Five free things to do every day to improve your Spanish.

I moved to Mexico without knowing any functional Spanish at all. Sure, fifteen years ago I took a semester as a freshman in high school…but that wasn’t helping me much. Now, as an International Studies major at the University of Alaska, I need to collect a lot of language credits in order to graduate but in the interim I still need to get around and be able to take care of business in my new life in Mexico.
Talking with my friend Samara the other day I realized that my vocabulary really isn’t that bad—I know a LOT of words and can follow a conversation fairly easily. But when it comes my turn to talk I’m stumbling all over myself and get tongue tied because conjugation and all the little bits and pieces that connect the words I know are still a mystery. This is incredibly frustrating for someone who is used to being able to express themselves easily in their first language, and I think that frustration in and of itself is my biggest stumbling block and my own worse enemy while I am still in the self-learning phase of this language education.
So clearly, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and trying to come up with ways to overcome this problem. After consulting with a couple of teachers and both native- and non-native Spanish speakers, here are a few tips that have my brain slowly making the switch. Maybe you’ll find them useful as well.

Five Free Ways to Improve Your Spanish

  1. Cartoons. Yes, specifically cartoons! I have discovered that Netflix has a great selection of cartoons in Spanish and I find it much easier to follow than other more mature shows I’ve tried because of the simplicity of the language. This is the least intense yet probably most useful way I’m learning simple conjugations and such. (I must admit I am particularly fond of The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show at the moment.) Obviously, Netflix is not free but many have some access to Spanish-language cartoons one way or another, so look around until you find something that doesn’t drive you batty.
  2. Duolingo. I’ve tried a few apps but Duolingo keeps me coming back. It’s not always perfect, but it’s free and repetitive and engaging enough to keep me going. I also like the feature which allows me to “compete” with friends and the reminders and incentives to practice daily are surprisingly effective.
  3. Read Something, Anything! A new friend who trains ESL teachers told me the other day to find something I’m interested in and read a bit each day. Not much, only maybe 15-30 minutes, and it should be a topic I’m really intrigued by and want to know about. He suggested a book, specifically. Others have suggested similar strategies with reading a news article that interests me each day. The consensus so far has been NOT to use any translator or dictionary as a crutch to get through it, but rather allow your brain to start working to process the context and inference of words as we go.
  4. Music. This one is easy, but is probably not the most effective. I love Latin music of all sorts and quickly find myself singing along to favorite songs. This isn’t really very useful for fine tuning anything about your Spanish skills, but I feel like it gets my brain engaged and the more exposure to the language the more likely I am to feel comfortable and not freeze up when I’m trying to find my words. Checking out live music events is especially engaging!
  5. Movies & TV. I feel like this is significantly different from watching children’s programs and cartoons, honestly. The language is so much more varied, and here’s the other kicker—you can watch in English or Spanish but either way you go be sure the subtitles are on and you’re paying attention. The more variety the better.

A couple of extras:

These aren’t free, but I’ve found them useful and promising, respectively.

  • Be a tourist. Showing my friend around Vallarta last week exposed me to a couple of situations in which all material was presented in both Spanish and English. A boat trip in which all announcements were made in Spanish first, and then English was especially enlightening and encouraging in reminding me that my vocabulary is improving as I could understand all that was said, and then confirm it when the English announcement was made.
  • Try Coursera. Coursera has a really intriguing online Spanish language course through UC Davis. I’m currently waiting to hear back from my home University as to whether or not they might accept credits through this program since they don’t offer many online language courses themselves, but it’s quite affordable and has good reviews. You can try it free for seven days and then it’s $733mxn ($39usd) per month for as long as you study. Obviously, the more time you devote to it the cheaper it is.
  • Find a teacher or class. There are so many great teachers around willing and ready to help you learn for super affordable prices! Again I would suggest asking around on your city or town’s local Facebook groups to find something that fits your schedule and budget nearby.

Recent studies have shown that repetition is key in learning new languages and both passively listening to something in the background (conversations, radio, music, TV, etc,) and actively listening and paying attention to the same content achieve similar results. So, go ahead! Turn the music up and leave the TV on, just make sure you’re listening and practicing and eventually it will come to you.
Beyond that, just make every effort to use what you do know at every opportunity. Most are patient and friendly and eager to help. I’ve learned more in my daily exchanges with waiters and bus drivers and Oxxo attendants than anywhere else…when I force myself to do it!

4 thoughts on “Five free things to do every day to improve your Spanish.”

  1. I lived in Mexico City when I was in college, a long time ago. (1968-70). Learning Spanish is the best thing I ever did in my educational pursuits. I love going to Spanish speaking countries and having the chance to speak with the locals. I always try to sit in the front seat of the cabs and practice. The locals in every country are always thrilled to hear me speak.
    That being said one of the things that helped me learn the Spanish that was not in my textbooks, was to take a notebook with me and write down a minimum of 5 words a day that I did not know, or that possibly I needed to learn the definition. Lots of store signs etc. For example what is Botanas?

    1. I love that! I guess I do something similar now except I often pull up Google Translate on my phone when I see words or phrases I don’t understand. I actually think they do stick better because it’s a conscious action created from active curiosity and the recall of those things seems to be good.

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