Study Spanish

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After six years in Mexico I can speak decent Spanish: terrible pronunciation, but I get my point across.  It wasn’t easy, but it’s obvious that living in a Spanish speaking country helps tremendously. But that’s not enough. You have to take control of your education, and like anything else in life, you can get a teacher or learn by yourself.


Every city visited by tourists in Latin America has one, two, or 20+ low-key Spanish schools run by a a family, a foreigner or a university. You can study a few days, a week or more. Most often the classes are one-on-one, you and the teacher.

They can find a place for you to live, and in that case meals are often included. These schools can be very cheap.

For short periods of time – never more than two weeks – I attended Spanish schools in Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Guatemala. All the schools were good and a great value. The best was CBA Spanish School in Quetzaltenango (Xela) Guatemala. I highly recommend it.

Before that, years ago I was forced to take boring high school and university classes. You know how these are taught – lots of verb conjugations, not much speaking.

If you want to learn on your own, you have to approach it from several fronts.


I study a lot with music. Throw the song on the ipod, download the lyrics, and use an online translator.

Don’t translate whole sentences. It will come out as nonsense. Go word by word.

Be aware that Spanish has a lot of slang and words with double meanings. But that’s what you’ll learn from songs that you won’t from a book.

Dig into great music in Mexico. You have easily 20 or 30 genres to explore. There’s no such thing as “Latin Music,” much less “World Music.”

For Mexican norteña, check out Los Tigres del Norte – good political stuff.

For more suggestions, read my guest post Learning Spanish Through Music on My Spanish Notes, a fine blog about studying Spanish. And this one: How to Get into Music in Spanish.

Listening to podcasts in Spanish is another great way to develop your listening. You can listen to real ones – hard for a beginner, or a podcast specifically made for learning the language.

In the iTunes store, change your country to Mexico or Spain or whatever type of Spanish you want and search for podcasts. They are free.

For podcasts about learning Spanish use iTunes University. Do you know about this resource? Free university courses on any subject. I download lots in English too.

Or Google search Spanish podcasts.

Many learn-Spanish podcasts are made by Brits or Gringos or other non-native speakers and have way too much chatting in English. Here is a good one about the origins of salsa music. The page includes the transcription in Spanish and its translation to English, two valuable resources to improve your listening ability.

Don’t bother learning grammar from a podcast. Do this from books.

With podcasts and other audio, you’re getting a feel of the rhythm of the language. Vocabulary you have heard or studied elsewhere will jump out at you.

If it´s too fast, don’t get frustrated – you don’t have to understand everything. Aim for the gist.

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Get a book and do grammar exercises. Put in the grunt work.

Do it in small doses. Doing a page or two of grammar for 20 minutes every day is a lot better than a big chunk of time just once a week.

Don’t make it boring, but an easy daily commitment. Two pages a day after work. 15 minutes before lunch. But do it everyday.

Be sure that the book has the answers in the back. Check, some don’t.

Don’t write in the book, but in a notebook. Then you can sell it or reuse it – if the first time around was hard or you think you don’t remember everything, wait 6 months and do it again.

One of the hardest things about Spanish – a big difference from English – are verb conjugations. Verbs change for every person (I, you, she, we, etc.) and every tense (past, present, etc. – including several that don’t exist in English, like imperfect, pluperfect, and the frustrating subjunctive tenses).

You’ve got your work cut out for you. The best book I’ve seen that explains all this complicated grammar is Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish.

If you really want to learn Spanish you have to do a little of everything: grammar exercises in books, listening to music and podcasts, searching for websites about learning Spanish, reading a newspaper online, reading your Mexican friends’ facebook posts.

What’s more important, you’ve got to be speaking. Try to get a language exchange. Or, make an affordable investment and travel and/or study in Latin America.

Go to Mexico, Guatemala, or any Latin American country, find a school or not, make friends, get talking.

Do you speak Spanish? How did you learn? Did you study abroad? Would you like to?

  1. I’m studying Spanish now and I recently traveled to Costa Rica for a month. Some things I learned there cannot be taught in schools! I think it’s interesting you say to listen to music in Spanish which I just started doing last week. But it’s still difficult for me to understand at times. You’ve given me hope, thanks for the post.

  2. Hola, soy maestra de español desde hace varios años y quiero saber cuánto tiempo estudiaste al inicio para poder mantener conversaciones cortas en español. Ya que mis alumnos no creen que esto lleva un tiempo. Unos menos y otros más pero no es algo mágico. Te felicito por tu blog.
    Saludos, Claudia.

    • Hola Claudia, gracias por escribirme. Sí, no es nada magico, y digo a mis alumnos (de inglés, pero es igual para español) que no van a aprender solo en clase, sino deben practicar – hacer ejercicios de gramatica, escuchar musica con letras, y mas que nada, hablar.
      Pero para contestar tu pregunta, sin ir a clase pude tener conversaciones cortes despues de vivir aqui como 6 meses, pero años antes aprendí los basicos durante un viaje de 3 meses en america del sur.

      • Ted, muchas gracias por responder. Además debo decir que tu español ¡es excelente!. Voy a seguir leyendo tu blog. ¡Buen trabajo!
        Saludos desde la tierra del tequila,

  3. Could you recommend any apps for learning?

  4. This is a great website you have. I just came across it the other day.

    I have to agree with your comment on needing to continue speaking. I’ve been living in Merida, Mexico for the last 2 years and have been shocked how quick I’ve picked it up. Everyone here jokes that if you want to become a good speaker then you need find yourself a Spanish speaking girlfriend.

    • Thanks for the nice words about my blog. I love Merida – what do you do there?
      My Mexican girlfriend speaks English, so she was little help. hahahaha

      • I actually work as an Engineer for a US company that has a location in Merida. My girlfriend speaks very good English as well but gives me tough love and while in Mexico will only speak to me in Spanish.

        Yucatan being Mayan area, it actually has a lot of Mayan words mixed into the everyday Spanish. I was in Mexico City not long ago and accidentally used some Mayan words and got a lot of weird looks. You hear lots of “uay” here (pronounced the same as “why”) which means wow, or whoa. People also use when they are surprised by something.

  5. I am studying Spanish. It’s hard to find the time, though, because I work full time and often overtime as an editor/proofreader/sometimes writer. But, I am enjoying Spanish more and more, and am hatching a plan to get an ESL certification and possibly move to Mexico (Ecuador, Uruguay, Chile, fill in the blank). I have a masters’ degree in Writing and have nearly 5 years experience as an editor. Do you have any advice for me?

    • Can you keep your job and work while you live here? That’s your best option. Travel around and decide what part of Mexico you like best. You can get good internet everywhere.
      If you want to teach don’t get a certification before coming here. Check out what schools want first. If you take a training course in Mexico you can for sure get a legit job after.

      • It’s doubtful that I would keep my current job while living in Mexico (there’s a 1% chance). I’ve been checking out some ESL schools online and in books. The ideal scenario would be to arrange employment while still in the U.S. and travel there for work.

        Thanks for your advice!


      • I worked at a small ESL school called the anglo and I saw a few foreigners (american and south african) take the teacher training course, and they both got jobs after. The anglo is a good place to work, it’s a franchise all over mexico.

      • I’ll check it out. Do you teach now? Or, do you primarily do something else?

      • Hi, yes I mostly teach but I’m also a translator and freelance writer.

  1. Pingback: A Spanish Cheat Sheet for Travelers in Mexico | no hay bronca

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