How to Learn Spanish: A U.S. News Guide

Whether you’re preparing for an upcoming trip or sharpening skills for your resume, learning how to speak Spanish can be a smart way to keep your brain active while you’re spending time at home.

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You can use a mix of tools to build your language skills, including online courses, podcasts and mobile apps. Regardless of the methods you choose, make sure you’re ready to work. Experts say motivation, discipline and engagement are essential to mastering a language.

You can learn Spanish online using a number of resources, including web-based programs and mobile applications. These include free apps like Duolingo, which offers what it calls “bite-sized lessons” in a gamelike format. Beginners and those looking for a refresher can start with the course introduction, while more advanced Spanish speakers can take a placement test to evaluate their skill level.

Subscription-based online Spanish courses, like those offered by Rosetta Stone, are another option. The Virginia-based company offers programs tailored to businesses, K-12 schools or home-schoolers, but it also has language courses for individuals. The subscription Spanish course is around $36 for a three-month plan. For an additional charge, Rosetta Stone offers online tutoring guided by a native speaker. To practice Spanish anywhere, you can use your subscription to access Rosetta Stone’s mobile app, too.

The British company Memrise offers its own beginner, intermediate and advanced language courses online and through a mobile app. It also allows its network of users to create community courses. Memrise is free but offers a premium subscription package with access to bonus features at a cost.

With a plethora of online resources available, make sure to shop around to find the one for you. Some online language programs offer free trials or a limited amount of free content, so you can sample before you commit.

If you’re serious about investing in learning Spanish, you might consider enrolling in an online college Spanish class or possibly pursuing a Spanish degree.

How quickly you learn Spanish depends on your goals and your study schedule. Learning to speak conversational Spanish in preparation for an upcoming trip, for example, takes less studying than becoming fluent. But regardless of your goal, the more you actively use the language, the more likely it is to stick.

“There is not a golden number. Everyone is different and doesn’t approach the task in the same way,” says Mónica Beviá, senior lecturer of Spanish at Cornell University. “An important point to keep in mind is that more progress will be made in a shorter period of time if someone is motivated and actively engaged and creating with the language. Passively reading explanations is not effective.”

She suggests that someone serious about learning Spanish spend one or two hours per day reading, writing, listening and speaking the language.

There’s no one-size-fits-all method of language learning because everyone learns differently. Some might prefer listening to audio courses via podcast in their spare time or during a commute, while others learn better in a structured class environment with some accountability, and others have the opportunity to learn through immersion by traveling to a Spanish-speaking country.

For you, the best way to learn Spanish could be by using a combination of methods and resources.

“Spending a certain amount of time learning a language every day is not as important as a) making sure you spend about the same amount of time every day, and b) being aware of what options for learning a language can be more productive for your own personal interests and learning style and strategies,” says Manel Lacorte, associate professor of Spanish applied linguistics at the University of Maryland and associate director of the School of Spanish at Middlebury College in Vermont.

“The setting is not as important as the approach you apply to learn the language,” he adds. “If you empower yourself by learning more about your own way of learning, then you can shape the best context possible to make the experience truly productive and enjoyable.”

Here are some ways to practice Spanish:

Check out free resources. Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t start learning a new language. A number of tools are available to help you learn Spanish for free, including YouTube videos, learning Spanish podcasts, and apps for iPhone and Android.

Follow Spanish-language media. Consuming Spanish-language media can help you sharpen your listening and comprehension skills. Streaming platforms like TuneIn and iHeartRadio provide free access to Spanish-language talk radio and music stations from around the world.

Depending on the package you have through your cable, satellite or streaming TV provider, you may be able to watch Spanish-language programming. Otherwise, consider turning on Spanish subtitles when you watch English-language programming. Read Spanish-language newspapers and articles online, and check with your local library and bookstores to find options for Spanish-language books to read.

Hire a Spanish tutor. Studying under the guidance of a tutor can provide structure and accountability as you learn a new language. A tutor engages in conversation with you to help you practice Spanish, answers questions and corrects your pronunciation. You can progress through material at your own pace and receive one-on-one attention that’s not always possible in a classroom setting.

To find a Spanish tutor near you, ask for references from your friends and family, or from your neighbors through local Facebook groups or community-focused websites like Nextdoor. You also can hire a Spanish tutor online through a number of websites, including Verbling and Italki. Rates for private tutors vary.

Pick up a pen. Journaling in Spanish can help you think in your new language and identify the vocabulary you still want to learn. “While writing in the journal, if students don’t know how to say something, they should try to express the same idea in a different way, and then keep a running list of unknown expressions in a separate notebook,” Beviá says.

Go all in. Immersion can be an effective tool for learning Spanish, but spending weeks or months in a foreign country involves a greater time commitment – and likely a bigger financial commitment – than other methods.

Immersion is an ideal way to work toward becoming fluent, but spending an extended period of time in a foreign country requires preparation. Students get the most benefit from studying abroad if they have studied Spanish for a year or two and have a strong enough grasp of grammar that they can notice it in real speech, Beviá says.

Connecting with a native speaker to practice your grammar and vocabulary is a good way to reinforce your learning and expand it beyond exercises done in class or online. You may be able to find practice partners on web forums like the language exchange community on Reddit or through people from your chosen learning method.

It’s important that Spanish students find meaningful ways to use what they’ve learned every day, even if just for 15 or 20 minutes.

“The best way not to lose your proficiency in the language is to find contexts in which you can use it meaningfully,” Lacorte says. This can include “traveling to a Spanish-speaking country or area, volunteering for a community-based organization where Spanish is spoken regularly, (or) joining some kind of pen pal program or book club in the language.”

Whatever methods you use to learn to speak Spanish, Lacorte and Beviá agree that commitment and patience are key to retaining new language skills.

“You have to make time in your life and treat your language learning endeavor as one of your daily required activities, such as going to the gym,” Beviá says.

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