Learning Spanish has always been fairly high on my bucket list. The one thing that’s always made me procrastinate about it is that I know I wouldn’t have too many opportunities to use it. And I know that means I would forget a lot of what I learn. But that’s just my situation.
I love the sound of Spanish and all of its regional differences. I also like its relative simplicity. Plus, it’s a huge advantage that there are so many Spanish-speakers around the world. Did you know that Spanish is the number two language with almost five hundred million native speakers!?
Just imagine all the experiences you could have if you spoke Spanish, even at a basic level? So many interesting places you could visit and people you could talk to. And when your language improves, there are so many books and movies waiting to be discovered on a whole new level. And no, I wasn’t thinking about telenovelas when I said that LOL Hey – I just realized that soccer might be more interesting in Spanish as well.
- How Hard Is It To Learn Spanish?
- What Is Hard About Learning Spanish?
- Different Learning Methods
- Best Language Teachers
- Best Ways To Remember Everything
- Best Online Spanish Courses
How Hard Is It To Learn Spanish?
How much difficulty you have in learning a language is primarily going to be individual as there are so many subjective factors involved in mastering a language. But there are also objective reasons that will help you or get in your way of learning any language. The first on that list would be your native language followed by any languages you may already speak.
I will assume that most people reading this review are native or at least proficient English speakers. For us natives, Spanish is classified as one of the five easiest languages to learn. It is in that first easy tier of Germanic and romance languages that includes Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish, and Italian. This advantage has to do with the many similarities that English received from French starting with the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century.
So the vocabulary is not that difficult. There are plenty of similarities but be ready for many differences as well. Before Spanish was spread around the world, it was itself influenced by its own invasions by the Arabs starting as early as the 8th century. So there’ll be a bunch of totally new words for you. Just focus on building your basic vocabulary of at least 500 words and you’ll be fine. The basics and vocabulary will not be too hard for you.
What Is Hard About Learning Spanish?
There are four skills involved in learning a language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. One of the biggest challenges in learning Spanish is that your listening skill will be dragging behind others. This is due to the fact that Spanish is the second fastest spoken language, just millimeters behind Japanese. That is something you should expect and not be surprised when you experience it. But that will improve over time as well.
What is interesting about Spanish is that it gets more difficult as you learn more. Intermediate and advanced speaker generally report that the more they learn, the more they find out that they know less:) But, don’t let that put you off.
The main reason for this increasing difficulty is that there are some grammatical forms that do not exist in English, mainly certain tenses and moods. If you must know, the subjunctive tense seems to be the biggest stumbling block. Same as some of these moods, there are other structures that exist in both languages that are on a whole other level in Spanish. These are mainly verb conjugations, object pronouns, and reflective verbs. But again, this will all come later for you so don’t even think about these yet.
Different Learning Methods
You are probably most familiar with the traditional classroom-type method of learning languages or anything else, for that matter. While it’s not the most effective approach, it is a standard that works to a degree and that we can fit into our modern way of living.
Similarly, if you enroll in an online class that takes you through the whole curriculum for that language level, that shares many similarities with sitting in the class. The biggest difference is that you are left to organize your time on your own and you won’t be corrected by the teacher. But there is the advantage of learning at your own pace which is much better than having a single class once a week.
What I do like about both of these methods is that they slowly take you through the information you will need as building blocks to create your new skill. What is often missing are different ways of drilling it all in so that you can actually remember it. And this is where I think mixing them with other tools is the ultimate winning combination.
Best Language Teachers
As you may know from my TEFL courses reviews, I have a CELTA certificate, so I know a few things about teaching and learning methods. I just wanted to briefly mention something that I’ve noticed during my time teaching English.
I don’t know if I could call it a myth, but it seems that most students think that they’ll get a better language education if their teacher is a native speaker. While it’s a logical conclusion on the surface, good teaching has little to do with knowing the subject. The most important aspect of it is the teaching methodology.
The best instructor you can have is an experienced one, regardless of what their native language is. With experience comes their increased ability to impart the knowledge to their students. As a teacher, you can see what’s working and what’s not and you get to improve it and perfect it over time.
On the beginner levels, you may even benefit from a teacher who speaks your native language. Not because they can explain things in your tongue, because they shouldn’t be doing that. It’s because they are familiar with the specific difficulties that you are facing. This is why language teachers usually specialize in particular groups of speakers as they have similar challenges and make common mistakes.
To sum it up, I would not worry about native speaker teachers until you get to advanced levels or at least higher intermediate. Not that it’s necessary even then, but it’s totally unnecessary before.
Best Ways To Remember Everything
The greatest challenge about learning a language is retaining all this new information. There is so much new vocabulary, so many grammar rules and sentence structures, that it’s simply impossible to remember it all. And you can’t shortcut it! Taking an online course and swallowing all 5 hours of the presentation will do you no good. In fact, it is counterproductive – it’s literally TMI! You must go through it one section at a time and you must revisit it several times over the next few days. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.
If there is one thing that will make the greatest impact in your retention, it is reviewing the new information within a day or two of learning it and then reviewing it again. And I don’t literally mean just reviewing, but using it in practical ways and strengthening the synaptic connections about each topic. Your brain has to make some strong pathway connections. You know what they say: neurons that fire together wire together. That’s the most important part of learning and retaining anything.
This is where different apps can come in very handy. If you can spare 5 to 15 minutes of time on days in between your main classes, that’s what will make the greatest impact. They can provide you with quizzes, flashcards, and real-life uses in short videos that will create different associations in your mind.
Not only that, but they will feed your brain with various types of learning styles. Some of us are more visual and need pictures. Then there are the ones who like to read, who need words. Some are more auditory, like me, and others are kinesthetic, more tactile. We are all everything to varying degrees but we each have our primary ways of learning. Maybe you don’t even know what yours is, and that’s fine. What’s important is that you expose yourself to multiple methods and as I said before, that you review the information several times and soon after learning it.
So in my recommendations, I won’t tell you to just do one thing. What I’d like you to do is combine them into a more immersive experience. Take one major course, work on one lesson at a time, and squeeze the last drop out of it and all of its exercises. And make sure to spread them out over time.
Then bring the apps into the mix so you can have additional ways to remember. Give your brain different paths to take and create all the connections necessary to remember it all. It’s not even just about memorizing but about being able to build on it as well. If you’re not done with the first lesson, if you haven’t absorbed it, you will be struggling in the second lesson and so on. You will not be able to progress as much and advance as fast.
And that’s the most important tip I can give you about learning a language – do yourself a favor and don’t fast forward through it. Give it time to assimilate and help it absorb.
Best Online Spanish Courses
edX – Basic Spanish 1 and 2
Let’s start at the very beginning with a course for the very beginners that is also very much the best free online Spanish course! If you are not familiar with edX, they are a major MOOC (massive open online course) provider founded by Harvard and MIT. They offer hundreds of courses on a wide variety of subjects, many of them highly professional.
They have five types of courses, ranging from professional and credit-earning programs down to Verified courses. This last group is where Basic Spanish 1: Getting Started and Basic Spanish 2: One Step Further are. What that means is that the courses are free unless you want a certificate, which you can get by paying and going through an identification verification process.
I will not recommend you pay for the certificate because for that amount of money, you can buy at least two or three other courses that can help you advance on your Spanish learning path. You will miss out on the final exam and some tests, but I think you’ll be better off taking this essential knowledge elsewhere and moving on from there.
All edX courses are held by major and established institutions and this course is no exception. It is run by a modern public university called UPV or Universitat Politècnica de Valencia. The four teachers running the course are native Castilian Spanish speakers.
Both of these courses are designed for the A1 level and will start you off at the basics:
- The alphabet
- The numbers
- Describing your nationality, your family, and your likes
- Using the verb to be
- Basic conjugation
As you take the second course, you will learn additional basic grammatical structures such as articles and nouns, adjectives, as well as the present, future, and past tenses of regular and irregular verbs. You will be able to talk about your daily routines and activities relating to work, home, leisure, and the family, and some city living essentials like going shopping or finding and giving an address.
These two courses are designed to run less than three months and you’re expected to spend four to five hours on it every week.
I don’t know if this is the best online Spanish course for beginners – it’s certainly one of the good ones. I do know that if you want to get your feet wet and not spend any money, you can start here.
Coursera – Basic Spanish Vocabulary Specialization
Another solid course that is organized in a more academic fashion is Learn Spanish: Basic Spanish Vocabulary Specialization. This course is on Coursera which is another MOOC started by two professors from Stanford. Similar to edX, it works with numerous universities and educational institutions to offer various courses, specializations, and degrees.
Like any MOOC, they offer some of the courses for free. This Spanish course is what they call a “specialization”. I’ve reviewed their specializations before so I am familiar with the concept. What you get are in this case five Spanish vocabulary courses or, to be more precise, four courses and a final project:
- Meeting People
- Cultural Experience
- Sports, Travel, and the Home
- Careers and Social Events
This specialization was created for beginners. Its main goal is to help you build a vocabulary for the four topics listed above. They don’t just teach you words, of course. You get started on basic grammar, pronunciation, and common expressions. The individual courses were designed to build on the previous one so that you can put it all together and apply it in the final project that is based on an imaginary trip to Spain.
Spanish Vocabulary is taught by Dr. Robert Blake. He’s a professor of Spanish linguistics at UC Davis and the director of the Davis Language Center. He’s been at UC Davis around 20 years and he’s held degrees in Spanish literature and linguistics long before that. Dr. Blake has been a member of the North American Academic of the Spanish Language since 2004 which makes him a corresponding member of the Royal Spanish Academy.
University of California Davis is located just outside of Sacramento, not far from San Francisco. It is the third largest university in California after UCLA and Berklee. There is certainly no doubt about any of their qualifications here LOL
As far as the cost goes, these specializations work on something like a subscription model. You pay a monthly fee while you’re taking your course. So the reality is that on the one hand, you do want to take your course as fast as possible, but on the other, you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot by going too fast.
Taking this course at the suggested 4 hours a week should let you complete it in seven months. You can pause your subscription at any point, and of course, you can cancel it as well. There is no refund though, but you can take a 7-day trial and see how that goes for you.
What I like about this course is its focus on vocabulary. I’m a big proponent of increasing your lexicon as soon as possible, especially in the beginning. What that does is allow you to communicate and use the language which in turn enables you to make mistakes and find ways to improve your communication with better grammar and more new words. It’s ultimately all about practice and that’s why full-immersion methods and living in that language-speaking country are some of the best ways to start speaking any language quickly.
This is a high-quality course that is well organized in an academic manner. By the time you finish it and get your certificate, you will have spent a few hundred dollars which in this case is well worth it. I do recommend this course, but that’s only if your budget allows. If not, read on.
Spanish for Beginners. The complete Method. Level 1
As is often the case, we can find something really good on Udemy. This beginner Spanish course is a fast start curriculum for either complete beginners or those who need to brush up on their basic knowledge of Spanish.
What is unique about this course is that it’s not designed in a traditional way. It doesn’t teach theory and grammar but how to speak and achieves this in way less time than do your typical traditional methods.
There’s a quote by Benjamin Franklin that’s mentioned in the course description:
“Tell me and I will forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Now we’re finally getting in the territory of all those things I talked about in the introduction. When your brain is involved in the process and not just working as a memorizing machine but as one of the functioning parts, it can create those synaptic connections I mentioned before. Not only that, but it can do so without the need to have all those traditional explanations and without trying too hard to remember.
This course promises to have you speaking Spanish – using simple sentences, of course – within hours and it delivers on that promise. You will be able to create hundreds of useful phrases on your own and you’ll easily progress without having to do any traditional studying. Instead, you’ll just be speaking, which is the best way the language can be learned. All those grammatical structures will get absorbed through the process itself without you even noticing it. And that’s very similar to how we learn our native language.
The instructor of this course is Peter Hanley. He is a British native who has been teaching Spanish in the UK, France, and Spain for over two decades. As he realized how ineffective the traditional teaching methods are, he decided to create a system of his own that is based on the best teaching practices that give the most effective and most efficient results. He has clearly succeeded in doing that. Just read some of the stellar student reviews:
“This course is totally different. I enjoy the lessons, music, and Peter Hanley’s narration. The course is intuitive. Rather than learning obscure verb conjugations, I am already ordering dinner in Spanish at Mexican restaurants.”
“This is, without question, the best Spanish-language course I have ever taken. I am a complete beginner and have been utilizing many different online resources to learn Spanish, but none have been as effective as this course.”
“I will admit I was at first skeptical about the nature of the course. I thought it was just another low-grade Spanish course on Udemy by some instructor looking to make a quick buck. Goodness, I have never been more mistaken.”
“Probably the best online language course I’ve ever done. Feels very rewarding to be able to construct really useful sentences on my own, from lesson 1!”
You will get 20 lessons that run over three hours in total. There will be no writing – you’ll be thrown into the deep end right away, speaking from the very beginning. You’ll simply be repeating after and mimicking Peter and his native Spanish-speaking daughter Jessica. In fact, you can check out several first lessons yourself as they are available as a free preview.
And when you’re ready to take it to the next level, there are three more courses that follow in the “EL MÉTODO” series. This first installment was already taken by tens of thousands of students and thousands have rated it and left overwhelmingly positive reviews.
You can’t go wrong with this course!
As I said before, my general recommendation is to take one main course, such as the one at Udemy, and augment it with one of the apps that will give you additional support along the way. The first app is well known and it’s free – it’s Duolingo.
It’s free to get started and it’s free forever. But if you want to get rid of the ads and add the ability to download lessons, you can switch to the monthly membership of Duolingo Plus. Not sure if it’s necessary and worth paying for with all the other choices that are available.
Its main function is to teach you vocabulary. You decide how much time you want to spend on it every day and it can be as little as five minutes. It doesn’t go too deep into any topic but what’s great about it is the entertaining format that it uses. It uses text, sound, and images in a unique quiz format. It’s gamified and such non-traditional approach is very helpful in making associations between words and objects.
The words are also repeated many times which may be tedious sometimes but is something that is very important. And you can also find discussions by other students of various levels, even native speakers, that will help you tackle more challenging concepts such as the previously mentioned subjunctive tense and indirect pronouns.
The biggest competitor to the US-based Duolingo is the Berlin-based Babbel. While they do offer the first lesson for free, access to Babbel is not free. However, you get what you pay for, although it’s inexpensive. In other words, it’s well-worth paying and it’s not much!
They both cater to beginners but Babbel goes a little deeper and it takes the language a bit further. The total number of new words you can learn with Babbel is greater and the proficiency level you can reach is higher.
One Babble advantage is that the lessons are more structured and better connected to each other – there is more building upon previous knowledge.
Another big difference between the two are the audio recordings. As Duolingo is more focused on the vocabulary, the sound recordings are segmented by words. So the sentences that are created are literally pieced together and can sound strange sonically and also not always make sense.
This issue does not exist with Babbel and they do a great job with their audio examples. Not only do the recordings make sense, but they are of higher quality and are placed better contextually. Babbel is very much aware of the language’s cultural connection.
Their main goal is to teach you conversational language, so they do deliver lots of useful conversational dialog. But they also teach you plenty of vocabulary and grammar along the way.
Their approach may be more traditional and it’s certainly more straightforward than Duolingo. Still, Babbel makes a fabulous companion to a course such as the one on Udemy because it fills in all the traditional questions you may have about grammar or how the language is used.
All in all, I like Babbel very much and I highly recommend it!
So, is there such a thing as the best online course to learn Spanish?
Well, I guess not. There is no one best course. But that’s not because there’s anything wrong with the courses. Not at all! It’s only because you need all the help you can get learning a language.
If I had to pick one, that would be an easy decision – it’s the Udemy series. But I’ll say it again. Pick one main course and get one of these add-ons to help you propel your learning to the next level.
The Udemy / Babbel pair makes an excellent winning combination.