How to effectively learn Spanish if you are not in a Spanish speaking country

Reader question: Buenos dias, buenos tardes, buenas noches! I’ve been inspired by your journey the moment i read an article about you on Rappler and since then, i can’t stop thinking of going to places and seeing things in a new perspective.

Right now, i’m learning how to speak Spanish, using the Duolingo app (because it’s free) and listening to Spanish songs as well. I know it’s silly asking you this question since you’re there and speaking in Spanish is necessary but here it goes: How can I improve my fluency with this language though I’m here in the Philippines and have a very limited capacity of practicing the language itself?

I know this sounds weird but you become an inspiration to me. Back then, I thought Salar de Uyuni or Machu Picchu are places inside my daydreams.

But reading your journey makes me think that there’s a chance, that it is possible 🙂 Thank you so much and keep moving forward!

– Alfonso, Philippines

I’ve always recommended immersion as the best way to learn Spanish that’s why I am encouraging you to come here.

However, if you don’t have a chance to travel (yet. Of course you will travel soon!), here are some helpful tips in learning the language if you are not in a Spanish speaking country.

1. Make a goal board

What’s your 6-month goal in LEARNING SPANISH? Which level to you wish to attain within 6 months? A year? This will serve also serve as a motivation meter. Make sure this board is visible in your bedroom or study area. Be creative. Splash a little art on your board so it doesn’t look boring. See to it that this thing on your wall will motivate you every time you look at it.

2. Gather your troops

Create a language club and make sure to invite only those who are really interested in learning the language. Do not base your invite through friendship.

Although you can start with your peers, not all of you have the same interest and you might just end up making fun of the language sessions because you are friends.

It’s best to invite people you don’t know because you are all on the same level of eagerness in LEARNING SPANISH. The relationship will be professional.

How to look for your troop:

  • Join Couchsurfing and create a Spanish language learning thread. Include your plans, goals and programmed activities for the language club. Be organised so that they will know that you are really serious about this.
  • Leave fliers in University boards. If you are not a student, ask a friend/cousin who are still in Uni to do it for you.
  • Join Spanish learning groups on Facebook. The members of this group might have already established a weekly language meeting. If not, initiate. Make your ideas come to life!

Remember, it doesn’t matter how much people you can gather. Three is even enough! You don’t have to be more than 10 people to be called a Language club. Start with a few and slowly develop it to a big group.

P.S. I received a lot of e-mails from readers in the Philippines about LEARNING SPANISH. Probably, I can connect all of you (I am sure you don’t know each other) so send me an e-mail if you’d be interested!

3. Create the environment

Live as if you are in a Spanish speaking country. When I started learning Spanish in South America, I started with listening — getting used how it sounds.

I didn’t have any idea what they are talking about but I focused on the registry of the words first. I listened to Spanish songs without understanding the lyrics and after a week, I can sing all of them!

How to create “the” environment

  • I beg you to watch less English TV shows (you know, the addicting TV series) for the duration of your studies. Download Spanish movies. The Motorcycle Diaries is a good example. If you can’t help it and you really really really need to do a How I Met Your Mother marathon, go to Mira Tu Serie, a website where you can watch TV series with Spanish subtitles for free.
  • Break up with Rihanna and Beyonce for a bit. Listen to Spanish songs on your way to work, while working or while waiting for the bus to go home. Any chance you’d get, put on those earphones.

4. Find a language partner

In the event that the troop failed you, there’s always Plan B — find a language partner. You can join iTalki for free and start your search there.

When you open the website, it may appear like a teacher’s page looking for students but it’s not. Sign up and explore the options.

It is not necessary to use the site in learning a language. You’ll just use it to find a partner. Once you are able to find one, you can exchange Skype usernames and take it from there.

This is also an advantage because you will get the chance to find native Spanish speakers who are willing to learn English for free.

This is a give and take type of learning. The person you will find is also learning a language (something you are good at, most probably) so you have to teach him/her as well.

When I started with iTalki 2 years ago (learning French), I did a deal with a French girl: we will talk everyday on Skype dedicating 30 minutes for her to practice and 30 minutes for me.

5. Dedicate 1 hour a day to your Spanish lessons

I mean study like watching movies, conducting your language club or Skype-ing with your language partner. As much as possible, avoid the writing part. Notebooks are frustrating. Do not push yourself too hard by trying to learn more than an hour a day. You’ll get exhausted and you will end up remembering nothing.

6. Practice with an expat

Out of the million expats in the world, I am sure there will be at least one Spanish speaking expatriate in your country. How will you know that? Join expat groups on Facebook. Simply search “Expats in (your country/city).” A numerous group will appear. Invite him for coffee. Do not be shy. This person is a stranger and won’t judge you if you don’t speak well! Tell him your speaking/listening level and ask him to respond in Spanish (slowly, but not like talking to a child).

Note that native Spanish speakers have different ways of speaking but they can adjust. For example, Argentinians speak a lot of slang within their country but when they travel to Colombia, Peru or Mexico, they can definitely change how they speak — aka the traditional Spanish from Spain, a ‘language’ that everyone understands.

This method will allow you to learn about their culture too!

7. Stick to your goal board

It will be really challenging because of the lack of support or opportunities o speak the language but once you develop a routine, LEARNING SPANISH will be easy for you! Stick to your schedule and DO NOT QUIT.

Common Mistakes Spanish Language Learners Make

Their first goal is to respond. To speak. That’s actually the last part, to be honest! You have to know how to pronounce the word first, see how it registers to your brain and check your listening skills. Once you’ve mastered this, you will have no problem in responding. After all, how will you respond to someone if you don’t understand what he/she said?

They write, write and write. I am not against having a notebook when studying Spanish because I used this method too! What I do not agree with is writing the words in Spanish and having the English translation on the right side. This doesn’t make any sense because when you scan your notebook, you will have more attention to the English words because that’s what you understand. The human is brain is very selective — we only choose what we want to see and focus less on what we don’t.

They take Spanish courses and think it’s enough. They don’t practice. I have a friend from the Philippines who took an advanced Spanish course and knows more words than I do. When he went to Barcelona, he couldn’t even order his lunch nor ask for directions. “You were right,” he told me. You might now gazillion words in Spanish but if you don’t know how they speak (the Catalonians, for example) you will have zero chances of responding.

Alfonso, thank you for your message. I hope these tips will help you because I can see how eager you are in learning Spanish just by reading our e-mail exchange. I will create a video explaining the different accent of every South American country (plus Spain) before I head to Bolivia next week. Good luck and thank you so much for your e-mail. I really appreciate it!

P.S. There are no silly questions, Alfonso. If you don’t ask, there won’t be an answer. 😉

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  1. These are great suggestios!
    I have Duolingo too as Alfonso invited me there since he knew that I am interested as well in learning a foreign language. At first, I chose to study Italian but didn’t work on it because I thought, i might instead help myself learn a foreign language if I study Spanish with him. We could practice with each other. The only problem is, I cannot catch up with him.. He’s a fast learner. 😀
    Hi, fonsy. kim here ^_^

  2. Really Nice Tips Trisha!

    As we are always travelling to different countries I try to learn some words and a bit of grammar. But for me the most difficult part is to stay focus and don´t give up studying. We spent almost two months in Spain and I gave up studying the language in the second week 🙁


  3. Another reader e-mailed me saying that she’s also interested and I connected him to Alfonso! 😉 Yes, he’s e-mailing me in Spanish now and I think that’s great that he has the drive! It will help him perfect this language and you should too!

  4. Wow, two months in Spain! That’s a lot of time and did you know you can be fluent in 3 months? Being in a Spanish speaking country gives you that advantage. I hope you’ll still continue learning and thanks for reading, Nat!

  5. he has told me about it and he’s really grateful about his new language buddy. he’s also asking me to get back to duolingo soon so that we could “language” hang out or practice. Unfortunately, i am working on a book review and a research paper for someone right now. >>BTW, thanks, will get there too, i still hope. 🙂

  6. Hi Trisha!
    I love your tips. I’m also learning Spanish and a member of italki.
    Learning is easier and more fun by having a language partner.
    I also find it helpful to watch short clips in Spanish 🙂

    Your website is awesome!

  7. Hi Trisha! And Buenos días directly from Mexico, I just read a Yucatan’s online newspaper article (Yucatan, Mexico, of course) about your 10 reasons why you shouldn’t date a Mexican guy… Thank you for that! It was really funny and I loved what you wrote because I totally agree with you. Anyway, I really love to travel, nevertheless I only have travel Mexico states and a few times aboard, I’m into languages too, and I’d love to learn French, Italian and German (Actually, I already speak basic Italian and I’m taking “Deutsch” classes) and I’d like to share my Spanish with everyone who wants to learn it, instead I’d like to practice my German, Italian, or even start with French… If you have some advices for that I’d be totally grateful, keep with your journey and if you decide to come to Mexico, be sure you’ll have a home here. ¡Saludos, un beso y un abrazo!

  8. Martin, thanks for reading! I guess I have the same advice in learning all the different languages. Most importantly, just talk. Practice. Don’t be scared of being wrong. I started speaking broken Spanish and now I am pretty much amazed how this helped me to be fluent!

  9. I’m trying to learn Spanish, and reading this piece of yours just makes sense. I must be forcing myself real hard that I end up not learning as much as I wanted at all. 1 hour would be enough, and I will try to make it a daily habit. BTW, I also had the chance to live in Tel Aviv, and your October video on the city just gave me goosebumps and a lump in the throat haha. Brings so many memories! Love your blog! Wish I could write that well and make such engaging videos. Kudos!

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