How I learned Spanish

Q: What do you call someone who only speaks one language?                   

A: An American!

I remember hearing this joke when I was a teenager and thinking, “I’ll show them.” At the time, English was the only language that I knew (it is my native language). Hearing this joke combined with my desire to effectively communicate with my Latino friends, put me on the path to wanting to learn Spanish.

However, having the desire to learn Spanish and actually learning Spanish are two different things. Learning a language can be difficult. Spanish has been on my bucket list for years. I took it in high school. I even made it all the way up to the Honors class level, which is the highest level you can attain in an American high school, but I don’t consider this achievement to be a success.  Why? I could barely speak the language.

Spanish idiom

I was bored out of my mind in my classes because my teachers always drilled us on grammar and we didn’t practice speaking. I so desperately wanted to hold a conversation, but my teachers had different plans for me. One can only take so much reading boring grammar books and verb conjugation exercises… I was just doing enough to get a decent grade.  My experience in high school discouraged me so much that I decided to stop taking it in college. Several years later after I graduated from college, I decided to take Spanish again because I didn’t want to feel like a quitter (cue eye of the tiger song)!

As an adult, my desire to learn Spanish grew even stronger because I knew it would help me in my career (my background is in Marketing and Communication). I also have a lot of Spanish-speaking countries on my bucket list, so I wanted to be sure that I could communicate in their language. I decided to try learning Spanish one more time. I told myself, “This time is going to be different. I’m going to go to a Spanish language school.” I attended two very well-known language schools and still had the same results. In fact, I was even more frustrated taking Spanish the second time around.

Even though the class being taught was supposed to consist of students at a specified level (for example A2), this was clearly not the case. Some people still didn’t know how to conjugate verbs while others should have signed for a class at a higher level. Also, I sometimes had to travel for work, so I wasn’t able to attend all of my classes. I could hear my money being flushed down the drain…whoosh!

Does this sound familiar to you?

If so, don’t give up! About two years ago, I made a conscientious decision to teach myself Spanish. Clearly, the third time is the charm because based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages I’m now testing between B2-B3 level (I’m very close to fluent). How did I manage this you ask? I attribute the bulk of my success based off of doing the following:


I’m rapidly nearing my goal to achieving fluency in Spanish. I owe it all thanks to a goal-setting method called SMART goals. I use this in my business and I’ve found it to be extremely beneficial in my language learning journey as well. Here’s an example of what a great language learning SMART goal:

In 6 months, I will be taking a trip to the U.S. During the next six months; I wish to learn 50 new English vocabulary words related to travel before my trip. I will dedicate 15 to 20 minutes a day to studying travel vocabulary by using LingQ, Memrise, Drops, and listening to podcasts.

As you can see, saying, “I want to (insert activity you wish to do)” or “I want to learn English,” is incredibly vague. The SMART goal that we created is a real game plan that allows you to assess your progress. You even have the opportunity to determine as many benchmarks as necessary.

SMART goals provide a direct route to helping you experience success. It is one of the main factors that is helping me to finally cross Spanish off of my bucket list.

Reading in context, traffic lights, and music

When I was in high school, I would write out insanely long lists of all the important words I used in English and translated them to Spanish. Then I would drive myself crazy trying hard to memorize grammar rules. Studying this way was wrong on so many levels!

One of the reasons I’m succeeding with learning Spanish is because I’m learning vocabulary in context. You will learn and retain more vocabulary when you see how the word is being used in a sentence rather than trying to remember it by itself. So for example, if I wanted to learn the word yellow aka amarillo in Spanish, I would have an easier time remembering the word by using it in a sentence. The sun is yellow. El sol es amarillo. I can remember the word yellow because I know the other words in the sentence (i.e the sun) and that the sun is yellow.

Another method that has been extremely helpful in learning Spanish is the traffic light learning method. When I’m reading I like to highlight words that I don’t know. If I really don’t have a clue as to what the word is I will highlight the word in red. If I have an idea but I’m not sure then I highlight the word in yellow. Words that I know I usually leave blank, but some people like to highlight it in green.


Once I’m done reading the article, I go back and review the words in yellow. I look up the definition to those words and then reread the article again to see if knowing the definition to the words of yellow will help me understand the words in red. If I still don’t understand the words in red, then I make sure to look up the definition to those words and reread the article again. I usually read the same article at least 3 to 4 times in order to ensure that I understand the concept.

I recently discovered a program called LingQ that also uses elements of this method as well. This method also works really well listening to podcasts like Espanol Automatico, News in Slow Spanish, and Unlimited Spanish.  These are both really great podcasts and they provide transcripts. My absolute favorite podcast is  Spanish with Julieth, so be sure to check it out.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive online learning program, don’t waste your coins on Rosetta Stone (it’s not good); check out Fluencia (this costs $99/year),  Spanishlistening (it’s free), and Mango languages. Be sure to check with your library because they may have a subscription to Mango languages (super happy mine did!). Using these three programs is going to further reinforce your skills while sharing various aspects of the culture as well. 

Another technique is listening to music. Music a fun, less intense way to learn a language. I can simultaneously work and study by having music playing in the background. Music allows me to subconsciously learn and reinforces my vocabulary. If you love learning with music then check out LingQ, Spanish Yabla, and Training Lyrics. All three of these sites allow you the ability to listen to the videos with or without subtitles in your native language or in the language you are seeking to learn. 

My absolute favorite group to listen to is Chocquibtown. Their lyrics truly paint a story that you can imagine. They have a lot of songs that are really deep and teach you about their history as well (check out Oro). Listening to music (especially these musicians) will enable you to learn more about the culture while enjoying some amazing music.

Corre tu carrera

Practice makes perfect

It doesn’t make any sense to study without practicing what you learned. I enjoy participating in online language exchange sites like italki. If you’re looking for a private tutor, use this link to sign up for a class you will receive $10 in italki credit. Basically, you can get a free class if you find a teacher that provides lessons for less than $10 This is SUPER easy to find because most of them do. By the way, I HIGHLY recommend using your credits to take classes with Julieth Martinez, she is an amazing instructor (click here to check out my interview with her).

My FAVORITE online group program to learn Spanish is StartSpanish. I truly attribute my growth in Spanish to the wonderful environment Alfonso Santiago created. StartSpanish provides individuals the opportunity to learn the language through real-life conversations via live 45-minute online group sessions. 

Regardless of where you are in your Spanish journey, StartSpanish has a class for you. There’s a Spanish class held almost every hour during the day. For example, I live in the Central Time Zone so the first class for me begins at 7am and the last class ends at 9pm (check their website to see what the schedule would be for your time zone). You can learn more about Alfonso by checking out the interview I did with by checking out the below audio (click here for a StartSpanishInterview.docx of our interview).

I also enjoy attending in-person language meetup groups. These groups allow you the opportunity to meet really cool people and increase your vocabulary in a casual setting. My favorite are meetup groups because often times (depending on the group), the groups will try to incorporate a Latin theme as well. For example, they may go to a Latin restaurant, dancing (i.e. salsa), etc.

My Spanish language journey has been an interesting one filled with highs and lows. However, I wouldn’t trade any of those frustrations for the world because I finally achieved my goal of speaking Spanish. Being able to speak Spanish has opened so many doors for me. I’m confident that if you put forth the effort and follow these tips you will have just as many doors to explore!

Spanish idiom

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2 Comments on How to Master Spanish When You Don’t Have Time

  1. Tosha, you’re speaking my language! I was so frustrated studying Japanese in Japan. The books, the attitudes, the approaches to language learning in schools. I had a positive experience with Spanish in school and eventually did a study abroad for two months that left me confident in using Spanish at work but, after returning home, I fizzled. I didn’t have goals and I didn’t make opportunities for using Spanish. All I knew is that I needed to learn more vocabulary. So, years later, I started to look for a better way to learn and teach languages. I discovered PBLL: Project Based Language Learning. I started using it in my English classes and in my approach to learning Japanese. I love it. The clients love it. I’m now studying Spanish again to get my ability back up and applying what I’ve learned over the years about language learning. It’s more fun the second time around. My language learning is more strategic and focused. Now, my biggest challenge is time.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! There’s more than one way to learn. Honestly, I’m flourishing under my “unconventional” methodology than I was in a language school. Another thing I try do is to make sure if I travel to a Latin country to take tours and/or enroll in a school that teaches via activities (i.e. cooking class). You pick up so much more when you’re not stuck just reading books filled with grammar exercises.

      I’m going to check out the Project Based Language Learning. I’m always up for learning new methods that will help. Time has been an issue for me lately as well, but thank goodness for podcasts. Happy studying! 🙂

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