As somebody who has travelled a lot in South America and Spain, teaching myself Spanish is something that I’ve often been wary of. It’s certainly something that has made me appreciate a lot more those who speak my language somewhat fluently! As an aside, it’s funny that when you are a native English speaker in a room full of people speaking “international English”, it is actually quite difficult to speak your own language. It’s easy to get drawn into using all of the everyday idioms and slang that international speakers usually don’t understand. Heck, being from the north of England, people from the other end of my own country would often have trouble understanding me!
Anyway, I’ve digressed – what I want to really talk about are my favourite ways that I think you can teach yourself Spanish (or improve it). So here goes…
Books and CDs
The most obvious way to learn Spanish is to go to your local bookstore or library and obtain a teach yourself Spanish book! These often have a CD or DVD included for an extra cost and can help you get started. It’s a great way to learn the nuts and bolts of the language
A Spanish Course or Class
If you happen to travelling or backpacking around a Spanish speaking country, there is often the opportunity to enrol in a short Spanish course in a school that caters for people just like you. These can be found in popular Latin American destinations such as Guatemala (particularly the town of Antigua), Peru and Ecuador, as well as places such as Barcelona (despite Catalan being the main language here!) in Spain. Obviously, the countries in South and Central America are going to be much affordable because of the lower cost of living there. It is much cheaper to live in a town in Cusco, Peru for 2 weeks, than it is in Barcelona or Madrid in Spain.
Alternatively, there may be Spanish courses being given in the area in which you live in. I would guess that this is much more likely in the USA where there is already a large Latin population who have the skills to deliver the courses.
Once you have got a basic grasp of the generic Spanish language, a good way to improve is to listen online to a Spanish speaking radio station. This is easily done by going to the website of a station (e.g. Radio Nacional de Espana) and clicking on the ‘listen live’ link. In my experience, even if you have a good academic grasp of Spanish, it can still be difficult to understand the everyday spoken word. Online radio gives you a method of becoming more accustomed to understanding everyday Spanish, without the embarrassment of being in a direct conversation with somebody that you don’t understand! You will also begin to realise that, just like English and every other language, Spanish is full of idioms and phrases that are just not taught in books or academic courses! To start off with I would recommend listening to the more serious or news contented stations or programmes, as these tend to have presenters that speak more clearly and grammatically correct.
Watch Spanish Programmes Online/On TV
One way that I’ve improved my Spanish whilst in Latin America or Spain, is to simply sit through hours of watching TV. This can be especially easy if you have your own hotel room as it means that you can concentrate without interruptions. When you have something visual that is portraying or reflecting what is being said, it is much easier to get the context of what is being said and put join the dots. It is also quite common for TV to show programmes in English, but with Spanish subtitles. Although the translations are not always perfect, this can be a good way of seeing if you have been getting your translations right.
Get some Spanish speaking friends.
If you have been travelling in Spanish speaking countries, the chances are that you will have made some friends who speak Spanish as their first language. Assuming that you keep in contact, chatting in Spanish on an Instant Messenger can be a great way of maintaining and improving your skills without feeling that you are putting much effort in. The great thing about this technique is that you have more time to read what is being said and interpret it, and similarly have more time to fashion a response. If your friends also speak English, you can always ask them to interpret for you! I always keep my Spanish-English dictionary next to the computer to assist me with any new words. However, you could also take advantage of one of the free online translators.
Teaching yourself Spanish can be really good fun, but it is even more so when you have the opportunity to use it and interact with it. So long as you learn the basics and keep adding to it a little bit every day, you’ll find yourself understanding Spanish songs and Spanish friends in no time at all!