As a teacher, it always makes me so sad when students think that learning a language has to be difficult and boring. No way! Communicative and dynamic classes are not only an efficient and great way to learn Spanish, but they’re also so much fun! Nowadays there are a bunch of resources available to help in language learning, as well. Practicing Spanish is just as important as learning Spanish, as you don’t want to forget what you worked so hard to learn. So without further ado, here are 10 fun ways to kickstart your Spanish language learning journey.
- Listen to music. Look for some great Spanish songs that interest you with their catchy tunes, great lyrics, or slow and well-pronounced vocals. Back when CDs were the norm, I burned myself a disc with about 20 Spanish songs that I enjoyed and listed to the songs several times while looking at the lyrics. Then I played the CD nonstop on car rides, and pretty soon I was singing along without any effort, and was able to think through the lyrics and their meaning, and also see how grammar came into play.
- Use free applications and software. There are so many great apps out there for both adults and kids, and the best thing is that they are FREE! I personally use Memrise (even though you have to pay for the app now, if you open the it in a browser (Memrise.com), the program is still free), and Duolingo for all my students. Memrise is a great way to learn and practice vocabulary, and it’s so fun and addictive! Duolingo is also nice for vocabulary, but I use it more for grammar points practice. While not as inherently fun for me as Memrise, I love all the incentives they give to keep you learning, keeping track of your progress, letting you level up, telling you how many days you have on a language learning streak, letting you earn points and their currency, “lingots”, in order to buy in app items, etc. My 5 year old really enjoys using Memrise, as well, or as he calls it, “the rocket ship game”. You can always use social media to find groups of people who are also learning the language and even native speakers willing to practice with you – for free!
- Study abroad. Studying abroad helps you to learn with native speakers, which is sometimes difficult to do in your own country, and gives you tons of free practice outside of the classroom. I took 4 years of language in high school, followed by a minor during my undergraduate years, but one of the best things I ever did for my language learning was to do an intensive 6 week course in Costa Rica. I learned so much in such a short time, and plus I got out and about and signed myself up for dance classes, went to discos (dance clubs), ate at restaurants with locals, travelled on the cheap on the weekends to non-touristy places so I could meet and practice with native speakers, etc. I stayed with a host family in a homestay placement, as well, which was fabulous, because I was FORCED to use my Spanish to communicate from the moment I woke up until I went to sleep at night, and there’s definitely something to be said for having to work to come up with words and phrases in an exhausted state in another language. My vocabulary grew leaps and bounds and my grammar improved sooooo much!
- Stay with a host family in a homestay placement. This is such an amazing experience that I always encourage my students to do if they get the opportunity. By staying with a family, you are in a safe, friendly environment, with lots of free Spanish practice opportunities. You have someone to ask questions to about the best places to visit, how to get there, how to pronounce or say something, what x word means, about cultural practices, etc. Plus, you get to try new foods, and see in a 100% authentic way how cultural norms differ, from something as small as how laundry is washed to trying different foods that you’d never heard of before, but now will never forget. (Olla de carne, casados, guanabana, guisado, chifrijo, I could go on and on. Man my mouth is watering right now!)
- Partake in local traditions. Take every opportunity, whether you’re in your own country or studying abroad, to integrate yourself into the culture and local traditions. There are always “fiestas”, get-togethers, language exchanges, ferias (farmer’s markets), traditional foods, etc. to try and to experience, and aside from the cultural aspect, you just may find a great Spanish practice buddy!
- Order in Spanish. If you’re in your home country, find a local authentic restaurant with Spanish speakers (Mexican food, Costa Rican food, Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican, Honduran, tapas, the list is endless). Challenge yourself to not only order (and ask questions!) all in Spanish, but to also make small talk with your waiter and staff, and to compliment the chef afterwards all in Spanish. Plus you get to eat some delicious food while you’re at it!
- Take dance classes in Spanish. If you are studying abroad, it is very easy to find open dance classes, especially in Costa Rica. If you are in your home country, it may be a bit more difficult, but with some searching, you should be able to find a local salsa, merengue, or Latin dance groups. I took a really cool dance class while studying abroad in Costa Rica, and learned the basics of salsa, merengue, cumbia, bolero and bachata – all in Spanish! Granted, I did accidentally ask a guy to be my boyfriend instead of my partner (oops!), but other than that slight hitch, I exercised off all the amazing food I was consuming, met lots of locals who were happy to let me practice my Spanish with them, and learned how to dance well enough to go to the discos and traditional fiestas without feeling like a fool. Plus, I learned lots of new vocabulary and was exposed to great music I would have otherwise never heard.
- Take Skype classes. If you are too busy to find time to study abroad, or even sign up for classes locally, try Skype classes! You can work out a regular schedule that suits you, or even switch it up and do different class times with different teachers. I confess to being pretty technologically adverse (no Twitter, Instagram, etc. for me!), but I think Instituto Estelar Bilingüe offers really great Skype Spanish classes. The setup is really easy and somehow they manage to make the class dynamic and interesting even though you’re miles (or countries!) apart. The thing I really like is that the classes are easy to fit in any schedule (so no excuses to myself for not keeping going!). One week, you can sign up for a morning class, another for an evening class, one week on Saturday, another week on Monday, etc. This dynamic is especially amazing since I have a crazy, ever changing schedule (yay for 3 little kids!), plus very low cashflow, so one hour per week is best for me. Obviously more is better, and as a language teacher, I definitely recommend a half hour per day as opposed to just 1 hour per week, but sometimes you’ve got to start small and work your way up, and Skype classes are a relatively easy, cheap, and fun way to learn the language, or even for conversation practice.
- Watch TV, Youtube videos, and read in Spanish. I LOVE to read. If I didn’t have 3 small children, I could read all day long and never be bored. However, it can sometimes be discouraging to try to read in another language and feel like you’re looking up words every 2 seconds. Nowadays there are awesome reading practice sites online where you can see the English translation underneath or next to the Spanish text, so that you don’t have to look anything up and can easily and quickly keep reading. Also, several have audio clips, so you can hear a native speaker reading it out loud while you follow along. I can’t emphasize enough how watching YouTube videos has helped me in my language learning journey. I’m not a big fan of telenovelas (soooo much crazy drama!!!!), but I found one I liked, “Zorro, la espada y la rosa”, about you guessed it, Zorro, and it was great. I watched the first episode like 3 times and really only learned the word “caballo” since they repeated it so many times, and felt like I understood like 5 words. However, the plot was interesting, the actors and costuming fabulous, and it was free! I watched all the episodes, looking up words as I went, and I kid you not, by the last episode (I think there were around 120???), I was able to follow along fairly easily and get the gist of what was going on even when I wasn’t looking at the screen. It really helped develop my ear, so to speak, and gave me lots of new vocabulary. Nowadays you can easily find many of your favorite shows and movies either dubbed in Spanish or with subtitles, so that’s a really easy way to practice by watching something that you would be watching anyway, just with a Spanish component.
- Study with Instituto Estelar Bilingüe in Costa Rica!!!!! I just had to include this, obviously, because I have had the most tremendous experience with Estelar Spanish School, and as a teacher myself, I can say from both a teaching and learning perspective that their classes are well-planned, dynamic, conversational (soooo important), and FUN! Plus, there are tons of FREE (great for me!) practice activities available. They’re always doing something, such as Latin dance classes (which you already know I love!), Costa Rican cooking classes (my favorite part is eating the end product, haha), Artisan classes where you learn how to do local art such as jewelry making, movie nights, language exchanges (I can’t emphasize enough how helpful these are!!!! And FREE!!!!), volunteer opportunities, game nights, and I’m sure there’s a lot more, but that’s what I think you should really take advantage of. Also, they organize trips to local (and sometimes not quite so local) places of interest, such as national parks, beaches galore (there are sooooo many to choose from!), volcanoes, waterfalls, turtle watching, etcetera etcetera etcetera. The point is that you get to travel on the cheap to some amazing places that you otherwise would likely not experience. I can’t say enough good things about my host family and homestay experience in Costa Rica, and everything that I learned and ate and the fun places I went with them. If there is anything that I would recommend to people interested in learning Spanish, it’s to stay with a Spanish speaking family because your language will grow leaps and bounds every single week.
So really, there’s no excuse anymore not to get started on your language learning journey, or to pick up where you’ve left off. There are so many great, cheap/free, and fun ways to learn Spanish available. Suerte y éxitos!
This blog post was contributed by Mandy Picado VanderVeen, a teacher, student, traveler, language learner, and mother.