I have met dozens of backpackers in Latin America who thought they’d immerse themselves in Spanish following 2 weeks of Duolingo, equipped with a Lonely Planet phrasebook. It does not work. A drowning man cannot learn to swim. They remain extremely frustrated, whilst I learn about the latest underground bar from my local barista over a Colombian single origin cold brew.
This guide presents an effective, self-tested strategy for how to adequately prepare for complete immersion in another language, using cost effective resources, strategically selected and sequenced.
In this guide, I will outline;
– The reasons why I started learning Spanish
– Learning goals or roadmap
– What to study, and how
– My actual learning pathway
– Detailed resource list
– Current update as to my Spanish proficiency, 3 months post-immersion
Disclaimer: The following guide does not adhere to common Spanish school curriculum wisdom, and I certainly do not profess to be a master at linguistics or learning languages. Rather, it covers the method and steps that I have found personally effective in preparing adequately for immersion in Latin America or any Spanish speaking country, in the minimum time.
Reasons for learning Spanish
Living in Australia, there is a general lack of enthusiasm and motivation in learning a language, being so distant from other countries. We have a sense of entitlement at being born speaking the universal language of the West. As a result, most places you travel, someone will speak English, and we have become accustomed to expect this. Thus, we tend not to place importance on being bilingual.
So why did I choose to learn a language, and why Spanish?
- Studies show that being actively bilingual has cognitive benefits, including an improvement in conflict management, increase in ability to focus, increase in brain activity in the regions associated with attention and inhibition, and delayment of the onset of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzeimer’s, when compared with monolinguists. A great essay, which has a full list of references, can be found at http://dana.org/Cerebrum/2012/The_Cognitive_Benefits_of_Being_Bilingual/
- Spanish is more widely natively spoken on Earth than English (280 million vs 260). If you have a passion to connect with the greatest diversity of humans and experience their culture, there is no better way than opening the most fundamental door to their lives
- Spanish is Latin based, and thus has many similarities with English. For example, most words in English ending in ‘al’ can be converted directly into Spanish, with the same or similar meaning, but with a different pronunciation. Ideal (see what I did there)
- From a travel perspective, for those who want to experience the greatest acreage on Earth, the most expansive continual stretch of Mexico to Argentina. Oh, and I guess you could visit Spain if you wanted to pay homage to the mother state
- I would argue that the ex-Spanish empire countries, still all predominantly Catholic Christian, are among the safest to travel in the world, and are the most widely accepting of all travellers
- Spanish is a gateway to acquiring other Latin based languages, such as Italian, French, or Portuguese
My goal, starting in January 2016, was to become conversationally fluent in Latin American Spanish, 6 months after full immersion in a native speaking country. I defined this as having a one on one conversation with a native speaker for half an hour about a variety of topics of common parlance, them speaking at normal speed.
I broke this down into a number of sub-goals, starting from January 2016;
– Complete entire Spanish Duolingo curriculum
– Mastery of verb conjugation in the indicative mood (listening, reading and writing)
-Complete 90 episode podcast ‘Language Transfer; Complete Spanish’
– Watch entire educational Spanish soap opera ‘Destinos’
– Read and fully understand one novel in Spanish
– Engage in group conversation with native speakers about basic topics such as food, drink, travel, family
– All forms of personal digital content used and consumed in Spanish (ie. Facebook, phone and computer language, browser language)
End goal (timing TBC)
– One on one conversation with native speaker for half an hour
What to study, and How
Deconstructing any language, there are only really two key elements; Vocabulary and grammar. Vocabulary consists of the building blocks, and correct understanding of grammar allows for the building blocks to be constructed into meaningful syntax. These two elements are then applied to either read, write, listen, or speak, generally in that order of difficulty.
Selecting what I was actually going to study within these base elements was the next task, such that all other skills would be either easier or no longer required.
This is probably one of the most highly correlated applications of the 80/20 or Pareto’s Law that I can think of. In Spanish, for example, studies generally agree that merely knowing the most frequently used 1,000 words accounts for about 85 percent of common speech. 2,000 words comprise 90 percent of common speech, and understanding the top 5,000 words covers 95 percent of common speech.
A key resource is ‘A Frequency Definition of Spanish’, written in 2006 by Mark Davies, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Brigham University in Utah. The book analyses a 20-million word corpus of spoken, fiction and non-fiction literature from both Spain and Latin America, and distils it all down into the most frequently used 5,000 words. The book even categorises the words for you, so you can hone your study early to understanding verb conjugations for the top 20 verbs, my recommendation for the most effective top 20 words in Spanish. Verbs are the mechanics of the language, and it’s impossible to communicate without a thorough understanding of their use and conjugation.
Once I had this resource, I extracted the content into Excel spreadsheets, and then imported into spaced repetition flashcard software Anki. Anki uses clever algorithms based on memorisation studies, which shows you difficult words more often, and easier words less often. There is also an app which synchronises with your PC/Mac, so you can utilise otherwise wasted 20 minute blocks in your day to revise vocabulary.
A huge lightbulb moment for me was understanding and appreciating the value and power of verbs. In Spanish, and most other Latin based languages, the verb contains information as to what is being done, who is doing it, and in what tense the action is occurring. This means that one word contains three pieces of information; a huge efficiency increase over English. For example, if I wanted to say ‘They will eat’ in English, all I need to say is ‘Comerán’ in Spanish, being careful to accentuate the ‘a’.
The key is to understand the general rules of how each of the verb infinitives (-ar, -er, -ir) behave when conjugated. There are many exceptions to the common rules, and unfortunately they tend to be for the most frequently used verbs, so I recommend spending time early on to write out each of the five main conjugations (perfect, imperfect past, present, conditional, future), for all subject pronouns (yo/tu/usted/ustedes/nosotros), for the top 20 verbs. As a milestone for knowing you’ve reached a fundamental understanding of basic verb conjugations, you should be at a level where any conjugation of these verbs can be immediately associated with who is doing what, in what tense.
Once the role of verbs is grasped in Spanish, it is just a process of adding nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and the other words types around these verbs to form sentences. The verbs are the gears of the language, and they are best learned through a combination of reading, listening and comprehension. Of course, there are a slew of grammar technicalities to master, like any language, but the most important piece early on is getting verbs under control, or they will be serious stumbling blocks later on.
If you are committed to learning a language, and in particular, preparing adequately in your home country prior to full immersion, you need to commit to at least 30 minutes per day, over a minimum pre-load time of 6 months.
Being ‘too busy’ is actually a direct translation for ‘this isn’t a priority for me right now’. Having the self discipline to pre-load a language prior to immersion is the ultimate example of sacrificing the present for a future gain. Believe me, it is well worth it. I managed it whilst working 40+ hrs/wk as an engineer on a process plant, exercising 5 hrs/wk, managing an investment portfolio, re-building two car engines (one engine twice…), and reading and kitesurfing in my spare time.
I highly recommend learners get to at least a ‘diagnostic’ level of Spanish prior to full immersion. I define this as having the ability to ask about concepts or words you don’t know in Spanish, receive a reply in Spanish, and learn from the process. This is the golden moment in the learning curve, where you can create very tight feedback loops and leverage off others to progress your own learning. I detail how to get to the ‘diagnostic’ Spanish in the guide below. Based on my own learning pathway, I took 225 hours to get to this level.
Language acquisition is like building muscle in the gym. If you train for 2 hours every day without rest, you’ll overload yourself and go backwards. If you train for one day per week, you’ll get nowhere. The key is consistent, routine practice, slowly building on yesterday, for half an hour every day. One day missed is two days backwards.
My learning pathway to adequately prepare yourself for full immersion consists of four distinct phases, en route to the end goal of ‘diagnostic’ Spanish.
|Phase||Description||Development Goals||Time to Reach||Study Time||Study Hours||Key Resources|
|1||Fundamentals and Familiarisation||Focus on reading|
Pronouncing words in isolation
Understanding types of word types
Noun genders (and correct article use)
Present verb tense mastery
Introduction to verb tenses
|3 months||30 mins/day||45||Duolingo
|2||Grammar Essentials||Focus on writing|
Mastery over basic verb tenses
Sentence structure familiarisation
|6 months||30 mins/day, |
Once per week, 1.5 hrs/day
|60||Spanish Group Class
|3||First Conversation||Focus on listening and speaking|
Pronoun placement and correct use
|6-9 months||30 mins/day, |
Once per week, 1.5 hrs/day
|60||Spanish Group Class
Weekly 1.5 informal conversations
|4||‘ Diagnostic’ Spanish||Focus on listening and speaking|
Be able to ask about unknown concepts in Spanish, using Spanish
Review difficult concepts
|12 months+||30 mins/day, |
Once per week, 1.5 hrs/day
Daily 30 minute conversations, or independent study of advanced grammar
Stage 1 – Fundamentals and Familiarisation
- Focus on reading
- Pronouncing words in isolation
- Understanding word types
- Noun genders (and correct article use)
- Present verb tense mastery
- Introduction to verb tenses
Stage 1 is arguably the most difficult. Starting out in a field in which you have zero prior knowledge, and not knowing the extent to which you don’t know, is always brutal.
Remove ‘friction to study’ by deciding in advance and fixing the location, time and format of your early learning. This will greatly improve the chance of following through and becoming ‘familiar’ with a new topic. The key to this early familiarisation, and building your 30 minutes per day study habit, is through Duolingo.
Reasons why I recommend Duolingo as the start point for language acquisition;
It is engaging, competitive and semi-enjoyable
Builds reading, writing, listening and speaking skills from day one
Introduces new content very gradually, with constant review of earlier material to assist with deep learning and review
Has browser and app based formats, which transforms idle time you would have otherwise spent scrolling a news feed
It is critical that you develop the habit of logging in to Duolingo for half an hour per day, at the same time and in the same location. This is to develop and cultivate your 30 mins per day study habit. Once this is engrained in your daily routine, you’ll have overcome the stumbling block that most learners fail to overcome once the initial burst of enthusiasm has waned.
Anki Spaced Repetition Flashcards
Once you start to come across problem words using Duolingo that you cannot seem to remember, start to build them into an Anki deck. After about 1 month of Duolingo, I recommend building an Anki deck with the most frequently used 500 words, using Mark Davies’ ‘A Frequency Definition of Spanish’. Categorise these into the different word types, then work through them in idle time. Once you’ve mastered the top 500 words, expand the Anki deck to 1,000 words, then 2,000 words. I didn’t get beyond 2,000 words, as I found that my vocabulary was sufficient to communicate effectively most of the time.
Word Translation and Verb Charts
Spanishdict.com is a one stop resource for all your word translations and verb conjugation charts.
Key Focus Areas
Correct pronunciation, from day 1. This then allows you to better digest and understand spoken Spanish
Word types; how they interact, how to identify them, and their relative position when forming syntax. Start with verbs, nouns and adjectives
Connector words like ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘then’, ‘also’, ‘but’. These allow you to string together concepts more clearly
Key verbs, conjugated into helpful tenses, e.g. ‘I want’, ‘I have’, ‘I need’. Start with the top 20 verbs
Less Important Areas
Noun articles and knowing when something is masculine/feminine. This is not important in learning to communicate and is often over-stressed early on
Difference between perfect and imperfect past tense. If you just pick one, listeners understand your point. The subtleties here can be ironed out later on
Stage 2 – Grammar Essentials
- Focus on writing
- Mastery over basic verb tenses (preterite, imperfect, present, conditional, future)
- Sentence structure familiarisation
- Partial immersion
Before getting to this stage, you should have completed the Duolingo curriculum. I don’t mean having every single level maximised, but having reached the end of the learning tree, and having a decent understanding of each of the levels. My self test for this was being able to answer every single exercise almost instantly, and knowing every single word in the program. Once you have reached this level, Duolingo can take a back seat as a revision tool, and we move on to more advanced material.
The next step is to enrol in weekly group classes. Group classes make the learning process real. Starting this interaction with a native (ideally your teacher), and other learners brings the human element into the process, which is most enjoyable part of language learrning, and at the end of the day, is the end goal. It also brings accountability, as you’ve paid money up front, and have a group commitment to attend. This is key at the 3 month stage, where you’ll likely experience a lull in enthusiasm.
I was working in a small mining town in Australia and managed to locate a native speaker from the Dominican Republic, who charged $25 per 1.5 hr group class, with 3-6 people. I completed four terms of 8 weeks each, for a total of 48 hours of classes. In terms 2 and 3, the class started to go for weekly dinner at the local ‘Guzman y Gomez’ Mexican restaurant, where we’d informally chat and be exposed to native speakers. This included ordering your meal in Spanish, and starting to actually use the language as a tool to get things done.
In your group class, your teacher will present you with a lot of fundamental material and ‘survival’ Spanish, such as numbers, buying things, telling the time, talking about your family and making your way through an airport. If they are a good teacher, they will not introduce grammar and verb theory until some of the above ‘survival’ Spanish topics have been captured. Be amazed at how your 3 months of Duolingo and Anki vocab study enables you to recognise most of the content presented. You can focus on the application of the material, whilst other students make a list of unknown vocabulary at the end of their notebook. Remember, you have built a solid vocabulary base, and are now working at how to piece together the building blocks.
A quick word on grammar theory; do not get too bogged down and frustrated! Once you have a vague idea of the concept at hand, move on to the next. I obsessed over basic things early on, which were more easily ironed out once conversation started to flow. Be ok with making mistakes, and having a partial knowledge of some areas, whilst still building new skills. I list the most effective grammar resources after sifting through hundreds of websites and PDFs at the end of this article.
At this stage, I also recommend reading a novel. I highly recommend ‘La Alquimista’ by Paulo Coelho, which is critically acclaimed and has been translated into more than 40 languages. Once finished in Spanish, you can read the English version to check if you understood the story. Don’t worry about knowing every word! This was a huge frustration for me. Move through highlighting unknown words, and only stop reading once you don’t know enough words to understand the story.
Stage 3 – First Conversation
- Focus on listening and speaking
- Pronoun placement and correct use
- Full immersion
- Self confidence
- First basic conversation with native
This stage is all about listening and speaking. By now, you’ll have had one or two terms of group classes, should be up to the top 1,000 words of vocabulary study, and be able to comfortably conjugate the top 20 verbs in the five main tenses. This stage is transformational, and bridges boring skills like reading and writing into the art of conversation.
One final note on verbs; in Spanish, apart from the five main conjugations, there are three other frequently used ‘compound’ verb conjugations. Be sure to understand the conjugations for these, and when the are appropriate to use. These are, with English examples using the verb for ‘to eat’, comer;
‘Ir’ conjugated + ‘a’ + infinitive (phrasal future)
eg. Voy a comer (I am going to eat)
‘Haber’ conjugated + past participle (present perfect)
eg. He comido (I have eaten)
‘Estar’ conjugated + gerundio (present progressive)
eg. Estoy comiendo (I am eating)
Prounous (direct and indirect)
Pronoun placement is one of the sticking points for learners after verb conjugation is mastered. This is because it is extremely counter-intuitive to how we think and formulate sentences in English. In English, we say ‘he gives it to me’, but in Spanish, we say ‘me lo da’, or quite literally, ‘me it he gives’. Take the time to practice here, and also touch on reflexive verbs like ‘despertarse’ or ‘to wake oneself’. If you say ‘despierto hoy’, the listener is waiting to hear who woke you up this morning, so you need to say ‘me despierto hoy’, unless somebody else woke you up.
Now is the time to fully immerse yourself in Spanish in your own country, ‘pre’ immersion in a native speaking one. Be prepared not to understand every written or spoken word. As the goal is to become conversational, not a professor in linguistics, focus on the meaning of the sentence, not word by word translation.
Change every digital device and account language you own into Spanish. This includes your phone, computer, and Facebook. Be prepared for some interesting situations. One of mine included sending a work email from my phone where the language around the message was in Spanish. The email made it’s way around the world and back to me. Down the bottom, I could see ‘para’ and ‘de’ in place of ‘to’ and ‘from’, from my original reply.
Audio and Visual Tools
Commence watching the Destinos telenovela. Destinos probably had more of an impact in my listening ability than any other tool. Episode 1 starts off with English narration, slow Spanish speech and Spanish subtitles, and each episode gradually transitions to completely Spanish narration and normal speed Spanish dialogue. It also includes some sub-par yet entertaining performances from popular Latin American actors.
Another invaluable tool I started using around this stage was podcasts. The most effective for me was ‘Language Transfer; Complete Spanish’. The 90 episode series commences with English, and slowly transforms the language into Spanish, covering grammar theory, and progressing to sentence formation and conversation. Coffeebreak Spanish is also highly recommended. Make sure you start at a level that is just above your current level of understanding.
By the end of stage 3, you should have had one or two decent conversations with a tolerant native, who will correct you sparingly, and who you can trust not to judge you. You will make many mistakes throughout your first attempts at spoken sentence formation. If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t learning.
Stage 4 – Diagnostic Spanish
- Focus on listening and speaking
- Be able to ask about unknown concepts in Spanish, using Spanish
- Review difficult concepts (por vs para, conocer vs saber, estar vs ser)
Congratulations on making it this far! You should now be enjoying the process as your understanding transitions from that of a beginner to more advanced.
This stage is all about speaking. I cannot reiterate that more.
Many of the resources in stage 3 can and should still be used as part of daily practice, but the focus is really on actively speaking with real people. Ideally, you should be either listening and/or speaking every single day. You may need to make an effort to form weekly Spanish conversation meet-ups in your local area, or join a relevant club to access native speakers. Salsa lessons are great for this. You can also begin to engage in online forums to practice some conversational practice, albeit via text.
The aim of this stage is to talk in Spanish about the Spanish language, and ask others to give you advice about what you should do better or differently.
One month prior to my departure to Latin America, I signed up for unlimited online Skype conversation with Baselang, and spoke for between 30 minutes and 1.5 hours per day. This step is critical to gauge your conversational level and adequately prepare for immersion.
Baselang is an online service that connects you with native speakers, with 18 hours of availability per day. You pay a once off fee at the start of the month ($129 USD, first week for $1). Conversation is then scheduled in half hour blocks, selecting from more than 50 teachers. Each teacher has a searchable profile, and they all have different styles, so I recommend having half hour introductory lessons with a variety, and then focussing on those whom you get the most benefit from. I liked to have a couple of teachers who had more vibrant personalities, just to chat with about random things such as their country, and then I had one or two who understood grammar inside out and would really drill me. Important; be mindful when asking the Venezuelans about the current state of their country.
As a final revision point, I recommend you to work your way through the two grammar resources at the end of this guide, and focussing on weak points or where your understanding is flawed. At this stage, you want to iron out small kinks and problem areas.
Subjunctive Verb Mood
Do not focus on learning the subjunctive verb mood at this stage. Many teachers will try to introduce this content, but it is far more productive to focus on getting the indicative verbs rolling seamlessly in conversation and comprehension, than introduce yet another foreign concept.
- Spanishdict, for translation, and excellent verb conjugation tables (http://www.spanishdict.com/translation)
- Duolingo (https://www.duolingo.com/)
- Anki flashcards (https://apps.ankiweb.net/)
- Group classes
- Grammar theory
- Purdue University ‘Spanish Verbs and Essential Grammar Review’, published 2003
- StudySpanish.com for technicalities and short quizzes (http://studyspanish.com/))
- Change the language of every digital account or device you own
- Language Transfer; Complete Spanish (http://www.languagetransfer.org/)
- Coffeebreak Spanish (https://radiolingua.com/coffeebreakspanish/)
- News in Slow Spanish
- Spanish film/TV
- Destinos (https://learner.org/series/destinos/)
- Any movie, in English with Spanish subtitles, then Spanish and Spanish subtitles, then finally purely in Spanish
- The Alchemist (La Alquimista) by Paolo Coelho
- Latin American news in Spanish, such as http://elpais.com/
- One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad) by Gabriel García Márquez
- Baselang (https://baselang.com/)
- Unlimited Spanish Conversation. Unlimited one on one conversation with a native via Skype for USD $129 per month
- Group conversation
- Try meeting a group from your Spanish class, local salsa club, or through mutual friends. Always keep it informal, and conduct around coffee or dinner
After following the above 4 stage learning process, completing more than 225 hours of structured hours of practice and countless more in conversation, after 1 week of full immersion in Mexico I was fumbling my way through basic conversations, no phrasebook in sight.
I am living proof that by following a well outlined plan, using strategic and high value resources, and maintaining consistent daily practice, anyone can adequately ‘pre-load’ a language whilst in their own country, to best prepare for immersion with native speakers.
At the time of writing this article, I have travelled from Mexico to Panama through Central America by bus. I took three weeks of additional one on one Spanish classes about 1 month into the trip (averaging about $7 AUD/hr), which I highly recommend taking immediately on arrival.
Some things I’ve accomplished purely in Spanish whilst travelling, which are indications of my current fluency;
– Negotiating my way out of ‘mandatory’ gringo taxes in a variety of scenarios, including additional luggage fees at bus terminals and airports for my unwieldy kitesurfing equipment
– Understanding the coffee process from cherry to cup from a local farmer, whilst volunteering for one week on coffee farms in Ciudad Vieja, southern Guatemala
– Introducing a friend to a Venezuelan woman at a coffee shop in Panama City, and facilitating a dinner date
– Living and volunteering with a host family and NGO in northern Guatemala for one week, who spoke no English. Having a 2 hour conversation with the mother and manager of the NGO about Guatemalan politics, government corruption, energy, her family, and plans for the future
– Explaining to a doctor in San Jose, Costa Rica, that I’d had one too many drinks at a party in Nicaragua, had fallen into a spiky plant, and had embedded a 10mm spine into my left heel
– Explaining to another doctor in Mexico City that I’d been on the toilet all the previous night, ‘excreting liquids from both ends’, after eating some questionable street tacos. I then proceeded to ask what my ‘pompa’ was when she presented an injection. I couldn’t sit down for a few days afterward
Have I reached my end goal, and long did it take?
2 weeks into immersion I was having half an hour conversations with natives, and at the 4 week mark, my confidence had increased to expand this to controversial topics such as politics and poverty. On reflection, I had the skill to converse after 1 week, I just lacked confidence early on.
Where to now?
I am currently in Bogota, Colombia, and looking to take my Spanish to the next level through living in Medellin and taking regular salsa classes.
Enjoy the process and experience! Taking language learning seriously has honestly been one of the highlights of the last couple of years of my life. The joy and appreciation that locals have for you when you can talk to them using their language is absolutely priceless, and has provided me a far richer travelling experience than the average backpacker.