How to Become Fluent in Spanish (and Other Languages)

Sharing is Caring!

I thought I was pretty bad at learning languages. But you know what? Now that I can fairly confidently say I’m fluent in Spanish, I realize that was just an excuse. Here’s how to become fluent in Spanish – according to how I did it, anyway.

Note: this also works for other languages, as similar principles and tools apply and are available.

This post was originally published in 2015. It has since been completely overhauled and rewritten (now that I actually am fluent, rather than trying to be).

Learning a new language is very hard work. How do you become fluent in Spanish, for example? There are so many different tools and techniques, it's difficult to know where to start. This post is your roadmap. #languages #learningSpanish #Spanishlessons #fluent #becomefluent #traveltips #fulltimetravel #expatlife #TheProfessionalHobo


How I Became Fluent in Spanish

“I want to become fluent in Spanish!” I declared one day. I’d already spent quite some time learning Spanish casually using various tools and modalities, all the while without realistically expecting to attain fluency. But somewhere around 2014 shortly after arriving to Peru, it occurred to me that fluency was actually possible.

In this post, I’ll show you exactly how I became fluent in Spanish.

Determination

Spoiler alert: there is no magic pill. No one way. And it sure as heck ain’t easy. Or fast.

Sheer unwavering determination is a precursor to all the best ways to become fluent in Spanish – or any other language. I’d go so far as to say it’s a deal-breaker. If you don’t want it badly enough, it simply won’t happen.

Learning a language is work, and it takes a ton of determination to put in the hard yards required.

I Started With Classes and Audio Lessons

Before I started traveling full-time in 2006, I took Spanish lessons for six months, for no reason other than I figured Spanish was a good language to travel with. And because I spent a lot of time in my car for my job at the time, I listened to stacks of audio lessons on CD.

However I rarely practiced it on the road until I started spending time in Latin America seven years later. Even then, I was in Panama, where the accent was so thick I may as well have been on the moon; I could barely understand the most patient and slow-speaking of Panamanians.

But those initial classes and audio lessons proved to be incredibly useful once I committed to becoming fluent in Spanish, a few months later in Peru. They gave me a basic understanding of grammar, conjugations, and simple vocabulary, most of which came back quickly when I started using it.

A Note About Immersion.

I don’t know how people do it. It’s a relatively well-known fact that the best way to learn a new language is to immerse, plain and simple. I know a guy who started living in rural Italy without knowing a word of Italian. He was surrounded by Italians who didn’t speak English, and he asked those who did know English not to speak it with him. Within six months he had learned 100% through immersion, and within a year he had developed a vocabulary and accent so bang-on that most people thought he was local.

His is far from the only story. I know a few people who have learned new languages this way, and to them I say “good for you”. Jump in the pool, learn to swim, and all that. But that’s not me.

I’m not saying that because I’m scared of immersion. I’m saying that because my brain works differently. I’m not a particularly auditory person. Even in English – for me to really retain something, I need to see it. I needed to have those initial classes and textbooks to grasp the basic structure of the language, which I could then build on with other modalities of learning languages (which I’ll outline shortly).

You may be in a similar situation. Perhaps there is no “best way to become fluent in Spanish”. For some people, straight immersion is perfect. For others, not so much.

For me, it was a full-on, down and dirty, multi-faceted approach.

Chilling out with a new friend in Panama after becoming fluent in Spanish


So I Took More Classes

Once committed to fluency in Peru, I took more Spanish lessons. Because they were private classes, my teacher met me at my current level and quickly moved me forward (see the section on Live Lingua below to learn more about this). The classes combined immersion (because we would converse in Spanish), text book work to help my cognitive brain understand what I was learning through immersion, and lots of homework to keep me progressing between lessons.

For me, Spanish classes are invaluable – but at the same time, they’re useless without practice and determination.

I Practiced (Even if it Was Easier to Speak English)

When I was first in Peru, I was staying in an area heavy with expats and visitors from all over the world. This was a double-edged sword on a variety of levels (see also: The Irony of Expat Life).

Thus the common language was often not Spanish – but English. It was almost too easy to not speak Spanish; a sure-fire way to never become fluent.

My room was next to a fellow from Spain (whose English was impeccable). There’s an unspoken general rule on the road; when conversing with somebody, you default to the easiest language for all to speak. In this case the default language was most certainly English, but the difference was that he specifically offered to speak Spanish with anybody who wanted to practice. Still, for myself and others, it took huge discipline to speak Spanish with him, since it was quicker and easier to just do it in English.

Without practice though, you’ll never become fluent. You have to throw yourself into it and speak as much as you possibly can, even when you don’t have to.

And if you’re learning a new language from abroad (ie: there aren’t any locals to practice with), never fear! You can attend local meetups with fellow language-learners, or find a language exchange partner (where you have Skype calls with half the call in their language and half the call in your language).

I Played With Duolingo

Duolingo feels more like a game than a free online language learning program (available in desktop and app formats – see also Best Travel Apps), but it will definitely help you learn a new language, especially if you’re consistent. It covers different modalities of language learning with listening, writing, identifying objects, translation, etc. And it’s so much fun you barely realize you’re doing the hard work of learning a new language.

I don’t believe that you can learn a language with Duolingo alone because it’s not super comprehensive, and on the whole it’s slow-going. Regardless, I “played” with Duolingo daily, and especially as I became more advanced in my Spanish, I was able to lean new forms of past and future tenses with Duolingo and increase my vocabulary very effectively.

I Listened to (More) Audio Lessons

Because I was living in an expat-heavy neighbourhood in Peru where English was spoken almost more so than Spanish, I hit myself from all possible sides with Spanish. Thus, I listened to a 30 minute Spanish audio lesson every day, while I was getting ready in the morning.

Pimsleur was my poison of choice; they offer audio courses with reading materials/lessons (available in both download/PDF and CD/book formats) that use the perfect amount of repetition and translation to take you through various conversations to increase your every-day vocabulary. Listening to daily 30-minute lessons helped take Spanish to a new level.

As an example, I learned some past tense phrases without really knowing the mechanics of using the past tense at the time, but they were words and phrases that I could immediately use in conversation (in so doing, getting over my cognitive self that thinks it needs to know everything about a word before using it). This in turn, opened up my brain to continue to become fluent more effectively when I was in immersive scenarios.

After two months of listening to a Pimsleur 30-minute lesson daily, plus my weekly private lessons (complete with homework) and practicing whenever I could in Peru, and playing Duolingo daily, I achieved one of the pinnacle moments when trying to become fluent: I started to think in Spanish.

I Set a Specific Goal/Challenge

When I first had a Spanish thought, I didn’t really believe I’d done it. But by this point, my brain was in Spanish-overtime; I was learning daily in so many different ways, I found myself subconsciously practicing translations of my own thoughts.

This made me realize I could in fact become fluent in Spanish if I continued. So I set a specific goal to up the ante and keep me on the path.

By this point I had been in Peru for about nine months. I had started my apprenticeship with a shaman (who preferred to speak English). But in five months I would be traveling to the Peruvian jungle to undertake a one month intensive shamanic “dieta” with my teacher’s teacher – an indigenous Peruvian who spoke almost no English. I set the goal of being able to speak with him without anybody translating (which, given the circumstances would require discussion of much more than basic pleasantries).

And so, it was. With that specific challenge to push me, the next five months of continued Spanish classes, Duolingo, audio lessons, and regular practice, allowed me to successfully reach that goal.

Drinking chicha in Peru


The Best Way to Become Fluent in Spanish is a Multi-Faceted Approach

Learning Spanish didn’t end there. It’s not like achieving the goal of having some proper Spanish conversations with a Peruvian meant I was done. In fact, it only fuelled the fire for me to learn more. So, in addition to all the above stuff, I went in even deeper by watching movies and reading in Spanish.

As the months and years went by, I continued practicing. My already good Spanish took another leap when I was volunteering at a retreat centre in Ecuador, assisting – and even translating for – some shamans there. While some of them spoke great English and some of them not at all, all of them spoke with me in Spanish. I can’t even begin to describe how rewarding it was to realize I’d just had an hour-long, in-depth, philosophical conversation – in Spanish!

It was only at this stage of the game that I dared declare that I spoke Spanish fluently – and even so, I always follow that statement with the qualification that I can only demonstrate the true wit and intellect of something like a 10 year old. But still. (I know some smart 10 year olds).

You could be the fastest verb-conjugator on paper, and totally useless at understanding somebody when they speak. Likewise you might pick up the language quickly via immersion, but hit a plateau with grammar and reading.

Thus, I believe a multi-faceted approach is important to become fluent in another language. From classes to audio lessons, reading, watching movies, using language learning apps, and more – keep learning your target language in different ways to stay interested and awake. (Too much of one learning modality can become physically exhausting).

The Two Best Tools For Becoming Fluent in Spanish

In addition to the above language resources like Duolingo and audio lessons, here are the two best tools for becoming fluent in Spanish. These, plus a combination of the techniques above will help you with questions of how to get fluent in Spanish…..and many other languages.

Please note that some of the links below are affiliate links that pay me a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. This doesn’t affect your cost, but it does help me to run this site; so thank you, in advance.

What Does CEFR Mean?

First, a note about CEFR. It stands for Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, and is used as a guideline for grading language proficiency. You can learn more about it here, but here are the basics:

  • A1 & A2 – beginner
  • B1 & B2 – intermediate
  • C1 & C2 – advanced

I’ll be referencing these levels in some of the language learning tools below so you can gauge which tools you’ll need and create come expectations for what you’ll achieve with them.

LIVE LINGUA – The Best Way to Learn How to Speak Spanish Fluently

live-lingua-skype-language-classes

In my opinion, there’s no substitute for in-person (or online) language classes with a teacher. I watched my boyfriend spend a month learning French from scratch using the online course mentioned later in this article (French Uncovered), and he doesn’t have much to show for it. The discipline to sit down daily and do the work of an online course with no accountability doesn’t work for many people.

Working with a language teacher is a whole different ballgame. They can answer your questions, no matter how trivial or advanced. They meet you at your level and move you forward in a style that will help you learn quickly and effectively. In my opinion, if you’re remotely serious about learning a language, you must take classes.

Enter: Live Lingua. It’s an online language immersion school that offers Skype classes in a large collection of languages, including Spanish, English, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. Spanish is (by far) their most popular language, with 60% of the student body taking Spanish classes.

The Live Lingua faculty are all teachers with university degrees and a minimum of five years’ teaching experience.

For those who have targeted needs and not much time, there is a large collection of smaller themed courses available, including the following:

  • Spanish for Tourists,
  • Spanish for Business,
  • Spanish for Medical,
  • Spanish for Teachers,
  • and even Spanish for Priests.

While the variety of specialized courses is largely limited to Spanish, they do offer classes geared towards preparation for language certification exams (eg: TOEFL, IELTS, DELE, DELF, etc) across all the languages they teach wherever applicable.

Specialized courses and language certification exams are effective, but not comprehensive. For example, if you take the Spanish for Tourists course, after about eight hours of study you’ll have the ability to understand and respond to some typical situations a tourist could find themselves in such as ordering food at a restaurant, asking for directions or negotiating in a market. But with no grammar of conjugation taught, you would be clueless in other scenarios – for example in paying an electric bill.

learn-how-to-speak-spanish-fluently-with-live-lingua

Live Lingua also offers plain and simple private language classes – which is the mainstay of the school’s activities. During your free trial class, your teacher fully evaluates where you’re at and customizes a curriculum for you. That’s right – no generalized textbooks here. Teachers utilize Live Lingua’s library of materials as well as their own resources and other online tools to customize a course that helps students achieve their language learning goals the quickest.

Here’s what a typical one-hour class with Live Lingua might look like:

  • 5-10 minutes: Review what was studied in the previous class and answer any questions about homework (if applicable).
  • 15-25 minutes: Presentation of the new concept – or adding on to the last concept. This can involve handouts, audio, or videos provided by the teacher as well as the lecture from the teacher.
  • 15-25 minutes: Exercises to practice the new concept. The teacher will use the resources on Live Lingua, their own resources or free resources from the web to practice this.
  • 5-10 minutes: Putting the concept into real-world use. In this part, the teacher will make sure the student understands the new concept by putting them in “real world” situations to make sure they can use it. This is usually a conversation or questions but can involve other multimedia.
  • Homework is assigned.

You set the schedule for how many classes you want in a week, and you purchase classes on a pay-as-you-go basis in blocks of hours; the more you buy at once, the less you pay per hour, and the hours never expire.

Two things set Live Lingua apart from other online language schools:

1) They’re a bonafide school, not just a collection of online teachers. You’ll be matched up to the best teacher for you given your learning style and goals, and both you and your teacher have the ongoing support of the school administration along the way, just like a bricks-and-mortar school.

2) Live Lingua’s teachers tend to live in their home countries, and they’re paid a proper salary for where they live. Their Spanish teachers (who mostly live in Latin America), earn 2-3 times what they’d earn at a traditional language school in their home country. Still, the cost of living in Latin America is a fraction of the cost of living in France (for example). Thus, you tend to see a difference of hourly rates depending on the language you want to learn. Luckily, Spanish is cheap, starting at just $10.99USD per hour.

Click here to learn more about Live Lingua and get serious about learning a new language. What you get out of it depends on your dedication, but in terms of efficiency (of both time and money), I believe Live Lingua will get you the best results.

I WILL TEACH YOU A LANGUAGE – Best Online Self-Directed Courses

I Will Teach You a Language

Olly Richards is fluent in seven languages (eight if you count English), despite not speaking a word other than English before the age of 19. He learned all these languages despite his insistence that he’s not talented, he didn’t live abroad, and he wasn’t plush on free time (in fact, he had two full-time jobs).

Olly eventually distilled his own language learning adventures into a process and series of online courses that allow people to learn a new language at a high level in a short span of time. He became pretty famous for this system, which got him a feature in a BBC documentary among many other media accolades.

Here is a summary of the courses Olly designed in his I Will Teach You a Language online school.

Spanish Uncovered Series – for Beginners

Spanish-Uncovered-Logo

The “Uncovered” series of courses are all for beginners. They’re available in Spanish, German, French, Italian, and even Japanese.

These beginner courses are based around a 20-chapter story in appropriate levelled language. The story-based approach (which Olly is known for) allows students to learn grammar and language naturally. Completion of this course will take you from beginner to intermediate (B1) level, covering off levels A1 and A2.

I asked my boyfriend to do the French Uncovered course and let me know what he thought. After three weeks of applying himself for about 30 minutes per day, he had only completed 7% of the course; this stands to reason if you’re going to go from 0 to intermediate. It’s a really beefy course.

For every chapter in the 20-chapter story that the course revolves around, there are different sections to enforce different learning styles and elements, such as the following:

  • Cognates (words that are spelled the same in English – a quick way to increase vocabulary)
  • New vocabulary
  • Grammar concepts
  • Listening
  • Pronunciation
  • Speaking activities
  • Review quiz

Learning tools include video, audio, and PDF files. My boyfriend didn’t make it very far into the course so at the moment doesn’t have much to show for it, but he believes if he keeps at it, he’ll learn the foundations of his new language.

Click here to learn more about the Spanish Uncovered series.



Spanish Conversations – for Beginner/Intermediate Students

The Conversations courses are offered in Spanish, Italian, German, French, Japanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese. They’re designed to take you to a solid intermediate level, covering levels A2 and B1.

The challenge with learning a new language is taking it from book-learning to conversing with native speakers who speak fast. This course is designed to train your ear and transform your ability to speak and understand the spoken word. This is achieved through a series of 20 conversations in real, natural language that also tell an intriguing story to keep interest levels high.

The intent of this level of course is to help you understand real language and transform your listening skills in less than 90 days.

Click here for more information on all the Conversations courses.

Grammar Hero – for Intermediate Students

Grammar Hero courses are offered in Spanish, Italian, German, French, Russian, and Brazilian Portuguese. They are designed for B1 and B2 level students, to help students internalize grammar concepts and stop translating everything in their head.

Grammar Hero achieves this through 15 short stories, each written with a specific grammar concept in mind. The grammar is used naturally within the story, but at a higher frequency than normal, allowing students to get lots of contextual exposure to it.

Having learned French in school for 10 years, I tried out the Grammar Hero course to see how it could improve my French; which I’d not practiced for a couple of decades, and hoped to regain it for an upcoming trip. I felt it was a bit above my capability, but I’ll admit the repetition of reading and listening to the same story over the course of a week (while focusing on and learning about the application of each grammar concept) increased my fluency pretty quickly.

Applying myself for about 30 minutes daily meant I covered off one story per week. I would first read the story, then read it again and listen to it. Then I’d learn about the grammar concept being taught in the story, and read the story again – this time with notations about use of the grammar. I’d finish off with some review exercises.

The modalities of the Grammar Hero courses are all written (PDFs) and audio files. There are no videos.

Click here to learn about all the Grammar Hero courses.

How Long Does it Take to Become Fluent in Spanish?

There’s no doubt, learning a new language is a process, and almost never an easy one. For me, the rewards of conversing in another language kept me going through months of practice and lots of frustration.

Ray Blakney, founder of Live Lingua, puts it well.

“The generic, industry answer is that it takes 100-200 hours of study to get from A1 to A2, and the same for successive levels. But we have found that to be so general that it is almost meaningless.

An anecdotal example is that according to the Peace Corps it took me about 180 hours over 3 months to go from no Spanish to B2. That would not at all follow the CEFR guidelines in hours it should take. The difference was probably due to the fact that I was in my 20’s, I already spoke multiple languages, and I was living in Mexico. There were older volunteers in my group who barely had a survival level of Spanish after their 2 years of service.

Live Lingua’s general guideline for students who want to make regular improvement in their language levels is two to three one-hour classes each week, with at least 30 minutes of practice on the off days.

I was on and off with Spanish for years before making a concerted commitment. Once I did that, I would say it was a good two years before I could call myself fluent, and another year before I could really mean it. But I also didn’t live in a place where I had to speak Spanish daily; most of my efforts to learn Spanish required a herculean amount of discipline and learning on my own.

It’s difficult to say in general how long it takes to become fluent in Spanish, because that depends on you, and how determined you are. The following are factors that you can control, and which will affect your outcome:

  • Simultaneously using different modalities of learning (eg: classes, audio lessons, reading, online courses, Duolingo, etc)
  • Practicing by yourself (drilling yourself on vocab, conjugations, numbers, etc)
  • Practicing with others (attending classes, language exchange sessions, and practicing with locals if you’re on the road)

Lastly, setting a specific goal will help you focus and start speaking fluently much faster. Taking in-person or online classes (it doesn’t matter whether they’re group or private, though private language lessons are the most effective) is an easy way to create a goal, accountability, and ultimately, become fluent.



Check out the web story here.

Sharing is Caring!

44 thoughts on “How to Become Fluent in Spanish (and Other Languages)”

  1. They let me out of high school Spanish with a ‘D’ provided I promised to never take a foreign language again.
    is it really as simple as just go some place and start talking? Well trying to talk…. with some homework classes & a smart phone app?

    Reply
    • Hi Rob,
      I too have trouble with the idea of learning through straight immersion. I know they say it’s the best way, but I can’t get my brain around it. But by taking classes and listening to progressive lessons, I can now handle immersive scenarios quite comfortably.
      Don’t get me wrong – it’s not easy! As Benny Lewis says in his Fluent in 3 Months course, it’s work. If it were easy, everybody would be speaking multiple languages.
      I felt similar to you when I graduated highschool with French…I could still barely string a sentence together…but somehow I’ve found school learning and practical use learning to be different. You could still do it if you have real incentive to learn another language – such as to live or travel extensively in a place that speaks it.

      Reply
  2. Great post for newbs (like me!). I’ve been trying to do just 20 mins a day on duolingo and find it immensely helpful AND fun. So I too highly recommend that one 🙂

    Reply
  3. Hi! I really enjoyed reading this, I’ll do this to practice English 🙂
    I’m a native spanish speaker and I don’t have many opportunities to practice other languajes…
    If someday you need to practice your spanish I’m glad to help you ^^

    Reply
    • Gracias Juanita!
      Reading and commenting on blogs is a great way to practice English (or any other language). Where do you live?

      Reply
  4. Hola Nora!
    This is really a multi faceted approach!
    I’ve tried to learn Italian last summer but failed 🙁
    Even with Duolingo reminders I couldn’t stick to a learning routine.
    Determination and consistency are essential to learn a new language.
    Hasta luego!

    Reply
    • Gracias, Robson! Indeed, if learning a language was easy, we’d all speak multiple languages – it takes a huge commitment, but I’m finding the rewards to be pretty awesome. 🙂

      Reply
  5. Good tips Nora…we’ll have to look into Fluent in 3 months. We were optimistic about becoming fluent after our 6 months in Latin America, but we didn’t force ourselves to speak and took the easy road by speaking English. I’d like to keep learning and get to the ‘thinking’ level like you!

    Reply
    • Hey Elizabeth – well, that’s a start! 🙂
      Many years ago, I chose one phrase and tried to learn it in as many languages as I could. I made it to just shy of 30 before losing interest/starting to forget some.
      The phrase I chose? “I don’t speak X [whatever language I’m saying it in]”.
      I chose this phrase not because it could be in any way practical, since if I say it well enough people won’t believe me anyway. It was just a fun thing to collect – kind of like collecting bottle caps. 🙂

      Reply
  6. You’re so right about the determination required, it’s the most important thing. Finding the right environment too. I had similar experiences to you with speaking English as it was so much easier. I tried to learn French in Montreal, not the best place as the majority of people are bilingual! True immersion is vital. I’m using Babbel for learning French right now, it’s pretty good for building vocab and introducing grammar too.

    Reply
    • Hi Charlie,
      When I got my windows phone, I started playing with Babbel (since Duolingo doesn’t have an app for windows phones), but I didn’t initially like it as much as Duolingo, and I didn’t get very far; my WiFi situation here in Peru is a bit complicated (and dodgy at best), so I’ve focused most of my efforts on the other methods. Glad you find it useful!

      Reply
  7. I love how Duolingo turns learning into a game. I was just doing the bonus flirting lesson with such gems as “no estoy borracho, solo intoxicado por ti” (I’m not drunk, just intoxicated by you) and “te pareces a mi siguiente novia” (you look like my next girlfriend). Lol!

    Another resource I’ve been using is Memrise, which is also free.

    Reply
    • Hi Deia,
      LOL – those are great phrases! I never got that far with Duolingo…I was still working on words for food and kitchen appliances!
      I haven’t heard of Memrise….must check it out. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Reply
  8. Ah, so you’re in Peru, now? Cusco? Now we’re truly “neighbors”. 😉

    Re: learning Spanish (or any foreign language). Uh, don’tgetmestarted. I just wrote (yet) another TravelnLass post on such as I sit here, passing my 8 month in Cuenca, Ecuador.

    Yes, a “multi-tool” approach is good (and yes, Duolingo is great fun), but…

    I must say, I’m convinced that all the books in the world, all the nifty online language interactives, the pricey Rosetta Stone DVDs, the dictionaries, all the classes in the world – and even the most brilliant private tutors in the world (yep, I have one, indeed a tough task master I might add, that gives me plenty of homework, and sternly corrects my every blunder in grammar and pronunciation)…

    Ah but in my experience, none of these will help you learn a foreign language as swiftly – as simply ***going out there in the trenches everyday and SPEAKING it***

    I honestly think that where most folks fail is they surround themselves with folks who speak English, which (yes, is ever so comfy and easy, but…) severely limits the impetus/the NECESSITY to bungle your way ever in Spanish at every turn. Far too easy to lapse into your L1 (English – lol, can you tell I’m an EFL teacher?) when… the ONLY way you’ll ever truly learn to speak and understand Spanish…

    Is simply by stepping out your door, and SPEAKING SPANISH at every blessed opportunity. Period.

    Leastwise, that’s what I’ve been doing here in Ecuador, and – though I have a looong way to go, I dare say, my Spanish is improving by leaps ‘n bounds here – DAILY.

    P.S. Wanna run away w/ me to the Galapagos in the New Year? LAN had a promo (just $198 rt. air with my EC cedula) and I booked 10 days early Jan. I fully intend to prove that you CAN “do” the Galapagos “on the cheap”.

    Reply
    • Hey Dyanne!
      I’ve been in Peru since the end of August? I’m about 45 minutes from Cusco, in the Sacred Valley. Hi ho, neighbour! 🙂
      And you’re absolutely right – you must practice. That’s one of the things that Benny stresses in his course – if you don’t get out there and make mistakes and get over yourself and keep trying, you’ll never learn.
      But what a reward – when you realize you’re able to have conversations with people in another language, even if you’re starting at the level of what a local toddler can speak! Eventually you realize you’re able to have more and more “real” conversations…and even make new friends. Que bueno!

      I’ll have to politely decline your Galapagos-on-the-cheap mission (as much as it sounds great), as I’m taking off in the new year for a couple of months. I’ll be announcing my itinerary shortly….once I book my tickets! 🙂

      But….either way later on in the year – I’d love to visit you in Ecuador! Let’s talk.

      Reply
  9. Love the article. Recently saw a funny video with two guys singing a song about the challenges of learning spanish, and how one word can mean very different things in spain vs peru vs brazil.
    Languages are not my thing but it is really important to commit yourself to speaking it , full immersing in it, and not taking the easy english route out.
    Just like a baby you got to crawl through it before you can stand , then run 😉

    Reply
    • Lee-Anne,
      Yup – you’re right – you have to learn to crawl before you can stand, walk, and run. I think that’s the most frustrating part of learning a new language: not being able to communicate your personality, humour, and intellect when you just don’t have the words available. It takes time, but it’s possible!

      Reply
  10. Oh yep, so hard to learn without lots of different ways and above all being there is the best of all! I learnt German at school for about 10 years yet landed in Germany and thought I didn’t understand a word. (Didn’t help that I was in an area with a tricky dialect – they don’t talk about that at school, do they!). Took me a couple of years to be able to trick anyone but finally there are people who think I’m actually German. Yippee!

    Reply
    • Amanda,
      And how totally awesome does it feel when you can be passed off as a local language-wise? It’s like learning a secret code to something new! 🙂

      Reply
  11. Very timely post, thanks!

    I have been learning French for the past 12months once a week with a tutor. I have a pretty solid understanding of grammar and vocab and find when I am talking to my teacher I do quite well. Then I go out into the real world and really struggle to understand what people are saying and because I don’t understand I don’t contribute and my brain seems to get tired very quickly trying to piece mismatched words together to try and make some sort of sense of whats going on. Any recommendations for getting over this hurdle?

    Reply
    • Hi Rachel,
      I have a similar problem! Teachers are good at speaking slowly and with vocab they know we have a chance of understanding. Getting out there involves talking with people who use slang, talk quickly, and often have accents.
      I found using Pimsleur helped me with commonly-used phrases that help me pick up more in conversation.
      In addition to that, I believe that the secret is just to continue to get out there and talk with people. You may only catch little bits, but you’ll get more and more as you continue to practice – and listen. And if you need to, ask people to talk a little slower and say that you’re still learning. Most people will accommodate.
      Good luck with your French!

      Reply
    • Agreed. Listening/understanding locals (invariably blindingly rapid) speech is the toughest. Nora’s right, just keep at it – go out and tune your ears to it at every opportunity. That and… I find it also helps to watch movies in Spanish (with or without subtitles). It accustoms your ears to the rapid speech, and when combined with the visuals, you’ll be amazed at the words/general gist you can pick out.

      Also, unfortunately, learning a language isn’t a skill that you can easily monitor progress in. Improvement comes in infinitesimally tiny bits. Try not to think about how well/fast you’re improving on a day-to-day or even month-to-month basis. Just.Keep.At.It. And trust that over time you WILL get better and better at both speaking and listening.

      Reply
      • Great article and discussion. I joined Marcus Santamaria’s Spanish-is-easy.com
        I think it’s great….but I have not been consistent so can’t vouch for long term results!
        Benny the Polyglot gives great advice when he says it’s hard work and onlybuy his course if you really want to learn.
        As you know Nora I do Vaughan Town…..thanks to you….do you know if there is something similar for learning Spanish? I’ve heard there is but haven’t managed to find out where. I have an inkling it’s in Mexico. Every time I go to Spain I wish I wasn’t such a procrastinator!
        Are you coming to NZ? I came home end of October…..I have a house in Omokoroa….19 ks north of Tauranga if you need a bed…..but it is on the market so may be sold. Email me if you’re coming this way.

        Reply
        • Hey Jo,
          I’ve kept my eye out for immersion programs similar to Vaughan Town, but I haven’t found anything thus far (but then again I haven’t been actively looking in that sense). Let me know if you find anything.
          No, I’m not coming to NZ this time around….I had every intention of being there this Jan-March 2015, but US Airways really messed with me and my grandiose plans, to the tune of $1700…(you can read the sordid story here:
          My thought now is to use those miles to go to NZ in January 2016, but that’s so much forward planning for me that it makes my head spin. Ha ha!

          Reply
      • Great point, Dyanne! Watching movies with subtitles is a great technique, and something I’ve done a few times with great benefits. (in infinitesimally tiny increments) LOL!

        Reply
  12. Great advice. I used Duolingo and Rocket Italian before coming here to Italy. Both are great. Then I started using Google translator on my Smartphone whenever I wanted to know how to say something. You can save your “favorites” and review them easily. Finally, I love Anki, a free tool that allows you to create your own online flash cards and scientifically feeds them to you depending on how well you know them.

    All that said, once I got here to Italy I focused entirely on conversing and reading. I was sitll unsatisfied with my progress until I came up with the idea of creating my own private Italian immersion program. I decided to simply talk to myself all the time in Italian. If I didn’t know how to say something I would look it up right away on Google translate. If I found myself thinking something in English I would immediately try to think the same thing in Italian.

    This did the trick, because I was no longer switching from one to the other so much. It takes some discipline, and you can’t do it until you already know a lot, like going all the way through Duolingo, for example. But then it really accelerates your progress.

    Bob

    Reply
    • Hey Bob,
      Indeed – I do the same with Spanish. Once you start to think and talk to yourself in a different language, progress is more rapid. Glad you’re feeling a bit more like a local Italian now, after all your hard work!

      Reply
      • It’s going to be hard to leave Pallanza, which I have fallen in love with (definitely one of the most beautiful places on earth, I think, and very livable, too). But I’m also looking forward to three months in Cuenca, then either Cusco or Pisac, I’m just starting to explore the two.

        Bob

        Reply
    • Hi Bob, hope all is well with you all! Aside from the motivation aspects, you gotta want to learn or need to learn, there might not be a better dead teacher of spanish than Michel Thomas. Although a bit comical at first because he has a noticiable austrian (?) accent, you can become conversational in spanish in his 10 lession series. That, and having a fabulous woman from Neiva Colombia!

      Reply
      • Hi, Greg. Yes, we are have a wonderful time in fabulous Malaga. On Dec. 6 we skoot across the Straights for a couple of months in Tangier, then onto Las Terrenas, Bergen (Norway), and the UK. Great to hear from you.

        Bob

        Reply
  13. Hi Nora

    Interesting post! Learning to speak a foreign language properly, it’s a very hard work. Well done on becoming fluent in Spanish, it’s a lovely language, plus very useful. Apart from Spain, it’s spoken in Central and South America. But, there are colloquial differences between the Spanish version and those spoken in South America, although the structure of the language is the same. It’s just that they use different words and you have to learn the meaning, to be able to understand correctly.

    I am Serbian and I’ve been living in England for a long time now. I also speak French, Italian and Spanish. These three languages, I studied by myself for years. It took a lot of time and effort. I used the French method ASSIMIL, which in my opinion is by far the best. They teach you in circles, the way a baby learns the mother tongue. And as the name of the course states, you assimilate the knowledge, which means it stays with you forever.

    Finally, well done on encouraging other people to learn foreign languages, it’s all too easy with English nowadays, although being able to communicate with people in their own language is, in my opinion, priceless.

    Reply
    • Hi Vitko,
      Good on you for speaking three other languages! I am in amazement of people who speak more than two or three languages; so many words and linguistic rules rolling about in your head! Spanish was challenging enough 😉
      ASSIMIL sounds interesting. I’ll look into that.

      Reply
  14. Two things. First, I have played with Spanish learning for many years. I suppose I have survival down OK: grocery shopping, ordering in a restaurant, taking the bus, getting a haircut, etc. But I barely make progress. I fanatically maintain my streak of Duolingo every day, but even Duolingo can get stale.

    Second, did you find that knowing French grammar helped in learning the Spanish grammar? It seems very similar to me. Two years of college French in the USA is my base of French knowledge. But, when someone appears to be especially perplexed at my attempt at Spanish, I often find that I have used a phrase in French, instead.

    Reply
    • Hi Gary,
      You’re right – Duolingo will only get you so far.
      If you want to take your Spanish to the next level, I firmly believe that private lessons are the only way to go. I recommend Live Lingua (which I write about in the post above), which you can do from anywhere in the world with a Skype connection.

      Regarding French: Personally, I found that knowing some French helped me to learn Spanish in that I was already familiar with how to conjugate verbs, and how objects have masculine or feminine attributions.
      While some French and Spanish words are similar, I haven’t necessarily found the languages to be interchangeable enough that I could use French to be understood in Spanish. But I’m glad that works for you!

      Reply
  15. Hi Nora,
    Your article blended hard truth and the joy of the journey on the path to a new language. The length and depth of the article emphasizes that this mastery takes time and perseverance and that it’s a personal journey too. Your approach reminded me of some recent neuroscience to related to accelerating mastery: as you take on a new task modify the approach slightly. i’ve used the example of learning an instrument and changing up how you play scales to attain mastery more quickly but i’m sure it applies to learning language as well. When we exercise the brain slightly differently to master the task we accelerate the learning process. In immersive environments, i’d think this happens forcibly (and chaotically); your approach comes at fluency in multiple ways. Yes, it kept it fun and challenging and may have accelerated your mastery too? Thanks for your tip on Live Lingua, another way for me to mix it up on my path to Spanish proficiency.
    🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Ron,
      You’re absolutely right about changing up techniques and exercising the brain differently!
      I recently learned this applies to physical training too; I spent two months working with a personal trainer whose MO was to keep the body in shock constantly by doing different exercises all the time; as long as we flex and work our muscles (brain included) in different ways, we keep growing!

      Reply

Leave a Comment