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 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.
The Bertlitz phrase book’s travel chapter is most helpful, with phrases like No me siento seguro aquí and ¡Eso es un escándalo!
Throw in an idiom phrase book and a common word book to expand your vocabulary.
Another helpful book is a 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.
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.
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.
- Y Tu Mama Tambien
- The Sea Inside
- The Motorcycle Diaries
- El Bola
- Secuestro Express
- Amores Perros
- All About My Mother
- Talk To Her
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!)