Would you like to learn Spanish but don’t know where to start or how to become conversational? Maybe my story with the language will help you realize it’s absolutely doable. In this article, I’ll share my experience with you, as well as everything I did to become conversational in the language in three months.
Spanish was the first language I taught myself, and where it all began. I started in September 2012. I discovered Duolingo, which was a new website at the time, and I decided to give it a try by choosing the first option which was Spanish. Yes, that’s how I started teaching myself a language for the first time.
I used Duolingo for 15-20 minutes every day. I didn’t focus on completing as much as possible; I rather focused on learning just a few useful words and phrases at a time. I would go over the same section many times daily so that I’d be sure it would stick in my head.
A few days passed, and I found out Duolingo actually taught Mexican Spanish, whereas I was interested in Spanish from Spain. My first thought was that this course was not the right one for me, and I was learning the wrong way all along. So I should stop using it altogether, right?
I’m happy I didn’t stick with that thought. After all, I enjoyed learning with Duolingo! Why should I stop using it if I actually like it and I’m also learning new words and phrases?
I decided that I’d keep on using Duolingo, with a slight difference from now on. I would ask myself a simple question, which eventually changed my whole approach to language learning:
-This is Mexican Spanish. How would a Spaniard say it?
So I would google how a certain word or phrase was pronounced, whether it was used in Spanish from Spain, and what differences Spanish from Spain has from Mexican or Latin American Spanish. After a few days, I instinctively applied all pronunciation differences to new words, and to this day no one ever told me my Spanish sounds anything other than European.
But the question itself wasn’t what made the switch. Rather, the fact that I started researching things about the language outside any premade course like Duolingo is what made all the difference in my learning, and sparked what was going to follow.
Back then Duolingo had no notes about grammar, so at some point I started having questions on why a phrase was structured the way it was, why a verb changed the way it was, or why two different words meant the same in English.
I started questioning things and researching at great length, and that made me realize using one language learning tool was not enough, so by googling, I stumbled upon Spanishdict.com, an online dictionary in which I’d look up words and find examples where the words were used, as well as elconjugador.com, where I’d submit a verb and look at all the forms and tenses of the verb, and choosing to learn the ones I needed to use at the time, rather than memorizing all of them.
I also found WordReference forums, where I found answers to a lot of questions I had. I’m not alone, there are plenty of other learners that have the same questions, and the answers are all over the internet! This now feels like second nature to me, but back then it was a revelation. I could actually teach myself a language that way! So my whole journey which started out of mere curiosity gradually became something much more interesting…
At some point I realized I’d learn enough to start listening to the language. So I started listening to half an hour of Spanish every day, while I was waiting for trains to get to my university or work.
I also switched my phone and computer language to Spanish. Anything I’d use every day would be translated to Spanish. In fact, this became another question I’d ask myself every day: Do I do this often? If yes, can it be done in Spanish?
I later used a bit of YouTube to see how Spaniards actually talked, as well as watch a series set in Barcelona, which was in a bit slower Spanish so that I could easily understand what was going on.
Finally, after I completed the Duolingo tree, I decided I somehow had to practice my Spanish with somebody other than myself. So I found a local tandem organized by language enthusiast, in which we would meet up to practice our target language. We’d talk about a specific topic our organizer would tell us in advance, so I’d prepare scripts beforehand and use them to help myself become better at the language.
Whatever useful I’d come across, especially phrases, I’d hand-write them in my notepad. I still believe writing by hand in your target language is all-important.
I did all these for 3 months, completely free, and I became conversational in Spanish. I could express myself and talk about personal things and experiences without hesitation. I actually taught myself a language! I was overjoyed! My mission was accomplished! From then on, I knew what to do to become fluent in Spanish!
Apart from the enjoyment of learning a language against all odds, I realized some very important things:
Using just one language learning tool is not enough. Don’t expect one tool to do the job for you, you need to test and go through various tools and see what you can get from each one of them.
Tools I enjoy deserve a second chance. If I enjoy them but don’t seem to be learning what I need to learn, I will slightly change my approach or combine them with other tools to see if they could work together. But hey, the fact that I enjoy using them is already one reason not to ditch them, so I’ve only really stopped using tools I stopped enjoying. This brings us to the next realization:
Tools I don’t enjoy aren’t worth my time. Just because something works for everybody, doesn’t mean it will work for me, too. And that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with me, I just don’t enjoy learning that way. So when everybody recommended using Flashcard programs and apps, I got extremely bored and ditched them after just one day of using them. This might do the trick for you, though, so why don’t you give it a try?
Language learning doesn’t have to be like a lesson. I only want to speak and write in a language, read books, sites and blogs, and make friends. Why must it always have to do with exams? I sat the B2 exam in Spanish and succeeded, but that was just a spontaneous decision. I was already happy achieving my goal of making friends using the language and expressing myself in it.
Language learning can be done for free! I was neither the first nor the last to bust the myth that says language learning is expensive. We’re blessed to have the internet, which is full of people speaking in our target language, writing in it, living with it. If you have an internet connection, it’s all it takes to learn a language. I got the language learning bug, and to this day I haven’t stopped learning nor paid a single euro to learn any of my languages.
If you want to know exactly how I learn languages for free and how you can do the same no matter where you are, how old you are, or how much time you want to spend learning, check out my book, Fluent For Free. If you implement the things I talk about in the book, you’ll be surprised at the results.
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