Learn Spanish (Or Any Language) Outside the Classroom

Learning a language is hard work, but it doesn’t always have to happen in a formal setting. Learn from Noodle Expert Jon Golbe how you can integrate foreign-language learning into your everyday life.

You basically have to be crazy to take up teaching yourself a second language as an adult. You can study for weeks, months, or years and still be less articulate than a five-year-old native speaker — but the potential rewards are huge.

Language-learning can be frustrating, but if you have some time on your hands and either enjoy the process or just absolutely have to do it (say, for work), then I have some advice. You can learn from dictionaries, phrasebooks, or dozens and dozens of free applications.

Finding Great Apps

The Best

I have SpanishDict, an English–Spanish dictionary that I use every day, Babbel, which teaches vocabulary and some grammar (but it costs a little money to get the full version), a flashcards app from Brainscape called Spanish Vocabulary, and another flashcard-based app called Memrise.

Other options

There are a bunch more that I found less helpful, such as Rosetta Stone’s free app, Busuu, and Qué Onda.

When I learn new words in Spanish, I often look them up on the Wiktionary site to learn about their origins. I find it a lot easier to remember a vocabulary word when I know its etymology.

I have also made some use of Hellotalk, a chatting app that connects people all over the world who wish to improve their language skills. In my case, the app pairs me with people who speak Spanish and are learning English, but it includes functionality for lots of languages. You can send your chat partner texts or audio files, and the app helps with translations. It’s a decent way to learn, but chatting online with strangers can get a little boring and alienating, so I don’t use it as much as I used to.

SpanishDict was listed among our 32 Most Innovative Online Tools of 2015 earlier this year.

Looking for Print

I also tape lists of Spanish words to my walls, including in the bathroom near where I brush my teeth. I even hang these lists in the shower in a spot on the wall that the water doesn’t hit. These sheets are torn-out pages from old Spanish dictionaries and guidebooks, word and definition lists that I wrote myself, and even the English and Spanish assembly instructions for my Dustbuster. (How else am I going to learn the Spanish word for “nozzle”? It’s “boquilla,” by the way.) The bathroom with pieces of paper taped haphazardly to the walls definitely exudes kind of an unhinged vibe, though, so be cautious with this one.

Using Video

You can also learn words from watching movies and television in Spanish (dubbed or in Spanish originally), or with Spanish subtitles if you’re newer to the game. This is nice because you can combine recreation and learning — you can enjoy “The Fifth Element” and, if you turn on some foreign language subtitles, you’ll be doing something relatively edifying at the same time. Boom.

Eating Your (Linguistic) Vegetables

Something to keep in mind, though, is that learning the vocabulary of another language is the fun part. While building vocabulary is indeed crucial, the linguistic equivalent of eating your vegetables is learning grammar. If you can’t conjugate verbs or use pronouns, you don’t know a language. Most of this involves common-sense effort.

Study conjugation tables. Read one of the literally thousands of articles that explain how pronouns work. Get as much of your Spanish (or other language) exposure as possible from actual speakers and writers, rather than just in little bits from an app that quizzes you one word at a time.

Hearing people speak in another language will make the grammar come to you in a more intuitive way — remember that this is probably how you learned English. The grammar instruction that comes with formal education just refines what we learn from hearing, speaking, and reading English in our everyday lives.

Integrating Learning

Media

The best thing you can do to learn a language is to integrate it into your life wherever possible. Once you have a baseline understanding of how the language works, try looking at websites and social media written in that language. Lots of publications also publish online in other languages, so try looking up other versions of magazines and newspapers that you already read in English, even if you're only able to grasp the headlines (or photo captions) at first.

I like professional basketball, so I watch highlights on ESPN Deportes and follow NBA players Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon on Twitter. (Gasol even translates his own tweets, so that’s especially helpful.) Other accounts I follow are the Spanish-language White House account (La Casa Blanca) and [NBA Mexico(https://twitter.com/nbamex){: target="_blank" rel="nofollow” }. I also enjoy mixed martial arts, so I watch UFC Latino on Hulu.

You’ll find that as you watch or read a Spanish (or other foreign-language) source, you will get to know its particular syntax and lexicon — every speaker or writer uses the language differently, but everyone tends to follow patterns of vocabulary, usage, and sentence construction.

Spanish can fill as much of your downtime as your sanity will allow. I made Spanish the default language on my ATM preferences and my Chipotle.com account. If you are killing time waiting for the subway, check out that Spanish-language subway advisory poster. If you’re watching television, turn on the subtitles. If you’re just browsing the Web, check out vocabulary lists.

Traveling

If you can, you should also travel. If getting on a plane isn’t feasible for you, a lower-cost option is going to a restaurant in which the staff speaks primarily Spanish (or whatever language you’re trying to learn). Just make sure to do this somewhere it’s appropriate rather than, say, Taco Bell. Speak the language that other patrons of the restaurant do. If everybody else is speaking English and the staff is fine with it, stick with that. But you can definitely learn something from going to that Ecuadorian place you’ve been meaning to try, plus the food’s probably amazing.

Working on Weaknesses

Make sure to have fun — and eat your vegetables. If you can read Spanish satisfactorily but can barely understand a word of it when it’s spoken, watch something that is in Spanish but that you’ll be able to follow visually. (An action movie, sports highlights, or something you’ve seen before, for instance, would make a good choice.) If you cannot speak Spanish well, make sure to exercise your spoken Spanish skills. If you are starting to get a foothold on the language, but don’t know much about the lives and cultures of actual Spanish speakers, fix that by reading the news and meeting people.

You’ll never improve much if you only focus on your areas of strength. Like everything else in life, if you want to learn Spanish, you’ll need to work hard, use common sense, and have fun. ¡Buena suerte!

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