For 5 years in high school and college, I studied French.
And yet, I knew more Spanish after SIX MONTHS than I have ever known French. I even lived in French-speaking Belgium for 3 months! But in 2016, I decided to move to Cusco, Peru. For about 10 months before I made the big move in March of 2017, I dedicated myself to learning Spanish in basically all my free time. I arrived in Peru with a pretty high level of basic Spanish, enough to get around, get involved, and start my new life as an ex-pat.
Once I was actually living full-time in Peru, my communication skills in Spanish skyrocketed! Several factors led to my success with the new language and culture, but it all comes down to lifestyle changes. Spanish must BE your life. Today, many Spanish speakers meet me and say, “Wow! Your Spanish is great! How did you learn?”
Before I tell you about my resources and strategy, there are a few key ingredients for you to understand before you can really move forward with learning a 2nd (or 3rd…or 4th…) language.
Important Principles to Consider Before You Start
This is a key part of any language learning journey. You’ve got to examine your reasoning for wanting to go through with this endeavor and keep that in the forefront of your mind, or, I promise, you’ll become a quitter much sooner than you’d hoped and definitely much sooner than reaching fluency.
Why do you want to know your target language? Usually, it’s to be able to talk to people who speak that language and not your first language. It could be for travel, family or a career. How important is that to you? It’s a great way to broaden your view of and knowledge about the world around you. If you get frustrated and give up, these people will remain strangers to you! You can never truly get to know them. But imagine the day – oh yes! – when you will speak to them face to face and be understood! And when they will speak to you and get a thought-out response instead of blank stares!
This will come along with your motivation. Don’t be a quitter! Remember why you started this and if it’s really important enough to you. When you’re trying to learn the 500 forms of the verb “estar,” don’t despair! Get frustrated for a moment, but then move on with confidence and determination. Give yourself a pep talk, and continue! It comes with time and practice, not all at once. That is why committing to your language learning long-term is so important.
When it comes to verb forms, memorizing all the forms at once won’t do you much good anyway. You have to hear and use them in context. It will become more natural in time! I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” This is so true with languages. If you’re not committed for the long haul, you might as well not even start.
Time and Consistency
And rolling right off of that note, this whole language learning thing can’t be “on again, off again” like your last bad relationship. In just the same way, it won’t last! This is going to take a lot of time and effort, so be prepared for that at the onset. If you study really hard for a week and then take 2 weeks off to recover, you’re back at square one, buddy. Slow and steady wins the race.
Creating a consistent time when you sit down to work on Spanish will help a lot. In the car going to work? Time to listen to that Spanish podcast! It’s 9 PM? Time to read a story out of a Spanish children’s book!
Be consistent with your studies. Set a goal, and if it helps you to write it out or to mark off your study times on a calendar, then do that! Make it a workable and convenient part of your everyday routine. You know yourself and your learning style and study habits better than anyone else does, so I can’t tell you what will work for you to stick to it week after week and month after month. The most important thing is to surround yourself with the language and not do too much too soon. Take it one day at a time, one subject at a time. Avoid the “intensity trap” of studying 5 hours a day one week and then falling off the bandwagon completely the next week. I don’t recommend either of those two paths. Start low and go slow.
Imperfections and Humility
This one may sound strange to you. Be imperfect? And what does humility have to do with language learning?
If you try to be perfect when you speak, read, or listen to your target language, your growth will be stunted because you’ll never get real practice. You will not be perfect as you’re learning and practicing. If that’s your goal, you’ll be disappointed and turn the radio back to English because you weren’t understanding what the Latin song was saying anyway, so what’s the point? If you expect perfection, you’ll end up reverting to where you’re comfortable – your 1st language, your heart language. But to grow, we must be challenged beyond what we’re currently able to do so that someday in the near future, we CAN understand that song!
You must be willing to make a fool of yourself, be uncomfortable, and be okay with that! You’ll be stuck in the communication level of a small child, and that’s a hard truth to swallow. Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged when you don’t know the right conjugation to use, or you accidentally agree to go salsa dancing with someone tomorrow night! It’s all part of the process, and you’ll get some hilarious stories out of these language mishaps, too. Be nice to yourself. Laugh.
Lifestyle Learning Resources
Lifestyle learning is the only way to become fluent in a second language! It means just what it sounds like: Spanish becomes an integral part of your lifestyle, a consistent pattern, a way of life you don’t have to think twice about. It must be easy for you to come across Spanish without much extra effort. Human nature is to take the path of least resistance, so try to make it easier for yourself to stick with it by intermingling Spanish language habits into your daily life.
Most of these resources I began using before I moved to Peru and continued to take advantage of after my move. I wasn’t interested in working my way through a textbook, and I don’t believe that’s a very effective strategy, anyway. That method might work for some people, but it’s totally off my radar. I went for a more natural, immersive, and conversational route.
Here’s a list of the resources I used that were super helpful in my language-learning process:
Use the Duolingo App
This is a convenient and thoughtfully organized resource to use anytime, anywhere, from a free application on your phone. The lessons are arranged in categories and just take a few minutes each.
The process involves teaching, reinforcing, and testing your skills on an easy-to-use platform. You can set your goal to between 1 and 5 lessons a day, and it will remind you to do them via notifications, giving you virtual rewards when you stick to it! There are matching, translating, listening exercises, etc., and the variety and precisely spaced learning circuits are what makes Duolingo so effective. You always have your phone with you, so use that to your advantage!
Listen to the Coffee Break Spanish & Show Time Spanish Podcasts (in that order – the second builds on the first)
These are completely FREE, and it was my favorite and most helpful resource before I moved to Peru! The podcast episodes are about 15-20 minutes each, and they’re designed for you to listen to the same one each day for a week for reinforcement before moving on to the next episode. You certainly don’t have to stick to that setup, but it did seem like an effective system for me.
You can also purchase extra resources from the host if you’d like, but the podcasts alone are a great place to start. Within the audio of the lessons, there’s a teacher and a student, so the student makes mistakes just like you will! You have a chance to speak and repeat back what you are learning, and your knowledge is tested at regular intervals. It’s a really great system, and I highly recommend it.
On iPhones, you can directly download the episodes in the “podcasts” app. On Android, you can get an app called “Learn Spanish” (the one with the orange circle, Spain flag, and headphones) to hear the podcasts without an Apple device, and there are several other Spanish podcasts on there, too. I know there are other Android apps for downloading podcasts, as well. I often listen to these in the car on the way to and from work. You could do it while you cook, clean, do laundry, knit, paint, work out or go for a walk! Most importantly, make it a regular habit!
Watch Kids’ Movies and TV Shows
I switched my Netflix language to Spanish. Some of my favorites to watch when I was first starting were Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove (conveniently set in Cusco!), and All Hail King Julien (the series based on the Madagascar movies). You can watch with subtitles in English, then subtitles in Spanish, then no subtitles! See how you do!
It helps if you’ve seen the movie before and kind of already knows what’s going on. Once you feel you’ve got a hang on kids’ shows, you can move on to teenager-level and then full-grown adult. You will love to feel your own transformation. The first time you really understand an entire episode is so exhilarating! This is a great option because it doesn’t take extra time. Just use your time watching television, switching out English for Spanish!
Watch Extra en Español
This is the name of a soap opera on Youtube that uses easy and slow Spanish, specifically made for learners. I watched it all the way through a few different times to track my improvement in understanding every couple of months. There’s one season of 14 episodes available to watch. The acting is not great, or even good, but it’s a helpful resource nonetheless! Replace a bit of your regular TV time with this.
Watch Youtube Language Lessons and Conversational Videos
There are a lot of fantastic Youtube channels dedicated to teaching Spanish. Try out several to see which one jives best with your learning style. Some are classroom-type lessons, and others show and explain real-life conversations. One of the best I found is a channel called “Señor Jordan.” It seems like he’s got a video about any Spanish language topic you could need! And he’s a great teacher. Instead of watching a comedy video or the latest news, put on a lesson!
Write Out Quotes, & Journal
Typing is okay, but I really mean writing in an old-fashioned way – with a pen and paper. This will help you learn to spell things (no autocorrect!) and feel the setup of grammatically correct sentences in Spanish with your hand. You can try journaling, too, which will help with the same things, as well as give you the opportunity to start learning to express yourself even though you don’t have someone to speak with. You’ll use language while journaling that you’ll want to use in everyday life, too. Read your entry out loud back to yourself to practice pronunciation. That’s also a good way to begin getting used to hearing those strange sounds coming out of your mouth. (https://cozumelparks.com/) Make a cup of tea, curl up on the couch with a blanket and grab a notebook!
Label Your House
This is really just for vocabulary practice in your everyday life. Grab some sticky notes, and put a label on anything you can around your living space. TV, mirror, door, bed, window, wall, table, pots, ceiling, computer, outlet, wardrobe, garage, book, movie, guitar, jewelry, drawer, lightswitch, bottles, medicine, painting, etc. This takes literally no time out of your daily life.
Set Your Devices to Spanish
Phone, computer, GPS, radio, iPad, etc. – I put it all in Spanish! You kind of already knows where and what everything is, and if not, you have to learn to get around! It’s a sort of lazy, subconscious way to engrain these small things into your natural memory via everyday use. You’ll be surprised how second nature it becomes after a while! Another great way to learn without adding extra responsibilities to your day.
Read Kids’ Books, Brochures, and Advertisements (And Work on New Words)
Toward the beginning of my learning process, I used incredibly simple books for very young children (think Dr. Suess and Goodnight Moon). It was really good for working on past tenses…which I hated. The pictures are cute, too. When I started getting a little better at understanding, I moved on to material for older children (like Where the Wild Things Are and Madeline), so it got a bit more complex. It was still simple but challenging enough to learn a lot from, getting used to the way sentences are set up and how different conjugations are used correctly.
I had a word document where I wrote out words I didn’t understand along with their definition, a sample sentence, and a sentence I came up with myself using that word. Don’t feel like you have to understand everything you’re reading! Even if you’re a little lost (or a lot lost), you’re getting used to grammar and sentence structure in your target language and seeing words written down that you may have only heard out loud before. I also sometimes liked to read the stories out loud to work on my pronunciation. I promise that it becomes less and less strange to hear yourself speaking Spanish!
It’s also helpful to pick up flyers, brochures, and advertisements in Spanish whenever you come across them. They’re usually pretty straightforward and don’t use too much technical language. For example, I had a guidebook for Petra in Spanish from when I was in Jordan, along with maps and brochures. I also had copies of the books Divergent and Frankenstein en Español, though I wasn’t ready for those until I’d already lived in Peru for several months.
Listen to Music
As often as possible, put on Latin music! Not only is it super catchy and fun, but it’s one more way to inject Spanish into your life. Pop is good but sometimes fast. Gentle cafe-type music is great for starting. One easy-to-understand singer is Julieta Venegas. Check out playlists in Spotify’s “Latin” section of the Browse Bar. I especially like the “Cafe Con Leche” and “Latin Pop Hits” playlists. Watch lyric videos for added effectiveness! This is an easy and painless way to absorb Spanish with no extra effort.
Toucan is a web browser extension that can be downloaded for free. It changes random words on your computer screen to your target language! This makes it easy to interpret what they mean by context. Once you download the extension, you can choose your desired language and current fluency level. Words changed will be highlighted on your screen, and hovering over them with your mouse will bring out a pop-up box showing what the word means and a bit of information about it.
Find Someone to Talk To
To make language learning work, you actually have to use it in real situations and say the words out loud. Often, we get stuck on listening and reading but don’t get to speak Spanish as much. Make a friend online that lives in a country that speaks Spanish. Convince a friend to learn with you, and practice together. If there’s a Hispanic group in your area, get involved with them.
On sites like Couchsurfing, there are meet-ups that you can be a part of with other travelers and locals who speak Spanish.
You’ll also find a section where you can request language exchange: you talk with a Spanish speaker in English (or your native language) for a time, and then they converse with you in Spanish! You help each other out by practicing in real-life chats. There are numerous websites dedicated to connecting people around the world for language exchange, so do a quick Google search, and take your pick! This is a way to learn without it feeling like work. You’ll probably make a new friend or two in the process, as well!
Use the SpanishDict App
This has been the most accurate translator I’ve found from English to Spanish. It also gives example sentences and a dictionary definition instead of only a translation. There’s a detailed table for every verb with the possible conjugations listed! They also have an online program called Fluencia that you can purchase for a monthly fee (which I did not do) if you’re interested in that sort of thing. The app and website (spanishdict.com) are both great! Have the app ready when a new word pops up as you go about your day at work or at play.
Take a Trip to a Country that Speaks Spanish
Before moving to a Spanish-speaking country, take a trip to one. Of course, this isn’t always possible due to finances and other constraints. If you can make this work, wait until you’ve been studying at least a few months. This will help you gauge how your studies are truly going if you MUST use it to get around! If you’re better than you thought, it will be very encouraging! If you are behind where you’d hoped you would be, it will be motivation to increase the effort you’re putting into the language! But the best part is you’ll get to practice in a real situation and hear/see the language everywhere around you, plus you’ll also have a fun traveling experience! You’ve got most of South America and Spain to choose from.
Disclaimer: I have no personal or business ties with any products or services endorsed. I am not being paid for any of my recommendations. I simply think they’re all wonderful based on my own judgment and experience!
Tips for Language-Learning Success as an Expat
Take Private Spanish Classes (A Lot of Them)
I took private, 1-on-1 Spanish classes 3 hours a day, 5 days a week for about 7 months. In the end, the adult brain needs immersion and an organized framework to learn a new language system. It’s important that you get training on grammar and sentence structure, as language isn’t simply vocab. It’s incredibly complex.
Taking these individualized classes with a local as if it were a part-time job WHILE I was living in Peru with Spanish all around me was the single most important thing I did in my learning process. I saw exponential growth in my speaking and comprehension during that time and was able to start connecting to Peruvian people in deep conversations after just a few months here. Get obsessed, and do your homework. Practice what you learn in class in your everyday life!
My teacher was phenomenal. She’s native to Cusco, Peru, and has a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics in Spanish Education for Foreigners. She opened her own business and accepts students from all over the world (including virtually if you’re not in Cusco). She has had many years of experience, and I would recommend her to anyone! Her name is Yesica Pacheco.
Prioritize Your Personal Social Life
Try to make friends! Spanish-speaking friends, not other ex-pats who speak your own language. Ha! Don’t shut yourself in your apartment because of fear or anxiety. If you moved along with friends or family, do not spend all your time with them in a bubble. I think one of my greatest advantages is that I moved to Peru completely alone. The difficulty will pass, and you’ll be proud of yourself afterward!
You’ll be surprised by the grace and patience of the locals who decide to befriend you! Those first friendships when you start to live abroad will always hold a special place in your heart. Those will be the ones who see you at your most vulnerable and continue to encourage you on your journey. They will be so excited to teach you not only new words but new things about their country and culture. It’s the best feeling. When you find someone like that, hang on tight to them!
Tip: Learn local slang to break the ice! Natives love to hear foreigners try to use the words they thought only they knew. It’s so amusing, and it sets the stage for a beautiful connection. Embrace laughter!
When you don’t understand something, ask for an explanation! Don’t be afraid. Get the person you’re with to use different words and talk slowly. Ask why they used this word instead of that word. Have them model the correct pronunciation. Remember what I said about imperfectionism and humility under “Important Principles to Consider Before You Start.” You’re going to feel stupid and uncomfortable sometimes! No one will understand what you’re trying to express.
You’ll have to smile and nod as someone tells you a tear-jerking story because you Just. Don’t. Get it. These are all realities you’re going to HAVE TO accept if you want to arrive at fluency someday. But it’s not all bad! The situations in which you’ll find yourself can be so fun and funny. Accept your position as a new learner, and don’t hesitate to depend on others to help you understand.
If You Can, Live with Locals
Living with someone who doesn’t speak your language takes away the temptation to revert back to your comfort zone. Day in and day out, you’ll hear, learn and use new vocabulary and create sentences that are more and more complex. You’ll understand things by context and body language. You’ll be forced to communicate. And you’ll learn slang and get used to the local accent! Your housemates can also give you tips about cultural norms, what to do around town, the best places to eat and how to use public transportation. This is a surefire way to boost your Spanish level quickly.
Take Public Transportation
I had never had the opportunity to move around my town via public transportation until I came to live in Cusco! And I love it. It’s cheap, easy, and convenient. While you’re learning Spanish, try to get around this way in the city where you live. It’s obviously the most local way to get from one place to another, and you’ll likely be the only foreigner on the bus (or tram or subway).
You can chat with your seat partner or just eavesdrop on the conversations around you. Your interactions with workers and the signs you’ll see along the way will also help you out. Plus, you’ll get a directional feel for the city and start recognizing important places.
P.S. – If you do take a taxi, that’s another way to practice. Talk to your driver!
Go to Concerts, Play Sports and Attend Public Events
Latin culture is really big on celebrations, sports, and get-togethers, especially in Peru. Parades, festivals, parties, and football (soccer for North Americans) are the heartbeat of society. Peru has 13 federal holidays annually compared to the United States’ 9 a year, but the unofficial ones reach up to a mind-boggling 3000 festivities a year! Jump on in there; don’t miss out on the action! Apart from the unforgettable memories and fun times, you’ll hear and use a LOT of Spanish in these traditional moments. Get in on a pick-up game at the park. Buy a ticket to that concert. Go to the plaza on New Year’s Eve or during Carnavales.
Vamos Por Todo!
Learning a 2nd language is definitely one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of in my life! It’s extremely satisfying to connect with people from a different background, culture, and language and be able to operate on my own in a place that wasn’t originally mine to conquer or understand.
Spanish is the 4th most spoken language in the world, so you can’t go wrong! Wherever you find yourself, I bet it will come in handy. If you were waiting for a sign to really dive deep into learning Spanish…this is it!
Written by: Bethany Iversen Marrou