Monthly Archives: July 2014

Learning Spanish from Scratch – a Self-Study Guide

I get a lot of emails asking me how I learned Spanish. The truth is that I just jumped in without any direction at all, using a variety of different programs and resources, adding them and dropping them as I figured out what worked for me.

I’m not an expert, just a learner like you. I’m not suggesting that my way is the way, and there are almost certainly more efficient learning paths out there. But when I was starting out, I would have loved to have seen a detailed self-study plan that had actually worked for someone.

And so, dear blog reader, I’m making one just for you!

(As I’ve learned more about language-learning, I’ve also heard great things about programs like Assimil and Teach Yourself. However, this post is aimed at people who, like me, are interested in learning Spanish from home using free resources.) learnspanish

Based on my experiences over the past year, this is what I would suggest to learners wanting to self-study Spanish using free resources.

This post is divided into three parts:

spanishabsolutebeginnerYour very first month…

OK, so you’re a complete beginner. You know nothing. Nothing.

No hay problema, friend!

Just start. Don’t wait or research programs or try to calculate how long, exactly, it will take until you’re able to speak Spanish. Pick a resource and just start.

Recommended resources:

I really like Pimsleur as an introductory language course. It’s 100% oral/auditory, and you’ll be able to verbalize simple requests and statements within the first half hour. It’s an amazing feeling! Pimsleur works well for establishing a good accent right from the start.

Pimsleur is not a free program, but I have never and will never pay for a Pimsleur course. I think that they’re grossly overpriced. However, if my library – a small library in a town of 1800 people – was able to get it for me, then I’m sure you can get it from most libraries. I think that the full 3-part Pimsleur course has 90 lessons, but my library only had the first 16 lessons. I found them very valuable.

edited on August 25th to add a new resource: I’ve heard nothing but good things about Language Transfer, a free audio introduction to Spanish modelled on Michel Thomas. I’ve listened to parts of it, and it seems to build very logically and surprisingly quickly.

Mi Vida Loca is a fun, simple introduction to the Spanish language for absolute beginners. It’s an interactive video course with a story that unfolds over 24 episodes. I started it too far into my Spanish journey, and found it too easy, so I never finished it. But if I were starting over, I would use it from day one. The story is engaging, the production value is high, and there are full transcripts available.

Duolingo is in no way a standalone language course, no matter what anyone might say. But it’s a fun, addictive, gamified approach to learning languages. It’s good for learning vocabulary, gender and basic sentence structures. (read my review of Duolingo here)

I think that it’s important to study vocabulary explicitly, especially at the beginning stage of learning a language. You have to decide what works best for you: paper flashcards, electronic flashcards, word lists, spaced repetition software. I use anki, a free spaced repetition program. Whatever approach you choose, I recommend that you create your own decks or lists from day one, adding the vocabulary that you learn through your various resources. Downloading pre-made decks doesn’t provide the same rich learning experience.

I also recommend listening to music from day one. It’s a nice way to immerse yourself in the culture right from the start.

Come on in, the water's fine! source: taoty /

Absolute beginner? Come on in, the water’s fine!
source: taoty /

What an hour a day might look like at this level:

  • 30 minutes Pimsleur or Language Transfer
  • 10 minutes vocabulary practice
  • 20 minutes alternating Mi Vida Loca and Duolingo

What an hour and a half a day might look like at this level:

  • 30 minutes Pimsleur or Language Transfer
  • 15 minutes vocabulary practice
  • 25 minutes Mi Vida Loca
  • 15 minutes Duolingo
  • 5 minutes singing along to a Spanish song

Extra “free” Spanish: listen to Spanish music in the background while going about your daily life

spanishbeginnerintermediateBeginner / High Beginner / Low Intermediate:

Now you’ve got a bit of basic Spanish under your belt. You might not be able to express everything that you think, and you don’t understand everything that you hear, but you’re well on your way! The road from beginner to intermediate can take some time. Don’t rush it; just enjoy the journey.

General advice for this level:

Build your momentum. Use a variety of resources so that you come across the same vocabulary and sentence structures in multiple contexts. Don’t spend hours trying to come up with the “perfect” plan; just choose a few resources that interest you and commit to them.

Create a simulated immersion environment:

  • switch your phone and computer to Spanish
  • listen to Spanish radio and music in the background
  • make a Spanish news site your homepage
  • follow Spanish speakers on Twitter or other social media (I have a Spanish twitter list here, if you’re looking for people to follow).

Get into the habit of thinking in Spanish. Narrate your actions internally as you go about your day-to-day life. Make a quick note of any vocabulary that you’re missing so that you can look it up and add it to your vocabulary study later.

Plan on at least two weekly conversations with native speakers. Try to write a text and have it corrected by native speakers at least twice a week. Take note of important vocabulary – the words that you lack when speaking or writing are the ones that you personally need the most.

Keep growing your vocabulary, using whatever approach works best for you. Whether you use flashcards, SRS or word lists, remember that vocabulary study is meant to support your Spanish learning, not to overwhelm it. Fifteen minutes per day is my upper limit for anki; any more than that, and I start getting restless.

At this stage, I highly recommend making an effort to hit all four language skills daily: listening, speaking, reading and writing. I posted a description of how that looked for me about two months into my own Spanish learning adventure. howtolearnalanguage

Recommended resources:


Destinos is one of the best resources that I used as a beginner. While it’s a whole language course, with workbooks, textbooks and additional audio, the only part that I used was the video, which is available for free online. The story is dated and a little bit cheesy, but you’ll be amazed at how much your listening comprehension will improve over the course of 52 episodes. (read my review of Destinos here)

I’ve also heard very good things about Extr@, a 13-episode sitcom (complete with laugh track) for Spanish learners. I previewed one episode, and the actors speak very clearly. The story is silly, and the laugh track is annoying, but the show seems charming.

Notes in Spanish is an excellent podcast for Spanish learners. Marina and Ben, the hosts, are entertaining and very pleasant to listen to. The beginner podcast has quite a bit of English in it, but it has some interesting expressions and good cultural insight. The intermediate podcast – which is where I started, towards the end of Destinos – is all in Spanish and gave a real boost to my listening comprehension.

Keep listening to music. It’s also a good idea to listen to Spanish radio or watch Spanish movies and TV shows with English subtitles. Native material will probably still be beyond your listening ability at this point, but it will help you to internalize the rhythm and music of the language.


It’s time to find a language partner! Yes, you’re probably a bit nervous. But it’s ok. The only way to learn to speak a language is by speaking it – and you’ll improve quickly once you start! I did all of my language exchanges over Skype, 30 minutes of Spanish followed by 30 minutes of French or English. I found my language partners for free on italki and on Conversation Exchange. If you have more money than time, you might consider getting a tutor instead of a language partner; Spanish tutors on italki are very affordable.

You can read my in-depth review of italki here, and my tips on language exchanges here.


VeinteMundos is a digital magazine that also happens to be one of the best websites out there for Spanish learners. Every two weeks they put up a new article from somewhere in the Spanish speaking world. The text has a mouseover dictionary, and there’s full audio to accompany it. The reader’s voice is pleasant and slow enough to follow along. The stories are interesting, and include links to related video and websites. (read my review of VeinteMundos here)

I think that the upper-beginner level is the perfect time to read your first novel. I recommend starting with a children’s novel that you’ve already read in your own language. If you own a copy in both languages or if you have access to the audiobook, even better!

The first children’s novel that I read in Spanish was Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate by Roald Dahl. After that, I read (in order): Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, Charlie y el Gran Ascensor de Cristal by Roald Dahl, and Las Brujas by Roald Dahl. While many language learners want to start with Harry Potter, I found it very difficult as a beginner. It was much more accessible after first tackling four simpler children’s novels.


Writing short texts is a great way to consolidate what you’re learning. Lang-8 and italki both provide platforms where you can post a text and have it corrected by native speakers. Shorter texts tend to get corrected more quickly and more comprehensively.

I know that some people think that grammar is a bad word. Personally I like grammar – not because I like grammar in and of itself, but because I like Spanish. Learning grammar helps me speak Spanish more clearly and correctly, so I like it!

I used the Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tense book. I used a gift card to buy it, so it wasn’t free, but at less than 15 dollars it was very affordable. It’s a very US-centric resource, with lots of pop culture references, but it explains concepts well and moves along at a steady pace. You could also try the About Spanish site, which is free and comprehensive, but plastered in obnoxious ads.

Duolingo (which I mentioned in the section for absolute beginners) is very useful for basic sentence structure and verb tenses – although I think that it’s less useful after you’ve finished the first 3/4 of the skill tree.

Really looking to go far?

FSI Basic Spanish (edited to correct broken link – March 2016) is probably the most comprehensive free Spanish course available. It was created in the 1960s for American foreign service workers, and it’s now in the public domain. FSI Spanish Basic is a full course, with downloadable audio and textbooks, including dialogues and lots of different drills. It’s dated, and it can be dry at times, but it works. I think that FSI is best started at a high beginner or low intermediate level; it might be too overwhelming as a complete beginner. (read my review of FSI Spanish here)

Soon you'll be swimming without a flotation device. source: anekoho /

Soon you’ll be swimming without a flotation device.
source: anekoho /

What an hour a day might look like at this level:

  • 15 minutes reading a novel or an article
  • 10 minutes vocabulary practice
  • 25 minutes watching Destinos, intensively listening to Notes in Spanish or having a Skype conversation
  • 10 minutes writing or grammar study

What an hour and a half a day might look like at this level:

  • 20 minutes reading a novel or an article
  • 15 minutes vocabulary practice
  • 30 minutes watching Destinos, intensively listening to Notes in Spanish or having a Skype conversation
  • 15 minutes writing or grammar study
  • 10 minutes Duolingo, singing along to Spanish songs, or reading a Spanish twitter feed

Extra “free” Spanish: listen to Spanish music or podcasts in the background while going about your daily life; listen to podcasts or FSI while going for a walk; watch Spanish movies and TV with subtitles

spanishintermediateadvancedUpper Intermediate / Advanced:

This is where Spanish gets really fun!

At this level, you’re moving from learning the language to actually using it.

At an upper intermediate or advanced level, you need lots and lots of input from native material: books, TV shows, movies, podcasts. “Levelling up” feels infinitesimally slow when you’re at a higher level, but luckily the stuff that you get to do with the language should be fun enough to keep you motivated.

General advice for this level:

As much as possible, live your life in Spanish. The focus at this level should be less on formal study and more on massive exposure and input. That said, it’s important to keep pushing yourself. Aim for more complex conversation topics, take note of important vocabulary, and write out your thoughts.


Keep up with regular conversations (either in-person or over Skype), which will get more and more interesting as your level improves. If you’ve been working with the same language partner or tutor for a long period of time, you might need to make an effort to push yourself by discussing more complex subjects.


Read lots and lots. I think that reading is the best way to build vocabulary, internalize sentence structure and strengthen grammar in any language. I generally prefer novels over shorter texts like articles or blog posts, although I do read those as well. I’m currently reading series for children and young adults. I’m on the fifth and final book of the Percy Jackson series, and then I’ll move on to the third Harry Potter book. I do plan on reading adult literature originally written in Spanish before the end of 2014.


Lots of input is important at this level. Notes in Spanish Advanced and Gold serve as a good bridge between resources for Spanish-learners and native Spanish audio, but there’s still quite a jump from one to the other. With practice, it gets easier.

I’ve become a podcast addict lately! I like listening to talk radio shows with lots of visual imagery and interesting topics. RTVE (Spanish Public Radio) offers a wide variety of high-quality podcasts. Some of my favourites are Nómadas, Fallo de Sistema and Futuro Abierto. I listed more of my favourite podcasts and shared more details about them here.

Get your news in Spanish. 

While I still take a quick glance at CBC / Radio Canada to stay up to date with what’s happening in Canada, I get the bulk of my news in Spanish now. I listen to the daily podcast Buenos Días América while walking the dog. I read Democracy Now or Amnistía Internacional with audio and full transcript a few times a week. I read articles on BBC Mundo, Voz de América or El País. I listen to Spanish talk radio while doing stuff around the house. I don’t watch the news on TV, but if I did, I’d almost certainly do it in Spanish.


While I love movies, I find that – from a language-learning perspective – television series can be more effective, especially when you’re just starting out with native audio/video. There’s more repetition, and you have more time to get used to the actors’ voices and mannerisms.

Watching a dubbed show that you’ve already seen in your own language can be a very powerful learning tool. I’m currently watching my way through my box sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Spanish. At the beginning, the dialogue seemed impossibly fast. But after a full season, I’m finding it much easier to follow along. When I have a few free minutes in the evening, I might also watch an episode of The Simpsons online.

Original Spanish television is also a great resource for learners, since it includes not only words but also body language and cultural references – both of which are key for truly understanding a language. Drama Fever is an excellent source of original Spanish television with English subtitles can easily be turned on or off. A few of my favourite shows on Drama Fever are Isabel, DesaparecidaFrágiles and El Tiempo Entre Costuras. Unfortunately, I think that Drama Fever only works in North America.

RTVE is another very good source of free Spanish television without subtitles.

A note on grammar:

At the upper intermediate and advanced levels, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to use advanced verbal constructions (“If I’d known that you were going to be there, then I would have come.“). Practice Makes Perfect and FSI (both of which I mentioned in the section for beginners and intermediate learners) include grammar appropriate for advanced learners. Reading helps internalize complex structures, but I think that it’s also important to explicitly practice them in conversation or in writing in order to truly make them yours.

The world is your ocean! source: Gualberto107 /

The world is your ocean!
Gualberto107 /

What a typical day looks like for me at this level:

  • 15 minutes checking out the news over breakfast
  • 10 minutes vocabulary practice (anki)
  • 30-60 minutes listening to podcasts (I do this while walking my dog)
  • 30 minutes reading a novel (I read every night before bed)

You’ll notice that – except for vocabulary study, which I do on my phone in blocks of 2-3 minutes throughout the day – none of this is actually time-consuming “study”. I’ve just replaced activities that I used to do in English with the same activities in Spanish.

Other Spanish activities that I do throughout the week:

  • at least once a week (although I aim for twice a week when I can): hour-long conversation on Skype with my tutor
  • at least twice a week (more often if my schedule allows): watch an episode of a TV show
  • once every week (or two): write a text using some of the complex grammatical structures that I’ve been practicing in conversation
  • once every week (or two): intensively read an article, reading it multiple times and digging through it for new words and turns of phrases

So there you have it: my step-by-step approach to learning Spanish. There are lots of other great resources out there, and I’m always keeping my eyes open for new stuff. But this is what worked – and what’s still working – for me!

If you’re self-studying Spanish, I’d love to hear about your experiences! What works for you? What do you struggle with? What do you enjoy?

How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately

I love languages.

I love learning them, of course. But I also like teaching them, talking about them, writing about them and reading about them.

Every time I read something interesting about language-learning  – a blog post, an article, a book – I add it to my mental file, synthesizing bits and pieces with personal experience to create an ever-growing and ever-changing understanding of how to best learn languages. Many of these bits and pieces are variations on the same theme.

Once in a great while, however, I read something that seems completely new.

How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, by Boris Shekhtman, is one of those rare gems.

howtoimproveyourforeignlanguageimmediatelyThe Good

This short, brief book is one of the best general language learning resources that I’ve come across.

Shekhtman briefly (very briefly!) describes seven communication tools that can make a foreign-language speaker sound more fluent and natural, regardless of their level. It’s not about how to learn a language, but rather about how to organize what you already know so that you can use it more effectively.

When you read and think about the communicative tools, they all seem very obvious – it’s just that they’re so rarely verbalized. This book is about making communicative tools explicit, naming them and practicing them. And it just makes so much sense.

I think that this book is a must-read for any independent language learner.

The Bad

The book is very short. I would have liked to have delved deeper into each communicative tool.

There are also lots of small editing mistakes – typos, line breaks, grammatical errors, awkward phrasing. While they don’t harm the overall message, the mistakes are jarring at times. This book is obviously self-published, and it would have benefited from a good editor.

Despite its flaws, I still think that this book is well worth reading.

A Brief Look at the Seven Communicative Tools

1. show what you know

Expand answers to questions so that a conversation doesn’t become an interrogation. So if you get a question like “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”, instead of answering “Yes, I have a brother.” add as many details as you can (within reason):

Yes, I have a brother. His name is Mark. He’s a student and he lives in Toronto, the biggest city in Canada. (etc. etc. etc)

This allows you to “show off” and actually let people see what you can do. It also makes the conversation much more comfortable for both speakers.

2. build islands

This is probably the most well-known part of this book, at least in the online language learning community.

The idea is that learners build “islands”: fluency around a particular theme. Shekhtman describes these as “well memorized and frequently used monologues”. The idea is to become fluent within particular narrow themes using short monologues, which give you a place to “rest” in conversations.

A new learner might have islands like “my family”, “my job”, “my hobbies”, “my favourite movie”, etc. An advanced speaker going off to China as a diplomat might build islands like “Canadian-Chinese relations”, “Chinese immigration to Canada” or “differences in political systems between China and Canada”. So, as you can see, islands can apply to any level of communication.

This leads to very fluent communication around common topics of conversation, creating a much more comfortable and rewarding experience for both learner and native speaker.

The really cool thing here is how it can link to “show what you know”. In my description of my brother, I could easily slide onto an island about Toronto, or about my family, or about my opinions on small towns vs big cities.

Shekhtman really emphasizes that islands have to be practiced over and over again.

3. shift gears

When the conversation starts getting too complicated, use this strategy to change the subject and bring the conversation back to one of your islands. Shekhtman shares some strategies to sidestep a difficult topic, change the subject with a link, change the subject with a question or introduce a new topic – and, of course, swim back to one of your safe islands.

This tool is more a diversionary tactic than a true communication strategy. But that doesn’t make it any less useful. The fact is that it’s uncomfortable for both parties when communication breaks down. Shifting gears can help make the conversation more fluid and enjoyable for both parties.

While the goal is to change the subject gently and naturally, I found that some of the example conversations in the book were a bit abrupt or awkward (like saying “To be perfectly honest, I’m not very interested in that.” Yikes! There are gentler ways to change the subject!). But the
general idea is very clearly described in the book.

4. simplify, simplify

While you can shift gears and swim back to an island during a casual conversation, sometimes you need to discuss or relate something specifically – and changing the subject to your favourite food just won’t cut it. I like that Shekhtman differentiates in this way between casual conversation and conversation with a specific purpose.

In this chapter Shekhtman emphasizes the importance of thinking in your foreign language and using simple structures and vocabulary from your foreign language. If you think in your first language, you’ll tend to think in complicated structures that you can’t yet use in your foreign language. The idea is to use simple vocabulary, simple sentence structures, and simple grammatical structures to get your point across.

5. break away

Here Shekhtman emphasizes the importance of using grammatical structures from your foreign language – and breaking away completely from your first language when communicating. It’s important to learn to think in your target language.

This is almost an extension of “simplify”, except that it’s much more focused on using the target-language grammar and sentence structures. So many language learners talk about how they just throw grammar study to the side, because it’s not important. But I think that’s disingenuous. Everyone learning a foreign language *has* to learn grammar – even if that’s not what they choose to call it. Grammar doesn’t mean working your way through a textbook – it means figuring out how a foreign language works and then applying it in new situations.

6. embellish it

In this chapter, Shekhtman talks about learning devices specific to the target language in order to make your speech longer, more expressive and more natural. It was this chapter that made me giggle a few times, because some of the examples of “more natural” speech were anything but:

“Oh – you undoubtably are surprised that I haven’t said anything about my morning exercises. Just imagine – I do not like to do morning exercises. I do not do morning exercises. I do not think it’s healthy at all. I’ll tell you directly that I consider them to be harmful to one’s health. Really, is it good, right after your sweet dreams, to be doing such abrupt moves – running, jumping, sitting, standing, turning, and so on and so forth?”

Is it just me, or is that very much not the way that a native speaker would speak?

Still, I do like his overall point: learn exclamations and repetitions (Oh! Right. etc), sentence starters (You know,… In my opinion,… Of course,… etc) and other modifiers and expressions to try to sound more colloquial – and to give yourself some “breathers” in speech.

Using expressions and language-specific hesitations make your speech sound more fluent, while also giving you the opportunity to slow down and collect your thoughts. Hesitations are also specific to each language – while they serve the same purpose, “umm…” sets you apart immediately as an English speaker, while “euh…” sounds natural in French conversation.

That said, I think that you have to be a bit careful with really colloquial expressions. While they can make you sound more like a native speaker, poorly used (or overused) they sound very strange.

7. Say what?

This chapter is basically an overview of the skills that you can use if you don’t understand a conversation. Rather than dissolve into panic, there are simple things that you can do: ask questions, ask for clarifications, infer meaning from known words, ask the speaker to slow down, repeat or reformulate a thought.

I think that this emphasizes the importance of learning the “help me” sentences right from day one. Yes, basic greetings are important for beginners, but so are sentences like “I’m sorry, could you please speak more slowly?”

Self-study students who aren’t interacting with native speakers might not realize just how important these sentences are – until they find themselves drowning during their first
conversation, despite their confidence when responding to prompts during a course.

So how am I going to use all of this?

I’ve already started working on building islands with my Tagalog teacher. I’m not completely memorizing my islands, as described in the book. I just want to get really comfortable with all of the structures, so that I can change and recombine them at will.

I’m also working on linking to my islands when having a simple conversation (very simple, since that’s all I can do at this point).

I’ve learned the “help me” sentences already. I hand-wrote them in my tutoring notebook, and also practice them regularly using SRS.

Look for a post in the near future about how island-building in Tagalog is going so far!

Final thought: if you’re looking for a resource to help you improve your confidence and skills while conversing in a second language, I highly recommend this book!

Working With a Language Tutor When You’re a Beginner


I’ve always believed that there’s only one way to learn to speak a language:

speak it.

When learning a language, I like to start working with tutors and conversations partners quite early on – within the first month, in fact.

There’s a danger in starting early, though. Time is long when you don’t have enough words to fill the silence. If your target language is much weaker than your language partner’s, there’s a chance that you’ll fall into the bad habit of speaking English instead of the language that you’re learning. If you’re working with a tutor who’s afraid of silence, you might find yourself following his or her generic lesson plans and learning to conjugate verbs instead of doing the very messy, very individualized work of communicating.

I generally advocate informal conversation as one of the best ways to use a tutor, but when you’re an absolute beginner, an informal conversation can feel like Mount Everest. Luckily, there are lots of different strategies and approaches that you can use as a student to help you make the most of tutoring sessions – right from day one!

(This post contains examples from my current Tagalog study, but the tips are applicable to any language that you might be learning.)

1. Consider starting with shorter sessions.

For the first few weeks, I stick to 30 minute tutoring sessions. Any longer, and my brain starts to melt and I revert to English. Two half-hour sessions are often more useful than one full-hour session. Once half an hour starts to feel too short, I increase the sessions to 45 minutes, and – eventually – a full hour. It’s taken me a little over two months of regular tutoring to get to the point where I have the mental energy to work on Tagalog for 45 minutes.

Warning: on day one, even 30 minutes felt like it was about 28 minutes too long!

But you keep practicing, you keep learning, you keep asking questions – and before you know it, 30 minutes will seem like nothing at all.

2. Consider working with more than one tutor.

By definition, a beginner needs a lot of repetition. To really feel confident, you’ll need to repeat the same conversations – over and over and over again. At the beginning, these will be simple conversations: introducing yourself, talking about the weather (fact: nearly every conversation with someone from the other side of the world will start with the weather), talking about your kids or your wife or your dog or your budgie, talking about your job.

If you work with more than one tutor, you can have the same conversation over and over again – except that you can have it with different people. Not only does this give you even more precious practice, it also mixes up the reactions and questions you’ll get from the other person.


From my italki session schedule: three teachers in three days.

3. Be clear about what you want, right from day one.

You’re the only person responsible for your learning, so it’s your responsibility to be clear about what you want from the start.

When I send a message to a tutor asking for a first session, I start by introducing myself and explaining why and how I’m learning a language. I also let him or her know very clearly what I want:

  • stay in the target language the entire time
  • correct my pronunciation and sentence structure
  • write new words in Skype as they come up
  • don’t plan any lessons in advance – let our conversation lead the lesson

This last one is tricky for some teachers, especially if they have pre-made materials that they like to use with their students. Some tutors are very inflexible or lack confidence and insist on “sticking to the lesson plan”. After giving a teacher like this a few chances to change, I would switch tutors if not satisfied. You’re paying your tutor to provide you with a particular service; if you’re not getting it, then it’s fair to look elsewhere.

4. Make a cheat sheet.

It’s ok to have a cheat sheet. In fact, I think that it’s imperative to have some kind of a cheat sheet.

I have a Tagalog notebook that I use just for tutoring. It has basic greetings, sentences that I use often, a list of “help!” phrases (ie. “I don’t understand”, “Could you please repeat that?”, “How do you say _____?”, etc), words that I want to learn, and so on.


page one of my tutoring notebook: talking about the weather, of course!

I jot down words as I’m doing a tutoring session, write sentences as I’m working through new ideas, and write down vocabulary that I know I’ll need before a session. I look over the last few pages before a tutoring session, leaf through it often while in a conversation, jot notes as I practice, and review afterwards. Pretty much every single word and expression in my notebook ends up in anki, since they’re all words that I need in my active vocabulary. My notebook travels with me everywhere I go, so if I find myself with a few minutes here and there, I can easily review and practice a bit.

5. Use pictures as props.

The cliche would have us believe that a picture is worth a thousand words. Even if you don’t know a thousand words in your target language, a picture can provide a good jumping off point for speaking as an absolute beginner.

Gather photos of special people and places. You can show one to your tutor, and then describe what’s happening in the photo. Depending on  your level, this can range from something extremely simple (This is my brother. He is a man. His name is John.) to more complex descriptions (The man wearing the red shirt is my brother John. He works as a teacher at the high school. He lives in a small town with his family. etc.) From there, you can work with your tutor to expand your descriptions, and practice answering questions about your photo.


Pet-owners know that it’s true: we never run out of things to say about our animals.

To work on your listening and questioning skills, you can ask your tutor to do the same with a picture of someone from his or her family.

6. Try conversation cards.

In the very beginning of learning a language, students find themselves asking and answering lots of simple questions. I created conversation cards so that I could randomize the experience a bit, making it more interesting and challenging.

I cut out cards and hand-wrote a question on each one. Then, on the other side of each card, I wrote some prompts so that I could practice formulating the questions myself. One card, for example, might have the word “ilarawan” (describe) on one side, followed by a list of possible people (sister, mother, brother, friend, pet). If I can’t remember how to structure the question, I can just flip the card over and look at the other side, where I’ve written the question out: “Ilarawan mo ang _______ mo.” (Describe your _________.).

hand-written conversation cards - perfect for practice during tutoring sessions

hand-written conversation cards – perfect for practice during tutoring sessions

Early on, these cards made up the bulk of a half-hour session. I would shuffle the cards, and then my tutor and I would take turns asking each other questions. This let me practice multiple skills: asking questions, making statements, listening to another person’s questions and statements. It also made repeating the same thing over and over a bit more interesting for both of us. As I learn new questions and structures, I can easily create new cards.

For printable conversation cards in English, Tagalog, French and Spanish, as well as a more detailed description of how I use them, click here.

7. Read prepared texts and dialogues.

Reading a text with your tutor can be very useful for working on pronunciation. I don’t spend more than five minutes per half-hour session practicing a dialogue with a tutor, but those five minutes are very useful. I generally send my tutor a short dialogue from one of my Tagalog resources, and then we practice it multiple times:

  • she reads each line and I repeat, while she corrects any errors in pronunciation or rhythm
  • we each take a role and read it in character two or three times
  • we exchange roles and repeat
  • I try to create new sentences using the structures in the dialogue

While I do think that there’s value in reading with a tutor, I don’t believe that it should make up the bulk of the session. Still, it’s another tool in the box!

8. Practice in between sessions.

The importance of ongoing practice simply can’t be over-emphasized!

re-read your notes

If you don’t go over what you’ve learned in between sessions, then very little of it will stick. Make sure that you understand what you worked on, and prepare questions for next time.

talk to yourself

…or to your cat, or to your baby, or to your potted plant, or to your cup of coffee. Describe what you see or narrate what you’re doing. If you get stuck, write yourself a quick note so that you remember to ask your tutor next time you meet.

prepare for the next session

So you can talk about the weather, you can say your name and you can say where you live. What do you want to talk about next time? Maybe you’ll want to talk about your job. Take a few minutes in between sessions to look up important vocabulary and try to create some sentences. This will give you some meat to work with during your next session with your tutor.

practice using flashcards or SRS software

I use anki for spaced-repetition of vocabulary. For Tagalog, in addition to my regular deck, I also created a conversational deck. I put questions in Tagalog on one side (the same ones that I wrote on my conversation cards) and a few useful sentences and prompts in Tagalog on the other side. I have that deck set up with only 3 new cards per day. When I read the question, I answer it out loud, saying as much as I can, then flip the card and try to add more details.

As my spoken skills improve, I add new sentences or details to the back of the card. I never “fail” any of these cards, nor do I mark them as “easy” (even if they are). I’ve been automatically marking them as hard, so they’ll keep coming back at the lowest interval. I’m really pleased with the experience so far! It’s made my Skype conversations much more fluid.


A conversation card with a question (Do you have siblings?) and prompts for possible answers

I don’t expect this to be a “forever” deck like my vocabulary deck. Once I’m feeling comfortable enough with basic conversations, I’ll delete it. But for now, it’s very useful.

keep learning on your own

Whether you use a course, a textbook, a website or a podcast, it’s important to get lots of input from various sources. Read, write and listen to your target language in between tutoring sessions. Tutoring is just one part of a balanced approach to language learning.

Working with a tutor can seem a bit daunting at first, but if you take the plunge, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can progress!

Do you have any other suggestions for working with a tutor when you’re still new to a language?

Looking for a tutor? Italki is an excellent source of talented, affordable tutors from around the world. Let me know if you’re looking for Tagalog or Spanish tutors – I can recommend some very good ones!

Five Spanish Podcasts Worth a Listen

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. We’re getting ready to move halfway across the country, so there’s a ridiculous amount cleaning and organizing to be done. A good podcast makes the boring housework go faster and it lets me squeeze in a bit more Spanish. Win!

Listening is one of the most important things that you can do to improve your language skills, especially when you’re hovering in that seemingly interminable stretch between intermediate and advanced. Words – hours and hours and hours of words – can help you bridge that gap.

So here are some of the many words that I’ve been listening to over the past month:

ID-100165861. Nómadas

This weekly RTVE podcast – one of the best I’ve listened to in any language – takes listeners on an audio adventure to a different part of the world every week.

Music, nature sounds, interviews, virtual tours, stories, history, snippets of conversation in the local language, city sounds, current affairs – this podcast is the next best thing to actually being there. I particularly like that the podcasts often include interviews with locals who speak Spanish as a second language. It’s interesting to hear Spanish spoken with so many different accents!

A few interesting episodes: Limerick, faro cultural del oeste (Limerick, Ireland) and Papúa Nueva Guinea, paraíso vulnerable (Papua New Guinea).

ID-100250942. Fallo de Sistema

This weekly RTVE podcast lives at the intersection of science and science fiction.

All things geek – comic books, video games, science fiction and fantasy movies and novels – are interspersed with  debates and interviews with authors, scientists and even philosophers. There are usually several dialogue clips from a movie or a video games, and generally at least one interesting song. You’re never quite sure what to expect with Fallo de Sistema!

A few interesting episodesDesmontando a Kurzweil (artificial intelligence and the Turing test) and Buscando a Sherlock (Sherlock Holmes’ many incarnations in movies, books and video games).

ID-100123153. A Hombros de Gigantes

This weekly RTVE podcast (are you sensing a pattern here? What can I say…I really love Spanish public radio) is all about science.

A Hombros de Gigantes features debates and interview, reports on recent discoveries, and snippets on the history of science – all in accessible language. Each weekly podcast starts with a particular theme, but also includes information and stories about other news in science.

A few interesting episodes: los mecanismos cerebrales (memories, learning and the human mind) and el universo se expande (the rapidly expanding universe).

ID-1001595584. Futuro Abierto

This weekly RTVE podcast (yes, another one) focuses on questions and concerns that affect society in general.

Each week, Futuro Abierto chooses a different theme to focus on, digging into the topic with an interesting mix of interviews, debates and reports. Each podcast also includes short interviews with people on the street, presenting a wide variety of opinions from average people.

A few interesting episodes: mi última dieta (healthy living and weight loss) and los antidisturbios y el derecho de reunión (demonstrations and public protests).

ID-100114955. Buenos Días América

Finally, something that isn’t from Spanish Public Radio!

This daily half-hour news broadcast focuses on current events in the United States and throughout Latin America. Buenos Días América is my daily dose of Latin American Spanish. It tends to revisit the same story multiple times throughout the week, as news reports generally do, which makes it great for people making the move from using “learn to speak Spanish” resources to actually using Spanish in real life.

And, just in case none of these podcasts catch your fancy…

…here are three more promising podcasts. I haven’t listened to them often enough yet to give an honest and informed opinion, but they’re definitely on my list!

Please note: all of the podcasts in this post are aimed at native speakers, so don’t feel frustrated if you’re a beginner and you find them hard to follow. If you’re looking for podcasts for beginners or intermediate learners, check out Notes in Spanish (podcasts free, transcripts for sale – excellent for any level, including advanced) or News in Slow Spanish (shorter version of podcast available for free here, full version with transcripts available to paying members only). Absolute beginners who are taking the very first steps of their language-learning journey might also be interested in Coffee Break Spanish.

Have any other podcasts to suggest? Please share them in the comments! Happy listening!

All images in this post are by Salvatore Vuono on

My New Plan for Spanish in 2014

In the beginning of January, I set myself some goals. I would write and read and talk and listen, and – ever so accurately – track my learning.

I was faithful to my plan for the first two and a half months of the year. I even managed to put up one of what I thought would be many monthly updates.

I really thought that my tracking sheet would guide my learning in 2014.

But then I went to Spain. I talked to hundreds of people in Spanish. I watched really bad television in bars and cafes. I translated for people from all around the world. I walked nearly 800 kilometres, singing and talking to myself in Spanish much of the way.


We even made an effort to speak to the local wildlife in Spanish.

When I got home, I was tired. I took a break for a few weeks to binge-watch Orange is the New Black and Supernatural on Netflix, and then started up with Spanish again. But I didn’t track anything at all. I just read, watched Buffy and talked to my tutor over Skype. All of a sudden, it was the end of April, and my tracking sheet had been gathering metaphorical dust for two and a half months. I contemplated whether I should even try to go back and update it, or if I should start something new.

Luckily, my timing couldn’t have been any better. A new challenge – a Super Challenge – was announced on the How To Learn Any Language forum: read 5000 pages (100 50-page “books”) and watch 9000 minutes (100 90-minute “films”) in 20 months. The idea behind the Super Challenge is to rev up your learning with massive input. At my current level, it’s exactly what I need!

So here’s my new plan for 2014: read a lot and watch a lot, tweeting updates weekly so that someone else can do the tracking for me. Much simpler, right?

Super Challenge 2014

spanishchildrensnovelsreading – 16.2 “books” completed

I’m currently on book four of the Percy Jackson series. These books are very easy to read at this point, but I plan on finishing the series. After that, I’ll either pick up where I left off at Harry Potter book three, or take a break from children’s literature to read Como Agua Para Chocolate. I read novels extensively, simply reading for pleasure and only looking up a word if it’s impeding understanding.

In addition to reading novels extensively, I’m also reading intensively. A few times a week, I print out an article from BBC Mundo and read it with highlighter in hand, marking any new words or interesting turns of phrases. After looking up the words and new structures, I add any important once to my anki flashcards, and then read the article again, this time for fluency.

I also keep up with the news daily using the text and accompanying audio at Democracy Now. It’s a very US-centred news report – which makes sense, since it comes from the United States. But the full transcript with audio adds a different dimension to my reading. The announcer is the radio version of a racehorse; she’s fast! But it’s a fun challenge to keep up and focus on processing text much more quickly than I do on my own. Amnistía Internacional also puts out a weekly podcast with transcript that I read on the weekend.

rapaziñowatching – 9.3 “films” completed

I recently started – and, sadly, finished – my new favourite Spanish show: Frágiles. It’s the story of a physiotherapist who treats his patients using unconventional methods. It’s engaging, funny and touching. The characters are well-developed, and stories intertwine in interesting ways. Highly recommended! There are only 8 episodes available on DramaFever, but I think that there’s a season 2 floating out there somewhere.

Next on my list: Águila Roja. According to the description on DramaFever, it’s about a man in 17th century Spain who disguises himself and fights against corruption. And also, he’s a ninja. There are five seasons available, so if I like it, I’ll be busy for a while!

Once in a while, I also watch an episode of The Simpsons. I much prefer watching Spanish shows, but a dubbed Simpsons episode is very easy to fit into a busy day.

How does tracking work?

Once a week (or whenever I finish a film or a book), I tweet a message that looks something like this:

 .@langchallenge #watched 61 minutes in #Spanish – “Frágiles episode 8″

Or this:

 .@langchallenge #read 36 pages in #Spanish – “articles”

The twitter bot adds up the minutes for me and maintains an updated graph of my progress. Check out my progress graph here or follow me on twitter here. It’s very motivated to see my numbers go up, and to see how my fellow challenge participants are progressing.

It’s not too late to join in!

The Super Challenge is a marathon, not a sprint. It lasts 20 months – so it’s really not the end of the world if you join in a few months late. If you’re interested in making significant progress in a second (or third or fourth) language, then I can’t recommend it enough!

You don’t have to be at an intermediate or advanced level to benefit from the challenge – in fact, many participants are beginners who want to use the challenge as a vehicle for improvement.

Visit the Language Super Challenge to find out how to join in.