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:

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, try to avoid the tricky, boring stuff, and focus on seeing some real results, fast. The following courses and software will give you some quick wins:

Option 1: Language Transfer Spanish

If you're familiar with the Michel Thomas courses, this will appear quite similar on the surface.

Both follow a similar format: They're audio courses, where a teacher is working with a student, using a question and answer method ("How would you say ______?").

In both courses, the teacher will present a new piece of information — a small grammar point, a connecting word — then they'll ask the student how to say something new with that new information. The new language builds on top of itself, and you'll quickly find yourself being able to say a lot of different things.

Screenshot of Michel Thomas track information showing language learned in this lesson
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. 

Both Language Transfer and Michel Thomas will give you the quick confidence boost that we're after here. But I found Mihalis from Language Transfer to be a lot more encouraging, and the material felt better explained.

There's also the small fact that Language Transfer is free (please donate), while Michel Thomas can cost in the vicinity of $100 depending on the package you choose.

The style of teaching isn't to everyone's taste. So if you'd like something a little more traditional, you can try my next option...

Option 2: Rocket Spanish Interactive Audio Course

Another good confidence-building audio course is the Rocket Spanish Interactive Audio Course, which comes baked into the full Rocket Spanish program. The advantage to this course is that it comes with a full grammar course as well, which you'll need later. So it can feel like a two-for-one deal.

The first couple of lessons are pretty basic "hello, how are you?" kinds of conversations, but they do get better, and the material you learn is arguably more immediately useful than Language Transfer. For instance, by lesson three you're learning how to order coffee.

Screenshot of Rocket Spanish interactive audio lesson
Rocket Spanish interactive audio course. 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.

Rocket Spanish has one other advantage over Michel Thomas or Language Transfer: Each audio lesson has a full range of interactive tools for testing your recall and understanding. You can practice your speaking, pronunciation, writing, and listening comprehension for each lesson. This will help build your confidence even further.

Option 3: Duolingo

For a lot of people, Duolingo will be your first introduction to a new language. Not only is it free, but it's also ... fun. There are cute animations and blinging noises. You can earn points, and go on "streaks", and learn some pretty amusing new phrases.

Screenshot from Duolingo app

Duolingo is a good introduction to Spanish. It probably won't make you fluent (I see people complaining that they finish the Duolingo "tree" and still have difficulty understanding Spanish), but it'll give you a good head start on Spanish grammar.

At early levels, it's not particularly challenging, but that's part of the charm — you'll feel like you're doing really well.

So 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).

Once you're feeling pretty good about things, and you're confident that learning Spanish is definitely something you can do, it's time to move onto the next tool...

Tool #2:

A grammar course or textbook

I recommend ...

Now is the time to start working with a Spanish course that will explain the grammar — how Spanish actually works.

The reason I don't recommend you START with a grammar course is because this material can be dry. And if you don't have any real knowledge of Spanish to begin with, it can feel intangible and irrelevant, and that makes it harder to learn.

BUT if you've already had some early wins with your confidence-building course, you'll be able to recognize some of that language when you see it in your grammar course. You'll be like, "ohhhh, THAT'S how that works!" — it'll make a lot more sense.

What to look for in a grammar course

  • It's structured around linguistic principles rather than situations (e.g., "Understanding nouns" vs "Booking a doctor's appointment") It might not seem quite as interesting, but it'll provide a shorter route to understanding the language and organizing it in your memory. It's also good to have a course that you can also use as a reference, to come back to when you need a refresher on a particular grammar point (and you will).
  • It includes reinforcement tools: This stuff requires memorization and repetition. There's a 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. It's best if your grammar course includes tools or exercises to drill you on this material.
  • It allows you to choose your learning path: We don't all have the same needs and goals. It's good to have the freedom to hop around a course, depending on your interests. At the same time, it helps to have a recommended path to follow if you need it.

With that in mind, there are two courses I recommend:

Option 1: Rocket Spanish (Language and Culture component)

Rocket Spanish has that audio course component (mentioned above) but also comes with a full grammar course, kind of like an interactive, multimedia textbook.

The explanations are comprehensive, but still pretty friendly and easy to understand.  Each lesson also comes with audio examples and testing tools to help you drill that material into your memory. You can pick your own learning path, or follow their recommendation. It's a really good all-round package — especially to use as a reference later.

Collated screenshots of Rocket Spanish app screens
Rocket Spanish comes with a full grammar course, where you'll get detailed explanations on how Spanish actually works, plus reinforcement tools and quizzes.

Option 2: Ouino Spanish

Ouino Spanish is another extremely well-structured and well-presented grammar course. It's less "textbooky" than Rocket Spanish — there's less reading, and you won't be drowned in long-winded explanations. (Note: This may make it feel like Ouino is less comprehensive, at first.)

Ouino's goal seems to be to give you the most essential building blocks first, so you can start using the language sooner. The nitty gritty details and exceptions come later.

Screenshot of the Ouino home interface
Ouino Spanish lets you choose your own learning path, or follow their recommendation. There are plenty of reinforcement activities for each section.

The course breaks the language down into components, and you're free to choose whatever path you like. There is a well-devised recommended path if you like some more guidance.

Along with the main "building blocks" grammar lessons, there are bonus sections on vocabulary, conversation examples, verb conjugation practice, pronunciation, writing/listening practice, and a lot more. Everything is clearly separated and categorized, so you can easily find what you need, and you're never confused about what you're learning.

Ouino would be quite suitable for older kids and teens, as well as us adults. There's enough interaction to keep things fun and challenging for all ages. It's available as either a monthly subscription, or a one-time purchase (which is extremely good value).

Tool #3:

Simpler texts and slower audio

I recommend:

Once you've mastered some of the basics in Spanish, you can start trying to use your skills on a wider variety of material than just the sheltered confines of your Spanish courses.

Your reading and listening comprehension skills are easy to work on when you're studying on your own, and will usually be where you take your first baby steps into the real world.

Warning: Try not to launch yourself into material that is too far above your current level. You run the risk of discouraging yourself — especially if you try listening to casual Spanish spoken at native speeds.

A good compromise is to start with materials designed for learners, where the language might be slightly simpler, and the audio slightly slower.

Option 1: Short children's stories in Spanish

You could start with our fairy tales in Spanish, or the stories on our sister site, The Fable Cottage. (We're all actually the same person — The Fable Cottage is home to our newer stories.)

Stories on The Fable Cottage are simplified to remove most of the very advanced grammatical constructs, but they will still have plenty to sink your teeth into up to an intermediate level.

Both sites have audio versions that are slower than native-speed, and The Fable Cottage has video versions of the stories available as well. (These give more context clues, and can help you understand stories you might otherwise find more difficult.)

Here's an example of one of our slower-than-native speed stories with video.

The Fable Cottage has somewhat simplified stories in Spanish with slower audio and optional English translations. Most stories have video versions for extra clues.

Option 2: Augmented reading and listening: FluentU and LingQ

Both of these websites grade and augment real-world materials to make them useful learning tools.

LingQ focuses on written material (although some pieces will have audio as well). The gimmick is that every word in a piece of text is defined, and you can add words you don't know to a revision list.

You can also import your own texts into LingQ and use their engine to add definitions to the text. (Just be careful to keep it private if you're using copyrighted material.) 

A screenshot of LingQ showing highlighted vocabulary

FluentU is more focused on using video material from around the web. Transcripts/subtitles have word definitions, so you can dig down when you come across something you don't understand.

Both websites grade material by difficulty, so you can easily find material that is roughly suited to your level.

How to use it: Intensive vs Extensive reading

There are two approaches you can use with reading material (and listening material, provided it has a transcript):

  • Intensive reading/listening: This is where you use the text or audio material as a springboard for your own learning. When you come across words or formations that you don't recognize — look them up. Figure out how they work. Write them down.

    This is a great way to build your vocabulary, but it is labor-intensive. Because you're looking to learn new things, it's best to work with material that is at your current level, or slightly above.
  • Extensive reading/listening: This is where you're not necessarily focused on understanding every... single... word or construct, so long as you can follow the general gist.

    The goal here is to devour as much material as you can so that you're really strengthening those pathways in your brain. You'll likely also pick up some new vocabulary from the context, and your naturally start to recognise common constructs. Because you won't be stopping to look things up, it's best to work with material that is at, or slightly below your current level .
Tool #4:

A tutor or conversation partner

The hardest part of learning Spanish on your own is not having as many opportunities to actually speak Spanish.

Your Spanish courses might include tools for checking your recall (your ability to produce Spanish from your memory, either in spoken or written form), but it will be limited to the examples in your Spanish course. It's not quite the same as the random, free-wheeling conversations you have in real life.

And likewise, there are tools that use voice recognition to check your pronunciation. But they're far from perfect.

The best tool for working on your spoken Spanish is — surprise! — another human.

Luckily we live in the future now, and there are ways to speak with Spanish speakers wherever you are in the world.

Option 1: Pay someone through a tutoring platform

You could try...

In the past few years a whole gaggle of online language tutoring platforms have sprung up on the internet.

You can now browse through a directory of Spanish-speaking tutors and pick one to give you personal, one-on-one video lessons at a time of your choosing.

The cost usually depends on the platform and the tutor's experience. You'll usually pay by the hour, and some platforms have different levels of tutors, with experienced, qualified teachers commanding a higher price than less qualified "tutors".

A screenshot of tutor listings on iTalki
iTalki has "community tutors" as well as qualified teachers. If you are looking for speaking and pronunciation help, that might be all you need.

iTalki is probably the most well-known of these language tutor platforms.

It is basically a directory of tutors, so the quality (and price) of the tutors can vary wildly. It has filters that let you see tutors without a professional qualification ("community tutors"), who are typically much cheaper and may be all you need for conversation practice.

LanguaTalk is a more boutique kind of tutor platform where the tutors are screened and selected by the platform itself. (They pride themselves on how many they don't accept.) They also emphasise their better pay and conditions for tutors — which might be something important to you when you're going to spend so long chatting with someone.

You could also try Preply, Verbling, or any of the hundreds of other tutoring platforms that are popping up all over the place.

When you choose a platform, pay attention to the terms and conditions — especially if you have to pre-pay for your lessons, or if you have to pay for a subscription. Check what will happen if you have to reschedule or cancel a lesson.

Option 2: Find a language exchange partner

A more budget-conscious option for getting that speaking and pronunciation practice is to find a language exchange partner, rather than a tutor.

This is where a Spanish speaker (native or advanced) helps you improve your Spanish, in exchange for you helping them with your own language.

You could try Tandem or HelloTalk for matching and chatting with conversation partners, or look for language exchange programs in your local area.

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 wins and fill you with confidence and enthusiasm. Rocket Spanish (interactive audio course) and Language Transfer are wonderful, or you could even use Duolingo.

#2: A good grammar textbook or software

Save the grammar until you've already learned a little, and it'll make a lot more sense. Either Rocket Spanish (language and culture component) or Ouino Spanish are good bets.

#3: Simplified and augmented Spanish text and audio

This exposes you to vocabulary and grammar in a more natural way than just cramming from a textbook, but still gives you enough support that you won't feel overwhelmed. Try our fairy tales in slow Spanish or our similar stories on The Fable Cottage. FluentU and LingQ are good sources of graded materials.

#4: Someone to practice your speaking with

An online Spanish tutor is a good investment at this stage in your learning. They can help you work on your pronunciation, and practice speaking your Spanish out loud — unscripted! Try iTalki or Languatalk.