My Year of Trying to Not Suck at Spanish

I feel like I’ve been studying Spanish for a very long time. This year I finally got some real traction.

You see, I started studying almost-worthless French in high school because I liked the way it sounded. I stuck with it after year one because I liked the people in my class. In nearly two decades of regular travel though, I’ve used it once: in Morocco. So most of it has now evaporated from my mind.

Spanish is a different story. You can use it from the Caribbean to Mexico to Central America and on down to Tierra del Fuego. (Not to mention Spain itself.) Sure, there are regional differences and changes in slang, but for the most part you can get by in all those places is you get the basics down. So I’ve been motivated from the start, knowing I’d use it in the real world.

Getting a Foothold in Learning Spanish

I started studying on my own when I first started visiting Mexico regularly eight years ago, popping Pimsleur Method cassettes then CDs into my car stereo and later putting the recordings on an iPod. I also picked up a few books, including Spanish for Gringos. My family spent five days in an immersion course in Antigua, Guatemala a bit later, which would have worked better if my teacher actually knew how to elicit and drill instead of just lecture and give me grammar rules.

I muddled along with occasional classes in Mexico, movies in Spanish, various books, and some software programs like Rosetta Stone and TellMeMore. In some ways these were the most efficient learning mechanisms apart from the Pimsleur recordings, partly because of the visuals and partly because of the repetitive reinforcement, which is important if you’re not a kid.

The real leap forward came from actually living abroad for a year. Apart from having a significant other speaking the target language, this is surely the best way to learn. Every time you step out your door you’re using the language, reading the signs, hearing the music. Unfortunately I didn’t step out the door as much as my non-working wife and school-going daughter since I had to keep earning a living—in English. So while I progressed a lot, they did even better. I think my daughter now speaks faster in Spanish than she does in English.

As technology has advanced, more options have come out to help you learn while on the move. I especially liked using Lo Mas TV and will probably keep returning to that in order to at least stay level. It’s a collection of music videos, documentaries, and TV shows from Spanish-speaking countries, with subtitles you can customize and the ability to slow down the speech without it going down in pitch. It comes with a monthly subscription fee, but is very cool—and entertaining.

Spanish Learning Apps

I also tried out a dozen or so apps on my iPod Touch, some useful, some not so much. The ones I kept coming back to were these. You can find them all at the iTunes app store.

Conjugation Nation/CN Spanish – A great practice app for verb conjugation, anytime where you’ve got 10 minutes to kill.

Spanish Touch Trainer – After you run through this twice it’s pretty useless, but those run-throughs are really helpful, with flow-chart style practice with sentence structure and proper verb tenses. I’m hoping they expand this to more advanced levels as it’s pretty nifty.

SpanishD!ct – a basic 2-language dictionary, but it lets you save words you don’t know to study and has a “word of the day.”

You can pick up all of these for a few bucks at the iTunes App Store

Find What Works for You

Everyone learns best in different ways. My wife is a big talker and loves group classes. I learn the fastest when there’s plenty of drilling and practice, not by listening to someone give lessons. My daughter did just so-so until she started watching cartoons in Spanish regularly, combined with playing with neighborhood friends who spoke zero English. Others get very frustrated until they pop in a good software program and then a lightbulb goes off.

It’s important to keep trying different things, though spending real time abroad works for almost everyone, if there’s some effort put into it to talk to locals instead of just hanging out with other expats. (I’ve met people who have lived in Mexico for 10 or 20 years and their Spanish is far worse than mine.)

I still get lost in conversations that move too quickly and I still feel hopeless sometimes while watching a TV show or movie. I’m still grappling with the strange word associations in my Mexican Spanish Slang book. But spending a year abroad finally got me to the point where I can speak in the past, present, and future with reasonable confidence. When I move back the next time, I’ll get more proper and study the subjunctive tenses…

  1. Erin

    I took Spanish all four years in high school and one semester in college. I’m upset with myself for not continuing, as Spanish IS the most useful language to learn. I love Mexico and am planning an adventure to Guatemala in January. If anyone can suggest a great Spanish school in Guatemala, I’d be very appreciative!

  2. DML

    I went to the CLI Spanish school with my family once. However, there are SO MANY language schools in Guatemala you will need to do a little investigating. i bet you can find many suggestions on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum. Good luck

  3. jim johnston

    Great article. Learning a new language opens so many doors. So many people think there’s a quick, magic way of learning, but it usually means you just have to WORK at it.

  4. Henry Williams

    I didnt know there were spanish learning apps

  5. Andrew

    Great article Tim!

    Whole-heartedly agree: the best way to learn any language is to live/travel abroad. When the rewards of speaking the language are evident in every activity — from bargaining at a local market to discussing travel plans with a knowledgeable local — one has a much stronger incentive to learn the language.

    This idea was definitely our inspiration when creating 30 Words — and it is always fun to see the idea of learning while traveling reinforced/reaffirmed!


  6. tim

    Thanks for chiming in Andrew. I’m past the phrasebook phase now thankfully with this language, but will keep using things like 30 Words when I venture to other countries.

    (See my 30 Words language cards review here: )

  7. Vladimir

    Spanish conjugation was the hardest to learn while I was learning Spanish.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *