics, I still have never encountered one that doesn’t speak English, and I know a boatload of immigrants. I’ve never even encountered a second generation older than 5 who didn’t have a grasp of basic english. Hell, half the americans in Virginia don’t even have a basic grasp.

    You can “immerse” yourself by living in a different country physically, but unless you immerse yourself in the culture and the people (and I mean more than going to 7-11 and asking for cigarettes), you can’t really consider that full immersion. They live in their enclaves, have their DISH Latino, get their necessities from bodegas, and find Americans, like me, to help them with the things they need to do in English. The average Mexican has no need to speak English to live in this country. Even LESS in places like Texas and California. The biggest disservice I am doing is not forcing them to speak English with me.

    Anyway, I truly do congratulate any person who takes on a second or third language, no matter how they do it. The world is getting smaller and languages are so important.

  • Nina

    Mmm, well… I’m trying to teach spanish to my boyfriend, I’m latinamerican but I have NO IDEA (believe me) about how to teach a language… I’m looking for some advice… He speaks english and I want him to speak spanish too. =)
    Thanks for the advice.

  • Curious about Spanish

    Thank you very much for posting these useful resources. Really, thanks, it was very nice of you.

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  • http://www.spanish-only.com Ramses

    I know this is a pretty old post, but I’d say: stay away from the language courses and go straight for the native materials. Watch/listen original and dubbed shows and movies, looking up things in your dictionary, reading and listening a lot of music. Add an SRS to this, and you’ll be faster fluent than you could work through all the courses mentioned here.

    Ramses’s last blog post: Immersion is the way to go (and stop looking for excuses).

  • Shaman

    Pimsleur is excellent if you’re a rank beginner, after that move on to Platiquemos (it’s a better version of FSI), and don’t you dare pay for any of this shit–you’re an idiot if you do, you can get it off of the torrent trackers (everybody, including Pirate Bay, has Pimsleur, Platiquemos you might have to look a little harder for, like private torrent trackers–I know for a fact one that does have it is bitme, fyi…).

  • http://www.teachyourselfspanishnow.net/ Nate

    From personal experience, I can say that learning with a downloadable or online course is a good way to go. Obviously the best method is full immersion, but not many people can do that. Benefits of online programs are:

    – They are cheaper than private tutors
    – They go above and beyond just simple listening and repeating. You actually have lessons and tests to ensure that you are progressing.
    – You can go at your own pace and constantly review the content.

    Learning a foreign language is extremely hard and people shouldn’t tell you otherwise. In my personal experience there are no shortcuts. If you really want to become fluent, which is truly rewarding, then take a course.

    A couple of other activities help as well:

    – Watch Spanish TV shows. You may not understand what they’re saying at first, but it will help.
    – Go to a Spanish speaking country and start speaking with the locals. You’ll learn how they talk and pick up some slang you might not learn in a classroom.

    I truly do believe though that the first step is starting with some basics. Here is some more info:

    http://www.teachyourselfspanishnow.net/

  • http://www.phillipmarlow.com phillip

    I’m going to be applying this to German pretty soon. It’s been a long time since I’ve studied any language. Thanks for the tips.

    phillip’s last blog post: Mel Gibson Doesn’t Give a Fuck.

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  • 75ff875f

    I am trying this with my Chilean gf now. Full immersion helps to speak as it is actually spoken. As well as improving how you “hear” the language. but you need some sort of guide. Something to help you put baby steps together. Especially correct pronunciation. This is where the books and audio courses come in.

    How hard is it to agree that the best way to learn anything is to approach the topic from several different directions.

    What may be difficult for some people is that there is some differences between European Spanish and south American Spanish. 99% of it is the same, but not all of it is. I’ve made several “sexual” mistakes as far, “there is a giant prick in there” (after coming out of a bathroom), and “id like to bang the bus”. I can’t remember which words i fucked up… but it was very confusing for me, and she wouldn’t stop laughing to correct me.

  • Kevin

    I think that for most people (myself included) immersion AND traditional grammar study are needed. I learned Spanish from a teacher who had a grammar book, but I ALSO spent time ‘en la calle’ ie in a bunch of bars in Antigua, Guatemala. Believe me, if I had not had at least some instruction and knew some words I would never have gotten into the conversations that really helped me. I also owe my skills to one particularly cute Guatemalan girl… but thats neither here nor there. I studied grammar during the day and hung out at bars trying to talk to people at night, and honestly think that it THE BEST way to learn bar none.

  • Mike

    He estado estudiando espanol por 2 anos, mas or menos, y mi espanol no es muy bien todavia. :( Tratare estes recomendaciones. Gracias.

  • Anonymous

    I’m Spanish and I find it weird that you, Americans, want to learn about other countries. You are mostly known for being extremely egocentric, patriotic and much less educated and with less culture interest than the average European. This guy’s blog is just another example of your stupidity…

  • Sleeper

    Anon 29 – Whats wild is that you have same preconcieved notions about US as some of us do about YOU.

    Anywhoo…

    I co-sign immersion as a fast way to pick up a language. I learned more portuguese in 9 days in Rio De Janeiro, than I did studying French for 6 years. BUT, there are some similarities that made it easier for me to pick it up so I can’t really say I started from scratch.

  • Tom

    Hey Roosh,

    There’s a great movie to add to your list: Alfonso Arau’s ‘Como Agua Para Chocolate’ (Mexican, 1992)

    The Spanish is easy to follow, and this movie has been getting chicks horny for 20 years now. Your understanding of the female will never be the same if you can figure out what is actually going on in this flick!

  • YB13

    Love it Roosh. I’d also recommend Jorge Drexler as he’s a good one. Pimsleur is really good, but I also want to recommend the textbook Vistas.

    Yeah it’s a “textbook,” but it’s important to know all the main verb conjugations, etc. There’s nothing sexy or provocative about spending lonely days/nights working hard to learn a language, but it’s amazing how it’ll pay off in so many different ways no matter where you are in the world.

    Immersion is only good if you know all the verb conjugations first!

  • JC

    I recommend Michel Thomas, which can be found on Amazon for much less than the price of Pimsleur. I have Pimsleur. It’s a piece of shit compared to the Michel Thomas method. After the first hour of Pimslear you’ll be able to speak about 10 words and 2 phrases. After the first hour of Michel Thomas, you can seriously deduct over 1000 words. One of the first things he teaches is that any word in English that ends in “able” is the same in Spanish, but with a different pronunciation. Done. There’s your 1000 words.

  • http://Onedeepness@gmail.com K

    Michel Thomas sucks compared to pimsluer. He uses people who are just learning spanish and cant pronounce words correctly and has you repeat after them. Pimsleur is way better.