13 effective ways to learn Spanish for adults: Learn a language without leaving home
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I can’t argue, by far the best way to learn Spanish for adults is to throw yourself into a country that speaks it. Right now though, that’s not possible for most of us, and as parts of the world head BACK into lockdown (ya gotta be kiddin’ me, Boris?), lots of us can’t even throw ourselves into a shopping centre. And while you could wait until borders reopen to immerse yourself in a foreign land, I’d highly recommend you begin your language learning at home, long before you get on your flight.
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How I tried to learn Spanish before travelling to Latin America
Well, I spent around a year getting through all the ways to learn Spanish for adults that I’ll list later in this post, as well as trying my best to speak with Andy for all of 3 minutes before breaking back into English to ask what the hell he’d said, and going to a one-week intensive Spanish course in Madrid – twice.
I won’t lie, I put in a lot of work to be prepared to travel around Spanish-speaking countries and felt proud of the level I got to, but when I finally arrived in South America, my confidence was shattered as I realised the reality of trying to converse with natives, especially natives with a Uruguayan accent. I’m not language-brained, and that plus my fear of saying something stupid meant it took probably 9 months for things to start clicking, and over a year for me to have the confidence to have a conversation with a group of natives on my own without soiling myself.
After 2 years in Latin America, I’d say I was up to a CEFR level B2 in Spanish (though at least a C1 in reading comprehension, as is often the way) and could read Portuguese with decent understanding. It might not sound like a lot, but as someone who sometimes struggles to get her tongue around her native language, I was pretty chuffed with myself.
Is it really necessary to learn the language before you travel?
So if it took that long to really pick up, was the language learning prep at home even worth it? Believe it or not, yes. I know that if I had arrived in Uruguay with zero Spanish skills, absolutely everything would have gone over my head, and I would have given up (let’s call it gifted child syndrome).
You will not absorb a language just by being in a country, especially when you’re surrounded by English-speakers and English-learners wherever you travel. Language-learning takes conscious effort. Watch out for people over-promising success under the influence of that dastardly Dunning-Kruger Effect!
Basically, languages are damn hard, and you don’t have the sponge-brain of a child anymore, so you’ll do yourself a massive favour if you kick-start your Spanish learning at home and rock up with at least a basic understanding and some survival phrases in the language. That base-level will be so much easier to build on than starting from a blank page.
If you’re hoping to eventually get to a language school in Latin America, I think you’ll get more out of a course if you’re up to level A2 so can do conversational exercises than if you’re using a school to teach you the very basics, like ‘I am 24 years old’ by rote. That’s certainly been my experience in learning Spanish as an adult, anyway.
How much time is needed to learn Spanish for adults?
Try not to rush how fast you think you should be learning. Obviously, the more time you can dedicate to this the better, but even just 10 minutes a day to reinforce a longer study sesh at the weekend can make the difference. It’s more important that you find a method of learning Spanish for adults that you enjoy, and that you keep it in your mind beyond your study time instead of switching off until your next language session. And as for how far in advance of your travels you should start learning Spanish at home, that’s irrelevant; start today!
13 best ways to learn Spanish for adults
So what can you do to trigger your Spanish learning from home before you travel? I’ve got a list of methods, apps and platforms you can use to get you on your merry way…
1. Dive into the Duolingo app
Everyone knows this one! While I’ve tried a few apps to learn Spanish for adults, like Babbel and Busuu, it’s Duolingo that managed to keep me engaged. This language app is free, and it’s fantastic for reinforcing the very basics.
It doesn’t give you everything you need though, so for best results, it shouldn’t be used on its own, but that’s why I’ve got this whole list of ways to learn Spanish at home!
2. Go back to class with high school books
Once Duolingo had reeled me into learning Spanish at home, I realised that while it taught me common phrases and good vocabulary, it didn’t really fully explain the grammar (and boyyy, do I love grammar). I never studied Spanish at school, but the school curriculum still provides great structure for learning Spanish for adults.
So I went on eBay and bought the high school equivalent textbooks and a revision workbook (GCSE for the UK) and took some time each day to study through them and make notes. BBC Bitesize is a revision site made for GCSE-level students who work from the books I bought, and is a fantastic resource for learning and reinforcing Spanish at home.
3. Get childish on YouTube
You can’t just rely on reading and writing, listening is really important, too. At the beginning of learning Spanish as an adult, you will have no chance of being able to pick up full-speed adult conversations, so I highly recommend using kids’ shows instead.
Before you say it, Dora the Explorer speaks faster than some adults, and her stories are actually quite grammatically advanced. A much slower, easier show to watch is Pocoyó. Since it’s aimed at very young kids, it has simple but interesting stories to make sense of, and basic vocab and grammar structure.
I don’t expect you’ll be able to understand much straight away, so use subtitles (in English, or Spanish if you’re feeling up to it!). Also, the elephant is like, really cute.
4. Rope in a housemate
With so many people cooped up together during continued lockdowns, this is the perfect opportunity to embark on a little project with a housemate/family member. Having someone there at the same level as you can be great for pooling resources, practicing what you’ve learnt, and motivating each other to study.
5. Create flashcards
Every time you learn a new word that you just can’t seem to commit to memory, or a verb that doesn’t conjugate in the same way as all the others, write yourself a flashcard. These can either be pinned up on your wall where you’ll see them a lot throughout the day, or used as a quiz pack to test yourself.
If you’d like someone else to do the graft of creating cards for you, you can get full packs of flashcards designed to help adults learn Spanish.
6. Get into a Spanish-learning podcast for adults
For all you audio learners out there, podcasts are a fantastic way to learn Spanish for adults. Podcasts are something you can have on in the background while you do other stuff, therefore there’s really very little excuse for not having the time to study Spanish at home with these!
There are two key podcasts for Spanish learning for adults that I recommend: the first is Notes in Spanish, a podcast run by Ben, an English man and his Spanish wife, Marina, who live in Spain. Ben’s Spanish can be a little useless at times in the beginner episodes, but that’s sort of the beauty of it. Marina is there to correct him where necessary.
In the beginner episodes, they speak about key topics and cultural points in Spain, then learn some vocab, then have a conversation in Spanish about that subject. In the intermediate and advanced episodes, everything is done in Spanish. Ben and Marina also provide lots of resources such as worksheets, transcripts and forums to help boost your Spanish learning at home.
The second podcast I recommend is News in Slow. This is a podcast that discusses the day’s news headlines with options to listen at 0.5x, 1x or 1.5x speed. You can therefore learn at your own pace, and also keep up with contemporary events and vocab. There are versions of this for both Spain and Latin America to account for the differences in accents and vocabulary.
7. Find a native-speaking tutor on iTalki
Can’t make it to a real-life class? iTalki is the next best thing. On this platform, you can find language teachers or just conversation partners for any skill level. Tutors log in from all over the world, and they set their own pricing. Being a relatively inexpensive part of the world to live, 1-on-1 tutors in Latin America tend to go for extremely low rates (some as low as $1, but I’ve always felt it would be too exploitative to hire someone for that amount).
You get discounts on your trial classes, so you can try out several different tutors to find which one is the best match for you.
Even now, I have a weekly session (ok, ok, I’ve been lazy recently) with John in Bogotá, who keeps my conversation levels from falling too low. We don’t have structured lessons, but we read news articles we’re both interested in and then have a casual debate about what we just read. There are other tutors on there who offer stricter language school-style curricula; you’ve just got to watch their profile videos to see who would suit you best!Click here to get $10 credit for classes when you spend $20 on iTalki.
8. Talk to yourself (or your pet!)
Learning Spanish at home is no good at all if you’re not doing anything to reinforce it outside of your study sessions. It’s one thing reading and writing in another language, but using what you’ve taught yourself to form your own sentences is a big part of learning a language. So to do this… talk to yourself. Or talk to a pet. Or talk to your refrigerator for all I care, just talk.
It doesn’t matter if you’re slow, if you stutter, if you say it out loud or just in your head. Have a conversation about what you’re doing, how you feel or what your future plans are. There’s no judgement, which is exactly what you need to get over the initial inhibitions of speaking in a foreign language.
I got into a weird habit in Latin America of always talking to dogs in Spanish – in the first 6 months there’s a fair chance I did more language practice with animals than humans.
9. Make amigos on Tandem
Unlike the paid tutors of iTalki, Tandem is a platform for regular folk who are learning languages to find partners for online intercambios. The app matches you with people who speak the language you’re learning and are also learning your language, so you can do a language exchange through text and voice-notes without ever leaving your house. English-speakers are never short of people who want to talk to them!
As a female existing on the internet, it can get annoying with men trying to proposition you sometimes, but you can change the app settings to only show language partners of the same sex.
10. Learn a song
For this exercise, pick a song in Spanish that you really like, find the lyrics and work your way through learning them, line by line. Try and translate each line’s meaning as you go, then use a translator to see how close you got.
Singing will improve your pronunciation and understanding (since lyrics tend to be written in a lot more poetic way than regular speech). You’ll find that words and phrases stick more easily in your head once you’ve learnt them in a song, too.
Reggaeton might be a bit too difficult at first because it contains a lot of slurred words and slang, but a more poppy artist like Jesse y Joy (a Mexican sibling duo) would be perfect.
11. Cook up a tormenta
This is a slightly more experimental way of learning Spanish for adults, but bear with me. Select your favourite Latino recipe (or pick from this list of South America’s tastiest street foods if you’re not sure), and get to work creating a masterpiece in the kitchen. Make sure you’re saying each ingredient out loud, and if you can, translate the recipe instructions into sentences as you go.
This is not only learning by doing, but your tastebuds will be rewarded at the end. A great day for your tongue!
12. Follow Instagram meme accounts & Reddit subs
To this day – even though I can read 500-page books like Sapiens in Spanish with ease – what I find the most difficult to comprehend quickly are internet memes.
Things are worded differently for comic effect and poetic license, and they include slang from all over Latin America, Spain and the Hispanic communities in the USA. It can be a minefield, but once you have stared long enough for the joke to click, it’s really bloody satisfying, plus the funnies will keep you engaged.
Here are some of my faves around learning Spanish for adults:
13. Binge on Spanish Netflix
This one is a way of learning Spanish for adults who are heading towards a more advanced level, but is a very useful resource nonetheless. Over the last couple of years, Netflix has hugely expanded their international offering, and you can now find titles from almost every Spanish-speaking country in the world. Start watching with English subtitles, then once you can hear which words are relating to which meanings switch to Spanish subtitles, then when you’re feeling really confident, none at all.
The most important thing when learning Spanish at home is…
Build your confidence! I feel like I lost a huge amount of time lamenting my poor Spanish skills in Latin America and being too scared to practice with real people, when actually I had a far better understanding than most backpackers even from day one. I just needed to be confident enough to dive right in and not worry about getting stuff wrong.
The people I met who babbled on as if they were great at Spanish despite the fact that I could hear SO MANY THINGS WRONG IN THEIR GRAMMAR were the people who launched themselves into it and ended up getting to a genuinely advanced level the fastest. On the other hand, I got myself to a very good level by learning Spanish at home, and then stunted myself for a year or so. Be confident, be brave and be unafraid to be wrong!
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