How to become fluent in Spanish: Our 10 favorite books, resources, and tips

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After one year in Mexico, we’re making great progress in our Spanish. Especially Scout, who’s getting to the point where she can jibber jabber away with friends for hours at a time. Just this morning she announced that her buddy Suzi, a neighbor, has become like all her other friends, because Scout no longer labors to speak with her in Spanish. I love it.

But even though we’re immersed here in Mexico, learning Spanish isn’t automatic, not by a long shot. The three of us have to study and make a conscious, ongoing effort to learn and improve.

This is how we’re doing it.

After trying many different books, programs, and strategies, here’s the particular alchemy that works best for us.

For your convenience I’ve provided links to Amazon where appropriate. Buying though one of my links will give RambleCrunch a small commission without adding anything to the cost to your purchase. I have only recommended products that we own and use regularly.

Finally, although all these tools and strategies are excellent, no single one of them is sufficient by itself. The key to learning a language is finding a variety of approaches to speaking, reading, thinking, and writing, and then tackling fluency from all directions.

Rosetta Stone software (Latin American Spanish)

Rosetta Stone
Though online reviews are mixed, I get excellent results with Rosetta Stone, as does everyone I talk to. I used it to review my college German, to learn Thai from half a world away in Vancouver, and am now using it for Spanish. The marketing materials imply it helps you learn through natural immersion, like kids do, but I don’t really buy that. We’re not little kids learning our mother tongue, we’re learning a second language so it’s totally different. However that doesn’t mean the program isn’t extremely useful. Rosetta Stone is excellent for helping me solidify and remember the new things I’m learning. If I stop using it for a while, my progress in Spanish starts to wane. Often if I’m speaking in Spanish and the correct phrase rolls off my tongue unexpectedly, it will turn out to be something I learned on Rosetta Stone.

Practice Makes Perfect Spanish workbooks (various authors)

Practice Makes Perfect book cover

Practice Makes Perfect book coverSearch on “Spanish workbook” in Amazon’s book section and (as of today) you’ll pull up 595 results. It’s ridiculous. And all those workbooks are not created equal. The Practice Makes Perfect spanish workbooks are the most effective ones I’ve ever used, by far. They gradually expose you to new vocabulary while retaining their focus on grammar. The information is well presented and explained, which makes it very, very sticky in my brain. I LOVE these books.

Every few pages you’re asked to translate a paragraph into Spanish, which is extremely helpful in terms of remembering the new information and showing you just how much you are learning. You won’t believe how much progress you’re making. These books are a great complement to Rosetta Stone.

I am using the Verb Tenses book, with occasional forays into Pronouns and Prepositions. (The Conversation book is waiting in my bookshelf; I’m resisting the urge to start it now!)

Mark and Scout are doing the verb book too. I’ve found that if I do mine for 30 minutes before going to sleep, then the information really sticks in my brain.

Note: I recommend getting the printed books, even if you’re on the move and trying to travel light. I’m not sure any kind of workbook is suited to an ebook format, and according to Amazon reviewers, the Kindle version isn’t particularly well-designed.

Madrigal Spanish (Margarita Madrigal)

Madrigal Spanish book coverThis is a unique, friendly book with a more right-brained approach to learning Spanish. It focuses on the similarity between English and Spanish, and teaches you to use formulas and patterns to extract Spanish from what you already know. You don’t memorize words, you create them. The approach is practical and the author’s tone is always encouraging. After using this book, I always feel extra motivated. This book is a great complement to other programs. I have the print version. The Kindle version gets poor reviews on Amazon. Why on earth don’t publishers make quality eBook versions of their books? I am mystified by this.

Becoming a Bilingual Family (Stephen & Jeffrey Marks)

Becoming a Bilingual Family book coverI stumbled across this book recently while browsing in a Texas Barnes & Noble during our border run. (A review copy of the Kindle Version was generously provided by the University of Texas Press). I always see the same tired Spanish books on bookstore shelves, so I was really excited to spot a newish title. It’s designed for non-Spanish-speaking parents committed to raising Spanish-speaking children in non-Spanish environments. The book’s premise is that if you want your kids to speak Spanish, you’ve got to speak Spanish in the home.

Even though we are living in Mexico, we work at home and spend most of our days speaking English together. This book is a huge help with practical, every-day, family-related conversation. I’m so glad I discovered it! Make it a game, and pretty soon you’ll all lose your fear of speaking, and that’s when you and your kids will start to make real progress.

BONUS POINTS!!! The Kindle version is unexpectedly excellent. It’s professionally designed with an attractive and logical interior layout. So many ebook versions of language-learning titles completely suck, with weird spacing and formatting problems like they’ve been produced with automated software as a total afterthought. As the co-owner of an ebook design & conversion business, I give huge kudos (and thanks) to the UoT Press for providing a quality, useful ebook.

Notes in Spanish Podcast

Ben Curtis and Marina Diez live in Madrid, Spain, and have been making podcasts, audio, and video since May 2005, with over 14 million worldwide downloads of their Spanish audio since then. Their excellent (and FREE!) Notes in Spanish podcasts comprise conversations and interviews, covering interesting news, Spanish culture, current affairs, and travel. Supplementary written materials are available for each podcast, but I haven’t used those.

I usually listen to each podcast once, paying close attention, and then replay it and stop when needed to take notes. If I don’t understand a grammatical construction, I’ll go look it up. By the time I’ve finished working through a podcast, the material is really embedded in my brain. Ben & Marina are fun, and their conversations are a pleasure to listen to.

ANKI

ANKI is a free, open-source, spaced-repetition flashcard program that is incredibly helpful for memorizing large amounts of data. There’s a learning curve while you learn how to use it effectively, but once you’ve got it down, it’s great. In fact you can use it to learn anything, not just foreign-language vocabulary.

TIP: Memorizing random vocabulary lists or verb conjugations isn’t efficient. Without context, you’ll just forget the words later. It’s better to focus on contextual learning, or learning words in practical usage. For example, when I do a card, I always imagine myself out in the neighborhood using the word in a practical sentence. Trust me, this really helps. Always use your imagination when learning words.

ANKI has an online version called ANKIWEB. On ANKIWEB you can share language decks, so if you want you can just download someone else’s deck. I think it’s better to make your own deck so all your words have personal associations. If you’re just memorizing someone else’s cards, they won’t mean much to you.

Here’s what PC World magazine has to say about ANKI

This article will help you use ANKI effectively: Twenty rules of formulating knowledge.

Now ANKI is fantastic, but it can suck up a lot of time if you are the type to get obsessed about creating the perfect flashcard-deck structure (ahem, guilty), so beware! There’s an ANKI phone app too, so you can easily fit in quick card reviews throughout the day.

A notebook for collecting Spanish words

Spanish books & resources notebook

I keep a good Moleskin notebook and use it to collect words when I’m out and about. Colloquial expressions, word from signs, language I overhear on the street, stuff store clerks say to me…you get the idea. You’d be surprised how many words you learn but would otherwise forget if you don’t write them down. By the way I never clutter my book with vocab lists from books…it’s only for living language that I read or hear, though I do keep notes from the Notes in Spanish podcasts. This is an invaluable tool for remembering what you learn, especially if you are in an immersion situation when a lot of info is coming at you regularly. You’ll never remember it all without writing it down. Often I’ll review it before bed.

Think of your Spanish notebook as a big fishnet for catching the language around you.

TV or movies with subtitles or in Spanish

Learning Spanish with Star Trek subtitles

This is a tough one for me because we don’t watch much TV and usually dislike having the bloody thing on. When we do pop in a movie we turn on the subtitles or try to watch a Spanish version of whatever it is. Even Spanish subtitles on English programming will help. Scout has picked up a bunch of crazy phrases from the Star Trek subtitles.

An especially effective strategy if getting hold of a film or TV show and the corresponding script in Spanish. If you can’t get a script, then just stop the program every few lines, and look up meanings. It might take you weeks to get through one movie, but that’s fine. The key is to actively learn from the show and not just watch mindlessly. Pick a movie, telenovela or show that uses everyday language.

A Spanish book above your current language level

Harry Potter book coverReading books in Spanish improves your vocabulary tremendously. Pick a book that’s way above your current language level, not a toddler book you can actually understand. Right now I’m reading Harry Potter in Spanish. I know the plot, so it’s easy to tell what’s going on, and it’s helping me a lot with my preterite (simple past) tense, since that’s what’s mainly used in the narrative.

Resist the urge to look up words as you go! This is really important. Instead, use context clues and cognates to figure out meanings. Words are much stickier in your memory if you’ve actively figured them out actively rather than just looking them up. If you get stuck, it’s okay to look up a word or two, but try to get a flow going without constantly stopping to pick up your dictionary.  When you look up a word, it’s ok to write down the meaning but whatever you do DO NOT write it above the text in the book, because then you’ll just be reading it in English. Put it off to the side where your eye can’t find it by accident.

At first this can be overwhelming and you might not feel like you’re understanding much, but it’s important to keep going. Your brain improves it’s “figuring out” skills quickly, and one day you’ll realize that your vocabulary, spelling, and general proficiency have improved mightily.

Speak! Even if it’s scary and you make tons of mistakes

Maybe this sounds like a weird thing to add to my list, but it’s the most important thing you can do to learn a foreign language. If you feel fearful or self-conscious about speaking like a toddler, just get over it. When you hear language learners struggling to speak, how do you respond? Do you think they’re silly, or do you recognize how hard they’re trying? I’m guessing the second one. So tell your inner critic to shut the hell up while you practice. In the end, languages are about communicating with other people, and that should be your main priority. If you’re not lucky enough to be an immersion environment, then find one. Track down native speakers somewhere and talk to them.

Let me share a quick story. At university I majored in German. By the tie I graduated, I could easily write a 10-page paper in German discussing the use of allegory and classical mythology in Goethe’s Faust, but I could barely stumble through three minutes of of small talk with a waitress in a German restaurant. It was utterly ridiculous. I never practiced my conversation because i was afraid of looking stupid, and then my book learning got so far ahead, I felt even worse about speaking.

So don’t focus on book learning at the expense of speaking, because talking to people is what it’s all about. Focus on acquiring building a vocabulary of practical, every-day words and then use them.

So these are my top tips and resources for becoming fluent in Spanish. I hope they help! I’d love to hear from anyone who’s also learning Spanish. What are you doing? How’s it working?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Clelie October 26, 2013 at 1:17 pm

For keeping my French good and current, I tune in to one of our French talk radio stations. I also occasionally check out French audio books to keep my French vocab alive and also to keep my ear alive. When I was trying to learn Gaelic, I listened to it a lot, and bought contemporary Gaelic singers and learned to sing along with them. I’m currently revisiting my [100-year-old] shorthand, and for every page I read about signs, symbols, and shortcuts, I practice in my head and on the page. There’s nothing like doing it, doing it, doing it, whatever it is.

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2 travelwithkevinandruth.com October 26, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Very proud of you guys for the effort you’re making in learning Spanish. We’ve met a lot of expats in Mexico who make no effort at all beyond the very basics. Of course it’s easier for Scout because of her age. We found at age 51 that it’s because our brains are obviously full!

We use similar books and software when we are in Mexico, and we find our Spanish improving every year. And because our Spanish is better every year, our interactions with the Mexicans are increased and improved. The whole experience is so worth it, despite the fact that it’s a lot of work.
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3 Living Outside of the Box October 26, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Great suggestions! I also looove those green Spanish verb workbooks! I have also found it very useful to read books and articles in Spanish–sometimes with the English version side by side in case I didn’t understand how exactly they put a sentence together, etc!
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4 Living Outside of the Box October 26, 2013 at 3:21 pm

P.S. Scout looks so pretty in that photo! She’s growing up and up!
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5 Renee October 27, 2013 at 10:01 am

Can you believe it? She’s almost 13. Gack!

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6 Lyndajo Thomas October 26, 2013 at 5:51 pm

This is helpful. ¡Muchas Gracias!

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7 Connie Lovell October 27, 2013 at 1:16 am

Great post! It brought back memories of when I was learning Spanish years ago. One thing I found was lack of confidence when trying to communicate often causes you to speak in an almost muffled whisper. When asked to repeat it, it knocks you back because you think you’re not much good! So be brave and speak loudly and clearly, it really does work. Remember when you learn a new word – ‘Use it or loose it’ – use it as often as possible and it stays there in your brain! Well done Scout!

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8 Renee October 27, 2013 at 10:00 am

Great advice, Connie! Especially about not mumbling. I still do that if I’m not careful… 🙂

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9 Jim October 27, 2013 at 9:10 am

You left out duolingo.com. The #1 learning tool. And it is free

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10 Renee October 27, 2013 at 9:58 am

We’re not big fans of Duolingo. My daughter likes noodling around with it from time to time but we don’t find it nearly as effective as the other resources I listed. Free is less important than effective.

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11 Patti October 27, 2013 at 10:54 am

When my husband first came to the U.S. some 36+ years ago he watched a lot of television to learn English. You’ve really got it down to a system and your daughter is beautiful!
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12 Renee October 27, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Thanks, Patti. 🙂

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13 Mike Graf November 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm

I use duolingo and brainscape iOS apps to study spanish whenever I am waiting (eg in line, on the bus, when someone I dont like is talking…)

brainscape sells some “decks” of flash cards, but gives the “business” one for free…

https://www.brainscape.com/market/foreign_languages/spanish_-_complete

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14 Renee November 15, 2013 at 9:26 am

Hi Mike. It’s funny how everyone learns differently. I’ve done Duolingo but haven’t found it as effective as the other options. Is Brianscape like ANKI?

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15 Bryan Haines December 4, 2013 at 10:13 am

Nice set of resources – it never takes just one, does it? We have a similar stack.
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16 Cat December 14, 2013 at 11:23 pm

I am studying Spanish on my own and I find that Assimil Spanish with Ease helps a lot. I am also curious about Brainscape, because it’s my go-to flashcard program for Japanese.

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