How to Learn Spanish on Your Own
Tackling a language such as Spanish can be a daunting task, let alone learn it by yourself.
But what if there was a way you could efficiently learn Spanish on your own?
Fortunately for you, I'm about to show a complete method to learn Spanish. And as a bonus, I'll even teach you a bit of Spanish in the process.
Applying the Method
The method that will be used to learn Spanish here is the same one that's taught on this website. The method can be summarized as follows:
- Keep yourself motivated to learn Spanish (Step 1)
- Know which Spanish to learn (Step 2)
- Articulate Spanish sounds like a native (Optional)
- Find native speakers of Spanish (Step 3)
- Decrease Spanish's difficulty level (Step 4)
- Immerse yourself in Spanish (Step 5)
Keep Yourself Motivated to Learn Spanish (Step 1)
Here’s the reality:
The lack of motivation can be a great hindrance to learning Spanish.
Motivation tends to come and go. The key to success is to hold on to that motivation.
How can one do that?
By having one or more practical reasons to learn Spanish.
Spanish From a Practical Standpoint
Spanish has a lot of speakers in the world.
Just how many might you be wondering?
According to Ethnologue, there's a staggering 427 million native speakers of Spanish on the planet (Chinese having the most native speakers).
That's right, there's more native speakers of Spanish in the world than there are of English.
Think for a moment about what that means.
And here's something I noticed in my travels:
If you spend some time in Spanish-speaking parts of Latin America, it isn't difficult to find yourself in a place where very little English is spoken.
So, unless you intend to remain in your tourist resort and not venture out much, you'll see that using English will only get you so far and sometimes, not very far at all!
And needless to say, if you intend to live and work in a Spanish-speaking part of Latin America, knowing how to speak Spanish is generally a must.
Some jobs outside of Spanish-speaking countries may also require the knowledge of Spanish due to the important quantity of speakers of this language in the world.
Know Which Spanish to Learn (Step 2)
Here are the main categories of Spanish:
- Peninsular Spanish
- Spanish of the Americas
Peninsular Spanish is a group of varieties of Spanish spoken in the Iberian Peninsula of Spain.
Spanish of the Americas, on the other hand, is a group that encompasses all the varieties of Spanish spoken throughout Latin America.
It can be broken down further into Mexican Spanish, Cuban Spanish, Colombian Spanish, Rioplatense Spanish and so on.
I suppose that there could be other smaller categories than the two mentioned above. The variety which belongs to one of these smaller categories and which has the most speakers among them is Equatoguinean Spanish, spoken in Equatorial Guinea.
Latin American Spanish
The variety of Spanish I'll teach you how to learn is Latin American Spanish.
Although each region in Latin America has its own variety of Spanish, Latin American Spanish can be seen as the "standard" in Latin America in a slightly similar way that Castilian Spanish can be seen as the standard in the Iberian Peninsula of Spain.
These TV channels broadcast shows throughout Latin America, making Latin Americans familiar with this variety of Spanish.
So, knowing this variety will allow you to connect more easily with all of Latin America. However, is it important to note that no one uses this variety of Spanish in every day speech.
Here's a video where you can hear Latin American Spanish, just so you know what I'm talking about:
Articulate Spanish Sounds Like a Native (Optional)
In this section, I'll teach you some of the key points that'll help you sound like a Spanish speaker of Latin America.
If you want to keep your accent, then you don't need to read this and you can proceed to the Find Spanish-speaking partners step right away.
Before we start, it's best to be familiar with the basics of the International Phonetic Alphabet.
In case you're not, you have the opportunity to do so here.
The Vowels of Latin American Spanish
The vowels of Latin American Spanish should not represent too many difficulties for most of you.
Like English, Latin American Spanish has some diphthongs. Here are some examples:
E and O
One thing you should know is that the E in Latin American Spanish is a little different than you might expect.
In more accurate phonetic transcriptions, it is written as [e̞], which lies between [e] and [ɛ] on the vowel diagram.
You can hear it in this word:
On the "Accent Reduction" page, I'm showing how you can use the Vowel Extrapolation Technique to learn how to articulate a vowel that lies in between two others on the diagram. You can use it to find out how to pronounce [e̞].
In order to use this technique, however, you need to take into consideration that [e̞] is slightly more open than [e] and slightly more closed than [ɛ].
The O in Latin American Spanish features the same kind of difference. It is noted as [o̞] in accurate phonetic transcriptions. On the vowel diagram, this O is situated between [o] and [ɔ]. You can also use the aforementioned technique to learn how to pronounce it.
Something that you might not otherwise notice while learning Latin American Spanish are the nasalized vowels (in fact, the first [e̞] in the previous example is nasalized). In the IPA, a [˜] is placed above the vowel that is nasalized.
Nasal vowels are not noted as such in the writing of Spanish, but every time a vowel precedes a nasal consonant such as M, N or Ñ within a syllable, the vowel is nasalized.
Here are two examples of nasalized vowels followed by a counterexample, for contrast (note that syllables are separated by a period in these examples):
As you can see and hear, the i of pino is not nasalized even though it is preceded by nasal vowel [n]. This is because the i and the n are not in the same syllable.
Let us now say a quick word about vowel length.
Unlike English, Latin American Spanish does not have proper long vowels.
So, when you pronounce the word si in Spanish, for example, as I hear native speakers of English do it sometimes, be careful not to make it sound like the word sea in English, which has a truly long [i:] sound.
You can hear the difference here:
Consonants of Latin American Spanish
The consonants of Latin American Spanish are generally much more difficult to master than its vowels.
There are many different consonants and some are not shared by most languages.
So, most likely, there will be some that are completely unknown to you. I'll talk about some of the ones which I believe are not common in languages.
The R in Latin American Spanish can be pronounced in two different ways.
The first R is short and it is produced with a single brief burst at the alveolar ridge. It is pretty much the same as the flap in Standard American English, found in the word ladder: [ɾ].
However, unlike in English, it is found both at the ending and at the beginning of syllables.
The first word in this example shows this R at the end of a syllable and the second one shows it at the beginning.
The second R is represented by [r]. This sound is held for longer and is often referred to as the rolled R.
It is found almost only at the beginning of syllables.
This R essentially has the same point of articulation as the previously mentioned one, but instead of a single brief burst, to produce it, you need to keep the air flow going and produce a continuous series of bursts.
Here are two words with that R:
Nasals and Assimilation
Now, we'll discuss the nasal consonants.
When M, N and Ñ are in the initial position of a syllable, they are pronounced as [m], [n] and [ɲ], respectively.
However, they are pronounced differently when they are at the end of a syllable and are followed by another consonant; the nasal consonant assimilates, if you will, the characteristic of the consonant it precedes.
For example, when an N precedes a G, a G being a sound produced with the soft palate and the tongue, the N is then also pronounced with the soft palate. The resulting sound is [ŋ] as in king with the Standard American English pronunciation.
As another example, when an N precedes an F, the F being produced by using the lip and the teeth, the N is then also pronounced with the lip and the teeth and the result is [ɱ], which is like an M, but where you use your upper teeth instead of your upper lip to produce it.
You can observe this phenomenon here:
There are other consonants in front of which N is pronounced differently, such as V, Y and J, so pay attention to these as you learn.
V and B
Next, we'll talk about the V's and B's in Latin American Spanish. When the V or B is in the initial position of a word, and no sound occurs before that word, it is usually pronounced as a [b] like in the word boy.
However, when the V or B is between two voiced sounds (consonant or vowel), it is pronounced as a [β˕], which is a sound that can be described as an intermediate between [b] and [v].
Also, as you can see, [β˕] includes the lowering diacritic [˕], which means that [β˕] is an approximant.
Remember, if you've read about the manners of articulation, very little friction is created when producing approximants because the air flows smoothly through the vocal apparatus.
Here's how you can produce a [β˕]:
Start by articulating a continuous [v] (as in view) and as you're doing it, notice that your upper front teeth are touching your bottom lip.
Now, slowly replace your upper front teeth with your upper lip while maintaining the "[v]" by keeping the air flowing. Both your lips should be in near contact with one another and you should now be producing a [β˕].
Here are some examples of that sound:
Note that the [v] sound is present in the speech of some speakers of Latin American Spanish; the letter F may be pronounced as a [v], before a voiced consonant (a consonant where the vocal cords are used).
In order to familiarize yourself with tones, I invite you to watch TV shows where Latin American Spanish is spoken.
You could start watching these TV shows on The History Channel Latin America, Discovery Channel Latin America and CNN en Español to expose yourself to tones (and to the whole language, in fact). Then, you could try to mimic them when you practice Spanish with someone.
Find Native Speakers of Spanish (Step 3)
There are a lot of Spanish speakers on language exchange websites/apps, dating websites/apps and in games. However, be mindful what variety of Spanish they speak.
Most of them will probably speak their own regional variety of Spanish. They may or may not try to make it a little more "standard" for you understand more easily.
In any case, ask them to try to speak as close as possible to the standard language spoken on TV shows on the channels I mentioned earlier like the History Channel and the Discovery Channel.
If they don't or can't, it's not such a bad thing; you can still get really effective practice out of them.
Besides, it can be good to expose yourself to many different varieties of Spanish spoken in the Americas since if you're going to interact with them in the future, you might want to be able to understand regional varieties.
When you register for an account on a dating website, usually, you're asked for your current city. In my opinion, it's best to choose a large city in Latin America (e.g. Mexico City, Panama City, Bogotá, Lima and Santiago de Chile) to increase your chances of speaking to someone who doesn't have too much of an "accent".
On PlentyOfFish, when you choose your city, they should ask you for a postal code.
Now, every country in Latin America has their own system of postal codes.
On PlentyOfFish, I managed to create my profile by typing Mexico City as my city, by putting 15620 as my postal/zip code and by selecting Distrito Federal as my state/province.
On OkCupid, they may ask you for the same information, so make sure you know it when you select a city.
Decrease Spanish's Difficulty Level (Step 4)
Languages Related to Spanish
Spanish is an Ibero-Romance language, which makes it very much related to Catalan, Portuguese and Galician.
If you speak any of these languages, it will be extra easy for you to learn Spanish.
Spanish is also an Italic language. So are French, Italian and Romanian. So, if you speak any of these languages, you'll have an advantage in learning Spanish that speakers of non-Italic languages will not have.
Moreover, if you speak a language belonging to the Indo-European family, this should make the learning curve slightly smoother as Spanish is also from that language family.
Features of Spanish
Latin American Spanish is moderately complex morphologically; it has a system of conjugation whereby the verb has a different form according to the grammatical person, mood and tense.
One thing you can do in Spanish which is a no-go in English is to systematically leave out the subject of the verb if it's a personal pronoun (yo/tú/él/ella/nosotros/nosotras, etc.).
This can be done because verb conjugation is much richer in Spanish than in English and the form of the verb alone is usually sufficient to determine what person the verb has for its subject.
So, you can say, Aprendió español as well as Él aprendió español, which would mean the same thing if it's implied that you're talking about a man: 'He learned Spanish'.
Also, most nouns are not affected by grammatical cases in Spanish, so word order is important. Apart from verb conjugation, Spanish also features grammatical gender, two verbs "to be" (ser and estar) and lexical stress.
Verb Conjugation in Latin American Spanish
Latin American Spanish conjugation is quite complex, so I'll outline just a few of its main aspects here. Here are the regular verb endings as well as a conjugated verb (with the personal pronoun left out):
The same principle applies for the remainder of the conjugation; you'd best be familiar with verb endings otherwise you'll have difficulties communicating.
To learn these verb endings on your own, I suggest you don't resort to memorizing them. Instead, while you practice, try to pay special attention to them.
You might notice that verbs which have the same ending in their infinitive form also tend to have the same endings in their conjugated form.
For example, verbs ending in -er like comer have plural endings starting with e (-emos, -en) and verbs ending in -ar like amar have plural endings starting with a (-amos, -an). You might also see exceptions to this, so be careful.
Like English, Spanish uses the subjunctive. However, compared to English, it is much more complex.
First, subjunctive verbs have their own form which brings extra conjugation to learn.
Again, let's conjugate the word comer, but instead of in the indicative present, let's conjugate it in the subjunctive present:
Then, comes the following question:
"When do you use the subjunctive?"
In Spanish, the subjunctive is used whenever you express something that doesn't have the element of certainty.
This can be when expressing an opinion (as opposed to a fact), when hoping for something to happen or when recommending something to someone.
There are of course other circumstances where the subjunctive is used.
So, as you practice Spanish with native speakers, try to notice when they use these special endings that indicate the presence of the subjunctive (like the ones for the verb comer just above) and make a mental note of which circumstance it was used in.
Unlike English, Spanish has a feature called the grammatical gender.
This means that every noun in Spanish is one of two things; masculine or feminine. This is also valid for personal pronouns and names of people.
What this involves is that adjectives associated with these nouns, personal pronouns and names have a special ending. The ending of an adjective reflects the gender possessed by the nouns, personal pronoun or name it's associated with.
Generally, masculine adjectives end with o while feminine ones end with a.
You can observe this in the two following phrases where a noun is associated with an adjective.
The noun in the first phrase is masculine (where the adjective ends with o) while in the second phrase, the noun is feminine (where the adjective ends with a):
El sombrero blanco 'The white hat'
La puerta blanca 'The white door'
You'll also notice, during your learning, that gender also applies to verbs which act as adjectives (for example: él está perdido and la ventana está quebrada). These verbs are usually preceded by the verb "to be".
Ser versus Estar
This for me is one of the most difficult features to master in Spanish.
Both ser and estar mean 'to be', but there's always the question of which one to use.
In order to facilitate answering this question, we can come up with a general rule that dictates when to use ser and when to use estar:
Generally, when talking about something that is largely permanent, you use ser and when talking about something that is a temporary state, you use estar.
Here's an example:
Hoy estoy feliz. 'I'm happy today'
Here, the verb estar (in the form of estoy) is being used since feliz (meaning 'happy') is a state of mind that is temporary in this case.
Soy de baja estatura. 'I'm short'
In this case, the verb ser (in the form of soy) is being used. I'm a short and unfortunately for me, this is not about to change.
Note that you could also say Soy feliz, which would make the word feliz have a more permanent meaning; it would mean that you're a happy person.
That being the general rule, you still need to be careful.
There are exceptions where using ser and estar can lead, not to a difference between something temporary and permanent, but to a difference in meaning.
Below is an example. In the first phrase, the verb ser (in the form of es) is used and in the second one, the verb estar (in the form of está) is used.
In Latin American Spanish, stress is quite important.
Among other things, it's the feature which allows a speaker to communicate the tense he/she is talking in.
The following general observation is especially useful for learners of Spanish:
When the lexical stress is on the last syllable of a verb, you can be pretty sure the verb is in the past tense.
Let's take the verb mirar 'to look', for instance:
As you can hear, the first person singular of the present indicative miro 'I look' has its lexical stress on the first syllable, while the third person singular of the past tense miró 'He/She/It looked' has its stress on the last syllable.
Needless to say, if you don't put the stress on the correct syllable, you could be saying something that has an entirely different meaning than the one you intended.
Immerse Yourself in Spanish (Step 5)
Lucky for us, Google Translate has the Spanish language with Latin American Spanish audio available.
If you use European websites such as translate.google.co.uk, translate.google.fr or translate.google.es, the audio will be in European Spanish.
You should be able to change the language of your OS as well.
If you have Windows 7, I know that this can be done from the control panel, although you have to download some kind of language pack. You can find more details about this here.
With Mac OS X, changing the display language can also be done.
Note that there's no such thing as "Latin American Spanish"; there's just "Spanish". From what I understand though, it's an international kind of Spanish, so it's still good for our purpose here.
As far as movies with subtitles are concerned, it is definitely common for them to be available in Spanish.
Moreover, Spanish is a language into which movies are known to be dubbed, so you could even try to watch a movie with audio in Spanish, if the movie has it available.
However, be careful to choose a version of the movie that is from the Americas and even then, regional accents might be used, depending on the characters in the movie and on the movie itself.
To sum up, Spanish is not an easy language to learn unless you speak a language that's very much related to it (such as Portuguese), as mentioned in the "Related languages" section of this page.
If your native language is French or it is related to Spanish as much as French is, I can tell you from experience that the basis of Spanish is fairly easy to learn, although there are some intricacies such as the subjunctive and the estar and ser verbs which are difficult to firmly integrate into the mind.
As all my other pages, this page will be updated to correct anything that's not completely accurate whenever it's caught as well as to add new content.
Don't hesitate to come back here once in a while to get more up-to-date content.