How A Complete Idiot (Me) Learned Conversational Spanish and How You Can Too


I remember the precise moment when my inability to speak Spanish became unacceptable.


I had just checked into a hostel in the industrial city of San Lois Potosi, Mexico and was settling in to my dorm room, when another guest came in to welcome me. He was about 30 years old, dressed in a scout's uniform and carrying a SpongeBob SquarePants knapsack.


It was evident that he was mentally handicapped.


I was somewhat annoyed...not because he was handicapped of course, but because I thought I had the entire dorm room to myself. Nevertheless, I was friendly and spoke to him as much as my preschool Spanish would allow. After a time, he asked "de donde eres?" I told him where I was from and asked him the same. I was shocked when he answered in English: 


"Well, I was born in Puebla, but now I live in Mexico City."


"Hablas Ingles?" I asked, even though he'd just proved as much.


"Of course!" he responded enthusiastically.


We ended up at a bar. At that point, we were speaking exclusively in my mother tongue.


"How did you learn English? I finally asked, expecting him to say he learned it in school or the scouts.


"TV," he responded. "Cartoons, mostly."


Fucking cartoons? I thought. 


Here I had been slaving over the latest and greatest Spanish learning books and software for three months and had gotten nowhere far, and Daniel, who was decidedly more disadvantaged than I, had become fluent with SpongeBob?


I paid for his beer out of respect.


That was the day I got serious about learning the language. I developed a strategy around easily available resources that increased my efficiency astronomically. Over the next six months, I found that I was able to speak and understand better than some people who had been studying on and off for years. I still can't claim fluency, but I'm proficient and getting better every day.


I'm going to share my strategy with you, starting from that memorable day in San Luis Potosi to now. If you are a complete beginner in Spanish, I highly recommend taking this route.





Step 1: Spanish with Michel Thomas

If you are green as nopales when it comes to Spanish (i.e. 50 words or less) start with Michel Thomas. He'll quickly introduce you to the basics and provide you with a strong foundation. The learning process is surprisingly effortless and with each lesson you'll feel like you are making real progress. He also insists on not taking any notes, so it's an easy course to complete on your morning commute. Michel Thomas is without a doubt the best place to start if you are completely new to the language.



Step 2: Rocket Spanish

Rocket Spanish is one of the best resources for learning Spanish because they really help you nail down the pronunciation, as well as the basics of the language. I made the mistake of trying this program after I had formed bad pronunciations habits that were extremely hard to undo. My pronunciation remains worse than it should be because of this. I strongly recommend picking up this program early on in your Spanish learning. It's worth the cost and is one of very few Spanish learning resources that will vastly improve your accent. 



Step 3: Pimsleur AND Duolingo

Step 2 will ruin you, but it's important that you stay strong and don't give up. I recommend completing the Pimsleur Spanish program and Duolingo Spanish concomitantly. There is quite a bit of overlap between the two programs so doing them both at the same time at the same pace will reinforce your memory much better than doing one after the other. This will take awhile, but you'll pretty much be conversational afterwards. I think Pimsleur consists 120 thirty-minute lessons (60 hours) and I estimate that Duolingo takes about 150 hours to complete their 'tree.'



Step 4: Memrise and Cue Cards

By now you should have a strong understanding of how the language is structured. This is the best time to plug in some vocabulary that you'll easily be able to incorporate into your Spanish lexicon. Memrise is a great app for quickly picking up new words, and cue cards are always a great way to expand your vocabulary. Tape cue cards to household items, rooms or utensils to learn new words fast. If you do this, in a week's time you'll know the translation for every item in your bathroom and kitchen without even making an effort.



Step 5: Destinos and Ben y Marina 

Destinos is an educational television program for Spanish learners, and Ben y Marina from Notes In Spanish is a podcast of real Spanish Pimsleur but more interesting and without the handholding. It's likely that the first lessons of Ben y Marina will be too easy for you at this point, so skip ahead. I would, however, encourage you to watch Destinos from the start, even if you think it's beneath you.



Step 6: Spanish films with Spanish subtitles

Although it's tempting to watch Spanish films with English subtitles and call it learning, it's not going to do shit for you. The only way films will help you become more proficient in Spanish is if you already have a strong foundation, use Spanish subtitles with a pen and paper close by to jot down what you don't understand (this is important), and if you watch the same films over and over again. That's why I don't condone using films as a learning resource until this step. I suggest watching a film you like a few times with English subs so you know what they're saying, a few times with Spanish subs so you know the translations, and finally a few times in Spanish without subs to help you internalize it. Make sure it's a movie you can stand watching ten times over.

There are also some great telenovelas from Latin America. These are ideal for learning Spanish because the episodes are chalked full of dialogue, and there is a wide selection on Netflix with both English and Spanish subtitles.



Step 7: Skype, Interpals and Spanish literature

Now is the time to start connecting with other Spanish speakers. Get on the website Interpals and start chatting in Spanish with native speakers to improve your reading and writing. There are plenty of people on the site who are willing to do Skype language exchanges too, which is a good way to practice your conversation skills for free. Also pick up a Spanish book or online periodical and translate it every once in awhile.



Step 8: Immersion

After this stage, the only way to improve rapidly is through full immersion. This is when you book that ticket to Mexico, Colombia or Argentina and really lean into it. Talk to as many people as you can. Use any excuse to practice. Hop on Tinder or Latin American Cupid to improve your reading comprehension...among other things 😉. A good two or three months of immersion after the base of knowledge you've accumulated should be enough to officially call yourself a Spanish-speaker.




This is basically the path I took. Although, I had the advantage of travelling in Latin American countries while going through the process, so I was probably able to learn a bit faster than someone who is surrounded by English-speakers. That being said, I'm still not fluent. I can understand most things, but I still find myself getting lost in more advanced conversations.


If you're really motivated, all of the steps outlined prior to immersion can be completed in 6 months. It took me about 8 months to become conversational, but like I said, I had immersion on my side. Not to mention Daniel, whose memory served as a constant source of motivation.



Buena Suerte!




(Also, I came across an excellent, no bullshit, no excuses post by QUINTUS CURTIUS about language learning. It's valuable advice and I'd be at fault not to link it: 7 Reasons Why You're Not Reaching Your Foreign Language Learning Goals.


* If you're interested in starting your Spanish learning journey today, you can buy the Rocket Spanish program here