How to teach yourself Spanish as a beginner- 11 things I wish I knew before starting

I’d been in Costa Rica for about 3 hours and I’d had yet another frustrating interaction. It went something like this:

I walk into the shop and locate the cheese counter. All of the cheese looks identical, and none of it looks like anything we have in the UK. Nothing has a price on it. The only Spanish words I know are ‘queso’ and ‘gracias’, neither of which are helpful in this situation. I point at a random block, and ask the lady behind the counter for a piece. As it turns out, she speaks no English (I was later informed that pretty much everyone in San Jose speaks decent English, but my British accent was confusing them and they clammed up. Oh well). 

Another lady walks over, shoots off some rapid fire Spanish and is rewarded with some cling wrapped cheese. Aha. I point to what she is holding. They both look a bit confused, and talk to each other in more Spanish babble.

‘La misma?’ asks the lady behind the counter.

‘Si’ I guess.

She cuts off an identical piece and hands it to me. Success. And that is how I learned my first Spanish word- meaning ‘the same.’

Anyway, after that happened, I realised that the next two months were going to be quite difficult at my current level of Spanish. I decided to start teaching myself the basics to get by. Here’s how I did it.

(bonus- is anyone else noticing a running theme of cheese in this blog, or is it just me?)

1. Ask every person you meet to teach you one Spanish phrase

That’s it. For the first week or two, every new person I met, I’d ask ‘Hey! I’m learning Spanish. What’s a really important thing I should know how to say?’

From this, I learned such gems as ‘Una cerveza, por favor!’ and ‘Vamos a escalade!’ which translate to ‘A beer please!’ and ‘Let’s go climbing!’

I had the basics covered already. But doing this for a bit, you should begin to spot patterns in language, learn a little about verb conjugations, plurals and masculine/feminine words. You should also begin to be able to put a couple of these phrases together, or at least look like you’re making a little bit of an effort to fit in with the local culture.

2. Listen

I don’t think I actually picked up a book for another month after that, but my Spanish improved rapidly. Being surrounded by people speaking another language, it’s easy to tune out, but make the effort to actually tune in, even if you have no idea what’s being said. Try and pick out any words that sounds familiar, listen to pronunciation and see where emphasis is placed, use context and body language to figure out the gist of a conversation. Immerse yourself until it sounds so familiar you feel like you can almost understand it.

3. Download the Duolingo app

I love Duolingo. It’s really good for learning a language naturally, it’s free, it’s easy to pick it up when you have a spare ten minutes, all in all it’s just fantastic. Everything is broken down into helpful little lessons which teach you vocabulary and grammar at the same time. It’s great for practising and reinforcing what you’ve learned already. 

4. Learn some verbs

Google ‘basic Spanish verbs’ and you should get a multitude of websites filled with lists appear. Pick one (they’re all basically the same). I like to write each verb out and draw a little picture to illustrate what it means. Whatever works for you.

5. Learn grammar- present simple, present continous tenses

No, I didn’t know what either of those things meant before I started learning foreign languages either. Present simple means actions which are happening right now, or happen habitually e.g yo como (I eat). Present continuous is actions which are ongoing e.g estoy comiendo (I am eating). You should obviously at some point learn to talk about the past and future, but for now you can ignore them. Now that you’ve (hopefully) learned a few verbs, you can now start learning what I/you/he/they/we can do with them and start conjugating.

Don’t forget to look up irregular verbs- these are often the most common ones used, who’s frequency of use has meant that the archaic grammar laws that were once used on them have stuck around. They may not make sense, so just learn them.

6. Speak

Hopefully you’ve been doing this the whole time but- talk to people! Once you explain that you’re learning (estoy apprendiendo) everyone will be super nice and helpful, and really encouraging of you. Don’t be afraid to ask ‘Max despacio, porfa!’ (more slowly, please!). Practice, make mistakes, it doesn’t matter. The only way to learn is by doing.

7. Pick up local slang and colloquialisms

To really sound like you belong, have a listen to the local slang people use. In Costa Rica, you can pretty much get by with the phrase ‘Pura Vida’ which can be used as a greeting, an adjective, or something meaning yolo, hakuna matata and fuck it all rolled into one. Other words to watch out for are ‘mae’ (dude) which you can sprinkle liberally throughout conversation, ‘al suave’ (chill/no worries) and ‘salado’ (tough luck).

8. Learn some vocabulary

You can probably string a decent sentence together by now, but are struggling with what to talk about… time to learn some vocabulary! All that basic goodness like colours, numbers and the weather, as well as adjectives to describe people and things around you. Sort it into topics, write lists, draw pictures. My dad used to write the names of things around the house on post it notes and stick them to the relevant item to help his au pair learn German. Whatever works.

9. Question words- por qué?

In Spanish, as other languages, you can form a question simply by making a statement and saying it with a rising inflection. However, it’s going to be useful to know how to put a question together properly. You’ll need to know how to ask how, why, who where etc.

10. Conjunctions and prepositions

Tiny words, that it is surprisingly difficult to form a sentence without. Learning how to say but, because, then, until and so on will make your sentences sound much more fluent almost instantaneously.

11. Drink muchas cervezas (no, seriously)

My Spanish improves vastly when I’m drunk. Sometimes, I can get 10 minutes into a conversation before realising I’m not actually speaking English. This may sound too good to be true but I have spoken to other people who have confirmed the phenomenon. Drinking lowers your inhibitions, you’re less sub-consciously hung up on getting it perfect every time, and the Spanish just flows from your mouth. So get yourself down to the bar, use what we learned in step 1 (una cerveza, por favor!) and rinse and repeat. 

Obviously I am by no means an expert or fluent. However, I do now speak a decent level of Spanish, enough to get by in conversation (and order cheese at the deli) which considering I didn’t speak a lick before I arrived isn’t too shabby. Does anyone else have any tips for learning Spanish? I’d love to hear them! 






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