English Study Hacks

How I Learned Spanish on my Own

“Spanish is so similar to Portuguese! It must be simple for you to learn”. 

It is not true. In fact, Spanish took more months until I became fluent than I was expecting.

If you go to Brazilian border cities, such as Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay), probably you will hear people speaking Portunhol

Portunhol is an informal, colloquial form of Spanish that is used in Brazil. It is the art of mastering a mixture of words from Portuguese and Spanish. However, this mix of languages is far from enough for a meaningful conversation. 

And Spanish has never been an “easy language” for me. So, how I became fluent in this language on my own and how you can learn Spanish at home? 


Background 

During my childhood in the 1990s and early 2000s, I had not reliable connection access (only dial-up internet). 

Consequently, at this time, my access to Spanish was through few television programs broadcasted in this language (something rare in Brazil as dubbing reigns here), games, movies, documentaries, books, telenovelas, and TV series (like Chavo del Ocho).

Even though it may sound odd (especially because Portuguese and Spanish are both Romance languages), Spanish was exotic for me. I barely used to hear this language in my daily life.

Despite its geographical proximity, Brazil is culturally distant from other countries in Latin America. 

In 2010 (when I was in high school), Spanish classes became compulsory at my school. And it was probably the most important contact with the Spanish language I had ever had.

My teacher was the perfect person to teach this language. She was also giving DELE preparatory classes at the Instituto Cervantes (a non-profit organization created by the Spanish government to spread Spanish culture and language across the world). Finally, as she had studied at the University of Salamanca, I could finally learn Spanish from a teacher who had deep (and international) experience with this language.

Nonetheless, although my first impression of the Spanish language was astonishing, I had no idea of the importance of learning it.

Some years later, in early 2014, a colleague (another language learner) from the Law School suggested me to create an account on a penpal platform where he met several language exchange partners from different countries around the world.

I was highly interested in Chinese studies (Sinology) and Mandarin Chinese, a circumstance that exalted my desire to speak with users from China. In parallel, I wanted to meet people from other Latin American countries (preferably those from Spanish speaking countries).

And for the first time, I spoke with Argentines, Mexicans, Puerto Rican, Peruvians, and Hispanic Americans, which allowed me to get to know the cultures of países hispanohablantes

Exploring Latin American and Hispanic-American cultures was a substantial motivation for me to immerse myself in Spanish. Listening to podcasts and following YouTube channels in this language were some of my new study habits. 

Since then, many things have changed in my learning process. 

Step 1: Short Conversations, and The Simpsons: the First Steps to Understand Spanish 

As everything I knew was Portunhol, I had to learn Spanish from scratch. 

The first step I established in my learning process was to build a good vocabulary (enough to read short texts and exchange information on familiar topics in a simple way). 

Unlike many people, I did not use any list of vocabularies or workbooks (except for the DELE B2). In my experience, these two tools make the learning process less effective, more tiresome and consequently reduces the speed I could immerse myself in a language.

I preferred to start learning vocabulary through comic books (like Mafalda, a comic strip written and drawn by the Argentinian cartoonist Quino) and news websites, such as El País and BBC Mundo. 

Comics and news media use straightforward vocabulary. They are perfect for building a vocabulary to later use in short conversations with the native speakers I was meeting on the Internet. 

Instead of simply writing the new words I was learning, I preferred to put them in context, that is, in some sentence: 

After writing down these sentences, I used to read them daily (or weekly, depending on the level of difficulty).   

The Simpsons is one of the few TV shows I still enjoy watching. The dialogues are funny and easily catch your attention. Moreover, the episodes are short (which means I could watch them almost every day). So, learning Spanish with the Simpsons (or Los Simpsons) proved to be a highly effective study habit. 

In the first three months, I added Spanish dubbing and subtitles while watching the episodes. After feeling more prepared, my next step was removing the subtitles. Every new word was included in my notebook.

My method of reading, listening, speaking, and writing worked as follows:  

And no. I never tried to memorize all Spanish verb conjugations. 

Reading and rereading lists of conjugations is tiring, boring, and impractical. It is much better to learn verb conjugation by practicing out loud and in real-life conversations.

Also, do not forget to read in Spanish. The more you read, the more you feel comfortable with the language. 

The beginner and intermediate levels are the hardest to reach (from A1 to B1) because you are still immersing yourself in the language. Moreover, at this step, you are building the foundation of your learning process. 

If you can get through them, there is nothing that can stop you from becoming fluent. 

When I started learning Spanish, I asked myself the following questions to stay focused and motivated: 

  1. Does my learning routine allow me to improve the four skills I need (reading, listening, speaking, and writing) to become fluent in a foreign language? 
  2. My study plan really suits my lifestyle? 
  3. Do I like my study habits to learn Spanish? Or do I see them merely as a duty? 
  4. Why am I learning Spanish? 

Step 2: Let’s Agree on One Point: Spanish is Not that Difficult 

What aspects of Spanish can make this language easy for you to learn? 

When I began to learn English, I read some articles about what makes English one of the easiest languages for Portuguese speakers to begin speaking and writing from week one. And as this mindset worked with this language, I adopted the same approach in Spanish. 

In addition to sharing some vocabulary with Portuguese (and even English), Spanish can be incredibly easy compared to other languages. 

In my opinion, Spanish is not difficult to learn for several reasons as follows: 

  • There are only two gender nouns; 
  • There are no cases (such as German and Danish); 
  • It is not a tonal language (such as Chinese or Thai); 
  • It also uses the Latin alphabet (different from Russian);
  • There is a wide availability of materials on YouTube, podcasts, and the internet in general;
  • Finally, remember that the world’s friendliest countries speak Spanish! It includes Spain, Mexico, Argentina, and more. 

And speaking of materials and language partners, what resources did I use? 

Step 3: Study Hacks and Conversations with Native Speakers

Chatting with native speakers was by far the most effective study hack for learning Spanish I adopted. 

How did I meet Spanish speakers for language exchange? 

  • Tandem (in person): several universities around the world have tandem programs to integrate international students into local society. It is based on a method of mutual learning;
  • Tandem and HelloTalk: free mobile apps (with premium options) to find Spanish speakers learning your native language;
  • Instagram: the hashtags #languagelearning, #learnspanish, and many others are splendid for finding people teaching or learning Spanish. 

And I would like to make some honorable mentions of applications and websites that I have never used, but heard numerous good references: 

  • Italki: an excellent option if you are looking for Spanish tutors (tuition prices are usually affordable); 
  • Couchsurfing: some users organize meetings in several cities throughout the world in which it is possible to meet polyglots. 

Simultaneously, I was studying English. Around 2018 and 2019, I reached C1 level, which gave me experience for my Spanish learning process (I was at level A2 or B1). My previous contact with language learning allowed me to have a clear idea about study plans and which methods and resources could maximize my perfomance. 

In 2019, I replaced my comics with academic articles/papers and books whose vocabulary was more advanced, such as literary works written by Miguel Ángel Asturias and Octavio Paz (winners of the 1967 and 1990 Nobel Prizes for Literature, respectively). 

In the same year, I started listening to podcasts and radio stations about the Spanish language (like Spanishpod 101 and Spanish Coffee Break), environmental studies (my area of academic research), politics, and international affairs (Visualpolitik). 

Moreover, I scheduled meetings with my Spanish speaking friends two or three times a week to discuss politics, science, and other topics that demand a complex vocabulary. 

As a result, these new habits and materials helped me to learn words at a much more intense pace. However, there was a problem: how to memorize so many new words on a busy schedule? Writing everything down in the notebook was no longer the most well-ordered technique. 

The answer was a method called spaced repetition system (SRS). 

Anki (some learners also use Memrise) remains my favorite SRS app and it is probably the most famous in the multilingual community on the Internet. Both mobile and computer versions are available: 

SRS softwares use statistical algorithms to help you to focus on words that your memory is not retaining. For example, imagine that you learned ten Spanish words (it means ten flashcards). If you get a card correct, you can review it in three days. Otherwise, you reduce the interval between now and the next review. 

While using Anki to learn Spanish, I put the words on flashcards. A set of flashcards forms a deck: 

I recommend you to make a review daily (either to learn Spanish or any other skill that requires retaining a large amount of information). 

And how did you stay focused while studying? 

For several years I used the Pomodoro technique (which became hugely popular in the past year): 

Basically, you set a 25-minute timer and keep studying until the time is up. After that, you rest for 5 minutes (a short break). It is equivalent to one Pomodoro cycle. Every 4 shifts, take a rest of 15 or 20 minutes (long break). 

Recently, I started using Forest to optimize my study and work routine. This mobile app gamifies productivity: 

Available on Google Play and App Store

The longer you study or work, the more trees you plant. But it is important to remember: the cell phone must remain locked! If you try to access your smartphone before the set time, you will lose points and cause your tree to die. 

Step 4: Think in Spanish 

In 2019, I was so confident and comfortable with the Spanish language that I noticed something: I was thinking in Spanish! 

I did not even have to concentrate to describe my surroundings in this language. Likewise, when I read something in Spanish, I did not translate the words into Portuguese. It meant that Spanish was completely embedded in my routine. 

This natural process is the result of many hours of study, conversations with Native speakers, and immersion (as I highlighted in the Step 3).

There is no recipe for you to make this happen in the blink of an eye. Nonetheless, when looking at my experience, I can see some daily routines that able me to start thinking in Spanish: 

  • Learn simple phrases (preferably with action verbs): “Quiero beber agua”, “Me gustaría comer fruta”, “¿Qué libro te gusta leer?”, and more; 
  • Describe (in Spanish) the world around you: the next time you go to the kitchen to drink water, describe your surroundings. What color is your glass? Is your kitchen sink small or large? What is the size of your refrigerator? ;
  • You can also imagine dialogues based in your surroundings: suppose you are drinking a beer in a bar. How would you order another drink in Spanish? 

Step 5: Speaking and Writing the Real Spanish: DELE B2 vs. Impostor Syndrome 

I will write a post to describe my experience with the DELE B2 (Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera), the most prestigious Spanish language certificate offered by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science through the Instituto Cervantes. By getting this certificate, I could fulfill language requirements to study in Spanish speaking countries and get an advantage in job and study applications. 

In July 2019, I decided to take the DELE B2 before my travel to Europe (which would happen in November). 

It was an ambitious goal as even Romance language speakers with a good level of Spanish usually take six or more months to prepare for the DELE B2 (and I only had three months until the next exam date). 

Regardless of having little time to prepare, I was willing to elaborate my own study plan, prepare myself and succeed. No tutor and no excuses if something did wrong. 

Preparing for the DELE B2 and learning Spanish are not synonyms. It is a standardized exam and the examiners assume that the test takers already have a good command of Spanish. For this reason, I am not going to describe my experience with the DELE B2.  

What I want to underline is that obtaining this diploma was my second turning point in my journey to become fluent in the Spanish language. Until I successfully get the DELE B2, I was experiencing some feelings of the Impostor Syndrome. Even though my Spanish speaking friends praised my skills, I could not believe that I really spoke Spanish fluently (I had never used my Spanish in professional or academic situations). 

After professional examiners assessed my knowledge of Spanish, I no longer had any doubt that my self-taught study methods were effective to learn and speak this language in a fluent level. Additionally, taking the DELE B2 served as a deadline that speed up my learning process. 

And yes, the DELE B2 costed me some money. So I was not willing to waste it and retake the test again. 

Step 6: What Made me Spend Hours Studying Spanish? Stay Motivated (And Avoid Getting Discouraged) 

Can you guess what made me spend several hours studying Spanish? 

After describing my personal story about how I became fluent in this language, it is indispensable closing this post by answering this question. 

Cultural immersion, effective study methods to train my brain to think fast were paramount factors in making me feel confident to speak Spanish. 

However, something I did not mention in the previous topics and left it to the end was how to manage your learning plans. 

The comparison may sound distant. Nevertheless, imagine that learning a foreign language is like running a country. You need short-, medium- and long-term plans for a successful administration. 

Obviously, my long-term plan was to be able to get into from trivial to a deep conversation in Spanish. In addition, I wanted to write texts in this language at an academic and professional level. 

To achieve this major objective, I did set up mini-missions to beat boredom and challenge my own skills for each 2 (short-term plans) or 4 months (medium-term). These minor challenges included writing letters and sending them by mail to my native Spanish speaking friends, reading a book and then writing a review or talking to someone about it and present scientific conferences. 

Apart from the DELE B2, these mini-missions served as minor tests (each one with their own deadlines) to evaluate my skills and detect any weaknesses in my study performance. In other words, these challenges stepped me out of my comfortable zone to take new steps to gain more experiences. 

Seeing how far I could go was and still remains a real impetus for me to focus on continuous process improvement in Spanish and any other skill I decide to develop. 

Bonus Step: Gamification? Is it Actually Works? 

Do apps like Duolingo and Lingodeer can strengthen language learning skills? 

Gamification is a trend in mobile platforms. For instance, Time Magazine recently named Duolingo as one of the 100 most influential companies. Duolingo and Lingodeer are among the 50 most downloaded apps in App Store. The former remains one of the most downloaded apps in Google Play

Certainly, there are many other similar applications besides those I mentioned above. I am referring to Duolingo and Lingodeer because I already used them. 

First of all, I have to say you will hardly become fluent in Spanish (and consequently master the four skills I wrote at the beginning of this text) by completing the Spanish course of Duolingo or Lingodeer. 

On the other hand, these applications are extremely useful to create a study routine in your target language, to build a basic vocabulary, and to learn some basic phrases (a tool that can help you to achieve the Step 4, for example). 

To summarize, either Duolingo or Lingodeer can give you a boost while struggling in the beginning levels (A1 or A2) as they may be a guide to organize your vocabulary. 

About Luiz G.

Luiz Guilherme Natalio de Mello is a Brazilian Lawyer and Sociologist working on sustainability/disaster risk reduction topics and the intersection of technology and environmental issues. He speaks English, Portuguese, Spanish, German, and French.

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