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Julian Power

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How to learn Spanish

Hand holding smartphone with Spanish app

Before you start learning a language, you should ask yourself: Why do I want to learn this language? In others words, am I motivated enough to learn this language over the long term? Go hard or go home and I am not talking about the Roy Jones Jr. song. It is easy to watch La casa de papel at home and be inspired to learn Spanish for a week, but it is probably not enough to keep motivated for months of language learning.

When you feel sure about learning a language and your willingness for a massive time investment, then it is time to create a language study plan. 99% of people (so-called dabblers) don’t do this, and this is why almost all of them fail. As a reader of my blog, you are probably not a dabbler though. My motivation to learn Spanish is immense because I am planning on traveling in South America and living in Barcelona long term.


The traditional language learning process is broken because it ignores the different language activities. Schools and universities force students to exclusively learn grammar and vocabulary for years, and as a result of this students often fail to formulate a coherent sentence in Spanish, because they have zero interaction skills. This strategy makes sense from an institutional perspective in that you can teach large classes of people grammar and vocabulary and test them accordingly. The downside of this system is that it is incredibly inefficient and nerve-wracking for the students.

When you learn Spanish, there are three common pitfalls I see people doing time and time again. Ordered by relevance:
1. People avoid talking Spanish because it feels uncomfortable in the beginning. Practice is the most crucial part of learning a language, and I am going to elaborate this point later on. What is the point of learning a language when you are not using it actively?
2. People do not put in the work to learn the different Spanish modes and tenses. Some people go to the other extreme and talk Spanish nonstop without learning the basics. You have to do both simultaneously, but if I had to choose I would still bet on the talker in comparison to the bookworm.
3. People do not put in the work to learn the Spanish vocabulary to a sufficient extent.

Learning Plan

An effective learning plan consists of four elements:
1. Your goal
2. Timeline
3. Time investment
4. Monetary investment

Let me give you an example:
I want to achieve a B2 Spanish level CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, not the China Experimental Fast Reactor) in the next 6 months (final date 31.12.2018) and I am willing to commit 364 hours (2 hours per day) and $670 in total.
According to the CEFR, level B2 is upper intermediate level, and you can hold a conversation fluently. That’s a good benchmark. Personally, I am aiming for C2.  

In order to explain how to achieve this goal I first have to make a small excursus about the different language components. I am breaking it down in layman’s terms for you. The CEFR differentiates between four language activities:
1. Reception (listening and reading)
2. Production (spoken and written)
3. Interaction (spoken and written)
4. Mediation (translating and interpreting).
Mediation involves both reception and 
production and consists of translation and interpretation (such as summarising, reporting, or (re)formulation of statements)”

My language learning plan is based on current cognitive research and integrates all four language activities and considers the challenges described above:
1. Reception (Readlang, Netflix)
2. Production (Anki, Babbel, Conjuguemos)
3. Interaction (Italki, Intercambio)
4. Mediation (Italki)


My first recommendation for reception is Readlang. It is a minimalist software, which simplifies reading texts in a foreign language by translating word and phrases immediately when you click on them. Before I discovered Readlang I never read Spanish texts, because looking up words constantly was simply too annoying. It is free, and I use it as a chrome extension. Heavy users might consider the premium version with unlimited phrase translations for 5 Bucks a month. I read one or two articles on BBC Mundo daily, and the free version is plenty for me. BBC Mundo is excellent because they write in neutral Spanish and they have business news as well.

My second recommendation for reception is Netflix. The beauty of watching Netflix is that you turn an unproductive activity into language learning and you can focus on specifics accents. You can choose three different levels of difficulty depending on your skill level.
1. Spanish audio with English subtitles
2. Spanish audio with Spanish subtitles
3. Spanish audio without subtitles

As a starting point, I can recommend Narcos (Colombian Spanish), Club de Cuervos (Mexican Spanish) and La Casa de Papel (European Spanish). I suggest that you limit your Netflix consumption to your target language and do not count it as active learning time. 


To learn a language, you need to learn the basic grammar first. Personally, I started learning Spanish with Babbel, and it worked great. The biggest advantage of Babbel is that it breaks down complex grammar into small 10-15 minute lessons. The courses are designed by language experts and well structured. The price depends on the length of your subscription. Babbel also has an app, so you can learn Spanish while commuting to your soul-destroying job. It’s $44,70 for 6 Months. Babbel has an integrated vocabulary trainer, but the options are limited, and I recommend using a separate vocabulary trainer like Anki.

Let’s take a look at the alternatives. Rosetta Stone is the market leader, and it offers a 6-month Spanish subscription for 119$. Pimsleur is the runner-up regarding market share, and it offers two different courses for Spanish (Castilian and Latin American). The complete course Spanish Latin American (80 hours) level 1-5 costs $575 (sic!). The Castilian course is limited to level 1 and mp3 and costs 120$. Duolingo is a popular free alternative. The main downside of Duolingo is the lack of structure and the gimmicky approach. All things considered, Babbel offers the best value for money, IMO.     

As you probably know, Anki is Japanese and means memorization. It is an open source flashcard program, which uses spaced repetition. The most efficient way to learn is when you create your own decks, but you can also use existing decks. I created my own deck for irregular verbs, and additionally, I am using a premade deck with the 5000 most frequent Spanish words. You can add sound, pictures and examples to your flashcards. As a numbers guy, I like the integrated statistics function in particular. Anki breaks down your learning journey and shows your progress in tables. Learning vocabulary is not fun per se, but it is nice to see your progress of mastered vocabulary. Memrise is a popular alternative. It has a sleeker design, but less functionality in terms of card creation.


Interaction is the most important component in my humble opinion. Too many people hide behind their textbook to avoid talking to real human beings. When you start learning a language, you have to leave your ego at home. It is called beginners hell for a reason. You are going to sound like an idiot for some time, and that is okay. It is the prize you have to pay for mastering a new language. Switching back to English in a conversation is a popular cop-out. Too many people think they can skip this phase by learning everything beforehand. But that is not how it works, just get it over with it. Nobody cares that your Spanish is not perfect. The people who learn the fastest are the people who are not afraid to make mistakes. It is a common theme in my blog.

I have attended Spanish classes and individual teaching, and I can say with certainty that one-on-one teaching is ten times more effective. I recommend Italki for finding a teacher. You get $10 credits for free when you sign up with my link. Italki is an online marketplace for language teachers, and the lessons are conducted on Skype. Italki differentiates between tutors and professional teachers. I have found two excellent Spanish tutors with Italki.

Italki has four massive advantages:
1) The Skype format facilitates speaking.
You are forced to speak because you can not hide behind a textbook in a one-on-one lesson. 
2) Typically, individual teaching is quite expensive, but lessons on Italki are affordable, especially in Spanish. 
3) It is effective. You do not waste any time commuting to a language school or a meeting point. You can stay at home for your lessons.        
4) You can find the perfect teacher for your individual needs. If you want to live in Madrid, you can find a Madrilenian as a teacher.

I recommend establishing a weekly routine with your teacher to make it a habit. I talk weekly to both of my Spanish teachers, and it feels
 more like talking to a good friend than a teacher.

On Italki you can also find a language exchange partner, where you teach English and learn Spanish in return. Personally, I prefer a language exchange in person in a nearby café. Just write what you are looking for and what you can offer in a local Facebook group, and you will find a language exchange partner in no time. I recommend that you establish a structure where you split the time of both languages evenly. An alternative would be a weekly language exchange organized by organizations like Mundo Lingo in various cities. A language exchange has the upside that it is free and the downside that you learn your target language only half of the time. I think it is a good and fun addition, but I would not necessarily consider it active learning time.
Spanish has a reputation for being a relatively easy language, especially in comparison with languages like Russian, Chinese or German. While true, you still have to put in the work. Spanish has four different modes and plenty of tenses, and it takes some time to learn them all. I recommend using Conjuguemos. It is a free website with an integrated verb conjugator. It is critical to learn the active application of the different verb forms as well.  


Mediation means that you can mediate between different parties, who can not communicate directly. To do so, you need to be able to summarize and reformulate statements. You can practice this skill with your Italki teacher. For example, you could summarize and paraphrase a BBC Mundo article. This skill is quite advanced, and I recommend focusing on the other meta-skills first.   


Let’s go back to my example of a learning plan. Let’s assume you follow my learning plan. You have two individual Spanish lessons and one language exchange per week. You learn grammar with Babbel and vocabulary with Anki on a daily basis. You also read one article on BBC Mundo with Readlang every day. Additionally, you watch a Spanish movie/series three or four times a week. You have to allocate your learning time to the exercises, according to your current strengths and weaknesses. It makes sense to focus on grammar in the beginning and switch to reading comprehension and speaking later on.  If you follow this regime, you can achieve Spanish level B2 in six months, depending on your learning capabilities.

Italki52 x $8 = $416
Netflix basic plan6 x $8 = $48
Total monetary investment≈ $510
Total time investment364 hours


With a $510 investment, you can learn a new skill over a six months period, that is an incredible ROI in my book. Assuming you already have a Netflix subscription, the investment would be only $462. I think the problem is the time investment and not the monetary investment. A lot of people start learning Spanish, but only a minority of these people stick to it and put in the work consistently. The best “learning hack” I know is to put in the work consistently. You need a big enough reason for learning Spanish, so you stick to it when you hit a plateau. The easiest way to stay consistent is to develop habits based on solid routines. It’s like going to the gym; you have to get the reps in. Like everything in life, you get out, what you put in.

My learning plan offers a systematic approach to learning Spanish, but you can also add elements based on your personal preferences. If you like music, you can listen to Spanish playlists on Spotify. Calle 13 is always good for a banger, IMO. Spotify also has top-notch Spanish audio courses like Coffee Break Spanish from Radio Lingua. I can also recommend Radio Ambulante. It’s a monthly podcast with stories from all parts of Latin America and the episodes have corresponding transcripts. As you can see, you need a mix of different tools to cover all four language activities.

But it is also important to not get lost in the excessive supply of language learning tools. The focus should always be on speaking, and you will be fine. I think motivation is not enough though, you also need to make the learning experience fun, or you will quit eventually. I designed the learning plan for myself in a way that I enjoy learning Spanish. For example, I am always looking forward to my Spanish lessons with my tutors, because they are awesome.

Now you know everything you need to know about learning Spanish and the only thing you have to do is to put in the work and execute. The rest is up to you,


Recommended tools

501 Spanish Verbs
Mundo Lingo   
Spanish Verbs (Laminated Reference Guide; Quick Study Academic)

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