“I wish my Spanish was better.” How many times have you caught yourself thinking or saying this exact phrase? Even after 3 years in Latin America, I still catch myself thinking this at least 4 times every day.
To make matters worse, it can be all too easy to criticize ourselves for any lack of progress – whether it’s real or perceived. I’ve sometimes found myself in a vicious circle of self-loathing which goes something like this:
- I wish my Spanish was better
- My Spanish should be better by now
- Why isn’t my Spanish getting better?
- What’s the point. It’s too hard. I give up.
- I wish my Spanish was better [& repeat…]
And no, I don’t spend all my time hanging out with expats. Far from it. I spend most of my time with my Spanish-speaking family.
The reality is that my Spanish IS improving. But, it’s a process that is taking longer than I ever expected. This article outlines some of the different methods I’ve tried & others I’m still considering (there are a lot of ways to learn Spanish).
This is the 1st in a 2 part series. This 1st section focuses on learning before you’ve arrived in Cuenca. The 2nd part covers options once you’ve found your way to Cuenca and features an interview with Fausto Balarezo, a Cuenca-based Spanish teacher who shares his thoughts on the best ways to learn Spanish in Cuenca.
Let’s do this!
So, what is the best way to learn Spanish?
It’s the same as looking for the best gym. The best method is the one you’ll actually use. Consistent practice is the only way to learn Spanish. So, if you find a tool or activity that you enjoy and you’re seeing progress, then stick with it.
But, be honest with yourself about your progress. Reaching the end of Duolingo alone isn’t likely to turn you into a fluent speaker. So, do a self-check-in every once in a while and just ask yourself if you’re focusing on being ‘busy’ rather than actually improving.
Before your trip
Many people swear by learning Spanish by immersion. And, I agree, it can be a very efficient way to learn which is why we’ve focused on this for the 2nd part of the series. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a head start by incorporating a study regime into your daily life well before your flight touches down in Ecuador.
Here are some methods that you can get started on right now, regardless of your physical location.
1. Phone Apps such as Duolingo
Phone Apps are often the most convenient way of learning basic Spanish. You’ve always got your phone with you and the gamification engines reward your brain with a little dopamine response as you progress.
Duolingo is perhaps the most popular of these and it’s where many expats start their Spanish-speaking journey.
- Free & easily accessible (paid versions also available with extra features / no ads)
- Fun and engaging
- Only designed to reach a basic level of Spanish
- Can feel like the core focus is on gamification & fun, not actually learning a language
Low – you can do it from anywhere at little to no cost.
2. Podcasts / Audio Courses
I love podcasts. Load up the episodes and listen to them whenever you’re on the road, working out, or even going to sleep (sorry for keeping you up Michelle…).
There are dedicated podcasts to help you learn Spanish and there are also regular podcasts in Spanish that you can listen to when you’re a little more advanced.
Want to super-size your learning? Listen to the podcast whilst reading the transcript. This makes it easier for you to comprehend the audio & you’ll also start to pick up common phrases and word choices.
Some podcasts to start with:
- Coffee Break Spanish: One of the original ‘learn Spanish’ podcasts with a seriously impressive back-catalog. Start at the beginning.
- News in Slow Spanish: They also include a Latin American version which is very handy for us folk in Cuenca.
Similar to a podcast, audio courses work on the same principles, just delivered differently. One that is often recommended is the free course from Language Transfer.
- Quickly improve your listening comprehension skills
- Wide variety of Spanish podcasts
- It’s a one-way broadcast, no feedback loop to help with pronunciation
- Some only focus on Castilian Spanish
Low – subscribe to your podcast of choice and you’re away.
3. Reading Local Newspapers
This is another favorite of mine because it’s easy to fit into my daily life. Reading the local news in Spanish does take more time than reading in English, but it’s more rewarding.
My method is to use two internet browser windows; one showing the article in the original Spanish and the other automatically translated using Google Chrome.
I read the Spanish version until I come across something I don’t understand and then I view the translation in the other tab. Just be sure to resist the urge to cheat by reading more on the English tab!
- El Comercio: Ecuador News
- El Mercurio: Cuenca News
- A practical way of increasing reading comprehension
- Build up knowledge of your adopted home at the same time
- Reading alone doesn’t help with pronunciation. Reading the news aloud can be useful, but you’ll need someone to correct any mistakes.
Moderate: Constant flicking between the two tabs does take a little effort.
4. Listen to songs in Spanish
Michelle (my partner) speaks fluent English and her favorite method when she was learning was to listen to songs in English and learn the lyrics. The reverse works just as well.
Just be careful if you’re choosing to listen to a lot of reggaeton because you’re bound to pick up some words that would have your mother washing your mouth out with soap…
There’s a lot of Spotify playlists that focus on Latin American music and there are even quite a few Ecuadorian-based playlists if you want to narrow it down further.
Take this one step further by blasting out some dual-language Karaoke on Youtube. For example, one of the 1st songs I learned in Spanish was La Bicicleta by Shakira and Carlos Vives. Watch it now and try to sing along in Spanish:
How’d you go? Kinda tough right. But that’s ok, the song is so damn catchy you’ll likely want to listen to it another 5 times and by then I promise you’ll start to see some progress.
- Fun way to learn. Who doesn’t love karaoke!
- More than just learning Spanish, you’re learning about culture through music
- It can take some time to find the song genre that works best for you
Moderate: Finding appropriate songs with dual subtitles on YouTube can be a challenge. But, there are more and more songs coming onto YouTube every day so it’s getting easier.
5. YouTube / Cooking in Spanish
Noticing a bit of a theme here? I’m a big believer in incorporating Spanish into everyday activities. This way it doesn’t actually feel like a lesson, but you’re still soaking up lots of learning by osmosis.
Our suggestion for the best channel to start with is Laylita. This channel is from an Ecuatoriana, Layla Pujol, who was born in Vilcabamba but moved to the US. This means many of her recipes are available in both Ecuadorian Spanish and English. Pretty handy.
For example, take this video recipe for roasted pork – a favorite here in Cuenca. There are two versions, so you can watch the Spanish one first, and then check out the English one if you think you’re about to burn the house down.
Hornado de pierna de chancho
Ecuadorian Roasted Pork Leg
Be sure to check out her website for the full recipes (Spanish and English) to aid your learning process.
- Learn how to speak & cook Ecuadorian at the same time
- A fun way to learn about food before you arrive so you know what to order when you get here
- This is more of a supplementary rather than a primary learning channel.
Low: Even without any formal Spanish lessons, you’ll likely be able to understand a lot just through context provided by the visual cues in the videos.
This one can be a bit of a double-edged sword as it can be hard to differentiate learning from just zoning out in front of the idiot box. But, provided you go into it with the right intentions and plan accordingly, I have found it to be an effective channel for me.
What’s worked best for me? La Casa Del Papel (aka Money Heist) – nope. Narcos – nope. It’s been the cartoons and movies made for kids.
Why? The language is simpler and the pronunciation is generally easier to understand. Try it with a classic kids movie that you’ve already seen several times in English. This way, you’ll already know the plot and some of the dialogue, giving you more brain space to focus on learning new Spanish words.
As much as I really wanted to watch La Casa Del Papel in original Castilian Spanish, they speak SO fast to the point where even Michelle (native Quiteña) struggled to understand some dialogue. So I’d suggest sticking to the Latino movies.
Sidenote: Signing up for a Netflix account from Ecuador will save you some money. Especially if you wrangle some “family” together for a family plan.
- This one is almost too easy to be considered learning
- There’s now a lot of quality Spanish Netflix content
- Tendency to zone out rather than actively learn
- You may become addicted to Mexican or Colombian telenovelas (soap operas)
Low: This is as non-committal as it gets.
A book. How old school! That might be so, but you can’t argue with tried and tested results. I’m not suggesting you go out and only spend your time learning grammar and verbs, but I do think it’s good to have these as part of your learning mix.
Three popular books that are often recommended are:
- A Good Spanish Book: Modern methods that many find efficient and easy to follow. Not a super user-friendly book though (no pictures etc) and the Professor exclusively teaches Castilian Spanish.
- Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish: An absolute classic that has stood the test of time to remain relevant some 69 years after originally published in 1953. Some context will be completely random (ie you don’t need to know how to send a telegram in Spanish…) but the methods are solid and many still swear by this book.
- Easy Spanish Step-By-Step: This one is more for the grammar hungry amongst us. It’s a very thorough book but reads more like a textbook than the other two mentioned.
- No screens! Yay.
- We all know how to learn via books
- Can be the most boring method for some learners
- Feels like school
High: Finishing any of the books requires significant effort and dedication. But, you’ll get out what you put in!
8. Online tutor (Zoom etc)
This method is fast becoming mainstream. I’ve noticed a steady increase in companies and individuals offering Spanish lessons via video conferencing (Zoom, Skype etc).
What makes this method so appealing is you can get lessons from a tutor that lives in the city where you want to live. This matters because you’re straight away only going to be learning words that you will use. No wasting your time on variations that you’re going to forget before you get a chance to use them.
You’ll also start tuning your ears for the accent you’re going to be hearing the most. For example, if you’re reading this, then you’re likely considering a move to Cuenca. Getting in touch with a local online tutor via our Facebook Group or Forum can have you way ahead of the curve by the time you arrive in Cuenca.
- Learn the dialect and accent where you’re going to be living
- Rates can be very affordable given the value received
- Whilst good value, it’s still one of the more expensive options on this list
- Medium: You’ll need to put in the work, but having someone guide you can really help to keep you on track.
Learning Spanish is a process that requires dedication and practice. Choosing to actively learn Spanish by using a few of the above methods can not only get you talking to locals sooner, but it can also fill you with confidence knowing that you’ll be able to fend for yourself whilst living in Cuenca.
If you’ve tried any of these methods, feel free to let us know which works best for you in the comments below.
Be sure to stay tuned for our 2nd part of the series where we look at the best methods to learn Spanish whilst in Cuenca.
Ok, I have one more. I tried lessons in Cuenca, boring and slow. My daughter taught Spanish (yup, some blond from Vermont taught Spanish, needless to say she is fluent). She helped me one summer but we both got busy and I was not here full time yet. I did Duolingo for years, and found that I knew lots of words but really no grammar, the glue you need to form sentences. They I tried http://www.languagetransfer.org That was it, I learned grammar and all the basic conjunctions and a lot more.
It is free. Why, well you need to visit the website, it is more of a project taught by a language genius. The Spanish course (there are others including English for our Spanish speaking amigos) is 90 lessons about 10 minutes each focused on Latin American Spanish. I play using Soundcloud, you can pause, repeat to your hearts desire. Since I now have grammar, learning new words just happens every day. What I need most now is practice. I have done this course twice and midway thru a 3rd run for good measure, one or two courses each morning. I use Duo only for practice, especially the stories..
Nice Bill. Thanks for sharing your experience. Great to see Language Transfer worked for you. We’ve actually included it in our recommended options already (in section 2. Podcasts / Audio Courses).
We’ll be covering lessons in Cuenca in our follow-up article. Interested to know which lessons you went with and why you chose them if you’re willing to share.
Jason, sure, I do not want to say the names of lessons/teachers in Cuenca that I tried, these are good people, but lessons for me were not my style. My first choice was a language school, for me it was slow and boring. Watching videos, writing things down, and the worst part was that they wanted to teach me using Spanish. I want to learn at my pace, ie, self learn, no writing, no reading, no memorizing. This school lasted a couple months for me especially when I found Language Transfer.
After years of Duolingo, doing LT was a breath of fresh air. I finally discovered how to put together all of the words I learned with a solid understanding of grammar. I did the course two times, and decided to try lessons again back in March or so. Once again I was disappointed, basically I knew all the grammar and I was paying my teacher for practice. Granted she helped with pronunciation, but not much more.
Full disclosure, I am not fluent but I can speak Spanish, and if native speakers speak slowly enough I usually get it (hablas mas despachio por favor). Rather than focus on so called “words of the day” stuff, I learn words everyday that I need to use, and I know how to fit them into sentences.
I keep Spanishdict handy and if I am stuck I go to Google translate to check myself. I do try and read an article or two a day in El Mercurio. I am not in a rush and figure I will get this eventually, ie, I am not pressuring myself to learn quickly, but rather thoroughly. The hardest part now is getting speaking/listening practice, and I try every time I can, and that includes texting which actually helps a lot.
Everyone learns differently and I have friends that are happy with in person lessons. I do have Cuencano family and a couple of them are wanting to improve their English, so we Spanglish and it helps a lot. Ask a Spanish speaker to pronounce “yeast” or understand the difference between beer, bear, bar, and bare, it is quite comical.
For someone just starting to learn Spanish, I suggest dropping as much of the baggage as possible. Don’t begin by cluttering the mind unnecessarily. Some examples.
1. Forget learning the “informal” pronouns and verbs – tu vs. ud. In Ecuador, you’ll never go wrong just using the formal usted/ustedes preceding the verbs.
2. Forget learning future tense. Just like in English, you can express the future with the word “going to” which is “ir” (to go) in Spanish. I’m going to eat (Yo voy a comer) instead of I will eat ( Yo comere’) You can stick “voy a”, “va a”, “vamos a”, “van a” in front of any verb and you’ll be expressing the future. You’ll notice that the verb “to go” is irregular as are other commonly used verbs, which leads to suggestion 3.
3. Like all languages, Spanish has rules which are easy to learn – easier than English in my opinion. Unfortunately, the most commonly used verbs don’t follow the rules. To want, to have, to go, are a few examples. Realize that those verbs are the exceptions and learn them because you’ll be using them the most.
4. Don’t get hung up learning lo, la, le, and feminine vs. masculine form of nouns. All that can come later. As most will agree, the way to learn a language is to use it. The way to use it is to start with the basics and not worry about mistakes. Most mistakes eventually go away by listening to native speakers. Ecuadorians are forgiving and most appreciate foreigners attempting to communicate.
I agree and Language Transfer breaks it all down to the basics, no memorizing, but learning the rules, which once you get them , it gets kind of easy, except listening to native speakers going 80 MPH speaking of course. The irregulars you just pick up over time as they are the most common verbs.
Jason it would be nice if those of us who post get an email notification of other posts
Hey Bill – I agree. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve just implemented notifications for comments. There is now a little checkbox that you can click which will subscribe you to all post comments. You’ll receive an email notification when someone comments. Of course, you can also unsubscribe if the notifications for that post get too much. Give it a whirl!