A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Learning Spanish Online, Part 1: Determining Your Needs and Choosing a Course and/or Method

First of all: What exactly do you plan on doing with your Spanish?

What I mean is: what are you primarily going to use it for?  What does it need to be able to do?  Who are you going to be communicating with and in what manner (spoken or written)?

This greatly affects how you go about actually learning the language in that it will determine which skills you focus on, what you spend most of your time learning, and in what proportion you should focus on the various skill sets: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.  This will then determine how and what you study, so we need this information first and foremost so we can figure out what to actually do with regards to what sort of system we’re going to put together: do we want to start with a course or some lessons (and if so, which ones?), do we want to learn Spanish from some sort of media like movies or books (which ones?), should we use some workbooks, do we need to learn formal grammar (and if so, how much emphasis should we place on it?), etc.  So, very important, right now…

Rank them in order of importance to you

There are 4 primary skills in a language, 4 different ways you can use that language:

  1. Speaking
  2. Listening.
  3. Reading
  4. Writing

Oh, and believe me, someone’s ability absolutely can vary enormously between those 4 different skills.  You can easily have someone who is extremely skilled at reading and writing the language (reading/writing tend to go together as do speaking/listening) and who’s not very skilled at all when it comes to speaking and understanding the spoken language.  In fact, that particular little combination is quite common amongst students who are taking formal classes in the language, particularly at the high school level and below (I know that it was very much the case at my high school: lots of people could read and write Spanish or French, no one could actually speak it, haha).

What follows are some specific recommendations for courses and/or methods you can use based on what exactly it is you want to do.

Choosing a course and/or method, plus some options for you (of both the free and not-free type)

Ok, let’s get started with actually learning the language, let’s take some action!  First and foremost we need to get some kind of very basic foundation in the Spanish language, like the basics of how the verb system works (probably the single most important part of Spanish) and some basic essential phrases, right?  Well, the best way to do this is to just go through a really basic, short course or series of lessons that’s designed to do precisely that – give a beginning Spanish learner who has just started out that fundamental base in the language they will need to continue on to slightly more advanced learning tasks – and there are tons fantastic ones available online.  Also: it doesn’t really much matter which one you pick, and…frankly, I recommend that you try all of them and use several of them (whichever turn out to be your favorites, that is whichever ones seem to best suit you, your learning style, your needs and objectives).  You just need to pick one and get going and get through it so you can move on as soon as possible…take your time, in a hurry, if you know what I mean (meaning: take as much time as you need but no more, you need to need to dive in and start speaking Spanish, not worrying about whether you’ve got the just-right-perfect course).

Now, below this are several courses you can immediately try out in order to start doing that.  All but one of them are free, and the free ones are the absolute best ones of all the free courses available online (there are hundreds).  The first course I’m going to recommend is also the only one which costs money and, if you get to know me or take the time to peruse this site, you will find that I recommend very, very few things that cost money and I’m one of the language bloggers who is the most adamant about not paying for anything you don’t absolutely need, plus I’ve made a point of saying (and I’ll say it again here): you don’t need to buy ANYTHING in order to learn a language – you can do it all entirely online for free.  Now, the irony of course is that I sell a book about how to do this (learn Spanish online for free, that is, you can see it advertised up there in the corner) but I’m not about to recommend my book here (my book is not a basic Spanish course) and I’ll also honestly tell you that you definitely don’t need to buy my book in order to figure out how to learn Spanish online quickly and effectively (though I do believe it would make your journey quicker and more effective), you can do this all on your own just with the free information and resources on this site, not to mention all the other advice about how to do this on other sites.  So, let’s get going with the list:

1. The one course that I like which isn’t free is called Synergy Spanish (click here to check out their site) – this is probably the sort of course that would best suit the majority of language learners because it’s almost entirely focused on teaching you to SPEAK the language, there is little to no reading or writing involved unlike most other courses and textbooks (a nice added bonus of this is that you can easily do this course while in your car, in your kitchen while cooking dinner, etc.) plus the type of Spanish it teaches is conversational Spanish, that is what native speakers actually use for normal everyday conversation, nothing strange or technical like you might remember from your high school Spanish textbook.  Now, instead of irritating you with a sales pitch for them I’m just going to tell you that if you’re at all interested I have an article I wrote that’s mostly about them you can read here if you like.  Let’s get on to the free stuff!

2. The BBC’s superb Spanish-learning series (designed entirely for beginners who want to start from scratch), called Mi Vida Loca. This is a dramatic TV show that was designed from the ground up to be used to teach native English speakers Spanish and it presumes, starting from the first episode, that you are a complete beginner and speak no Spanish whatsoever.  The show itself is very good, very interesting, and has a good deal of action and drama.  The acting is good, especially for what it is (these sorts of “educational” shows tend to be kind of hokey, I know).  Check out the preview video below put out by the BBC:

The plot is that you arrive in Madrid, Spain, and are planning on staying with a friend.  You are let into her flat to find her sister, Merche, staying there already.  Merche seems a little strange, perhaps even paranoid.  She also speaks absolutely no English whatsoever thereby forcing you to use your fairly limited Spanish skills (taught to you in real time by the videos as you go along).  You soon find out that Merche is in trouble, some people are out to hurt her, because of a story she’s writing about the Canary Islands (Merche is a journalist).  In the process of running through this little adventure with her you’re constantly having to use Spanish skills which you will have just learned to interact with various characters (portrayed by actors in the film) in various situations such as staff at a restaurant, random people on the street, taxi drivers, etc.  It’s a fantastic beginner’s introduction to Spanish and especially useful to people who will be traveling to a Spanish-speaking country in the near future.

3. Livemocha.  This is by far the most well-known free online series of Spanish lessons.  Overall, it’s very good, though for what it’s worth for a complete beginner I would rank BBC’s Mi Vida Loca ahead of this if for no other reason than Mi Vida Loca is a single, straightforward course whereas Livemocha is comprised of a series of them and figuring out where to start can be kind of confusing (but not much).  With Mi Vida Loca you just start the first lesson, do what they tell you to do, move onto the second, etc.  You do need an account to use LiveMocha but it’s entirely free.  Livemocha also does include a good bit of reading and writing work in their course so if that’s important to you then you should definitely have a look at it.

I would like to note that you’ll notice that you need “tokens” in order to complete the lessons on there and that there are two ways to get them: buy them or earn them.  I’ve had people try to tell me that “Livemocha isn’t free” because they mistakenly believe you have to buy the tokens and that’s the only way to get them. No, you can also get them by correcting the work of other people on the site who are learning a language that you already speak, e.g. English.  If, once you’ve got an account and have signed in, you’ll just look at the menu bar up at the top: on the right side of it there is a menu called “Help Others” and if you hover over it a menu will drop down allowing you to choose amongst various ways (reviewing work or translations) you can earn tokens by helping other people by reviewing their work.  Personally I think this is a great system as it gets people the help they need (from native speakers) with the language they’re learning while simultaneously allowing the site and its resources to be offered for free.

4. Notes in Spanish.  One of my favorite all-time resources. I used these when I was first learning Spanish years ago and they’re still some of the best lessons available online. The way they work is they feature two people, Ben and Marina who are married and living in Spain (Ben is English while Marina is Spanish), talking about a particular topic for each lesson. They have a normal conversation in Spanish and the speed at which they talk and the amount of English used to explain everything depends on which level you’re at: they have Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. The beginner level is easily understood by a complete beginner who does not speak any Spanish. It’s fun, lively, and a great way to learn Spanish. Most importantly: it’s real, that is it’s just a couple of normal people having an impromptu conversation (it’s not scripted, it’s natural and feels that way) about interesting various topics (cultural phenomena, politics, news, food, etc.) in Spanish and then using that conversation to teach the Spanish that was used in it, it’s very much along the lines of what I advocate doing (using real Spanish conversation between real people to learn Spanish by learning the language that was used during said conversation in order that you are able to understand it).

5. Señor Jordan.  This is one of many YouTube channels that focus on providing free Spanish lessons and it is overall, in my opinion, the best. It’s extremely comprehensive (covers practically every grammatical and syntactical element of the Spanish language), the concepts being taught are very well explained, he uses good illustrations and video effects, and the videos do a great job of keeping your attention by not being any longer than they need to and by being very lively, entertaining, and fast-moving. I recommend his videos not only as a series of lessons that you can use to get started but also as a reference to be used anytime you run across a concept in your Telenovela Method material that you’re not yet familiar with and need to look up and learn.  Just start off with his Spanish I videos, go in order, and then move on to Spanish II, etc.

6. Duolingo.  Boy oh boy this one is blowing up right now, it got very popular very quickly and they just were not ready for that . In my opinion the effectiveness and utility of Duolingo have been overblown, however I do think that it’s a very good and useful tool and that it has enormous potential. It’s definitely worth using, just don’t think that it alone is going to even come close to making you fluent (which seems to me to be what a lot of people think).

It’s very good as a basic introduction to the Spanish language for complete beginners, that’s what it’s best used for and that’s who I most strongly recommend it for. If you’re a complete beginner definitely check out Duolingo and consider doing the lessons for at least a few weeks or months in order to help build up a good, solid foundation in the Spanish language (basic vocabulary, grammar, and syntax).

Where it runs into trouble is after you get past the more basic aspects of the language— lots of people, me included, noticed that it tended to have a lot of errors at the more advanced level plus the fact that, even at the beginner level, it had this irritating idiosyncrasy where if you entered a correct translation, if it wasn’t the precise translation Duolingo wanted , it would mark it as “incorrect” and refuse to let you continue until you gave it precisely what it wanted. It still does this.

An additional fault, the really big one that isn’t going away since this is the premise that the entire platform is based on: translating really isn’t a good way to learn a language, at least not to speak it.

Again, use it to get a basic foundation in Spanish, use it in conjunction with other things like the Telenovela Method (this links to the post on my site, not the book by the same name), but don’t rely on it alone.

7. Spanish Sessions.  This is a YouTube channel featuring a Spanish teacher who makes lessons by recording conversations that she has with students of hers as well as lessons where she teaches them various Spanish concepts. Brilliant idea and very well put together. I will warn you that this is probably not the best choice for rank beginners as almost all of the videos are in Spanish (though Spanish subtitles are provided so it is possible for someone who speaks no Spanish at all to work with them if they’re willing to spend the time necessary) with a very little bit of English interspersed here and there.

I’d additionally like to note that she, being Spanish and living in Madrid where she teaches Spanish, specifically teaches Peninsular Spanish (Spanish from Spain aka “Iberian Spanish”) so if you’re especially interested in that particular dialect you may find her videos extremely valuable.

Alright, that’s it!  That’s Part 1, you’ve now been given very clear guidance on how to start out, based on your needs, and a bunch of resources to choose from that will help you do so.  Again, I can’t recommend highly enough that you take action right now.  Do something!  It might not be the absolute perfect thing that you could possibly do but you’ll waste so much time trying to figure out what that is that it’s not even worth it, you’d have just been better off making your best guess right now, going with that, and then making any minor corrections in course that you need to later on.

Before we move on to Part 2, a quick but very important note about what you just read above…

bookA good portion of it came from my book, The Telenovela Method: How to Learn Spanish Online for Free Using Spanish TV, Music, Movies, Comics, Books, and More.  Did you think that any of the above was helpful to you in getting started on your learning Spanish journey?  Do you think more of the same might be even more useful?  If so, please consider checking out my book on Amazon.com and possibly buying it (click here to go to its page on Amazon).  Also, I wrote a blog post about it that goes into a lot more detail you can read here, and if you’re not in the United States (and consequently use an Amazon site other than Amazon.com) it’s also available on the following Amazon sites: Amazon U.K. (Amazon.co.uk)Amazon Canada (Amazon.ca)Amazon Australia (Amazon.com.au)Amazon Spain (Amazon.es)Amazon Mexico (Amazon.com.mx)Amazon Deutschland (Amazon.de)Amazon France (Amazon.fr)Amazon Italy (Amazon.it)Amazon Japan (Amazon.co.jp)Amazon India (Amazon.in)Amazon Brazil (Amazon.com.br)

Alright, pardon my sales pitch, we’re ready to go on to Part 2 (click the link below)!

Part 2: Make it fun and learn modern Spanish as it’s actually spoken by native speakers!  How to use Spanish-language TV shows, music, movies, books, comics, and more.


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