You’re starting to learn Spanish! ¡Felicidades!
(Yes, that’s how you say congratulations 🙂 )
In this article, you’ll find a step-by-step guide that shows you exactly how to learn Spanish when you’re a beginner.
You’ll discover which steps you should take when starting out so you can say your first sentences as quickly as possible.
Then I’ll also show you how to continue learning until you can have effortless conversations in Spanish. (Yes, that’s where the name of this website, and the method our language courses are based on, comes from!)
To top it all off, you’ll also get some Spanish dialogues that we created to help you get started with learning Spanish right now!
Or did you think “felicidades” was the only Spanish you were going to learn today? 😉
Be warned: in this guide, you’ll find some conventional advice, but also lots of unconventional advice. Contrarian, even. Like:
“To sound more natural like a native Spanish speaker, you should speak LESS!”.
“Don’t learn word lists and grammar rules! In fact, don’t learn just words at all!”.
Don’t worry: even if it sounds counterintuitive now, this is going to make a lot of sense. And it will make learning Spanish much more fun for you!
There’s a whole methodology behind it, one that I’ve taught to tens of thousands of language learners already.
The ones who took the advice to heart and use the method to learn Spanish, now have fluent, natural Spanish sentences roll off their tongue, and are happily participating in conversations with native speakers.
You can be one of them soon, if you follow the steps in this guide 🙂
Ready? Then ¡vamos!
First of all: Understand how learning Spanish really works
Ok, so before we get started, we need to set some things straight… Because years of language education at school and in traditional courses (maybe even using language apps) have probably left you with some wrong (and counterproductive) ideas about language learning. If we don’t fix that now, you’re going to waste a lot of time.
So here’s how most people think learning Spanish (and other languages) works. I call this the construction approach.
- You learn words so you can describe objects, concepts, feelings etc.
- You learn grammar rules. That way, you can take the words and construct sentences with it.
- In the beginning, piecing together sentences like this is quite a slow process, because there are so many rules to think about.
- You think: “I need to become faster at this!”.
So you do lots of grammar drills, cram conjugation tables and, if you’re brave, you try to speak a lot of Spanish.
- Theoretically, if you do this for long enough, you’ll eventually be able to speak Spanish fluently!
This is traditional language teaching. Only, in the real world, it seems that they forgot to add some steps:
- You study Spanish for years this way. You know the grammar rules. You know the words. And yet, you’re STILL slow to string together sentences. Why?
- You speak with native speakers and notice:
“Hm, their sentences don’t sound like mine. Why are mine so clumsy, unnatural? I’m using all the correct grammar rules, right? Why are they saying things differently?”
- You keep noticing the difference between how you speak, and how natural native speakers sound, and you’ll eventually get frustrated, afraid to speak and think it’s impossible to learn languages as an adult.
I bet that’s not how you want this Spanish adventure to play out, is it?
Luckily, the only reason this is happening is because of the way you think about language learning.
People who learn (or teach) languages this way see language as a collection of words and grammar rules. A programming language with rules that you use to construct sentences from the ground up every time you want to say something.
But that’s not how language works! And it’s not how language learning happens in your brain either.
So how DOES learning Spanish work then?
Well, actually, it goes more like this:
- You learn some basic words to describe concepts, objects, feelings etc. So far so good.
- But now, you start observing native Spanish speakers. You listen to what they say in conversations, and how they say it.
- Because you’re observing, you discover exactly how native speakers express themselves… because you have the words and word combinations right in front of you.
- While listening, you might start thinking: “Ah, so THAT’s how a Spanish native speaker would say it!”
- The structure of their sentences will probably be a little bit different from what you’re used to in your mother tongue. So you get some grammar explanations that explain what you see in the native speaker’s sentences.
(Read that again. They EXPLAIN what you see in actual speech. They don’t necessarily PRESCRIBE how you should construct sentences like a native speaker! 🙂 )
- You’ve now seen which word combinations native speakers use (they’re called chunks), so you know they’re correct. So instead of learning single words, you immediately learn these word combinations. That way, you can bypass a lot of grammar rules.
- You start using these word combinations yourself while speaking Spanish.
- You keep listening and observing more and more, so you can discover more of these word combinations.
- There we go: you speak with natural sentences that a native Spanish speaker would also use. From the very beginning.
I call this the OBSERVATION approach for learning languages — and it’s the fastest way of learning languages I’ve ever seen. What’s more: it’s incredibly intuitive as well 😉
Learning chunks instead of isolated words or word lists will save you so much time, I’m convinced it’s the #1 biggest hack for learning Spanish — ever.
Ok, so by now, intuitively (and theoretically) you might understand how learning Spanish works. But how exactly would you put this into practice?
How do you start learning Spanish this way, as a beginner?
How does speaking, listening, reading, memorization, and most of all, grammar fit in this story?
Well, in what follows, you’ll get all the answers in a detailed step-by-step plan!
Step 1: Learn the absolute basics
You only need to complete this step if you’re a complete beginner. If you’ve already learned some Spanish (even if it’s just for a couple of weeks), you can probably skip this step.
Look: there’s only one point on your journey to learn Spanish where I recommend you learn a list of isolated words, and that’s at the absolute start.
Well, because of the following simple fact:
There exist about 100,00 words in the Spanish language, but the 300 most frequently used Spanish words make up 65% of all spoken language. (On average, in conversations).
That means that learning the 300 most common words in Spanish can give you a really big comprehension head start.
Be careful: just by learning those words, you won’t be able to speak much yet. You won’t understand 65% of what native Spanish speakers say either.
But it will help you with understanding at least something, and knowing these words will make the rest of the process of learning Spanish much easier.
Again: you won’t EVER hear me say again that you need to learn Spanish word lists after this. It’s only useful as an absolute beginner to learn the most foundational vocabulary.
How do I learn the most frequent 300 words in Spanish?
Here’s a list of the 625 most frequent words. You don't necessarily have to learn them all (I suggest you already get started with step 2 while learning this list).
By the way: Spanish words always have a gender (masculine or feminine). For more tips on how to learn these word genders, check my post with my 10 best tips for learning Spanish.
Ok, so your first project is to learn these frequent Spanish words for beginners. But doing only that will probably be boring. I assume you want to start using some actual Spanish, right?
That’s why I recommend you already start with step 2 while learning these 300 words: Listening to dialogues!
Step 2: Use Spanish conversations for beginners!
Discover how native Spanish speakers speak… by observing dialogues
Remember what you discovered at the beginning of this article?
If you want to learn Spanish and speak like a native speaker, you need to:
- Listen to native speakers.
- Observe them.
- Hear what they say, and how they say it.
- How they combine words into word chunks to express themselves.
- And then start using the exact same word chunks.
These word combinations are called “chunks”, and if you’d like to learn more about them, you can check out this in-depth explanation I wrote about chunking.
Now, the easiest way to find these chunks this is by listening to easy, recorded dialogues between native speakers.
Preferably, these dialogues would also come with a transcript. That way you can hear what native speakers say and read along at the same time. That’ll make it much easier to understand.
You can find such dialogues on the internet, on YouTube and in many other places. We also create lots and lots of Spanish dialogues for our own online Spanish course (the 12-in-12 Challenge.
In any case, for the remainder of the article, I’ll use this short Spanish dialogue to illustrate all the steps.
Daniel: ¡Hola! Bien, gracias.
Joana: Bienvenido a tu primer día de clases. ¿Cuál es tu nombre? (3)
Daniel: Mi nombre es Daniel.
Joana: ¿Ariel? ¿Cómo lo deletreas?
Daniel: No, es Daniel. D-A-N-I-E-L (4)
Joana: ¡Mucho gusto, Daniel! Yo soy Joana (5), tu profesora de Español. Siéntate.
Daniel: Muchas gracias.
Joana: Ellos son tus compañeros de clase. Él es Carlos, y ella es Rosita.
Daniel: ¡Hola! ¡Mucho gusto! (6)
(Did you notice you can click on sentences in this transcript to hear them again? It's one of the features we offer for all lessons in our 12-in-12 Challenges 🙂 )
Now, as a beginner, there are a couple of things you should do with dialogues.
2.1 Shadow the dialogues
We haven’t talked much about pronunciation so far. Yet, this is something you should tackle as quickly as possible, before any bad habits get ingrained.
As a first step, familiarize yourself with some of the basis Spanish sounds. Here’s an excellent article that covers all elemental Spanish sounds.
Set aside some time to practice them all.
Afterwards, I recommend you start doing an exercise called shadowing.
How to shadow native Spanish speakers
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 on YouTube, or with 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 (when the speaker finishes a word, you want to starty saying it). 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 Spanish 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.
So go ahead: take that first dialogue that I gave you and start shadowing it! Do this exercise as often as possible, especially in the first weeks and months of learning Spanish. It’ll make a big difference in how you sound, and how native speakers perceive you.
2.2 Learn useful chunks from those dialogues
Ok, so you’re now learning about pronunciation and “sounding like a native speaker” by shadowing the dialogues. But if you end up in a conversation with a native Spanish speaker (hopefully you will, at some point), then what exactly should you say?
Simple: whatever you want to say, using the same word combinations (or phrases, or chunks) you discover in the dialogues you listen to!
The idea is that you listen to the dialogue and follow along on the transcript. Ideally, you also have a parallel translation in English so you can compare and see what these sentences mean.
You can download a pdf example of such a transcript here. Bonus: the pdf even comes with some explainer footnotes!
While reading on the transcript, you want to look out for all these phrases, expressions, word combinations where you think:
“Ah, so that’s how a native speaker would say that in Spanish!”
For example, in the dialogue above, we can discover chunks like:
- Buenos días (good day)
- primer día de clases (first day of class/school)
- Mi nombre es (my name is)
- Mucho gusto (nice to meet you)
The important part: you’ve now seen these chunks in use, in a real conversation. That means that, even if you don’t understand all the grammar yet, you’re free (and encouraged) to use these same word combinations yourself while speaking!
- Observe conversations
- Identify the chunks that you’d like to start using yourself
- Memorize them
- Use them yourself
This is by far the fastest and most intuitive way to learn Spanish and speak it naturally.
You won’t worry too much about grammar rules, you won’t hesitate too much while speaking.
And you’ll sound natural, with all the little quirks, fillers and grammatical deviations that are typical for a native speaker.
These are the small things most language learners just don’t know or notice… because they spend their time learning word lists and grammar rules 😉
Of course, you’ll need to read and listen to lots of conversations to get fluent. But don’t forget that your brain is wired for picking up languages (how do you think you learned your mother tongue?).
So as you get exposed to more and more Spanish dialogues, your brain will make the connections, you’ll get a feel for the language and after a while, you’ll just know if a certain sentence in Spanish is right or wrong.
Just like you just know that stuff in your mother tongue.
That’s the magic of learning languages by observing… 🙂
So how do you memorize these word chunks?
The easiest way to memorize these chunks and make sure you can use them in conversations, is by learning them with flashcards. There are plenty of online apps that allow you to create flashcards and then learn them within a “Spaced Repetition System” (this just means that the app will show you flashcards to learn based on certain intervals).
It’s important that you always add the full sentence in which you found the chunk to the flashcard, and then blank out the chunk.
A quick note on grammar
Of course, like I said before, you’ll still have to learn some grammar. But the most useful way of thinking about grammar is as an “explanation” of what you’ve already seen in dialogues.
In the example dialogue I gave you, there are some footnotes that explain grammar rules.
Usually, you don’t even have to learn those by heart (you’ll forget them quickly, and even if you don’t, you’ll be way too slow to apply them during conversations anyway).
So yes, learn grammar to understand the Spanish sentence structure. Maybe learn some conjugations. But focus mainly on observing dialogues.
What about speaking Spanish?
At this stage, if you want, you can start speaking some Spanish already. Technically, you’re already speaking if you’re shadowing the dialogues.
Now, if you’re brave, you can start having conversations with native speakers, or a Spanish tutor. That’ll help you get over your fear of speaking!
But never forget that speaking Spanish in itself won’t make you a better (or more natural) Spanish speaker!
This is one of the weird paradoxes in language learning that most people don’t get. But it’s very true.
You can only speak Spanish about what you know, with the words (or chunks) you know.
And the only way to speak and be sure that what you’re saying is actually something that native Spanish speakers also would say, is if you’ve heard/read it somewhere before.
Honestly, you don’t learn much about real, natural Spanish from speaking yourself if that that speaking is actually stumbling, hesitating and piecing together awkward sentences that you translate word-for-word from your mother tongue into Spanish.
It’s a legitimate coping technique, and no doubt you’ll end up in a situation where it’s necessary to make yourself understood that way. So it’ll teach you survival skills and help you over your fear of speaking.
But it’ll teach you nothing about how to speak natural Spanish like native speakers do.
Maybe you’ll pick up a thing or two from what your conversation partner is saying.
But trust me: you’ll be so stressed about speaking yourself that you won’t remember much of what the other person is saying.
So yes, if you want you can speak Spanish from the beginning and get that paralyzing fear out of your system.
But especially as a beginner, you’re much better off focusing on getting lots of input and absorbing how native speakers speak.
And as luck would have it (or is it by design? I’ve created this method, after all 😉 ), getting more and more input is what you’ll do in Step 3, AND during the rest of your journey to fluent Spanish!
Step 3: get more and more input, and learn how Spanish native speakers tick
For the first couple of months, just continue with lots of listening, reading, learning chunks and mixing in some speaking practice.
Ideally, you use a Spanish language course for this that gives you Spanish native-speaker dialogues with audio, a transcript, a parallel translation and some grammar explanations.
That way, you don’t have to look for new conversations all the time and you can focus on learning Spanish, instead of thinking about WHAT to learn exactly.
(Hint: our 12-in-12 Challenge does a pretty good job at that 😉 but if you keep reading, you’ll discover some other free Spanish resources on the internet too)!
But is a Spanish course really enough to speak Spanish fluently?
You might start to understand how this language learning method works by now. If so, you’ve probably already thought by yourself:
“My God, I’ll need to listen to a LOT of conversations if I want to learn all these chunks and speak Spanish naturally!”
Well, you’re right.
But luckily, you don’t have to sit down and study conversations all the time!
You just need to get exposed to them. Pay some attention to what native speakers say, and how they say it.
And apart from a Spanish course with dialogues, there are loads of other sources of good Spanish content.
Many of them are quite fun to use, too. And most of them will teach you quite a bit about Latin (or Spanish) culture too.
If you understand how they tick, it’ll become easier to converse with them as well 😉
Some example of good “casual Spanish exposure materials”
Listen to Spanish music
I bet you’ve already been listening to some Spanish or Latin music at some point in your life.
Maybe you’ve shed a tear over a romantic Spanish guitar or piano ballad? If you’ve been to a club lately, you’ve probably been shaking to reggaeton. Or maybe you’re more a fan of the son, bolero, guajira and danzòn that made the Buena Vista Social Club from Cuba so popular?
All these songs are legitimate sources of Spanish chunks. Just create a playlist with some Spanish music that you like and listen to it a lot.
Then look up the lyrics as well and see what you can understand.
You can also use a dictionary website like Context.reverso to look up some phrases you don’t understand. There are even dedicated website that offer full translations of lyrics! Like for example Lyrics Translate.
Listen to podcasts
There are plenty of amazing Spanish podcasts out there, at all levels. Listen to some of those. The best ones come with a transcript, which will make your life much easier.
I have created an article here, where I present the 10 best free podcasts to learn Spanish.
Watch Spanish movies or series
As a beginner, this might be a bit of a struggle, but once you’re at a high beginner/low intermediate level, movies and series are an excellent source of dialogues. They can be quite entertaining, too.
Having subtitles in Spanish will help you a lot in identifying useful chunks and understanding what’s happening. If they’re available, I recommend you always use them. Even if you’re at an advanced level already.
I don’t recommend using subtitles in English. They distract you too much and it’ll become difficult to listen to what the actors are saying in Spanish.
Tip: BBC has created an excellent beginner series that even comes with a downloadable pdf transcript with transcript AND translation. That’s an excellent resource to learn some new chunks! The series is called Mi vida loca and you can watch it on the BBC website.
Read Spanish Books for Beginners (if they contain dialogue)
If your goal is to speak Spanish, I generally don’t recommend too much reading. Don’t get me wrong: reading Spanish books is a good way to expand your vocabulary, but the language (and the chunks) used in written Spanish language are very different from how people speak.
There’s one exception: Spanish stories that contain lots of dialogue! Luckily, there are quite a lot of those written especially for Spanish beginners. For example, Olly Richards has an excellent story series with Spanish Books for both beginners and intermediate students.
Of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read in Spanish at all. If you enjoy reading, by all means, go for it! It’s still good exposure and input, and reading will help you get a “feel” for the Spanish language. I’m just saying that you won’t discover as many useful chunks for speaking Spanish if you only read Spanish books, newspaper articles or magazines 🙂
Step 4: Find speaking opportunities
We talked a bit about speaking before, and being able to participate in conversations is probably one of your big goals for learning Spanish.
So don’t avoid it completely. Throughout your Spanish journey, you need to make sure you focus a lot on getting input, on listening, reading and finding chunks. But at a certain point, you also need to convert that input and start using it while speaking!
If you’re brave, you can dive straight into conversations with native Spanish speakers.
But there’s no shame in taking some intermediary steps to prepare you for the real deal either! Here are some things I like to do to prepare myself for conversations with Spanish native speakers:
How to speak Spanish for beginners: 4 steps to prepare yourself
Step 1: Practice with the most willing conversation partner in the world … yourself!
When you start learning Spanish and you can only introduce yourself and maybe talk about the weather or how many siblings you have, you might feel you’re not bringing much to the conversation.
This might stop you from speaking. After all, don’t we all want to be interesting conversation partners?
This is why I usually start practicing with a conversation partner who’s in no place to complain about my limited choice of conversation topics—myself!
For example, several times during the day, when I’m alone, I would introduce myself in Spanish—to myself.
And when I’m on the street and feel like practicing Spanish, I sometimes take out my cell phone and pretend to have a conversation with somebody. This might sound weird at first, but no matter how much I’m stumbling and repeating myself during my fake phone calls, nobody has ever called me out on it.
Self-talk in Spanish is free practice, without the fear of rejection and without the fear of making mistakes.
Step 2: Use the camera as a conversation partner
Once you’re comfortable holding conversations with yourself, start recording yourself speaking Spanish. Simply sit in front of your computer or take out your phone and talk for a few minutes. The camera will give you extra pressure while speaking, but not as much as having a real conversation with a native.
Note: If you want to increase the pressure, you could upload your videos to YouTube or Facebook. Share it with some people, and you might even get some free feedback from native speakers.
Step 3: Make people listen to you!
The final step before having casual conversations with natives are private lessons with a tutor. You can find a tutor close to you, or use an online service, which is usually more affordable. A good place to find Spanish tutors is Italki.
Yes, you’ll have to pay for this, but that’s precisely the point. The primary goal of these conversations is not being sociable or making friends, it’s learning Spanish.
In fact, you’re paying the other person to listen to you stumble, and they will probably correct you and make sure you’re improving!
I’m not saying you should treat your teachers as nothing more than a commodity, of course. Most tutors I’ve worked with were very friendly and helpful, and we have had great conversations. However, for me, the fact that I’m paying them to help me improve takes away the pressure to impress them with my skills or my interesting stories, which makes speaking freely a lot easier.
Note: For these tutoring lessons, it’s important you take control of the time you and your tutor spend together. You’re not there to have someone explain grammar rules to you. You want to practice your conversation skills, and you need to make this very clear.
During the class, choose topics you’re familiar with so you can use the chunks you’ve learned during listening and speaking practice.
Before your session, think about some chunks you want to use and make sure you actually use them.
While preparing, it’s also a good idea to learn filler words and phrases like:
- Erm, oh!
- Are you serious?
- What happened then?
- I agree!
- Oh, okay!
They will keep the conversation flowing and you’ll encourage the other person to keep talking, to give you time to think of a good response.
Step 4: Time for the real deal
Finally, you’ll have to take the plunge and speak with native Spanish speakers. Just go out there and try having a conversation with someone. Try to find out if there’s a community who speak the language in your city and see where they hang out—they might be on a community site like Meetup, Facebook or Tandem partners. Talk to them. If you have difficulty finding people to speak with, try a language exchange through Skype.
That’s it! Follow these steps, and you’ll be having confident conversations in next to no time.
There you have it: a guide to learn Spanish for beginners. I’d say even more: a guide that will take you from a beginner in Spanish, all the way to effortless conversations with native speakers!
Honestly, there’s not much more to learning Spanish than what you’ve read in this article.You just need to go through the steps, make sure you have good resources, and then stick to it!
So yes, it’s simple, and you’ll be able to have your first conversations very soon. But that doesn’t mean that learning Spanish won’t take time and effort!
But at least you can now be confident that you have a plan to follow. You just keep going for as long as necessary to reach your goals. That can be weeks, months, or if you’re in it for complete native speaker fluency, even years! (You can read more about that in the blog post I wrote on how long it takes to learn fluent Spanish.
I hope you're as excited as I am! Feel free to share this guide with others who might find it useful, and let me know in the comments if you need any help!
Get a step-by-step plan to learn Spanish by reading the Effortless Conversations Book
An overview of the chunking method for language learning, memorization tricks, listening comprehension training, speaking training, resource selection, all the way to creating your own 12-in-12 Plan: this book gives you all the tools and strategies you need to learn any language successfully.
Read this and you'll understand why 12-in-12 students are so successful at learning languages.
After its release in September 2018, the book was a #1 Bestseller on Amazon in 3 different countries (in the foreign language acquisition category, of course, not on the whole website 😉 ).