19 Oct Top Spanish Language Learning Tools
Learning a language is an incredible asset for traveling the world. Being able to speak to host country nationals in their mother tongue can not only help you get around more easily, it also goes a long way in helping you have more authentic and meaningful interactions with the people you meet.
For many travelers, language is a big hurdle and even prevents people from considering certain destinations. With short-term trips, a few words and phrases can be enough to get by. But more intimidating destinations may call for a local guide and translator to help navigate through the language barrier.
If you’re like us and want to travel independently, learning a language like Spanish can be super helpful. I (Michelle) was a French major but ended up learning Spanish in college as well when I did a two-summer internship with a non-profit in the Dominican Republic.
I taught myself the basics in preparation for that first summer and then got lots of practice living with Dominican host families and working with Spanish-speaking counterparts. Today, we’re going through a similar process for Jedd as we prepare for a multi-week trip to Ecuador this winter. He is learning Spanish as a beginner and I am brushing up on everything I’ve forgotten.
We thought it would be helpful to others to share some of the resources we’ve found – many of which are free – to quickly get your Spanish skills up to par without sitting in a class.
Our Top Four Resources for Learning Spanish:
Coffee Break Spanish Podcast
These are a fun and easy way to learn grammar and vocabulary while you’re on a walk, doing chores, or driving in the car. As an added bonus, it’s produced by Scottish people so you hear a fun accent when they’re explaining the concepts in English. For Jedd, we used the free Beginner’s Episodes (Season 1), and I went through some of the free Advanced Episodes (Season 4) for myself.
We essentially used CoffeeBreak Spanish as the core of our “curriculum” for the first couple months and found other youtube videos and games that reinforced the topics they cover in Season 1. Jedd listened to each episodes several times and recorded the vocabulary he learned in a notebook as he went along.
You can listen to all four seasons of podcasts for free. If you want further resources, like extended lessons and written transcriptions, then you can pay for the premium version. Radiolingua also does other languages (We wrote about Coffeebreak French on our Preparing for a Budget Trip to France blog post).
Pros: Engaging and digestible lessons with good explanations of the grammar concepts you’re not used to.
Cons: Audio-only needs to be supplemented with something visual to help make the words stick in your mind- either use the materials from the Premium version or do some self-directed note taking.
This is the most well-known and also the most expensive option for language-learning. I personally like it because it helps you learn new words and phrases intuitively (without direct translation). You can get different language levels a la carte or bundle levels 1 through 5 in a package.
If you’re on a budget or are not 100% sure you’ll be able to stick to the program and get your money’s worth, then I wouldn’t put Rosetta Stone at the top of your list. But if you want the best, all-in-one, interactive program, then go for it.
Pros: Engaging, visual, and methodical.
Cons: Costly. The immersion approach is intended to help you pick up on grammar naturally, but the program doesn’t explain why a particular language structure or pattern is used. It needs to be supplemented with a textbook or something to really allow you to create new sentences on your own.
The DuoLingo smartphone app has gained popularity in the language-learning world because it “game-ifies” learning the language. Perhaps because I’m not typically motivated by games, “leveling up,” or competing, this method was a little less effective for keeping me coming back. But Jedd likes it a lot, and it is a very convenient way to brush up on grammar and vocabulary on the go or when you’re short on time. It can also be played straight from the website if you prefer not to use it on your phone.
Pros: Engaging and easily digestible lessons, like playing a game. App sends you reminders to play and rewards you for consistent use.
Cons: Doesn’t always teach practical vocabulary- like when will you need to say “The monkey wears red pants”?
There are a wide, wide range of free Spanish lessons on youtube. I think the more effective way to use Youtube is to search for specific topics that you need to review, rather than following one Youtube channel as the basis of your classes.
Spanish Dict is the closest I found to a quality introductory series of lessons. You could start there but we found the host to be a little too cheesy.
Butterfly Spanish, on the other hand, has a more likable and entertaining host (in our opinion) who is a native speaker. She covers a lot of the basics, although the lessons are not quite methodical enough to really be a stand-alone language learning program. But definitely worth using as a supplement to the topics you’re covering on other mediums.
Pros: Engaging and fun. Audio and visual in one.
Cons: No good cohesive series to take you methodically through. Teacher occasionally goes on tangents that are a bit too advanced.
Other Spanish Resources We Use:
Digital Dialects is a super basic site that has some simple online games to help you practice your beginning Spanish vocabulary. If you need to review things like numbers, colors, animals, etc. then give this a whirl. It’s probably not something you’ll want to use every day, though.
Quizlet Flashcard App
Another way to reinforce and memorize concepts you’re learning elsewhere is to use a flashcard app like Quizlet. Other users have made numerous flashcard series for Spanish so you can search for the specific topic you want to study. See the Spanish collection here.
Google Translate is great for looking up unknown words quickly. I even paste in phrases I’ve composed in Spanish and see how they come out in English, just to make sure I’ve put them together correctly. This has been really helpful when communicating with our Airbnb hosts via e-mail in Spanish. Keep in mind that many words have multiple meanings and nuances, so the software isn’t always 100% accurate.
For me, having a basic Spanish beginner textbook is really useful for looking up grammar concepts or verb conjugations. You can also use the practice activities in each chapter to hone your skills. There are zillions of options out there and you can probably find something cheap at your local thrift shop. I personally used Dos Mundos when I was first learning (and still do).
Other Resources We Still Need to Try:
Sites like iTalki can help you find native Spanish speakers who are looking to practice English online. You can connect with folks via web chat (Skype) and exchange language practice time in both languages.
FluentU is a site that compiles real world Spanish language videos all in one place. You can find videos for any level and a wide variety of topics, each with Spanish subtitles and interactive captions so you can look up unfamiliar words in English. You can also download their audio files to listen as a podcast. The site requires a member login but appears to be free.
If you’ve used any of these tools yourself or have some new recommendations for us, we’d love your feedback. I’ll continue to update this post as we discover more useful resources leading up to our trip.
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