8 Tips on how to learn Spanish on your own

So, to get things clear… this post is not to brag about my genious Spanish skills. It is just because I get a lot of questions on how I learned enough Spanish to be able to communicate with my fellow Guatemalans. Learning Spanish has been a dream of mine ever since I discovered Spanish even existed, but I could never really find the motivation to really do it. When I came back from Guatemala I had finally found my goal, my motivation. And – not to brag – yesterday, after almost two years of studying hard, I was able to translate (almost) the entire kids’ work that the Dutch group of World Servants had prepared. I can almost understand everything people are saying to me and I am even starting to make jokes in Spanish. After three months I am finally over the fear of speaking Spanish in public, so I must have done something right. Okay, so here are my eight tips on learning Spanish on your own.

1. Get yourself a notebook.
Muy, muy importante. 
Without my notebook I would not have learned as many words as I know now. When I just started learning Spanish, it sounded and looked like Arabic to me. I didn’t understand a single word, but I forced myself to read and listen as much as I could and write down every single word that I didn’t know. I took it with me everywhere, so I could learn anytime and anywhere. I made doodles and drawings to remember the hardest words, wrote down song lyrics and came up with complicated memory aids. Get yourself a notebook!

2. Learn at least 10 new words a day.
Get your notebook. Read the news. Watch a movie with Spanish subtitles. Write down every word you don’t know with the translation and stick to it. Write down at least ten new words every day. In the beginning it might seem overwhelming because you will find a lot of words you don’t know, but after a few months you will notice you can’t find any new words anymore. And that’s when you hit the point where you know enough to read the newspaper and to at least understand a lot of the written Spanish. I think this is what helped me most in my proces of learning Spanish, because it forced me to read or watch some Spanish every day.

3. Avoid methods that don’t work for you.
Whenever you type How To Learn Spanish in Google, you will probably find a lot about things like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone or about labelling your entire house. There is one thing I discovered about these methods: they don’t work for me. Especially Duolingo went way too slow for me. Before I could finally learn things I really wanted to learn, I had to go through the really easy things like yo soy Mariëlle or tengo dos manzanas. It just didn’t work for me and it was honestly a waste of time. It might take some time to find out what works for you, but don’t feel guilty when you just can’t handle Duolingo even though the whole world tells you it is the most awesome thing they’ve ever tried.

4. Talk to other people.
One thing that did work for me was an app called Hello Talk. Hello Talk is a really safe and easy way to connect to native speakers from all over the world. You just make an account, tell the app what language you want to learn and what language you speak fluently and the app shows you people who can help you. You can fill out a little profile if you want, but you don’t have to. Other people won’t see your emailaddress, real name, picture, phone number, location or whatever you might be concerned about. YOU can decide what other people know about you. They can only see the language that you speak fluently, so they can ask your help too. It really worked for me, because the app has several functions so you can correct each other, send each other voice messages and to save the things you’ve learned. You get to talk to people from all over the world and it is really fun to not only learn a new language, but also learn about other cultures.

Besides Hello Talk, I chatted a lot with my friends Hector and Sophie in Guatemala. I could always ask them questions and they would always encourage me to keep going. I loved to surprise them with the new things I’d learned and it was also really fun to learn Guatemalan slang, so it was easier to fit in with the Guatemalans. When you’re not comfortable speaking another language, texting will still help you out a lot. My advice is to learn as much as you can through texting until you feel comfortable enough to start speaking.

5. Mix languages
Por favor don’t wait until you know how to say a whole sentence en español! Just mix whatever you know into el idioma you already use. I always love to chat con mis amigos and combine the Spanish words I knew con inglés. You would get really weird and funny sentences, but it helped me a lot to entender where and when to use una palabra. Most of the time my friends would fill in the words that I didn’t know, so I knew how to say the whole sentence correctly. It is fun to notice you actually start to mix menos y menos and that is when you know que estás aprendiendo.

6. Don’t be mad at yourself when it is not going fast enough.
I know, learning a new language can be extremely frustrating, but don’t feel bad when it is not going as fast as you want to. It took me roughly two years to get to the level I am at now and I am still a far cry from being fluent. But it is okay now, because I’ve accepted that being fluent is not the goal. The goal is to get the message across. Speaking a language is always about communication and as long as the other understands what you mean, you are doing a great job. And the more you reach that goal, the more fluent you will be. I hoped to be fluent before I moved to Guatemala, but when I arrived there, I didn’t understand a word anymore. I’ve been here for three and a half months now and I am finally confident to try and speak Spanish. Learning a language is not a race, so take your time. Even when you can’t find the motivation, make sure you learn at least one new thing every day. I am not mad anymore for not understanding or speaking, instead I am proud of what I’ve learned on my own.

7. Watch your favorite serie with Spanish subtitles.
When you can perfectly understand an English serie, it is nice to change the subtitles to Spanish to learn new words and expressions. I loved to watch Orange is the New Black and after a while I changed the subtitles to Spanish. Knowing OITNB, I learned a lot of swearing, but I also learned a lot of really useful expressions. Later I also changed the language to Spanish to see how the subtitles are pronounced. Don’t change the language too fast, because otherwise you won’t understand and you’ll get bored. When you are comfortable with understanding written Spanish, try to switch off the subtitles and watch everything completely in Spanish. It is actually really rewarding when you can watch your favorite serie in another language!

House of Cards with Spanish subtitles!

8. Force yourself to learn every day.
This is also really, really important. You have to set yourself goals. Ever since I came back from Guatemala I started to learn Spanish because somewhere I felt that that wasn’t the last time I would be in this beautiful country. When I knew I was actually going to move to Guate, I studied even harder, because I wanted to be able to communicate with the kids at the school. For two years, not a day went by that I didn’t read, hear or watch something in Spanish. Every day I learned something new. On the train, behind my laptop, watching a serie, reading the newspaper. I never gave up. It is really important to force yourself every day, because this way you won’t lose your motivation. Ask yourself: “why do I want to learn Spanish?” If you can answer that question, set yourself a goal and never give up. Ever.

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  • Reply
    Yolanda Swager
    18 July 2017 at 11:53

    Duolingo……een uitkomst.
    bijna iedere dag oefen ik en maak veel fouten soms, zodat mijn “gezondheid”weer aangevuld moet worden.
    maar ik heb een goal…….als we volgend jaar naar Guatemala terugkomen 🙂 dan wil ik uitbundig en vrij in het Engels kunnen praten met iedereen en wil ik niemand uit de weg hoeven te gaan omdat ik bang zou zijn dat zij meer dan yes tegen mij gaan zeggen!
    I have a goal!Love You, mum.

  • Reply
    18 July 2017 at 21:16

    Mucho gracias for these tips! I am el Nuevo estudiante de español and am a bit discouraged by how far I have to go. This encouraged me!

    • Reply
      22 July 2017 at 18:25

      Hi Carla,
      Thank you for your message, it is always fun to meet new readers! Learning Spanish can be really frustrating in the beginning, but I promise it will get more fun when you learn more. I even write with my sponsor child in Peru and Mexico in Spanish now. It takes a while, but it’s a great practice!

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