The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced

15th November 2016

Are you one of those people who did Spanish in school but barely learned how to say ¿Dónde está el baño? (my hand's up). If so, you'll know that the way we learn languages at school doesn't work for most people. At school, they teach you lots about Spanish, like irregular verbs and word lists, but they don't teach you how to talk to people. It's a bit like trying to learn to play the guitar by reading sheet music. And just as you'll never learn to play the guitar without picking one up, you'll never learn to speak Spanish without practicing how to use it in real life situations. The top tools for learning Spanish are ones that teach you how to say stuff you actually want to say, and help you understand Spanish the way it's spoken in the real world. Here are 11 resources for Spanish learners which will do exactly that, from beginner to advanced:

Picking up the basics

A good beginners' course will give you the tools you need to build Spanish sentences right from the beginning. They'll help you pick up words and grammar naturally through repetition and show you how to apply what you learn in new situations.

1. Michel Thomas Spanish

The Michel Thomas method has to be one of the top resources for picking up the basics at lightening speed. It helps you learn grammar painlessly by organising verbs into groups that are super easy to remember, and takes advantage of the 30-40% of English words that have a Spanish equivalent (known as cognates) like family/familia, centre/centro. You'll be surprised at just how much you can say after only a few hours of listening!

2. Pimsleur

One of the biggest challenges of learning a language at the beginning is remembering all of those words and phrases. Pimsleur drills Spanish into your brain by repeating things you've learned in new contexts and building gradually on what you already know. It can be a little old fashioned in places (the plot follows someone on a business trip), but when used in combination with other resources, it's an good way to fix the basics in your mind.

3. Coffee Break Spanish

The Coffee Break series is a delightfully relaxed way to pick up Spanish in bite sized pieces. The lively and interactive lessons help you remember key phrases and introduce new stuff at a nice pace. Presenter Mark Pentleton throws in lots of cultural notes and anecdotes, which make the lessons a pleasure to listen to. The series goes from beginner right up to advanced, and the podcasts are free.

Getting conversational

Now you've picked up the basics, you can start using Spanish in your daily life. It's time to dive in and practice speaking (even if you don't feel ready yet!) and gradually start doing stuff in Spanish that you enjoy doing in your native language. As you start venturing into the world of real Spanish, you'll need plenty of support from subtitles and slow, clear speech.

4. italki

If you want to get good at speaking, you'll need to start talking to native speakers. italki is a fab website where you can get one-to-one conversation lessons with native Spanish tutors for as little as $5 an hour. The Spanish tutors on italki can: - encourage you to speak - help you find the right words - gently correct your mistakes - teach you new words and phrases when you need them All the necessary conditions for learning to speak a language! And you don't need to worry about speaking slowly, making mistakes or sounding silly - most tutors are friendly, patient and used to working with beginners.

5. News in Slow Spanish

News in Slow Spanish makes a refreshing change to the boring or overly simplistic topics a lot of learner resources cover. The presenters talk about the week's news in an interesting and entertaining way, in Spanish that's clear and easy to follow.

6. Easy Spanish

Easy Spanish is a series which helps you learn Spanish "on the streets". Presenters visit locations across the Spanish speaking world and pose interesting questions to passers-by such as "What would you do if you had superpowers?". The interview format is perfect as you hear the same question over and over, and the answers are usually pretty entertaining. To help you follow along, there are big subtitles in Spanish and smaller subtitles in English. The bilingual subtitles make these videos especially handy for using the translation method, which involves translating the conversation into English then back into Spanish, to practice building Spanish sentences.

7. SpanishDict

Once you start engaging with real Spanish, you'll need a good dictionary to look up the new words you come across. My favourite is SpanishDict because it gives you lots of examples of how the word is used in different sentences, which gives me a better idea of how to use the word myself later on. There's also a really handy grammar reference for learning when to use the different verb forms.

8. Memrise

As well as a good dictionary, you'll need a way to remember all the new words you learn. Memrise helps you learn words more efficiently by showing them to you at specific intervals which optimise learning. The method, known as spaced repetition, is based on observations by memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus, who noticed that we remember information better when we learn it a few times over a longer period of time, compared to many times within a short space of time. You'll find lots of ready made Spanish courses already on there, but the best way to use memrise is to upload words that you've already seen in context. This makes them much easier to remember and use in future.

Honing your skills

Now you can hold a conversation and understand simple spoken Spanish, it's time to hone your skills by learning how native Spanish speakers communicate with each other.

9. Gritty Spanish

Gritty Spanish is a series of funny Spanish dialogues where the characters fight, gossip, get drunk, go to strip clubs and break the law. It’s full of naughty Spanish words, so you can start to fill in those all-important gaps in your vocabulary, and there are side-by-side transcripts in English and Spanish which make it easy to look up new words and phrases. The dialogues have voice actors from all over the Spanish speaking world, so you can start to get an idea of how Spanish differs depending on where it's spoken.

10. Your Web Browser

With the Google Translate Chrome add-on, you can turn any Spanish website into an interactive Spanish dictionary. When you click on a word you don't know, the English translation pops up on the same page, so you you can read websites for native speakers without constantly stopping to look up words.

11. Netflix

Netflix is full of Spanish language TV shows and films, and the selection keeps growing. Many of the shows are available with closed caption subtitles so you can read along in Spanish if you struggle to follow the audio alone. You can leverage the English-Spanish subtitles to do learn with the translation method, or just kick back with some snacks and enjoy a relaxing Spanish TV binge. Those were my 11 favourite resources for learning Spanish, if you have any more to add, please share them in the comments!

What do you think?

Which of the above resources do you think will be the most useful in your Spanish mission? Why?

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