A Layperson's Approach to Learning Spanish

So many people around the world are trying to learn a foreign language. I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world for the last sixteen years and have learned a little bit of a few languages, but never reached any level of fluency. Three years ago or so I decided to change that; I decided that I wanted to become fluent in at least one more language before I die. I decided to start with Spanish for no “good” reason. Learning Spanish wasn’t going to help me get a raise, I didn’t have a trip to a Spanish speaking country planned for the near future, and I wasn’t in a relationship with someone who spoke Spanish. I just love the Spanish language for some reason and I always have. Maybe it’s because I grew up in El Paso, Texas so I heard it throughout my life and grew a subconscious affinity for it. No matter what, I thought since I liked the language it was the perfect place to start.

My Goal

I didn’t start out with any specific objective in mind other than “fluency” which I soon learned was a touchy subject in the online universe of language learning. When someone talks about fluency, it seems to unfailingly spark a debate. I started following a few of the more well known polyglots online - Benny Lewis, Steve Kaufman, Luca Lampariello etc. Any time they say, “I’m fluent in X number of languages” the inevitable response seems to be “That’s IMPOSSIBLE” or “What do you MEAN by fluent?” So, in order to clarify what I’ve decided fluency means, I will say that it is the ability to use a language without difficulty in any normal situation and have a conversation about any topic you might have a conversation about in your native tongue. So, if anyone thinks that I am not fluent in a given language because I cannot explain the finer points of quantum physics then we’ll have to beg to differ, mostly because I can’t do that in my native language either!

I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to reaching my fluency goal in Spanish. I’ve recently stepped up my speaking practice on italki because this is the area I’m weakest in, in my opinion. I’m doing about five hours per week of italki sessions with a tutor and I’ve noticed some pretty significant improvement.

Right now I hope to be very close to that definition of fluency by the end of the year. It’ll be hard work, but nevertheless I’m shooting for it.

My Learning Approach

Just like everyone else, when I started learning Spanish I didn’t really know where to start. I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out what the “best” method for learning Spanish was so I wouldn’t “waste my time”. I accomplished this search by wasting a good bit of time falling into rabbit holes on the internet.

One of the first methods I started using was Pimsleur Spanish. It seemed logical to me, I wanted to speak Spanish and if you look at the Pimsleur advertising material it’s the best and only way in the entire world to learn Spanish effectively. Unlike Rosetta Stone’s best and only way, Pimsleur uses some different kind of magic and it will make you fluent through an audio course.

Let me just dispel some confusion. NONE of these methods you will find, in my humble opinion, will make you fluent on their own. None of them. That’s not to say that these methods are worthless or you should avoid them, I just want to manage expectations a little bit.

In my opinion (I keep repeating this because I’m not a linguist and there is no science whatsoever behind these assumptions) there are four distinct areas that you have to worry about if you want to learn a language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. You don’t have to get good at all of them if it’s not part of your goal, but I contend it will be very difficult to reach fluency and skip the reading, listening and speaking parts. I would also say that writing helps solidify learning so it also behooves you to write a little bit as well.

What my general learning method has settled into is this:

In the morning when I wake up I do a lesson in a method book. Right now it’s Assimil, and it has been for a while. After this I’ll move on to some of the Practice Makes Perfect books for verbs, vocabulary, and grammar. This helps me with reading, and teaches me some phrases and vocabulary as well as grammar. Assimil is a great place to start in my opinion because the dialogs are entertaining and it teaches you grammar without being mind-numbingly dull.

After my lesson from a method book, most days, I do an italki lesson. I can’t express enough how great of a resource italki is. This website allows you to practice any language you want, just about any time you want with native speakers who’s whole purpose is to help you learn the language. And if you don’t have money to spend on lessons you can find language partners and trade thirty minutes of your time for thirty minutes of theirs. I’ve learned much more than just how to speak better on italki. Through conversation I’ve learned grammar points and vocabulary and it’s a big help all around.

When I’m in my car on the way to work I listen to some type of Spanish audio. This varies from Pimsleur courses (I’ve gone through all five levels of Pimsleur), to Assimil’s audio, to News in Slow Spanish, SpanishPod101 podcasts, CNN Español on Sirius, or audiobooks in Spanish - whatever I feel like listening to. I think it’s a good idea to listen to things you’re working on during your study time because it should be familiar to you so you can keep up with the audio better and listening to it reinforces what you’ve already studied.

Throughout the day, when I take breaks at work for example, I’ll listen to some Spanish audio again because it’s convenient, or read some news in Spanish, or do some flash cards.

I try to do flash-cards every day. This is one thing I know I could do a better job at, but it’s not the most entertaining thing to do. I will say that it’s not stupid or a waste of time in my opinion unlike what some people may suggest. At a minimum doing flashcards exposes you to the language that much more and over time you will absorb more vocabulary. There are quite a few tools out there for flashcards, personally I use LingQ as my flashcard tool. I use LingQ because it ties in with the next thing I try to do every day.

I try to add at least one page of something I’m reading (in my case mostly books) to LingQ and create new flashcards by doing so. LingQ is a website that lets you import content and then highlights words that you haven’t yet saved and lets you create flashcards for the words you don’t know (LingQs). It also lets you read your imported text in context and hover or click on words you don’t remember to see the definition again. There’s a few different ways to review words on LingQ now like fill in the blank and multiple choice that I haven’t used much so I don’t have much to say about them, but I’m sure they’re worth a shot.

Another thing I try to do every day is watch something in Spanish, either on Netflix or Youtube. Netflix is awesome for this, there are tons of shows in Spanish on Netflix nowadays and it’s cheap. Youtube also has tons of Spanish content. To me, watching something is a bit different than just listening to the audio. You can learn how people of the culture express themselves and you can watch their body language which may help understand what’s happening even when you don’t understand everything. Also, if you find things you enjoy watching it’s a great way to expose yourself to the language without making it feel like study.

Recommended Tools

I’ve mentioned quite a few of the tools I use above but I’ll list some of my favorite tools here:

Learning Methods

Practice Makes Perfect Series


News in Slow Spanish
CNN en Español






LingQ - This makes reading so much easier!
Kindle books
Most news websites have an option to read in Spanish
There’s tons of books in Spanish on Amazon


italki and LingQ also offer options for submitting text for correction


If I was your language coach and you asked me what you should do from day one, I would say go buy Assimil, it’s well worth the investment. Then, start doing Assimil as prescribed in the book. If money is no issue, I would also suggest you buy Pimsleur too because if you really try to repeat exactly what you hear it can help with your pronunciation right from the beginning. I’d also tell you to get a subscription to Netflix and find a show that you like that has Spanish audio and watch it. I’d tell you to find an interesting audiobook on Audible, buy it, download it and listen to it while you’re doing other tasks. That’s really it to start with…

After you’ve gone through the Assimil book I’d highly suggest you find a book you like, or web content that interests you, import it to LingQ, make flashcards and reviewing them daily.

Over time, increase your listening, reading and watching as the language becomes more familiar to you. When you feel that you have some basic understanding of the language and can say the phrases from Assimil, start speaking to people on italki. Obviously, if you feel the urge, use italki sooner. I just don’t know how fun saying “Hello, how are you?” and then not knowing what to say next would be.

Then, continue solidifying and improving by diving into the dreaded realm of grammar at some point. Practice Makes Perfect makes learning certain details of the language less excruciating in my opinion.

That’s it, it’s really that simple. It’s mostly just about time and effort, and time, and time. Sorry if this bit bursts your bubble, but becoming proficient in a language is going to take some time. I believe in the 10,000 hour rule. If you do anything for 10,000 hours with the goal of getting good at it, you will be after spending that much time doing it. So, if you have more time daily to dedicate you might learn faster, but it’s still going to take some time. You can become FUNCTIONAL in a language much quicker, and maybe that’s all you want to do. I think, though, that having a true, fluent, nuanced understanding of a language takes some time.

Many people, maybe you, will disagree with me on this position or this method of learning, and that’s fine. I think we all learn in our own way. Some people will gain far more from the “Speak from Day 1” approach. Some people will learn faster by focusing on reading. In the end we all have to find the approach that works for us. This was simply my humble attempt at sharing my experience and suggestions to the world.

Future Plans

Right now I’m privileged to have the opportunity to live in Japan. I arrived in early August and will be here for a few years. I’ve learned Hiragana by using JapanesePod101 videos (‘Kantan Kana’ they’re awesome) and this “Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners” book. Admittedly, I’ve been going at this at a glacial pace. I am hesitant to dive head first into Japanese because I still feel like I have a ways to go with my Spanish before I’m satisified enough to cut down my time with it. But, I’m also not sure I’ll ever feel like I’ve reached my goal so I’ve set a date, 1/1/2017, to start using the “Genki” series and beginning my journey with Japanese. My plan is to spend about a week per chapter in the Genki books and then see where I’m at after that. Until January I’ll continue by learning Katakana and at least dabble in Kanji a bit, as well as using some flashcards to learn some vocabulary while reviewing the writing system. My overall goal for Japanese is to reach a conversational level in two years and spend another year really shoring up my fluency. I plan to do this while attempting to continue improving my Spanish. I’m not sure what I’ll do after that as it’s a long ways away, but if I can accomplish these goals I know I’ll be motivated to start another language.

If you took the time to read this, I really appreciate it! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please feel free to shoot me a line; all of my social media links and e-mail address are at the bottom of my website.

“Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” -Antonio Machado

Una descripción muy completa e interesante. Estoy seguro de que servirá de ejemplo y motivación a muchos usuarios de Lingq, gracias por compartirla.
Yo estoy en una de etapa de aprendizaje del ruso muy cercana a la tuya en español, intentando alcanzar la “fluidez”, signifique lo que signifique, y coincidimos en buena parte de nuestro método de estudio (Assimil, Lingq, empezar a hablar después de haber alcanzado cierto vocabulario, …)
Te deseo suerte con el español, el japonés y tus futuros proyectos.

¡Gracias, y te deseo suerte también!