How to Become Fluent in Spanish (and Other Languages)

by Nora on October 23, 2014

I suck at languages (at least so I thought). After 12 years of learning French in school, you’d think I could stretch more than a few words together. (I can’t). Despite this handicap, I’m determined to become fluent in Spanish – and I’m almost there! Here’s how:

 

Determination

My unwavering determination unto itself is a big part of my ability to become fluent, according to Benny Lewis (known in some circles as “Benny the Irish Polyglot”), who teaches people to become Fluent in 3 Months. He literally lands in a country and is speaking like a local in three months (and speaking with locals in less than three days). One of his secrets? You have to want it. Learning a language is work, and it takes determination to put in the hard yards required.

 

Practice (Even if it’s 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. 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. I was staying next to a fellow from Spain (but whose English was impeccable); for myself and others, it took 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 if the person you’re speaking with also speaks English.

Depending on where you are and who you keep company with, you can practice speaking locally, or if you’re learning remotely, you can practice online through Skype and other forums designed to connect people who want to practice other languages.

 

Take Lessons

Before I started traveling full-time in 2006, I took Spanish lessons for six months, knowing that Spanish is a good language to travel with. But of course because I rarely practiced it on the road until recently, I lost most of it. However somewhere in the recesses of my mind this knowledge remained, and has been invaluable in giving me a base of cognitive knowledge about the Spanish language, with which to start/continue immersing myself.

Here in Peru I’m taking more lessons, which help my cognitive brain understand the lingo I’m learning through immersion. For me, lessons are invaluable – but at the same time useless without practice and determination.

 

 

Multi-Faceted Approach

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, a multi-faceted approach is important to become fluent in another language. From audio lessons, to 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).

 

Language Learning Tools to Become Fluent

Here are three language learning products I’ve used which have been very helpful:

Fluent in 3 Months

I mentioned Benny Lewis above, who is fluent in a dozen or so languages, and uses both conventional and unconventional methods for landing in a new country and speaking the language within days. $97 will get you a lifetime membership to his regularly updated techniques and dozens of resources, through Fluent in 3 Months.

It’s a toolbox of resources to get you speaking your target language right away, including but not limited to the following:

  • Language Hacking Guide (e-book and audio): focused on getting over yourself and speaking the language from day one. Big takeaway: if it was easy, we’d all be polyglots; start speaking now, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
  • Speak From Day One Video Series: This emphasizes many of the points in the language hacking guide, with Benny’s amusing and informal visual approach.
  • Video and Audio Interviews with other popular language learners and teachers who discuss their own tips and techniques.
  • Languages Section: This extensive section includes dozens of resources specific to learning a variety of languages (currently including Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and more).
  • Conversational Connectors: These downloadable phrases (in 2 dozen languages) help you keep the conversation going in your target language even if you don’t know much of the language, and help you sound like a local.

Throughout these resources, Benny emphasizes his practiced language-learning tips like creating image and song associations to help you remember new words and phrases. He also provides a massive amount of links to videos, articles, programs, and resources for every type of learner to increase vocabulary, meet conversation partners, watch/listen to interviews, learn different techniques, etc.

Frankly it’s all a bit overwhelming at first, but with a lifetime membership to explore, it’s designed as a long-term resource for people who want to learn new languages, replete with community forums and online journals available for you to track your language learning progress. And it comes with a 30 day no-risk guarantee.

If you’re curious about Benny’s work but not prepared to commit to the full Fluent in 3 Months course, check out his freeSpeak in a Week” email course.

 

Pimsleur Audio Lessons

Fluent in 3 Months (above) is a great place to start when you’re embracing a new language, given the focus on helping you over the barriers that prevent so many of us from becoming fluent, along with the tools to get you started in your target language.

But you need to eventually get into the practicalities of increasing vocabulary and learning the language itself; for that I’ve found Pimsleur to be invaluable. 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 that increase your every-day vocabulary. Listening to daily 30-minute lessons has taken my Spanish to a new level.

As an example, I learned some past tense phrases without really knowing the mechanics of using the past tense, but they were words and phrases that I could immediately use in conversation (in so doing, getting over my cognitive self that 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.

The Pimsleur courses aren’t cheap ($150-$200 for each of the four phases; each phase containing 30 lessons), but for me, they worked (and are continuing to work) as part of a multi-faceted approach to become fluent.

 

Duolingo

Duolingo is a fun smartphone “game” that helps you learn other languages. (I included it in my list of 25 smartphone apps for travel post). 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.

 

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, I achieved one of the pinnacle moments when trying to become fluent: I started to think in Spanish.

And then, as quickly as it happened, I started to lose confidence and vocabulary when I stopped listening to the lessons regularly and stopped practicing (largely due to spending a couple of months in Canada). But since returning to Peru, I’m back on track, and with practice, determination, immersion, and some cool tools, I can say I’m about to become fluent in Spanish.

 

(Note: I received a complimentary membership to Fluent in 3 Months and a complimentary Pimsleur course, and there are affiliate links in this post. All opinions expressed are my own).

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rob October 23, 2014 at 11:30 am

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?

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2 Nora Dunn October 23, 2014 at 4:31 pm

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.

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3 Dane October 23, 2014 at 4:15 pm

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 🙂

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4 Nora Dunn October 23, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Hey Dane,
Yes, I understand now why the person to introduced me to Duolingo was so fanatical about it! It’s fun. Enjoy!

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5 Juanita October 23, 2014 at 9:16 pm

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 ^^

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6 Nora Dunn October 24, 2014 at 3:07 pm

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

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7 Robson Cadore October 24, 2014 at 3:19 am

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!

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8 Nora Dunn October 24, 2014 at 3:09 pm

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. 🙂

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9 Emily October 24, 2014 at 9:22 am

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!

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10 Nora Dunn October 24, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Do it, Emily! Do it! It’s worth it! 🙂

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11 Elizabeth October 24, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Another great post, Nora! I am determined to learn Spanish. But, I can swear in 8 languages!!

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12 Nora Dunn October 24, 2014 at 3:15 pm

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. 🙂

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13 Elizabeth October 24, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Nora! That’s great! My non-swearing phrase was “speak a little slower please, I’m out of practice!” 🙂

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14 Charlie October 24, 2014 at 5:07 pm

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.

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15 Nora Dunn October 25, 2014 at 10:22 am

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!

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16 Deia @ Nomad Wallet October 24, 2014 at 6:45 pm

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.

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17 Nora Dunn October 25, 2014 at 10:24 am

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!

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18 Dyanne@TravelnLass October 24, 2014 at 11:44 pm

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”.

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19 Nora Dunn October 25, 2014 at 10:30 am

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.

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20 Lee-Anne October 25, 2014 at 7:56 am

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 😉

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21 Nora Dunn October 25, 2014 at 10:33 am

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!

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22 Amanda Kendle October 26, 2014 at 9:11 am

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!

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23 Nora Dunn October 26, 2014 at 10:28 am

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! 🙂

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24 Rachel November 11, 2014 at 10:56 pm

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?

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25 Nora Dunn November 12, 2014 at 8:51 am

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!

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26 Dyanne@TravelnLass November 12, 2014 at 10:19 am

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.

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27 Jo November 12, 2014 at 5:26 pm

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.

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28 Nora Dunn November 13, 2014 at 10:19 am

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: https://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/2014/11/gave-us-airways-1700-nothing-even-flights/)
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!

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29 Nora Dunn November 13, 2014 at 10:15 am

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!

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30 Bob Weisenberg February 4, 2015 at 5:01 pm

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

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31 Nora Dunn February 4, 2015 at 6:08 pm

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!

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32 Bob Weisenberg February 4, 2015 at 6:22 pm

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

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33 greg November 16, 2015 at 6:12 pm

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!

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34 Bob Weisenberg November 17, 2015 at 10:23 am

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

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35 Anil January 19, 2016 at 11:27 am

Here is some good steps to learn Spanish. I have another option to learn this language on Skype. http://preply.com/en/spanish-by-skype. Here anyone find online tutor.

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36 Nora Dunn January 19, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Thanks for the tip, Anil!

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