So you’re learning Spanish? Excellent choice! It’s one of the most useful languages in the world.
Now, as you might have noticed already, learning Spanish (or learning any language for that matter) isn’t always a walk in the park…
So if you’ve thought about using traditional language courses or taking classes, or maybe you’ve used some apps or you’ve been watching YouTube videos…
But whenever you try to use Spanish yourself in Spain or Latin-America, you're translating in your head and you still feel slow, clumsy…
Maybe you struggle with Spanish verbs, and understanding native speakers is difficult…
Then it’s time to change that!
This article will show you 10 tips for learning Spanish and being able to use it quickly in real life — for example, in conversations with native speakers.
As you’ll see throughout all 10 tips, it’s based on a system that’s quite different from what most teachers, apps and textbooks tell you to do…. But it’s also much more fun and much less overwhelming 😉 Let’s take a look!
Tip 1: Learning Spanish vocabulary so that you can instantly use it in sentences (without worrying about grammar)!
The biggest mistake language schools (and language students) make when learning Spanish vocabulary is that they spend too much time memorizing isolated words and word lists and then trying to construct their own sentences that sounds like Spanish.
A much faster way to learn fluent Spanish is by listening to native Spanish speakers and learning to use the same phrases and expressions those native speakers are using already.
Listen: while it’s true that you need to know words, if you want to start speaking yourself, just knowing words (and grammar rules) won’t help you much.
Because no matter how many grammar drills you do, in the heat of the moment, in a conversation, you’ll still forget about the conjugation, word order, and maybe even the right words.
Well, because learning Spanish doesn’t mean you have to reinvent Spanish. That’s just not how language works.
You see, the reason why you speak a language (like your mother tongue) fluently, is that you have patterns of words ingrained in your brain: word combinations that you use together so often (and you’ve heard from other native speakers so often) that they just roll off the tongue. Some examples:
- happy birthday
- by the way
- catch a bus
Or in Spanish:
- me gusta (I like)
- buenos días (good day)
- me llamo (my name is)
- hasta luego (see you later)
- ¿qué tal? (how are you?)
- todo bien (everything good)
In Spanish, just like in English and all other languages, these word combinations (linguists call them chunks) don’t always follow traditional grammar rules. But native speakers know exactly what they mean, and they sound incredibly natural to them!
So what does that mean for you as a Spanish learner?
Well, if you want to speak Spanish fluently, you need to get these word combinations (called chunks) in your head. That’s the kind of vocabulary that’ll make fluent, natural-sounding sentences roll off the tongue.
And where do you find these chunks?
Easy: conversations between native speakers!
Just listen to native Spanish speakers speak. Read what they write. Listen to what they say, and how they say it.
Very soon, you’ll start thinking: “Ah, so THAT’s how a native Spanish speaker says it!”, because you’ll hear the patterns over and over again.
And once you’ve seen or heard the natural way of using vocabulary in sentences… you can memorize it and start saying it yourself 😉 Goodbye clumsy Spanish sentences, translated directly from your mother tongue!
To sum it up:
- Find Spanish conversations between real people (in courses, podcasts, telenovelas,… For more ideas, take a look at the resources at the end of this blog post)
- Observe native Spanish speakers by listening to a lot of dialogues.
- See for yourself how they combine words in “word chunks” to build their sentences…
- Memorize these chunks (instead of word lists)… (You can look up the meaning of the chunk in an online dictionary like context.reverso.com)
- And start using these same word chunks while speaking and writing!
- The more often you hear and read the chunk, the more likely it will stick in your head and you can start using them yourself
- If you'd like to learn more about learning with chunks, check out this free mini-training that explains it all in more detail
Tip 2: Learning Spanish word gender with imagery tricks
Learning by observing native speakers is all good, but it doesn’t really solve the problem of word gender when learning Spanish. Yes, I know it’s weird to assign a gender to a chair or a football, but hey, that’s just how it works, so let’s look at some ways to make them easy to remember!
First of all, a rule of thumb that’ll make your life a lot easier:
Basic rules for Spanish word gender
Almost all Spanish words that end in ‘o’ are masculine.
Almost all Spanish words that end in ‘a’ are feminine.
There are exceptions, of course, but most of the time, you can assume that this rule applies. This will eliminate 90% of word gender mistakes.
For all other words (e.g. the ones that don’t end in -o or -a), you can try to use some nifty memory tips and tricks.
One of the best tricks to remember word gender is to attach a certain action to all masculine words and a different one to feminine words.
For example, for me, every Spanish feminine word is “on fire.” For example, if I have to remember the word house in Spanish (la casa, which is feminine), I visualize my own home engulfed in fire.
Now, whenever I think of a house, I’ll see the fire and I know “casa” is feminine!
The weirder, the better. Another example: snow (la nieve) is also feminine, so I visualize a snowy landscape, which is on fire! It’s so weird, the image sticks, and I never forget the gender of either of these words.
Try to find something for masculine words as well. For example, to remember that the word césped (lawn) is masculine, you could imagine a lawn covered in ice. And you can do the same with all other masculine nouns.
If you’re learning with flashcards, you can also try color-coding the fonts you use on your flashcards (or the objects you imagine in your head). Choose a color for feminine and masculine nouns, and use these colors on your flash cards.
In addition, you could imagine feminine words being pronounced in your head by female speakers and masculine words by male speakers.
As you can see: by using mnemonics (a fancy word for memory techniques), you can make learning Spanish a whole lot easier!
Tip 3: Learn to speak Spanish fluently with a conference interpreter's trick
One of the best exercises you can do to improve your Spanish pronunciation and speak more fluently is called shadowing.
The basic idea: you listen to a recording of a Spanish native speaker and, with just a slight delay (1-2 seconds), you repeat what that person says.
This will not only help your pronunciation, it will also help you internalize the Spanish rhythm and cadence.
Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to shadowing (I would create a video demonstrating it, but it would be utterly confusing to you, as you would hear the original audio and the audio of me speaking at the same time! If I find a way to create a clear demo video, I'll make one 🙂 )
- Find a speech, podcast or other audio in Spanish (e.g. on YouTube). Take a slow one if you’re not that proficient yet. You could also slow down the audio/video a little with an app like Audacity.
- Use headphones, but only in one ear—you want to hear yourself talk.
- Play the audio and repeat what’s being said. If you want to focus solely on pronunciation, repeat what the speaker says as quickly as possible, with minimal delay. If you want to train your memory as well, you can increase the delay between what you say and what the speaker says to a couple of seconds.
- That’s it! You’re listening and speaking at the same time. Now marvel at your brain’s capacities and experience the improvement in your memory and pronunciation.
- Start with slow conversations or speeches (find language learning podcasts for example, or YouTube videos), and slowly work up your way toward materials played at normal speed.
- Then amaze native speakers with your flawless accent and comprehension.
One last piece of advice. Complete the exercise with audio only, without reading a transcript at the same time. Using a transcript might be tempting, but you really want to focus on memory and sounds only.
While shadowing, you don’t have to understand everything you’re saying. In fact, you probably won’t. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re getting the muscles in your mouth and tongue used to producing certain sounds, and that you absorb the rhythm and intonation of a native speaker.
As an added benefit, shadowing will also improve your listening skills. Even if you don’t understand anything yet, you’ll still develop a better ear for your target language.
Therefore, when you learn new vocabulary, you’ve already heard it before and it’ll be much easier to recognize.
Tip 4: Learning Spanish Verbs: The 3 Important Categories
Just like the other Romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese), verbs are quite difficult in Spanish. In Spanish, there are three types of regular verbs (so with a regular conjugation). The majority of Spanish verbs fall in one of those categories:
- -AR verbs (e.g. hablar)
- -ER verbs (like comer)
- -IR verbs (like vivir)
Apart from those regular verbs, there are also a whole range of irregular verbs, that have their own conjugation. Unfortunately, many irregular verbs are also among the most frequently used verbs in Spanish. Some examples:
- Ser and estar (they both mean “to be”)
- Haber (to have)
- Tener (to have) and poner (to put)
- Sentir (to feel) en seguir (to follow)
- Hacer (to do) and decir (to say)
Giving a full explanation would make this article way too long, so if you want more information and conjugation tables, I recommend you check out this guide.
The standard thinking about this is pretty straightforward: learn the meanings of the verbs, learn the tenses, and learn the conjugations. No secrets there.
But what I think will be much more useful for you, is a system to learn verb conjugations so you can use them while speaking, in conversations, not just on tests! And that's what the next tip is all about…
Tip 5: Learning Spanish verb conjugations in context with flashcards
Just like learning vocabulary, most students are taught to learn Spanish verb conjugations by cramming full conjugation tables.
“Soy – eres – es – somos – sois – son”.
“(yo) amo (tú) amas (él) ama (nos) amamos (vos) amáis (ellos) aman”
Now, verb conjugations are an excellent reference tool that you’ll inevitably need while learning Spanish. (A good resource is http://www.verbix.com )
But the problem with conjugation tables – again – is that even if you know your conjugation tables inside out, you’ll probably still be slow to think of the right conjugation in a conversation! Add all the different tenses to that, and the whole conjugation table becomes a big mess in your head…
That’s why I like to learn conjugations:
- One by one (so first, second and third person separately, not as a table or a list)
- As patterns (chunks, as we called them earlier), so they roll off the tongue;
- Within a sentence (this provides extra context, makes it much easier to remember and reminds you that you’re learning a language, not some abstract verb table)
An easy way to do that quickly is by creating a flashcard with the verb you’re trying to learn blanked out.
Here’s how this would work:
Step 1: Find a sentence in which a specific verb ending is used.
Yo tengo 40 años, y soy músico.
Step 2: Put the full sentence on a flashcard and blank out the verb.
Yo ___________ 40 años, y soy músico.
Step 3: Add a translation of the blanked out verb to the flashcard, just so you know what to fill out.
Yo ___________ (am/have) 40 años, y soy músico.
Step 4: Add the grammatical explanation on the answer side (optional).
Verb: tener, first person: teng-o
Tip 6: Always know when to use the Spanish subjunctive
Note: If you're a total beginner, you don't have to worry about this tip yet, and you can safely move on to tip 7.
In Spanish, there are not just verb tenses but also moods. There's the indicative mood (the one you'll use most of the time), the subjunctive mood, and the imperative mood (to give orders, commands). They're all used in different situations and the rules are quite complicated; especially the subjunctive mood always poses problems for Spanish learners.
Broadly speaking, the subjunctive mood is used to talk about desires, doubts, wishes, and possibilities. If you want to know more about the rules, I recommend you read this excellent article.
The reason why I'm not giving you more information about the rules in this article is the following:
No matter how many grammar drills you do, you never have enough time to think about the subjunctive rules in conversations!
The trick to easily remember when to use the subjunctive, again, is to learn to use the Spanish subjunctive in context.
That way, instead of memorizing the conjugation table or all the abstract rules, you “memorize the pattern”.
The reasoning behind that is that you don’t want to think of the rule when speaking; you want to “JUST KNOW” that the subjunctive is used after, for example, “creo que” or “quiero que”, so you do it correctly automatically and subconsciously.
A good way to ingrain these patterns is by creating a couple of flashcards where the subjunctive is blanked out. In tip 5, we did this for memorizing standard verb conjugations as well.
For example, for the sentence “I want you to know that I'm happy”:
FRONT: “Quiero que _______ (you know) que soy feliz.”
BACK: “Quiero que SEPAS que soy feliz.”
Quiero que + subj.
If you create just a couple of flashcards with sentences like this, whenever you say “quiero que” you’ll instantly think of the subjunctive.
Of course, you’ll still have to know how to conjugate verbs in the subjunctive. For that, go back to tip 5 🙂
Tip 7: Learning Spanish on your own is more effective than attending classes
Here’s something to think about:
A teacher can explain grammar rules to you, but ultimately, your very own brain needs to absorb the vocabulary, the structures and all the small quirks of the language. And for that to happen, you need to engage with the language a LOT more than just one or two hours a week in a classroom.
The best way I’ve found to learn Spanish on your own is with a course that gives you lots of dialogues so you can observe native Spanish speakers, see how they speak, and familiarize yourself with the structure of the language in context; and then get grammar explanations based on the constructions that come up in the dialogues.
That way you expose yourself to real, conversational Spanish, not just words and grammar rules, but you still get the structural explanations you need.
If you combine that with lots and lots of exposure to Spanish (podcasts, books, videos, radio, music: everything you find fun) and some speaking practice, and you’ll see your Spanish improving by leaps and bounds; much more than if you’d spend a couple of hours a week listening to a teacher.
In tip 10, you get a list of resources to learn Spanish.
Tip 8: Learning Spanish abroad: go for full immersion… but not too early!
Learning Spanish abroad is an excellent idea, but if you’re a complete beginner, you probably won’t get the most out of your experience.
You see, if you don’t know any Spanish yet, going to a Spanish-speaking country will likely just overwhelm you and you won’t get further than some basic phrases. You won’t be able to say much to the people around you, which is frustrating, so more often than not you’ll fall back to a language like English to make communication happen.
A better strategy is to learn Spanish for a couple of months first (preferably by listening to lots and lots of dialogues, reading a lot so you get used to the language and can identify useful phrases).
Then, when you go to that Spanish-speaking country, you can go beyond the basic formalities and have a decent conversation. At that point, you’ll have enough (passive) Spanish knowledge in your brain that you can turn into solid speaking skills!
Tip 9: Achieve great results and be consistent by working in 3-month cycles
Yes yes, you know that you need to be consistent when learning a language. But that’s easier said than done, right? We all start with good intentions, but then life gets in the way, and all the motivational videos or Instagram quotes can’t help you stay on track.
I’ve spent years researching how you can make language learners stay consistent. The main thing that I’ve learned is that learning in 3-month cycles is the best way to make great progress and install solid language learning habits.
Shorter than three months is too short to see a lot of progress; longer than that is too long for your mind to focus on.
I learned this from Todd Herman, a leading performance coach who has worked with billionaires and Olympic athletes. So this one doesn't just belong in the “tips for learning Spanish” category, but maybe also in “tips for a successful life!”
Three-month cycles became the basis of the language courses we run here at Effortless Conversations (called 12-in-12 Challenge: 12 Weeks, 12 Topics, 12 Lessons). They're one of the main reasons why our students make such great progress.
So how would you create your own 3-month Spanish study plan?
- Before you get started, take a moment to think about the reasons you’re studying Spanish. What are you trying to achieve? In which situations do you see yourself using Spanish? What have you tried so far? What worked/didn’t work for you?
- Pick 1-2 core study resources you’re going to use consistently throughout the three months. This can be a book, an online Spanish course, even an offline course. It needs to be something that gives you enough new input to keep you busy for 3 months. This is the real studying part of your routine.
- Pick a couple of fun exposure resources: music, tv series, books, podcasts that you enjoy, but that you won’t necessarily use for studying. These resources are meant to become part of your daily life in a casual way, to immerse yourself in Spanish culture.
- Plan Study Sessions 3-7 times a week. They can (they even should) be as short as 15-30 minutes. During those sessions, you sit down and use your Spanish course to study. Tip: it’s much better to study 20 mins each day than 3 hours every Sunday! Your brain needs repetition.
- Use your exposure resources every day of the week. They’re supposed to be fun, so this shouldn’t be too difficult!
- Keep yourself accountable with a logbook. At the end of every day, take a minute to write down if you’ve done a Study Session, and if you’ve used any exposure materials.
- Stick with it for 12 weeks!
In our language courses, we use a more elaborate 12-week plan. If you're interested in learning more, the whole process is laid out in the Effortless Conversations Book.
Tip 10: Free and paid resources to learn Spanish
To top off this list of 10 tips for learning Spanish, I thought I’d give you some resources to learn Spanish fast. First of all, if you're interested in learning more about the strategies to learn Spanish as described in this article, I recommend you check out the book I wrote about the topic. It's an introduction to the Effortless Conversations Method that we use in all our language courses.
The Effortless Conversations Method encompasses all the strategies you learned about in this article (listening, reading, observing chunks, memorization techniques, creating a solid learning routine) and it works really well, as the thousands of students who've been through our courses can attest.
The book will give you a clear strategy and planning tool for learning Spanish. You'll still have to use actual Spanish resources, of course. I recommend you use as many conversational materials as possible. So dialogues, speeches, podcasts. Everything where you actually hear native speakers speak Spanish.
Here are some free resources for learning Spanish:
- Spring Spanish YouTube Channel (co-founded by yours truly)
- Spanishpod101 (lots of free lessons and dialogues; they have paid subscriptions as well)
- Easy Spanish Youtube Channel
- Coffeebreak Spanish
Here are some paid resources for learning Spanish:
- Glossika (lots of sentences with useful vocabulary and grammar patterns)
- Spring Spanish Challenge: my own Spanish language course, lasting 12 weeks. Registration opens every once in a while; if you'd like more information, I recommend you read the book first so you get an even better understanding of how you can achieve effortless conversations in Spanish (and any other language, for that matter).
- Short stories for Spanish
There you go: my 10 tips for learning Spanish fast. Some of these tips were obvious, other ones might have required you to start thinking differently about learning Spanish, and learning languages in general. But I can tell you: all of these tips are based on learning 5 languages myself, and helping thousands of language learners learn languages with the Effortless Conversations Method as well.
If you found these tips useful, feel free to share the article with your friends on social media or email. And if you have any other tips for learning Spanish that you'd like to share, please leave them below as a comment! I look forward to hearing about your experiences, big wins and big struggles while learning Spanish 🙂
One more thing…
In case you didn't notice, there's one core concept of language learning that I like to repeat over and over, and that's the idea that to speak Spanish fluently you shouldn't learn isolated words and grammar rules, but word combinations (or chunks).
This realization has had the single biggest impact on my own language learning and is the main principle that makes our language courses so effective. If you'd like to learn more about learning with chunks, I invite you to check out the book I've written on the topic.
¡Mucha suerte! (Good luck!)