Note: I received a free copy of Rocket Spanish for review purposes. Some links in this article are affiliate programs, so I'll make some coffee money if you buy. You get it at the normal price though!

What's the best way to learn Spanish?

The 4 tools that will help you become fluent

There's no question, there are lots of tools out there that will teach you Spanish. Physical classes, virtual classes, online software, podcasts, phone apps, textbooks, and glorious immersion experiences where you go and live in Mexico for a few weeks. (If only!)

But for me, learning a new language is all about the strategy. It's the right tool at the right time, so that you don't just give up or forget everything you've learned.

So here's what I recommend. (Do these things in order!)

TOOL #1: 

Get something that builds your confidence

The single biggest risk you face when you're getting started learning Spanish is that you'll just give up. It'll seem too hard, too boring, or like you're not getting anywhere.

To get past this point, you need to avoid the tricky, boring stuff, and focus on seeing some real results, fast.

Number 1 tip: Skip anything loaded with grammar theory right at the start. (There's plenty of time for that later.)

When you're just getting started you need something that will fill you with excitement and confidence and curiosity, and that will make you feel like learning Spanish is totally something you can do.

Option 1: Michel Thomas Spanish

This is an audio course available either as a boxed set of CDs, as an app for iOS/Android, or as an audiobook through Audible.

At its heart is a series of audio lessons with famous polyglot, Michel Thomas. What I love about this audio course is how quickly it gets you feeling like learning Spanish is something you can do.

Michel Thomas Spanish — The app version comes with flashcards. The audio-CD version does not. But both are based around the audio lessons — which is the important part.

The lessons start with a few simple sentences, and these get built on until you're able to say some quite complex sentences.

Along the way Michel Thomas discusses a few patterns and grammar concepts so that you understand what you're saying and how it might change in context, but you're not being bashed about the head with a truck-load of theory. 

Here's the vocabulary for one lesson. You can see how you start with a core word or concept, and it gets built upon in a very organic way.

The Michel Thomas method involves starting with a few simple words and phrases, and adding to those until you can say some quite complex sentences.

One of the philosophies of the Michel Thomas method is that it should be stress-free for the student. You're encouraged to NOT write anything down, and to not even try to memorise anything. 

(Whether this makes you learn faster/easier is debatable. But it certainly makes everything feel easier, which is the goal of this step!)

By the end of the course you won't be completely fluent. But you will be able to say and understand a few things in Spanish, and even better than that — you'll feel like learning Spanish isn't an unconquerable mountain. You can do it. You'll have the confidence and curiosity to keep going.

Note: At the time of writing this, the Michel Thomas apps for iOS and Android both sound buggy. The course material is still excellent, but the delivery through the app is a problem. If you have an Audible membership, that might be a more reliable way to access the material.

Option 2: Rocket Spanish Interactive Audio Course

An alternative to Michel Thomas is the Rocket Spanish Interactive Audio Course, which comes baked into the full Rocket Spanish software. It's available online (no CD player required!) and they also have a good, solid app for both iOS and Android.

Rocket Spanish interactive audio course. This is a screenshot from the online (computer) version. Each 20+ minute lesson can be played on a computer, downloaded, or listened to through the app. You also get a bunch of interactive tools, transcripts, flashcards and vocabulary.

This course doesn't move quite as quickly as Michel Thomas, and the first couple of lessons are pretty tedious "hello, how are you?" kinds of conversations. They don't escalate to complex sentences as quickly as the Michel Thomas lessons, so you feel like it's a bit slower.

But it does get better, and you could argue that if you're heading on vacation to a Spanish-speaking country, the conversations you learn in Rocket Spanish are a bit more useful than the ones you learn with Michel Thomas.

The end result is the same as with Michel Thomas: You'll be able to understand a few things, and you will be able to have some very basic conversations. You'll see a few enjoyable results, and this will give you the confidence and motivation to keep going.

Option 3: Rosetta Stone

I've never been a particularly big fan of the Rosetta Stone method. Learning a language just by matching pictures with words always seemed like a gimmick. But I've changed my tune a little bit.

Rosetta Stone's products are based around a pseudo-immersion style of learning. Look at the pictures above, and then click the image below that matches the target sentence. No explanations!

Rosetta Stone won't make you fluent in Spanish. For the amount of time and money you spend on the app, you don't actually come away with a whole lot of vocabulary.

But what you do learn through the app sticks in your head really well. It has a good balance of reading / listening / speaking practice, it's reasonably fun to use, good at tracking your progress, and good at making you feel like you're doing really well. (Remember: This is our goal!)

In the past you had to spend an eye-watering amount to buy Rosetta Stone, but now it's available for a reasonable monthly subscription. It could be a worthwhile tool to add to your toolbox.

To recap: The first tool I recommend is whatever will build your confidence and inspire you to keep going and not give up. You need to be able to see results fast (because this is the best motivator).

Then you can move onto the next tool:

TOOL #2: 

One-on-one lessons with a tutor

Having your own personal Spanish tutor sounds ridiculously expensive and extravagant, but it's actually not as crazy as it might seem.

Over the past couple of years a number of services have popped up that connect students with language teachers. You'll conduct your lesson over Skype or some other video chat service. It doesn't usually require any special technology: If you have a smartphone you can do it, and most laptop computers come with built-in camera and microphone.

Yes, it can be more expensive than a software subscription or a textbook. But there are some serious advantages to learning with a good tutor:

4 reasons to get a personal Spanish tutor

  • It gets you speaking Spanish out loud. Definitely the biggest downside to learning Spanish at home or online is that you don't speak out loud as often as you need to. And when you do speak out loud, it's hard to tell if you're doing it right. Learning with a tutor will get you speaking Spanish straight away, and you'll get that instant feedback on your pronunciation too.
  • It stops you giving up: Remember, the biggest risk is that you'll give up. A tutor helps prevent this: Firstly by keeping you accountable and making sure you're doing the work; Secondly by helping you get past any tricky things that you just can't understand.

  • You can get customized lessons tailor-made for your strengths, weaknesses and goals. Instead of a one-size-fits-all course, a tutor can tweak your lessons to work on the things you want to work on.
iTalki is one of the largest communities of online tutors, but the quality can vary.

iTalki is probably the most well-known of these language tutor directories — they have tutors of varying skill levels for over 100 different languages. But because it is basically just a directory, the quality (and price) of the tutors can vary wildly.

Because tutors on iTalki are motivated to compete with each other on price, it can be a struggle to earn a living on this platform. If that makes you feel a bit yuck, you might want to look at platforms that look after their tutors a little better.

For learning Spanish, LanguaTalk is quite a new platform, but it is an evolution of Lingoci which had a lot of good reviews. Company founder Alex Redfern stresses how much effort they put into recruiting and screening quality tutors, compared to other platforms that let anyone become a tutor. LanguaTalk also offers refunds on unused lessons (this is unusual, but welcome), and you can use Zoom, Skype, or whatever other chat tool works best for you (many platforms lock you into their own chat platform, which sometimes don't work well).

Verbling is another platform that comes highly recommended. Both LanguaTalk and Verbling offer free trials, so you can chat with a tutor before committing.

Verbling can connect you with a wide range of experienced Spanish teachers.

Be aware that new one-on-one language tutoring services are popping up all the time.

Look for platforms with independent reviews, and pay attention to the terms and conditions — especially if you have to pre-pay for your lessons, or get them on a subscription basis.

So now we've looked at two tools: A confidence building tool, and in-person tutoring. By now you're likely past the point of giving up, so it's time to dig a little deeper with the third tool...

TOOL 3: 

A grammar textbook or software

Remember earlier when I said to "skip anything loaded with grammar theory"? 

It's time to throw that advice out the window.

By now you will have been through a confidence-building course and started working with a tutor. You will have built up some Spanish skills and you'll probably be able to have some basic conversations, and read some basic texts.

Because you're already seeing results and feeling confident, now is the time to start fine-tuning your skills with a bit of grammar study.

Repeat, repeat, repeat...

This stuff requires memorization and repetition. There's a little bit of "understanding how it all works", but a lot of time time it's just about committing a whole bunch of patterns to memory, and testing yourself until it sticks.

The secret to any memorization task is that you need to do it a little and often. Don't sit down for one massive two-hour cram session every week. Instead find ten or twenty minutes a day to run through some verb tables or work with your flash cards.

Your tutor will probably give you some resources to study, or you could grab yourself pretty much any Spanish textbook and make yourself a set of flash cards.

Another good option is to use a software solution like Rocket Spanish. Rocket Spanish comes with a full grammar course that explains how things work (like a textbook), but each and every lesson also comes with testing tools to help you drum that material into your memory.

Rocket Spanish comes with a full grammar course, accessible online through a computer, or through the iOS and Android app. It has lots of nice tools and audio to play with, including flashcards for each lesson.

Because it comes with an app version, you can practice a little and often, wherever you are. It's really effective (and kind of fun) for pushing through those memorization tasks.

If you're a bit strapped for cash, you could also try the free Duolingo app. I wouldn't use it as my only tool for learning Spanish, but it can help in this "drilling things into your memory" stage. The grammar explanations are not as good as Rocket Spanish, so I recommend you get a textbook to use as well.

Duolingo is available both online through the website, and as an app for iOS, Android and Windows phone. 

If you've followed my recommendations to this point, you'll likely have a bit of basic Spanish knowledge under your belt. You'll also have the resources and skills to research and figure out things you don't understand.

This last "tool" is not so much a tool as a tactic you can use to practice what you've learned and build new vocabulary and grammar skills...

TOOL 4: 

Reading and listening to Spanish

Here's where things start to get really fun.

Even if you don't have any Spanish-speakers to chat with regularly, you can still expose yourself to new grammar and vocabulary through texts, television and radio.

The goal here is NOT to test yourself. You don't "fail" if you can't understand everything. The goal is really to expose yourself to new vocabulary, grammar, patterns, and conventions. 

This is a much more natural way of learning vocabulary and grammar than studying a textbook. 

When you read or hear something you don't understand, and then you look it up to find out what it means... you're learning actively, rather than just passively absorbing information. It's much more likely to stick.

Try reading simple stories in Spanish

Children's stories can be a great place to start trying to read in Spanish. Stories designed for children and young adults are likely to use simpler language and more straightforward ideas than texts designed for adults.

You could start with our fairy tales in Spanish, or the stories on our sister site, The Fable Cottage. They come with slow audio so you can listen as you read. Try to find stories where you can generally understand what's happening, even if you don't understand every single word or phrase.

Our fairy tales in Spanish come with slow, clear audio so you can listen along.

If you go looking for more stories, just be aware that fairy tales and folk tales often use somewhat old-fashioned language — which might be confusing. The stories on this site and The Fable Cottage all use everyday Spanish as much as possible.

Listen to Spanish audio, TV, radio

Listening to real-world audio in Spanish serves two purposes:

  • It exposes you to new vocabulary and grammar
  • It gets you used to the sounds and rhythms of Spanish

Realistically, the everyday spoken Spanish that you hear on radio and TV is going to be too fast for you to pick up on much new vocabulary — unless you hear things over and over again (hellooo, radio commercials!).

But it is useful to listen to even if you don't understand everything. You'll get used to the sounds of Spanish, so they won't sound quite so odd when they're coming out of your mouth.

If you want to try understanding spoken Spanish, you could try listening to slow audio specifically designed for Spanish learners. 

  • News in Slow Spanish presents a weekly news report in relatively slow Spanish, complete with a transcript so you can follow along. They have a version for both Latin American Spanish and Spanish from Spain. It's a paid subscription service, but you can listen to the introductions of all the episodes for free — and this might be enough for you.
  • Our fairy tales in Spanish come with even slower audio in Latin American Spanish. It's painfully slow for native Spanish speakers, but very good for Spanish learners! 
Before you get started

Two important things to remember:

  • It takes a long time to become "perfect" at speaking another language: So it's important to focus on strategies that keep you motivated and enthusiastic — especially when you're just getting started. The "best" way to learn Spanish is whatever method keeps you coming back for more.

  • You don't need to be perfect to be understood: Don't try to be "perfect" before you start using your Spanish. Even if you make mistakes, people will usually understand you (eventually!). The best way to learn Spanish is to get out there and start using your new language. Make that your goal, and perfection can come later :)

Recap: The 4 tools you need to learn Spanish

#1: Something that builds your confidence and enthusiasm

You need something that will give you some quick success, so that you don't feel like giving up. Try Michel ThomasRocket Spanish interactive audio course, or personal online tutoring through LanguaTalk , Verbling, iTalki or similar.

#2: Personal online tutoring

This gives you lessons customized for your needs, and it is guaranteed to get you speaking your Spanish out loud and improving your pronunciation. Bonus points: You're less likely to give up with a teacher helping you. Try LanguaTalk, Verbling or iTalki.

#3: A good grammar textbook or software

Save the grammar until you've already learned a little, and it'll make a lot more sense. This is all about memorization, and "a little and often". Pick up a textbook or a software like Rocket Spanish or Duolingo.

#4: Things to read and listen to in Spanish (whatever you can find!)

This exposes you to vocabulary and grammar in a more natural way than just cramming from a textbook. Try our fairy tales in slow Spanish or News in Slow Spanish. Or just go out there, read some newspapers and watch some telenovelas! (Or parodies of telenovelas!)