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.
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.
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?