How to Learn Spanish: A Beginner’s Guide
We’d like to be the first to congratulate you on deciding to learn Spanish. You’ve already taken the biggest step, and if you approach learning Spanish in the right way you’ll enjoy a fruitful journey to fluency.
You’ll broaden your universe, be able to communicate with 406 million new people across the world, and connect with entirely new cultures. In this guide we give you a primer for everything you need to get started with this beautiful language.
In this post, we’ll give you a few ideas for how to approach Spanish as an adult learner: what is the best way to learn Spanish as an adult?
Update: We’ve also created a comprehensive guide to learning Spanish, which goes beyond this article 🙂
Before we start, here are some questions to ask yourself:
What do you want to achieve? How will you use Spanish?
If you don’t know why you want to learn Spanish or how you’re going to use it, you’ll have nothing to aim for and no way of knowing whether you’ve been successful. It’s worthwhile thinking about this before you start studying Spanish, as the answers to these questions will form the basis for your motivation as you learn. And as you’ll see, motivation and perseverance are two of the most important elements for learning a language successfully. Think about why you want to use Spanish, and in which situations you envisage yourself using it.
How much time do you have? When will you devote time to learning Spanish?
Working out how much time you have helps to set realistic goals. If you have an hour to spend a week, then you will not achieve the same results as someone who can work on Spanish for an hour a day. There are good and bad ways to spend time learning Spanish, but having an initial figure in mind and committing to that is an important first step. The more time you can devote, the better, but be realistic now to avoid disappointment if you feel you aren’t making progress further down the line.
Of course, doing something is better than nothing, and it’s better to split your time into small pieces, spread regularly across the week. If you decide you can spare just one hour a week, then far better to do 20 minutes three days a week than 1 hour every Sunday.a
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Language learning myths
We’ll start soon, but before we get underway it’s a good idea to examine some of the oft-held beliefs about language learning:
“This is the only course you will need”
There is no best course. No one course can teach you everything. Mastery comes through practice and exposure to Spanish – a good course can establish a strong base to start from, but no more.
“You should learn A before B”
There is no set order to learning the language. There is a certain natural order in which you will pick things up, but that does not mean you should learn them in that order. A common criticism of courses is that they are too rigid and structured in their approach.
Learning a language properly requires a holistic viewpoint. Students soon realise this as they forget the supposedly “easy” stuff which they covered at the start of their course. If we compare learning a language to a journey, it is not a straight line; it’s more like a spiral. We seem to go in circles, yet we are making progress.
It’s good to be structured, but the first time you have a conversation you will have to go way, way off-piste. Textbooks can give you the tools, but you will have to learn how to use them.
“You need to be clever to learn a language”
Your mindset is more important than your intellect. You don’t need to be clever, you do need to be determined and motivated. We’ve all learnt at least one language, so every able person has the capacity for language learning built in.
“You can learn Spanish as you did your first language”
You will not learn Spanish in the same way you learnt English, if you are an adult. Many courses promote themselves on the idea of learning as a child does, whereby your brain soaks up the language in the most natural way.
As adults, however, we are not starting from a blank canvas as children do. We have already formed a solid world view, and our thoughts and ways of expressing ourselves are conditioned by our Mother tongue. The “soaking up the language like a sponge” idea put forward by many courses is that of language acquisition, whereby we acquire a language through passive exposure rather than active study. As adults, we acquire languages too, but we filter all the information through our adult brains.
This gives us other advantages, in that we can compare and contrast, as well as apply abstract rules to the language (ie, grammar).
The best way to learn Spanish as an adult requires a more active stance than children take – we need to be a little more proactive.
So, without further ado, let’s get cracking!
How to start learning Spanish as an adult
All writers fear having to face a blank page, and we’re in the same situation as language learners! There is so much to learn, and such a bewildering array of options to choose from. What should we do?
Establish a base
As a beginner, the most important thing we need to do is to get out of beginner zone, and learn enough so that we can actually go and start practising. For this, we need a base of vocabulary, a stock of phrases, and an idea of Spanish grammar.
Build your vocabulary
Building up a strong base of vocabulary is one of the most important initial steps in learning a language. When building your vocabulary, you need to consider both the “what” and the “how”. The “what” covers what kind of vocabulary you need to learn, and the “how” is concerned with methods for memorisation and recall.
Should you focus on verbs, nouns, or phrases? We love learning phrases, as this gives you something you can use from the get-go. A good phrase book usually contains more than enough to get you started.
It’s also a good idea to start learning the most common verbs, as these will crop up time and again throughout your language learning journey. We recommend learning one verb and a couple of phrases using that verb. Focus on the communicative aspect at this stage – in which situation do you see yourself using that piece of vocabulary?
When you learn Spanish vocabulary, you need to learn for the long term. It’s no good cramming 50 vocabulary items a day, only to be able to recall 10 of them a week later. Our brains are efficient, and if we learn something that we don’t use we’ll soon forget it. That means it’s much better to stick to a handful of items (no more than 10 a day), which you’ll be able to re-visit and review more regularly. It’s far better in the long run – you can’t cram a language! Consider learning vocabulary to be a process of “internalisation” rather than “memorisation”, as this places more emphasis on use and long term recall. More tips on how to memorise Spanish vocabulary.
A quick note on word lists
One popular method used is to bulk-learn a word list. Word lists are usually sorted by frequency, with the most common words appearing at the top of the list. Logic dictates that these words should be learnt first as they are used more often. However, we advise against this approach. Many of the most frequent words in a language are “functional” words, which contain no meaning in and of themselves. You need to know a lot about these words to be able to use them properly, as they contain more grammar than “content” words, such as nouns and verbs. Imagine you are learning English, and decide to learn the following common words:
In order to use these words, you need to know a lot of grammar, and you would also have to combine them with content words in order to actually say anything. They are very important words, but cannot be studied in isolation. You’ll come across them naturally in time, but we don’t recommend learning them as part of a list.
Don’t study grammar: Pick it up
Learning grammar has had a lot of stick recently, as many see it as a boring, academic approach to learning a language which leaves you lacking the vital tools for actual communication. However, most arguments around this focus on approaches to learning grammar but not the importance of actually learning it. The phrase “study grammar” conjures up images of being buried in an enormous tome, studying obscure and impractical details. However, grammar is a crucial part of the language and can’t be avoided.
Our approach is to learn the language first, and the grammar second. Grammar guides should be a reference, rather than teaching you something new. That said, it can be very frustrating at beginner level to avoid grammar. Grammar is the glue that helps you stick your vocabulary together, so unless you want your Spanish to be a jumble of single words, it’s worth attending to. We have a longer post regarding some tips for learning grammar, but here are a few other ways to approach Spanish grammar:
You can’t learn it all at once
You can’t learn everything in one fell swoop. It needs to be taken in bite-sized pieces.
Understand that even once you’ve learnt an item of grammar, it will be a while before you can really use it. There’s a process of internalization that takes place, which (ideally) looks something like this:
- Learn, read, or hear a phrase that uses a new grammar item
- Wonder what that grammar item was
- Look up the grammar in a grammar reference. All the rules and uses should “fit into place” with what you already know from when you first heard or read it
- Start noticing the grammar more in your input (it’s always been there, but now you’ve got it more firmly on your radar)
- Start using the grammar
- Get it wrong; check the reference again
- Continue using the grammar, but with increasing accuracy
Notice that the emphasis here is on checking and referencing grammar, rather than studying from “cold”. This is more efficient, and will make the learning process and internalisation quicker and easier.
Although there is no set order to learning a language, it does make sense to learn verb conjugations as a priority. These help you to communicate quickly, and give you the tools to create phrases of your own. The good news is that if you are learning phrases, you will have already met many of the verb conjugations. When you come to check these in a grammar reference, you will find them easier to memorise.
Learn how Spanish sounds
If you can’t hear it, you can’t say it. In order to pronounce Spanish, you need to be able to recognise the sounds, and this is not something that you can do from a book. There is a wide range of podcasts available to give you exposure to this, including our own range of Spanish audio for every level. Listen to the sounds of Spanish, and follow along with transcriptions to get an idea of how to pronounce written Spanish. Remember that good pronunciation starts with listening!
When should I start practising?
Again, this is an area where there’s been a lot of disagreement. Some say that you should start practising immediately, and others that you should wait until you feel comfortable. The truth is, speaking Spanish for the first time is going to be completely different to any kind of studying you will have done up until then. You need to be able to listen and comprehend while simultaneously combining your own phrases which are appropriate and relevant, all while under pressure. So, in speaking there’s more of a performance aspect, and it’s not something that can be practised alone.
We believe that no time is too soon to start speaking and practising. Yes, it can be nerve-wracking, and you may not feel ready, but these are not skills that can be developed privately. The sooner you can build these skills the better. Learners often complain of a perceived disparity between their comprehension and their speaking, and this is often due to coming to practise the language late. Most learners’ end goals are to build fluency, and speaking Spanish is the only legitimate way to do this.
Even if you can’t speak Spanish well, you’ll develop “coping” mechanisms to help you express yourself. Focus on communicating your message rather than delivering perfect Spanish, and you’ll have a much more enjoyable time. So, get out there and speak!
Where and how can I start practising?
If you don’t live in Spain or a Spanish speaking country, getting practice can be tough. Luckily, there are many websites dedicated to helping you practise languages – just search for “online language exchange” to see what’s out there! Although we’ve never used these ourselves, we’ve heard good things about italki and Busuu.
However, if you have the opportunity, talking face to face is always a better option. Check out our article on “intercambios” (language exchanges) for more tips.
The importance of input
One of the most important parts of learning a language over the long run is frequent exposure. This is why people who go on immersion courses seem to learn so quickly. They are exposed to Spanish everywhere they go, and it seems to filter through by osmosis. Making big improvements to Spanish will mean trying to expose yourself to it as much as possible – you can take your exposure to Spanish as far as you like, even while in your home country.
We have put together a few ideas for how you can get exposure in points 1 – 10 of this article. As a beginner (or any kind of learner), the input you get should tick the following boxes:
Summary: How to learn Spanish for beginners
As someone new to Spanish, your priorities are the following:
Are you thinking of taking up Spanish? If so, we’d love to hear from you and offer words of encouragement. Get in touch with us and let us know!
I love your website and this is really solid advice!
Thanks very much – muchas gracias!
Keep it up, rob and liz! I love your podcasts and I love your site! 🙂
Thanks for the encouragement, we’ll definitely keep going! :0)
Hello, my name is Sam Bleakly, i’m the community manager for http://www.italki.com and we really appreciate the article. Definitely use us to find teachers and language partners to practice with. 🙂
Awesome post guys! I think this can come really handy to people who have never learned a foreign language before, I’ll certainly link to this post in the future! I pretty much agree with all of what you’ve said in here.
“Decide on your motivation, goals, and how much you can dedicate to Spanish.” This is something I should’ve done back when I started learning the language! 🙂
Thanks very much Sam! Great to hear you’re learning Spanish – I didn’t exactly follow all the steps above when I learnt Spanish, but I hope others can learn from my mistakes!
Excellent article! I will share it in my Spanish Facebook page with my students. Thank you for sharing it! Muchas gracias por compartirlo!
Thank you for your article. I enjoyed reading it. It was very beneficial for me as a Spanish Teacher to read about it and recognize the importance of vocabulary in the process of learning a second language rather than focusing in grammar. I would like your input regarding multimedia apps to support learning in the classroom. Are they efficient? Should I use them? and what apps do you recommend the most?
As a newbie, I’m already lost due to looking at the incredible mass of materials, approaches, costs etc etc out there offering different levels of advice!! I’m crying out for a structure to follow to give me a step-by-step process that I can both follow and refer back to when necessary. Your article is encouraging, thank you. However, I’m still not sure I have that magic, processed-approach to guide me…
Any further thoughts, suggestions?
Well, there are tons of courses out there, and you could try our “Spanish from Scratch” series as a guided introduction to Spanish. I know it can be overwhelming, but I guess the simplest advice is to start doing something every day, and over time you can review your approach. The most common reason we see people failing is not starting in the first place!
False hope springs eternal. We were born with talent, or we weren’t. Most people cannot learn a foreign language, but you’ll gladly take their money.
Interesting attitude… Luckily, most language learners out there are happy to prove you wrong
What a terrible and negative attitude you have Thituiitf fhuj, but the point is most people do have this talent. Most people speak one if not two or more languages. I can’t understand why you would think that they can’t learn one more. It’s all about time and effort. I can say for sure that if you don’t try to learn a language, you never will. I think it is fair to say that some people who can’t find time or are not willing to make an effort can’t learn a foreign language.
I am ready,to move forward with my learning, Spanish. I am 61 years old.