Well, you’re in luck. This all-encompassing guide contains everything you need to know about learning Spanish as a beginner.
In this complete guide, we’ll cover:
Note: There’s a lot of information here (almost 8,000 words). If you don’t have time to read it now, then I suggest you bookmark this page and come back to it later.
This guide is organized into three parts:
Hey there, my name is Chi and I’m the Founder of Verbalicity.
Back in 2013, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish but desperately wanted to learn. I started and stopped several times, having seemingly tried everything with little success. But once I discovered the best way to learn Spanish, I became fluent in less than a year.
I will share the method that worked for me, as well as what didn’t work. This guide also contains a lot of things that I wish I knew when I was getting started, as well as many of the hard lessons that I learned along the way.
I wrote this guide for:
I hope that by reading this, you’ll be able to learn faster, remember more, and ultimately become fluent in this beautiful language.
Why do you want to learn Spanish?
We asked our students this question, and here’s what they said:
What do these people have in common? They all want to learn Spanish so they can use it in the real world. In other words, they want to speak Spanish.
Nobody ever wanted to learn Spanish so they can stay in their house and watch Telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) all day.
So if the goal is to speak Spanish, then why do the majority of beginners start learning Spanish using methods that don’t actually force them to speak?
This is the single biggest mistake that most people make when learning Spanish or any other language.
Most learning methods only teach you the “stuff” of Spanish, like the grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading etc. But very few of them actually teach you how to speak Spanish.
Many language experts like Benny Lewis, have said that studying will never help you speak a language. The best way to learn Spanish is about more than just studying.
Let’s say you are learning to drive for the first time. Your parents drop you off at the driving school for your theory class.
You spend many hours learning about traffic lights, left turns, parallel parking, and the dreaded roundabout. Your brain is filled with everything you’ll ever need to know about driving a car.
Does this mean you can drive now?
There’s a reason why they don’t give you your license right after you pass the theory test. It’s because studying theory doesn’t actually teach you how to drive.
You need to be behind the wheel, you need to get a “feel” for it with all of your senses, and you need to get used to making snap decisions.
Languages are the same way.
You might be asking, how am I supposed to speak if I don’t learn vocabulary and grammar first?
While it’s true that a small foundation of vocabulary and grammar is necessary, the problem is most beginners greatly overestimate how much they really need.
People will spend thousands of dollars on courses and many months of self-study, and still don’t feel like they’re “ready” to speak Spanish. Speaking is something that they’ll put off again and again.
Scientists from the NTL Institute discovered through their research that people remember:
This means that the best way to learn Spanish is to start speaking from the beginning, and try to use every new word and grammar concept in real conversations.
Speaking is the one skill that connects all the different elements of language learning. When you are speaking, you are actually improving on every other aspect of the language simultaneously.
Here’s a breakdown of how speaking can improve your other language skills:
Have you ever studied a word in Spanish but then totally draw a blank when you try to use it in a conversation?
This happens all the time, because although you can recognize the word when you see it or hear it, you can’t naturally recall the word when you want to.
The only way for new words to truly become part of your vocabulary is to speak it repeatedly, putting it into real sentences that have real meaning. Eventually, the word will become a force of habit so that you can say it without even thinking.
Let’s say your friend asks you what you did yesterday, and you want to respond in Spanish:
“Yesterday, I walked to the beach.”
A beginner’s thought process probably looks something like this:
Your answer: “Ayer, caminé a la playa.”
You may have studied all the grammar, but you would probably spend a good ten seconds thinking about this if you’re not used to using grammar in conversations.
Speaking is the only thing that trains your brain and speeds up this thought process, until you can respond to a question like this in 1/10th of a second.
For many beginners, understanding native speakers is the number one challenge when learning Spanish.
When you are having a conversation with someone, you are speaking and training your ears at the same time. You are listening “actively”, which means you are listening with the intent to respond. This forces you into a higher state of concentration as opposed to “passively” listening to Spanish radio for example, where you are simply taking in information.
Listening and speaking really go hand in hand.
The first part of pronunciation is to understand how to correctly produce the sounds, which can be tricky, especially when it comes to rolling your R’s properly.
But once you can do it right, the next part is about getting enough reps and saying the words out loud again and again.
Maybe at first, the words will make your tongue and lips feel strange, but over time it becomes part of your muscle memory until eventually it feels completely natural.
Spanish is a phonetic language, which means that the spoken words sound exactly as they are written. There aren’t any exceptions or strange pronunciation rules like there are in English.
If you can say something in Spanish, then you’ll have no problem reading and writing it as well.
However, the opposite isn’t true. If you focus on reading and writing, it will not enable you to speak better.
Because when you’re speaking, everything happens in seconds, whereas reading and writing happen in minutes. Only speaking will train your brain to think fast enough to keep up with conversations.
This principle is absolutely huge when it comes to the best way to learn Spanish, and it has two major applications:
The Spanish language has about 100,000 words in total, however:
So as you can see, you don’t NEED to learn every single last word. Start by focusing on the most common words, and the words that are personally going to be useful to you, based on your interests and goals.
Just like vocabulary, you want to focus on the most common grammar rules and conjugations (ex. Present, Preterit, Future, Conditional etc.). There are lots of advanced grammar rules that aren’t used very often in everyday speech, so they are simply less of a priority.
It seems like there are a million ways to learn Spanish these days, between traditional methods like textbooks, to endless online resources. This creates a big problem for language learners: lack of focus. A lot of people try to dabble in as many as 5 or 6 different learning methods and end up spreading themselves too thin.
Instead, choose the one or two methods that are most effective (giving you 80% of the results), and ignore the rest. I’ll be outlining which methods you should choose in our road map to learning Spanish.
Take a second and think of all the people you know who learned Spanish or any second language.
Did any of them become fluent by learning from an app?
Packed with fancy features, there are hundreds of apps and software out there that claim to be ultimate, game-changing solution to help you learn a language.
But do they really work? Is an app really the best way to learn Spanish?
Or should you file this stuff under the same category as the “Lose 30-pounds in 30-days” diet?
The biggest software and app companies like Rosetta Stone, Babbel, Busuu and Duolingo have all funded their own “independent” studies on the effectiveness of their software. In other words, they all paid the same researcher who came to the conclusion that every single one of the apps was the best thing since sliced bread.
For example, the study for Babbel concluded that:
“…users need on average 21 hours of study in a two-month period to cover the requirements for one college semester of Spanish.”
This is no surprise because the fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, one-word-at-a-time approach of software, is the same kind of stuff you would find on a Spanish midterm in college.
The problem is that just like software, college and high school Spanish courses are notorious for teaching the students a few basics, but leaving them completely unable to actually speak.
At the end of the day, software and apps, just like the traditional courses you take in school, are missing a key ingredient, which is speaking with real people.
The best and fastest way to learn Spanish is to spend as much time as possible having real conversations. It’s the way that languages have been learned for thousands of years, and although technology can help make this more convenient, it cannot be replaced.
Software companies like Rosetta Stone have finally realized this, and in recent years they’ve tried to incorporate some sort of speaking element into their product.
The verdict? Just check out their top review on Amazon:
Ouch. But if software and apps can’t really teach you to speak a language, then why are they so popular?
Because they’ve turned language learning into a game. Every time you get an answer right, there’s a little “beep” that tells you did a great job, and soon enough you are showered with badges, achievements, and cute little cartoons that make it feel like you’re really getting it. Of course, these things are also used to guilt you into continuing to use their app.
Playing this game shields you from the difficult parts of learning a language. You can hide in your room, stare at your phone, and avoid the nervousness that comes with speaking Spanish in front of a native speaker, or the awkward moment when you forget what to say.
But the reality is, every beginner who wants to learn Spanish will have to face these challenges sooner or later..
Despite the drawbacks of software and apps, there is one type of app that can have a profound impact on your learning:
Electronic flash cards (also known as SRS, or “spaced repetition systems”)
Ok, I know that doesn’t sound very sexy, and maybe the last time you saw a flash card was in the hands of that nerdy kid in Grade 5 who nobody wanted to sit with at lunchtime.
But please bear with me, because this can totally change the way you learn Spanish. Here’s how a flash card system works:
Each flash card will show you an English word, and you have to try and recall the Spanish word. If you get it wrong, it will show you the card again in one minute, but if you get it right, it will be a longer interval, like 10 minutes, or in a few days.
This is what it looks like in its most basic form (using the app “Anki”):
Flash card apps work by repeatedly forcing you to recall words that you struggle to remember, and as you get better, the word shows up less and less frequently. As soon as you feel like you’re going to forget a new word, the flash card will pop up and refresh it.
This system helps you form very strong memories, and will allow you to manage a database of all the words you’ve learned, even those you picked up months or years ago.
You can also use flash cards for grammar concepts. For example, if you’re having trouble remembering the conjugations for the irregular verb “Traer” (to bring), just make each conjugation a separate flash card, like this:
By putting all your conjugations in all the different tenses into flash cards, you now have a way to repeatedly drill them into your memory.
The major advantage of flash cards is that all you really need is 10-20 minutes a day. Every single day, we spend a lot of time waiting around, whether it’s for public transportation, or in line at the supermarket, or for a doctor’s appointment etc. This is all wasted time that you can use to improve your vocabulary. It only takes a few seconds to turn on the flash card app and review a few words.
If you want to try this out, there are two apps that I recommend:
The original, “pure” flash card app
Flash card-based app with modern features
Both apps come with standard Spanish vocabulary decks, as well as those that were written by other users. However, the real beauty of flash cards is being able to write the decks yourself. There is a big advantage to doing this, which you can see from the following steps:
When using pre-written flash cards
When making flash cards yourself
As you can see, while making the cards yourself takes a bit of extra work, you get to control the words you learn and can focus on the ones that are more meaningful to you. Plus the process of writing the word down acts as an extra round of review.
While it is true that flash card apps have a bit of a learning curve, it is very easy once you get the hang of it, and you’ll notice a huge difference in memorizing vocabulary and grammar.
Countless beginners have tried and failed to learn Spanish by what is known as “passive listening”. Examples of passive listening include:
The idea of passive listening sounds good on paper. You can learn Spanish by listening to an audio course in your car on the way to work. Put on some Spanish radio while you’re making dinner, and then sit down for an episode of Narcos while you fold your laundry.
Except this doesn’t work. Why?
Because learning a language is an ACTIVE process. You can’t just spend hundreds of hours just listening to stuff in the background, and expect your brain to figure it all out.
Now, many people will have a couple of objections to this:
Let’s assume out of simplicity that a baby is awake for an average of 8 hours a day for the first year of its life. Through all the feedings and diaper changes, it is constantly being exposed to language because its parents are talking to it (and each other). So by the time a baby says their first words at around the 1-year mark, it has already had about 3,000 hours of passive listening exposure (8 hours x 365 days).
Now, how do you compete with that as a busy adult? Even if you squeeze in an hour a day of Spanish radio into your daily life, it would still take you 8 years to get the equivalent amount of language exposure. Who has the patience to spend 8 years learning Spanish?
Don’t sell yourself short. With the right method and motivation, you can learn Spanish in months, not years.
There are many expats who have lived in Spain or Latin America for 5-10 years, and guess what? They STILL can’t speak Spanish.
These people have the perfect environment to learn, they can hear Spanish everywhere when walking down the street, and every friend or acquaintance is someone they can practice with. But somehow, none of this seems to help.
Because they don’t make an effort to speak.
Immersion is extremely effective, but only if you take advantage of the environment you’re in and speak Spanish every chance you get. Simply being there and listening is not enough.
As an adult, we have to learn languages actively. Most of us want to go from beginner to fluent in as short a time as possible, and passive listening is simply too slow.
If you’re already listening to a lot of Spanish, it doesn’t mean you should stop. Try to do it actively, which means giving it 100% of your attention, rather than having it in the background as you’re doing something else.
Listening to radio, TV, movies can be useful at a later stage. Increasing the amount of Spanish you hear will speed up your progress when you are already at a conversational level (more on this later).
But when it comes to learning Spanish as a complete beginner, there are far more efficient methods.
We’ve already established that the best way to learn Spanish for beginners involves speaking as much as possible. Let’s go over the 4 main ways that you practice speaking Spanish:
Maybe you have friends who are native Spanish speakers, or maybe you are dating or married to one! If that person is the reason you wanted to learn Spanish in the first place, it may seem like a good idea to practice with them from the beginning.
Spanish learners often get together a few times a week and meet at a public place (usually a café) and practice speaking for an hour or two. A good place to find them is Meetup.com, just do a search for “Spanish + the city you live in”. For example, I went to this one in my hometown.
The basic idea is to find a Spanish native speaker who is trying to learn English. You meet in person or have a Skype call where you split your time practicing both Spanish and English. The easiest way to find a partner is through online exchanges like My Language Exchange and Conversation Exchange.
These days it is far more convenient to find a Spanish teacher online, which believe it or not, can be even more interactive than being face-to-face. You take your lessons via Skype from the comfort of home and on your own schedule. This is how I personally learned Spanish.
Sure, there are plenty of “high-end” teachers that will try to charge you as much as US$60-80/hour. On the “low-end”, you can probably find someone for less than US$10/hour, although these are usually unqualified tutors that can barely explain things better than your average native speaker.
Then there’s Verbalicity. We only hire the best teachers through our rigorous 4-step selection process. Our teachers are all certified and have 10+ years of teaching experience on average (industry leading).
In addition, we do all the work for you and match you up with a teacher that fits your schedule and your goals.
In effect, we’re offering “high-end” lessons for as little as US$18/hour. Assuming you take two hours per week, it’ll cost the same as your daily Starbucks pumpkin spice latte (those things are bad for you anyway).
You can also try out the first lesson for free. Unlike most companies that offer free trials, we do NOT ask for your credit card upfront (I personally hate it when they do that). Click here to learn more.
Of course, there are plenty of people who have learned Spanish without a teacher. Doing a language exchange or going to a meetup is certainly better than not speaking at all. But it will take much longer to learn, and you may be tempted to give up in the process.
So if you’ve got a busy schedule, and want to learn Spanish fast, then getting a teacher is definitely the best way to go.
We’ve talked about the key concepts and methods that make up the best way to learn Spanish. Now let’s go through the 3 stages of learning. For each stage, I’ll talk about what the main goals are, the recommended method of learning, and offer some tips to progress as fast as possible.
The idea is to get a brief introduction to Spanish, with the goal of familiarizing yourself with:
This helps you acclimatize to learning a new language, and gets you used to listening and speaking right away.
After this stage, you probably will have some basic phrases under your belt, like “My name is…”, “Where are you from?” and “What time is it?”
Start with a free audio course or one of the popular apps. Ideally, it should be a guided course that’s easy to follow along. Here are some examples:
Wait, didn’t I say that apps can’t teach you a language?
That’s true. But, this is the ONLY point in time where it’s ok to use an app. Since all you’re trying to do at this point is to get your bearings and get comfortable with listening and repeating.
You probably only need about 30 minutes a day, and this introductory stage should last no more than 2 weeks.
Afterwards, you need to STOP using these resources because although they are fine as an introduction, they are slow and inefficient. You should move on to better options which we’ll cover next.
Focus on pronunciation
Try to get your pronunciation right from the very beginning. When you hear the Spanish recording, make sure you repeat it out loud.
At first, repeat each word slowly, syllable by syllable until you can mimic the sounds almost perfectly. If necessary, record yourself speaking and listen back.
Once you’re satisfied that you’re saying it right, then repeat it over and over again until it feels natural.
At this stage, the goal is to build a solid foundation for yourself in terms of basic grammar, vocabulary, put your thoughts into complete sentences and be confident enough to talk to people.
At the end of this stage, you want to be able to have basic conversations that involve exchanging information, asking for things, talking about work, family and your interests.
Effectively, you want to be at an upper beginner level (A2).
For the beginner stage, the best way to learn Spanish is to choose one of these two options:
Option 1: Textbook + Speaking Practice
Using a textbook might seem old-fashioned, but it is still probably the best way for a beginner to learn the grammatical rules of Spanish. The reason why a textbook is effective is because it teaches you in a structured way. It takes you through a progression that slowly builds on each concept, step-by-step.
For each chapter of the textbook that you go through, study the dialogues, and make sure you do all the practice exercises. Ideally, you should try to find additional exercises online related to the concept you just learned.
Just like most forms of learning, a textbook can’t actually teach you to speak. So for each concept you learn, you need to be practicing it with real people.
You can use a combination of friends, meetups, or language exchanges to get your practice in. At this point, you are not having full conversations yet (nor should you try to). Try practicing phrases, and some short dialogues or scenarios. But nevertheless, you should aim for 1-2 hours per week of speaking practice.
Option 2: Learn Spanish with a teacher
When you learn with a teacher, you get step-by-step guidance and speaking practice all in one package.
A good Spanish teacher will send you textbook materials and all the practice exercises you’ll ever need (that’s what we do at Verbalicity), so there is no need to look for materials on your own. You even get homework, just like in school.
A teacher also can explain grammar to you in different ways, and answer your questions if you don’t understand. This is a big advantage over someone who is just studying on their own.
Being able to practice what you learned immediately through speaking is another advantage. For example, you might spend the first half of a lesson going over the conjugations of the Imperfect tense, and then spend the second half the lesson practicing it verbally through question and answer, storytelling, and other fun exercises.
It is never too early to start using flash cards to help you remember to words.
But especially if you’ve chosen Option 1, it might be a little overwhelming to be studying while trying to find practice opportunities, and you don’t want to add another method like flashcards to distract you from that.
Remember the 80/20 rule, it is better to focus on a few things that have the highest impact.
But if you feel like you’re having trouble remembering new words, or grammar conjugations then it’s probably time to incorporate flash cards into your routine.
Don’t jump ahead
It might be tempting to immediately work your way through a textbook from cover to cover, but this will just overload you with information.
A lot of people make the mistake of diving too deep into the grammar, without making sure that they fully understand and have practiced each concept before moving on to the next. If in doubt, spend more time reviewing what you’ve already learned.
Be strategic about your vocabulary
Focus on memorizing the most useful words that will make it easier for you to practice speaking. Highly useful words include “power verbs” and “connectors”.
Examples of power verbs:
Examples of connector words:
If you master these types of words, your speech will come out more naturally, and it will make you sound more fluent than you actually are at this point. This can give you a much-needed boost of confidence because at this stage it can still be scary to be out there talking to people.
This stage is all about expanding your horizons. It’s about greatly increasing your vocabulary, comprehension skills, and confidence in using Spanish in a variety of situations.
At the end of this stage you want to be express yourself freely, and be able to talk about different topics, like what’s happening in the news, your hopes and dreams, or giving your opinion on a particular subject.
You’re still going to make plenty of mistakes, and your grammar won’t be perfect, but the goal is to be able to get your ideas across, whatever they may be. If you can do that, you’ll reach the upper intermediate level (B2), and be considered conversationally fluent.
Some may choose to improve their Spanish even further to the advanced levels, but for many people, this is this level where you can fully enjoy the rewards of being able to speak Spanish.
Based on the two options from the beginner stage, we can make a few adjustments for the intermediate level:
In order to move into the intermediate stage, speaking becomes even more important. By now you should now be ramping up your speaking practice to a minimum of 2-3 hours per week.
Whereas you were previously practicing short phrases or dialogues, you should now be pushing yourself to have more full-fledged conversations now that you know more vocabulary and grammar.
If you are learning with a teacher, you should know them pretty well by now, so you can have deeper conversations about more diverse topics. Your teacher can also start to speak a little bit faster to help train your ear.
Active Reading / Listening
This is the stage where active reading and listening start to shine. You know enough Spanish now that you can really take advantage of movies, TV, radio, podcasts, books, and articles.
You won’t understand 100% of what you read and hear. Heck, maybe you only understand 50-60% at this point, but that is enough to get the gist of what is going on. If you’re watching TV shows or movies, turn on Spanish subtitles (Netflix is great for this). Reading and listening at the same time will get you the best results.
Try to find material that is interesting to you. This way you can enjoy the process of listening and reading, which can become a source of motivation. You’ll also pick up Spanish that is relevant and useful to you personally.
Here are some examples of online resources for reading and listening:
Remember, “Active” means giving it your full attention. Try your best to understand it, pay attention to the grammar and vocabulary, and the context that they are being used. If there is anything you don’t understand, write it down so you can look it up later or ask your teacher during your next lesson.
A big part of going from beginner to intermediate is significantly increasing your vocabulary. By now, you will have already learned all the “easy” words, and in order to further build your vocabulary, you need to be very deliberate about remembering all the new words you are exposed to every day.
Using flash card apps like Anki or Memrise can really help commit them to memory. You can practice in short 5-minute chunks (while waiting for the bus etc.) for a total of 10-20 minutes a day to get great results.
A textbook is not mandatory at this point. You’ve learned most of the important grammar and now the focus should be to practice it until you can use it fluidly.
Of course, there are always more advanced grammar concepts to learn, but they tend to be used very sparingly in everyday conversations.
Your “routine” for learning new material should look something like this:
For example, you hear the phrase “me vuelve loco” (drives me crazy) on a Spanish TV show.
You look up the meaning and then create a new flash card in Anki.
The next today, the flash card pops up and you review it.
A few days later, you head to your Spanish Meetup and during a conversation about music, you say “Esa canción me vuelve loco!” (That song drives me crazy!).
When you reach the intermediate stage, you may feel like you’re not progressing as fast as you did before. In fact, there will be times where you feel like you aren’t improving at all.
This is the classic “dip” that comes with learning any skill, and Spanish is no exception.
This happens because you’ve already learned a lot of the easy, “low hanging fruit”. What you are learning now is more incremental and takes longer for everything to click in your mind.
To overcome the dip, you need to trust the process and be disciplined when it comes to the learning formula.
Your teacher can really help you stay motivated by creating a plan that guides you to new things you should learn and older concepts you should be reviewing, as well as giving you feedback on what you are doing well and what you need to improve on.
So, how long does it take to learn Spanish using this road map?
I’m not going to lie to you and say that you can become fluent in 30 days. Maybe some people can, but most of us lead busy lives, with jobs, families and other responsibilities competing for our time.
If you are learning with a Spanish teacher (Option 2), I believe that you can go from zero to conversationally fluent in 8 – 12 months using the methods in this road map.
This assumes that you can spend 1 hour per day working on your Spanish, whether that’s the actual Spanish lessons themselves, or reviewing flash cards, or active listening and reading.
This timeframe is just an estimate, because obviously everyone learns at a different pace. Of course, the more time you dedicate to learning Spanish, the faster you’ll progress.
If you decide to go at it alone (Option 1), it will take a lot longer. But if you follow the best way to learn Spanish as outlined in the road map, stay disciplined, and make sure you consistently get enough conversation practice, you’ll get there eventually.
Absolutely anyone can learn Spanish.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you have a talent for languages, or whether you are a naturally a fast learner.
At the end of the day, learning Spanish is about motivation, focus, and time.
If you’ve got all three of these things and you commit to speaking, rather than just learning the “stuff” of Spanish, then you simply cannot fail.
And of course, don’t forget to have FUN! The process should be as enjoyable as the end goal.
If you’d like to jumpstart your Spanish with a professional Spanish teacher, check out Verbalicity. We’ve helped hundreds of students become fluent in Spanish, and you can get your first lesson absolutely free.
Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any comments about this guide, or have any questions. I’d be happy to help!