The worst thing that can happen to you, and it happens to thousands of newbie Spanish learners every year (I’ve met several of them), is that you just don’t know how to start off so maybe you try this, that, and the other random method or resource and, of course, that doesn’t work very well and you end up quitting after a few months (at best) of wasted time and effort. On the other hand, if you get started right you’ll see immediate significant improvements in your ability to speak with natives, which will encourage you and result in you gladly putting in the necessary time and effort, which will be well-rewarded because you’re putting that time and effort into the correct method that actually works because any truly “correct method” should specifically be designed to get you to converse with native speakers as quickly as possible.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me about this, and I’ve held off on talking about it for so long because, although I personally think the right system can be very valuable and can really make the whole process of learning Spanish much faster and can prevent a lot of people from quitting who would’ve otherwise ended up floating about aimlessly trying different things unsuccessfully before giving up, I wanted to be very careful about what I recommended–there’s a ton of stuff out there that purports to teach you Spanish so that you’ll “be able to talk just like a native!” and all in only 30 or 60 days or some crap like that, it’s just not true, learning a language doesn’t work like that. It takes a good amount of time to get fluent (6-8 months if you bust your butt) and a lot of hard work. I do, however, believe that a prepackaged system designed to help someone learn a certain language from scratch, if it’s good, can be immensely valuable, and I’ll tell you right now that some of them were very valuable to me in the beginning, for about the first year or so, when I started teaching myself Spanish. They were so valuable to me because, like you, I had no clue as to what I was doing, I didn’t know where to start!
Which one you should even consider purchasing, if you’re going to go this route, is very dependent upon what your needs are: are you trying to get conversationally fluent with the primary objective being to be able to talk to native speakers using normal, day-to-day language? Or are you a student who needs to ace your upcoming AP Spanish exam and therefore you need to learn a lot of grammar and vocabulary but you don’t need to be able to speak? Those are two very different sets of needs, and I primarily cater here to the person who wants to learn how to speak Spanish for the purpose of being able to talk with native Spanish speakers.
So what’s the problem with trying to figure this out on my own?
The problem is that there are a ton of resources out there and someone who’s never learned a language before is not going to have any means of discerning which ones to use nor will they know how to use them properly and in what combination such that what they’re doing is effective and causing them to make progress at a good rate and not completely wasting their time–because this is what many beginners who dive right in without guidance end up doing: wasting their time (usually several months) and then getting frustrated at their lack of progress (they realize they’re hardly any closer to being able to speak with a native than when they started) and then giving up.
Additionally, I’m presuming that you’re not interested in trying to put together your own Spanish learning system and just want a basic and effective course to spoon-feed you precisely the correct Spanish in just the right way in order to kick-start you on your Spanish-learning journey. If you are interested in how to do that, for what it’s worth I have written on book on the topic you can check out if you like. Hey, it’s not that these two methods (buying a prepackaged system vs. creating your own) are contradictory or that one is better than the other, it’s just that different people have different needs, circumstances, learning styles, personalities, and preferences, and therefore different methods will work best for different people – choose whichever one you think best suits you.
Additionally, you want to avoid learning the wrong way of saying things. Textbooks, workbooks, and many online websites with free ‘exercises’ and ‘lessons’ you can do teach you things that a native speaker would never say! Your high school Spanish teacher might have given you an ‘A’ for saying it that way, but it would sound strange, overly formal, and possibly even ‘snotty’ to a native speaker. You don’t want to learn things that not only would you never need to use but that if you did use them they’d actually end up hurting your communication with a native speaker, not helping!
Are Any of Them Really Any Good?
I’ve tried a bunch of different ones and can honestly recommend very few of them, in fact I have exactly one that I recommend for the specific purpose of learning how to speak Spanish as quickly as possible (becoming highly proficient in written Spanish will require additional material, though this course does cover reading and writing to some degree)–this particular course does not have a great deal of emphasis on learning grammar or learning how to write the sort of formal Spanish you would need to pass an exam–be aware of this, it’s designed to get you speaking Spanish, using normal, modern, everyday language, as fast as possible (in as little as a couple weeks, actually) so that you can start conversing with native speakers about normal, everyday subjects as quickly as possible. That’s the point, and that’s the only point of this course. If you’re looking for something to improve your written Spanish or so you can pass an exam, I have another recommendation further down below this.
Ok, so what do you recommend and why?
Alright, here we go: if you’re looking to learn Spanish, as in eventually get to conversational fluency or better, you’re a beginner (not an experienced polyglot who’s learned 3 other languages before or something), you’ve got at least a few months to work on it (and it will take at least that long to get fluent), then I highly recommend a little-known program called Synergy Spanish (click here to check out their site). Both the digital versions (one is audio-only, the other is audio and video) are under $100, and either is a FULL course by itself, they contain about the same quantity of material as Pimsleur Spanish Levels 1-3 and each level of Pimsleur is $250 so that’s $750 total for Pimsleur, and frankly I think Synergy Spanish actually does a better job of teaching the material, and a way better job of choosing which material to teach, than Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone ($500+), Rocket Spanish ($100+), LiveMocha (kinda-sorta free but not really, and you get what you pay for), or any of the other courses I tried do.
When I first started teaching myself Spanish, I started with Pimsleur and did levels I-IV. I have since tried about half a dozen other courses, including Synergy Spanish, and I’ll tell you something: I learned far more from Synergy Spanish than I did from all 4 levels of Pimsleur or any other single system.
The course itself was designed by an American who married a Mexican, moved there, and then found that not being able to speak Spanish in Mexico was quite a problem! He ended up designing the course with the help of his wife (a native Mexican) so that everything you learn is common, everyday Spanish that people tend to use the most frequently with friends, neighbors, store workers, and other people they interact with the most frequently throughout their day-to-day lives.
I highly recommend that, if you’re going to try it, you just get the all-digital version that you can download, which is another reason I like it (they also offer it on CDs if your connection can’t handle the file size). That way you don’t have to wait for something to get shipped to you.
How Does It Work?
The whole approach is based around simply using 138 of the most commonly used words (an approach that research heavily supports) in a manner that will allow you to generally express yourself, that will teach you phrases and words that would be immediately useful to someone visiting a Spanish-speaking country (e.g. stuff concerning food, bathrooms, hotels, public traffic signs, greetings, basic conversation, needing medical help, basic numbers and counting, etc.), and which will allow you to start speaking using common day-to-day Spanish as soon as possible.
Each lesson is 10-15 minutes, you can blow through 3 or 4 lessons a day easily, if not more, and there are 68 lessons, a TON of extra bonus material that covers all sorts of cool stuff.
Free e-mail support
This is something I’ve never heard of any other course offering, ever. This is just so cool, if you have any sort of a problem whatsoever you can e-mail him (yes, the guy who created it, it’s a very small company) and ask for help, for free! From his website:
I am one guy with a passion for Spanish and a gift for teaching. I am your Spanish communication coach. Should you hit a roadblock, I am here to help you, just send me an email. Use it as a lifeline. I’ll get you through, so you achieve your goal of speaking Spanish.
Frankly, most people never need to use this feature. The audio and fast-start action guides are so easy to follow you’ll find learning to speak a very smooth process. Nonetheless, isn’t it good to know you are not on your own and that help is available if you need it?
What does this course do?
It kick-starts the learning process for beginners and provides them with an already prepackaged and set-up system to follow for the first couple of months that will result in a ton of Spanish getting stuffed into their heads (this program covers a lot of Spanish very quickly but very well, that is it does a superb job of teaching the material) so that they may progress from there into practicing with native speakers via language exchanges (I’ll explain what those are in a second) and learning additional Spanish from movies, TV shows, music, etc. a la The Telenovela Method. It does not just magically get you to fluency, it kick-starts the process and gives you enough Spanish and a good enough understand of the language and its grammar and syntax such that you can then just iron out the kinks, add enough words to your vocabulary, via talking with native speakers and watching Spanish-language movies and such, that you can then get yourself to fluency on your own within a few months of completing the program, which leads me to my next important point…
There is NO ‘system’ or ‘program’ out there, in existence, ANYWHERE, that will hold your hand from beginning to end and take you from zero to completely fluent
It does not exist and anything that claims to be able to do that (cough Rosetta Stone cough) is completely full of it. What some (the very few good programs out there) can do is take you from zero competency to about a low-intermediate level of competency and that is good enough for you to take it from there on your own: from that point all you have to do is just listen to some Spanish music (you’ll already know almost all of the grammar and most of the vocabulary, each new song will teach you some new vocab and new idioms and expressions), watch some Spanish-language movies (you’ll understand a lot of what they’re saying which will make it SO much easier to learn the rest that you don’t understand than if you didn’t understand any of it at all to begin with), and, most importantly, talk to native speakers (have I mentioned how important this is yet? Oh, also, it’s easy and free: they’re called language exchange sites, my favorite one right now is iTalki).
The way a language-exchange site works is that it brings together people who are native speakers of one language and looking to learn another and then pairs together people are trying to learn each other’s native language: e.g. you are a native English speaker who is learning Spanish, there are tons and tons of native Spanish speakers who are learning English, a language exchange site would help you find each other that way you can schedule a Skype phone call (free for both parties) where you would spend, say, 20 minutes in each language, that is you both would speak for 20 minutes in Spanish and the Spanish speaker would help and correct you, and then you’d speak for 20 minutes in English and you’d help and correct them, see how that works? Lovely, isn’t it? I’ve used these sites for over a year now, believe me: you will not have any trouble finding Spanish speakers to talk to, English is the most popular second language in the world, everyone wants to learn it, lucky for you!
What a good Spanish program like Synergy Spanish does is it gets you to a level where you can communicate reasonably well with a Spanish speaker, you’re not fluent, you’re still slow and kinda herky-jerky, stop-and-start, you still have trouble thinking of exactly the right word, but you can communicate, you’ve got a really good base to go off of, you’re not just sitting there in front of the computer screen staring at the person on the other end with nothing but “uhh..hola?” and then expecting them to teach you the entire Spanish language (won’t work! they neither can nor would they want to do that!), you can talk to them and you’ll make mistakes here or there and need help here and there thinking of the right word but you’ll be starting with a good grasp of the Spanish language, they won’t have to teach you Spanish, they’ll just have to help you a little here or there, you see what I mean? Basically, you learn Spanish on your own from a program like this one and then you go and practice to improve your (already existing) Spanish with native speakers.
It won’t make you fluent, no learning program or system out there will, but it will give you a big boost in that direction and it’ll teach you the fundamental groundwork that you’ll need so that you can actually practice speaking with native speakers which is what will take you the rest of the way to fluency (very quickly once you start doing it). Avoid wasting time trying to figure out how/where to start and with what. This is an excellent prepackaged program specifically designed for the sole purpose of teaching you how to talk (verbally, out loud) with native speakers in the form of a normal, informal, friendly conversation. You start speaking from day one, you’re learning and imitating native speakers, and what you learn will only be the most commonly used Spanish, and by commonly used I mean that Spanish which normal native speakers most commonly use in their verbal day-to-day interactions with other native speakers. You’ll learn how to relate to, get to know, and befriend a native speaker, and you’ll learn how to do this in Spanish as quickly as possible, it’s the entire emphasis of the program. I highly recommend you go on over to their site (here) and check out what they’ve got to say, read the testimonials, etc. and decide if you want to give it a shot–remember, you can try it out for up to 60 days and get a full refund at any point in there if you don’t like it.
That’s the end of what I have to say about Synergy Spanish.
So what should I get if I want to improve my written Spanish or I need help passing an exam?
Practice Makes Perfect Spanish (workbooks–these are what I personally use to learn reading/writing comprehension in a language) are what I recommend. They’re cheap, easily available on Amazon, the least-boring workbooks/textbooks I’ve ever tried, and they’re very effective at what it is that they claim to do.
Who it’s for: People who really want to learn to properly read and write Spanish. These are what I use, and I love them because not only are they SO good, but they’re really, really cheap! As in, $7-$8 per workbook (that’s new, used ones on Amazon are less) and you only need maybe 1-3 of them (grammar, verbs, and maybe prepositions). Yeah, seriously, you can learn to read and write Spanish from scratch to a fairly high level for under $20, easy. That’s awesome.
What it does: Takes you from knowing no Spanish whatsoever and gets you to where you can not only read just about any Spanish (while still having to look up a few words here and there) but write it just as well! Sorry, I just love these things, they’re so awesome and ridiculously damned cheap for what they do, they’re just a fantastic deal, I can’t recommend them highly enough.
1. There are a few errors/typos in the editions I have, though not many, and they may have been corrected in more recent editions.
2. You really need to take the time to sit down and do them, it requires effort, it’s not like with some other courses here where you can just sit in front of a computer like a slug and say what they tell you to say and that’s it.
Bonus: The thing I really love about them is that, unlike every other workbook I’ve looked at, they have space for you to write all the answers in them, you don’t need a separate notebook! This is a major thing for me that I like about them over all the other ones, I hate having to keep a separate notebook or word file on my computer for a workbook, it’s a massive pain in the butt, and every other Spanish workbook out there expects you to write the answers to the exercises somewhere other than in the book, they don’t give you space for it.
I genuinely hope that this is helpful to you and that you get far more than your money’s worth if you decide to buy one of these, that’s a part of the reason I’m recommending them: I think they’re cheap considering what you get and what they do. If you don’t think so, absolutely get your money back, I would.
I know that there are some who much prefer to learn on their own using random material that they scrounge up on the internet and from Amazon, they’re usually polyglots who have learned several languages before and have gotten really good at learning languages in general and have sort of developed their own personal method of teaching themselves a new language, and they’re very good at it. That’s fine, but a lot of people, most of the ones that come to my site I think, are people who have never learned a language before and have no clue as to how to go about it and would really, really benefit from and appreciate a system that someone who knows what they’re doing has already gone and set up for them, something that will at least get them going in the right direction and give them a solid foundation in the language to work off of, and that’s what a good language-learning program will do, and that’s why I do have a very select few that I’ll recommend depending on what it is that you want to accomplish.
That’s what I think and it’s reflected in the fact that me and a lot of other language bloggers get repeatedly asked about this stuff, mainly from newbies who have never learned a language before and are starting from scratch. I want to help those people, I want to answer the question they’re asking to the best of my ability, and I want to recommend something useful that will best meet their needs, so that’s what I’ve done here today. I really hope you’ve found it to be valuable information for you, please let me know what you think (comments, contact form, etc.).