Category Archives: Spanish

Eight Different Anki Cards: a Peek Inside my SRS

Thanks for commiserating with me last week during the Great Whine-Fest of 2014™. I’m happy to report that I didn’t quit, and that taking a big step back this month was a great idea. My motivation is climbing once again. I may even start a new lesson in my Tagalog course next week.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing fun, unstressful language activities: reading books in Spanish, listening to a few podcasts while doing errands, and running through my anki decks every day.

I love anki.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with anki, it’s a free* spaced repetition software that allows you to build your own decks and practice what you’re learning. Difficult words come back more often, and easy words are spaced farther and farther apart,. The algorithm allows you to spend the bulk of your time on new or difficult stuff, while reviewing stuff you already know just often enough to ensure that you don’t forget it.

* Anki is free for desktop and android. The iPhone app is quite expensive at 25 dollars.

I started using anki in May 2013, and – with the exception of a 6-week break in March/April while I was walking the Camino de Santiago – I’ve used it nearly every day since.

Here’s a look at anki when I opened it this morning:


I have five decks that I run through most days:

French – vocabulary: words that my students stump me with. Sometimes a student will ask me something like “How do you say hinge in French?” and my mind draws a blank. I add those words to anki to help me become a better teacher. This is my smallest deck, with between 0 and 3 reviews most day.

Spanish – basic vocabulary: English-Spanish deck that I started in May 2013. I don’t add new words every day, although I do try to add a bunch every week or two. Most of the cards are very simple word-for-word translations, sometimes with a few examples. As I’ve grown as a language learner, my cards have gotten more varied.

Spanish – practice makes perfect: cards built from the exercises in the Practice Makes Perfect workbooks. Most of them are either English-Spanish translations of sentences, or else cloze sentences with missing words.

Tagalog: a variety of cards all mixed up together. By the time I started learning Tagalog in May 2014, I didn’t want to clutter up my anki dashboard with more decks. My Tagalog deck includes vocabulary cards; grammar cards; translation cards; audio cards; and conversation cards. This deck takes about 3/4 of the time that I spend on anki every day.

libros: sentences pulled from novels. These are mainly words that I want in my passive vocabulary. Reviewing the cards in this deck is pleasant, quick and very unstressful.

So what might you see if you opened one of my decks?

1. vocabulary: L1 -> L2

These are words that I want to be able use when speaking or writing. They come from everywhere and anywhere: Skype conversations, books, courses, articles, texts that I’ve written, movies or TV shows.  A lot of the cards in this deck are very simple (one word on each side), while others include example sentences.


2. vocabulary: L2 -> L1

Most of my Spanish vocabulary cards go from English to Spanish. They worked very well for me, so I followed the same pattern when building my Tagalog deck. Except that I found myself reading or listening to a sentence filled with familiar words that I couldn’t process!

I knew that happy = masaya, but for some reason this didn’t necessarily translate to masaya = happy. And so, for tricky words in Tagalog, I build two cards, one going from English to Tagalog and the second going from Tagalog to English.


3. picture vocabulary

Don’t like translations? Picture cards are great for concrete nouns and verbs. I really like picture cards, but they do take longer to create.


4. sentences from novels

I started creating cards by pulling sentences from novels this month, when I realized that using an ereader meant that I could both read extensively and highlight unknown words without breaking my flow. After finishing En Llamas, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, I went back through the highlighted words and added some to anki. These are often words that I was able to understand from context, but that I’d like to add to my passive vocabulary.


5. sentence translation

While some learners will avoid translation at all costs, I find it very useful at times. I use translated sentences to practice grammar and sentence structure:

I also use translated sentences to help build my ability to carry on conversations:


6. cloze deletion

I use cloze cards in a relatively unsophisticated way, usually to practice grammar concepts (por vs para; ser vs estar; verb tenses). There are some much more creative uses of cloze deletion in language learning, and it’s definitely something that I’d like to explore further!


7. conversation practice

I created these cards when I was first starting to learn Tagalog. I found myself needing to repeat the same short conversations or descriptions over and over again. While I did this with tutors and with my husband, I also found it very useful to practice out loud by myself.

In this card, I’ve put a question on the front (Do you have any siblings?) and prompts on the back (name, work, residence, description, etc)


8. audio

I add audio cards very intermittently. On the front, I add an mp3 audio clip from one of my courses (nothing is actually written on that side of the card). On the back, I put the transcript in Tagalog. I find spaced repetition of audio extremely useful, but I’ll admit that these cards take a bit more effort to make – and so I don’t make as many of them as I might.


So there you have it! My anki decks!

It might seem like a lot, but I’m actually kind of lazy.

The vast majority of my anki cards are very quick to make (hence the very limited picture and audio cards).

I like to keep my total daily time on anki at around 20 minutes, so if it starts taking much longer than that, I lower the number of new cards per day.



I hope that you found something in this post useful! If you use anki, please share in the comments how you organize your cards or decks!

“Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen – a Treasure Trove for Language Lovers

In case you didn’t know, Disney’s Frozen was big last year. Really big.

Let It Go was the song of the hour. You’ll find video after video on YouTube, some with millions of hits: parodies, covers, children belting it out in the carseat.

It’s everywhere.

There haven’t been any official translations of Disney movies into Tagalog, but the talented DisneyDubAmy on YouTube has translated and recorded several Disney songs. Let It Go was the very first Tagalog song that I learned. And trust me when I tell you – I sing it loud enough that the dog leaves the room!

For side-by-side English and Tagalog lyrics of Bumitaw, click here.

Tip: you have to sing it loud.

While Bumitaw is an unofficial Tagalog translation, the song (and the movie) have been officially translated into dozens of different languages. Try googling “let it go + your target language” and see what pops up.

I like both the Latin American Spanish version by Carmen Sarahí and the Castilian Spanish version by Gisela. If you’re learning French, the gorgeous Anaïs Delva performs in both the Canadian and the European versions.

Actually, all of the singers who voice Elsa are incredibly talented, as you can see from this video in 25 languages:

What’s that you say?

You’d like to translate Let It Go for yourself, with the help of Google Translate?

Well, I’m happy to report that it’s already been done for you! Melinda Kathleen Reese ran the lyrics through multiple layers of Google Translate, and ended up with this masterpiece:

(And if you think that’s good, you should check out her versions of Wrecking Ball or Royals.)

Now go! Sing! Twirl in the snow! Unleash your inner Disney princess!

I know that I will. Much to the dog’s dismay.

Reading Books in Spanish: Don’t Make the Same Mistakes That I Made!

I love to read. I’ve been a bookworm my whole life. When we were kids, my sister and I would take out stacks of library books every week, and then curl up on the couch to read for hours. My mom liked to say that we were holding the couch down, since we each sat on a different side, with the pile of books between us.

(We almost always returned our books late as children. I’m 36 now, and I owe 6 dollars and 40 cents to the library. Some things never change.)

One of the best things about learning foreign languages for me is picking up a book and reading it.

Reading! In a whole other language! How cool is that, right?

I’ve made some mistakes along the way, though. Today I’d like to share my two big mistakes – and maybe save you some headaches in the process!

My big mistake number one: reading something that’s too hard

Like many language learners, I got my hands on a copy of Harry Potter when I started learning Spanish. It was a kids’ book, so it seemed like a good way to start reading in Spanish.



I started with dual copies of the book, one in English and one in Spanish. I figured that I would be able to read it without too much difficulty, using the English book if I got stuck.

I was wrong.

At that point in my journey, Harry Potter was simply too difficult for me.

The text itself was complicated, with verb tenses that I’d never seen before. There were dozens of unknown vocabulary words per page, many of which I had never come across naturally in everyday life:

  • lechuza (owl)
  • escoba (broom)
  • varita (wand)
  • hechizo (spell)

I struggled my way through a chapter or two, but it was absolutely no fun. I’d claw my way through a page, and then stop, feeling exhausted and frustrated.

Let me tell you:

Harry Potter is hard.

Solution to big mistake number one: read easier stuff

After slamming Harry Potter shut in frustration (for the nth time), I accepted that I needed to read something much easier – something that I could understand with at least a 95% comprehension rate.

Enter Roald Dahl.


This is more like it!

I started with Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. This was a book that I knew well in English, so the story was familiar enough to figure out new words like “repollo” (cabbage) through a combination of familiarity and context. Most of the verbs were in preterite and imperfect past tense – verb tenses that I hadn’t formally learned yet – but they were easy to understand using root words and context.

(Confession: I skipped over all of the songs in Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. They were too hard for me at the time, and therefore boring.)

In all, I read four novels for children over the course of four months:

  • Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate, by Roald Dahl – a book that I was very familiar with in English.
  • Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo – a book that I knew well in French, and one of my absolute favourites.
  • Charlie y el gran ascensor de cristal, by Roald Dahl – I’d read it once or twice as a child, so I had a general understanding of the story. I also knew the characters from the first book, and was familiar with the writing style.
  • Las Brujas, by Roald Dahl – this one was completely new to me, but I was well-prepared by the time I cracked the spine.

After reading four books for young readers, I picked up Harry Potter again.

And I could read it! Without looking at the English copy! Without frustration, boredom or feelings of inadequacy and despair! It was a miracle!

Take-away lesson: read easy books.

I can’t stress this enough. Easy books are much more useful than difficult books. You will advance more quickly if you choose books that you can read with 95%+ comprehension. The books that you can read will gradually increase in difficulty as you keep turning pages.

I was able to read a children’s novel as my first Spanish book. My French helped me a lot with that. You might need to start even easier, with easy readers or texts written for language learners. You can get a peek at how that looks for me in Tagalog – a language in which I’m not yet ready to read a novel.

My big mistake number two: reading something that’s too boring

After reading four children’s novels and the first two books in the Harry Potter series, I found a new series: the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.

I really enjoyed the first two books! I liked the main character’s voice, and I thought that the modernization of Greek gods and myths was very clever. It took me several weeks to get through each book, reading most days for 20 or 30 minutes. That felt about right.

Then came book three. And while the books hadn’t changed much, my interest had plummeted. I started putting a timer on for 20 minutes at a time, and I checked the timer more than once each session, waiting for it to ring.

The truth is that I didn’t really feel like reading them anymore. But I’d already paid for them, and my book budget was tight. And besides, I’d already read so much of the series…I may as well finish it, right?


And besides, they’re so colourful…


Life is much too short to read books that don’t grab you. I decided long ago that I wouldn’t finish a book in English that I didn’t love; so why was I reading boring books just because they were in Spanish?

I wasted three months on the last three books of the series. It took me a month to get through each book, and – while they were at an appropriate level for me – I no longer looked forward to my nightly reading.

I’m not saying that the last three Percy Jackson books aren’t any good – just that they weren’t the right books for me.

Solution to big mistake number two: read stuff that’s actually interesting

losjuegosdelhambreI happy-danced in my living room when I finished the last page of the last Percy Jackson book in August. I was so relieved!

I started reading my current book, Los Juegos del hambre, by Suzanne Collins.

And within a week, I was three quarters finished. I don’t have to use a timer anymore. If anything, I have to put my alarm on so that I remember to go to bed at a decent time.

Take-away lesson: read books that you like.

A little bit obvious, isn’t it? And yet I fell into the trap of reading books that I didn’t like “because I should finish them“. Never again!

Read books that grab you because you love the story, or the characters, or the world that the author created. If I’d abandoned Percy Jackson a few chapters into book three, I probably would have read a lot more Spanish over the past three months.

Recap: Captain Obvious says read books that you can actually read. And that you actually like.

Don’t make the same mistakes that I made!

spanishbooksWhat’s next for me?

After the Hunger Games, I plan on reading a Spanish book. That was actually written in Spanish. By a Spanish speaker.

Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquival is already waiting on my night table. I hope that I’ll love it. But if I don’t like it, I’ll ask myself two questions:

  • Is it boring because it’s hard? Then put it away until later.
  • Is it boring because it’s boring? Then put it away forever.

What are you reading right now? I hope that it’s something that you love!

¡Buena lectura, amigos míos!

Monthly Language Update – August 2014

Maybe it’s the years that I spent in school – as both a student and a teacher – but I always feel as though September is the start of a new year!

With regards to languages, though, I don’t have any radical changes planned. I’ll keep moving forward in the same way that I have been over the past few months.

Spanish Update for the Month of August:

Goals for August:

  • Finish El último héroe del Olimpo DONE! 
  • Watch at least eight TV show episodes – DONE!
  • Finally finish up the last few chapters of my Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tenses book – DONE!

Super Challenge Update

I continued chipping away at the Super Challenge, a massive-input challenge with a goal of reading 100 50-page “books” and watching 100 90-minute “films” in Spanish by December 31st 2015.

spanishchildrensnovelsreading – 30.2 “books” completed

This month I finally finished the fifth and final Percy Jackson book, El último héroe del Olimpo. If I’m honest with myself, I was done with this series after book three, but I finished all five out of sheer stubbornness.

Overall, I liked the series. The author obviously did his research, and I loved all of the Greek gods, monsters and heroes. That said, by the fifth book, reading started to feel like a chore.

I started reading Los Juegos del hambre, and I was pleased to find that I’m enjoying it much more.

aquinohayquienvivawatching – 16 “films” completed

I watched four more episodes of Aqui No Hay Quien Viva (“No One Could Live Here“) on YouTube. I mentioned it last month – it’s a silly, funny, light comedy show with 90+ episodes. We tend to watch a lot of dark, violent shows with immoral characters – Hell on Wheels,
The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones – so it’s nice to watch something upbeat in Spanish.

It’s also interesting from a language-learner’s perspective, because there are lots of different registers in the show. The characters come from different generations, social and educational backgrounds, and they each have their own way of speaking.

I also watched three episodes of Buffy la Cazavampiros and one episode of Los Simpsons.

Other Spanish this month:

I finally finished the Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Verb Tenses book! I started working in this workbook over a year ago, but I put it away for months and months. It feels good to finish. Now I just have to apply the more complex grammatical constructions during conversations.

During the month of August, I spent four hours talking in Spanish over Skype with two tutors – four and a half hours fewer than during the month of July.

I’m still listening to Buenos Días América most weekday morning. I’ve also listened to several interesting podcasts on RTVE. In particular, I enjoyed Tanzania, la tierra del Kilimanjaro on Nómadas and El español y su importance creciente on Futuro Abierto.

Goals for September:

Tagalog Update for the Month of August:

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been learning Tagalog for four months now! Let me tell you, I am learning slooooowly. I don’t feel like I’ve improved much over the past month, despite focusing on the language for more than an hour every day. I keep reminding myself that I’m in no rush to learn.

Goals for August:

  • Finish lessons 8 and 9 of Elementary Tagalog – DONE!
  • Finish units 7 and 8 of Teach Yourself Filipino – DONE!
  • Find a good children’s TV show – DONE! (variety of short cartoons and stories)
  • Learn to sing a song in Tagalog – DONE! (Bumitaw)

tagalogbookCourses: Elementary Tagalog and Teach Yourself

This month, I worked through lessons 8 and 9 in Elementary Tagalog. In July I learned how to use mag- verbs. In August, I learned -um- verbs. They’re definitely a bit trickier for me, but I do feel that I’m getting more comfortable with verbs in general.

In August, I also worked through units 7 and 8 in Teach Yourself. The topics in both courses complement one another, although I find that I rely more on Elementary Tagalog for grammar explanations.

Other Tagalog this month:

  • Spoke on Skype for six hours and forty-five minutes with two italki tutors
  • Listened to three newbie podcasts on KalyeSpeak
  • Created a 30-minute YouTube playlist of short Tagalog songs, stories and cartoons
  • Transcribed and translated a short Tagalog cartoon: Pixie Can Share
  • Read nearly every day from my book bin full of easy stuff
  • Learned to sing Bumitaw (the unofficial Tagalog version of Let It Go) – very loudly
  • Kept up with my anki and memrise decks

Goals for September:

  • Finish lessons 10 and 11 of Elementary Tagalog 
  • Finish units 9 and 10 of Teach Yourself Filipino 
  • Learn to sing two new Tagalog songs
  • Transcribe two more short Tagalog cartoons
  • Translate four more Napoleon easy readers

Happy September, everyone! What are your language goals for this month?

Reading Easy Stuff

readingesasytextsI used to teach grade one French immersion. My students came to me without a word of French, and were expected to function exclusively in that language within just a few months. At least a third of them spoke a language other than English at home.

These kids had to learn to read. And they had to do it in French.

By the end of the school year, all of those six-year-olds could read – in their second (or third) language.

After having taught reading and literacy to children for years, I’m a firm believer in the importance of easy books. The kids who advance the fastest aren’t the ones who cart thick books around with them or the ones who start “reading” chapter books before they can sound out simple words. The kids who learn the fastest are the ones who take in a steady diet of just-right books.

For children, an independent reading level is 95%. That means that – in order to best benefit from a text – a child should be able to make out more or less 95% of the words on his or her own. Anything less than that, and the result will probably be frustration, boredom and lack of progress.

So what does this have to do with you? 

Well, if you’re learning a language, then you’re probably reading. Lots of language learners focus on intensive reading, where you might re-read the same text multiple times, combing through it for new words, grammatical structures, and expressions. That’s important work.

But no less important is extensive reading: reading lots, for pleasure, without stopping to look up words unless absolutely necessary. It’s my favourite kind of reading, the kind that has the biggest impact on my progress. And I think that the 95% number can be applied to extensive reading for adult language learners.

I talked about how to do this when I shared how I was using children’s novels to learn Spanish:

I aim for 95% (or better) comprehension for extensive reading. Anything less than 95%, and a book is probably better suited for intensive rather than extensive reading. To figure out if a book is the right level for you, choose a random page. Count the number of lines on the page, and the number of words on one line. Multiply the number of words on one line by the number of lines on the page, and then multiply that number by 0.05.

Using a page of Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate as an example:

  • 29 lines on the page
  • 10 words in a line
  • 29 x 10 = 290
  • 290 x 0.05 = 14.5

So if there are any more than 14 unknown words on that page [that you can’t easily infer from context], then it’s not at a 95% comprehension level. Read the page, counting the words that you don’t know. If there are fewer than 14 – then you’re good to go. Any more than 14, and you might find the frustration level too high to really enjoy the experience of reading for pleasure.

from Using Children’s Novels to Learn Spanish

That’s all well and good if you can find books that you can read. But what if your reading level is so low that a novel that you can read with 95% comprehension simply doesn’t exist?

(ahem…me and my new friend Tagalog)

So where can you find just-right texts if you’re at a low level in the language? Is extensive reading even a possibility at this level? Yes, it absolutely is. And what’s more, I think that it’s crucial for beginners to read and re-read a variety of texts for pleasure – no matter what their level may be.

Enter the book bin!


A book bin is exactly what it sounds like:

A bin. Of books.

Of course, you can also use a box, a shelf, a bag or a pile on your nightstand. Or you could just collect all of your texts electronically on a tablet, if that’s what floats your boat! The important thing is to have a collection of just-right texts that you can read with a high degree of understanding.

My Book Bin Filled With Just-Right Tagalog Texts

tagalogsonglyricssong lyrics

I haven’t learned all that many Tagalog songs yet. But when I do learn one, I make myself a lyric sheet with the Tagalog on the right and the English transliteration on the left. This song sheet is from the unofficial Tagalog version of Disney Frozen’s Let It Go. While I’m more likely to read while singing to the YouTube video at the top of my lungs, sometimes I like to just read the words.

tagalogdialoguestexts from courses

I’ve made a book with copies of reading comprehension exercises from one of my language courses. Depending on the length, I either type them out or scan them after working through them in the lesson. These are texts that I’ve already read intensively. I usually spend a few minutes of every session reading at least a page, marking my place so that I can pick up where I left off next time.

tagalogstorybilingual picture books

Bilingual picture books are a great resource for beginners! I bought four bilingual Tagalog-English picture books from Pinoy Culture in Toronto. Each page has text in both Tagalog and English. I read the Tagalog, trying to understand it as best I can, and then read the English, matching the words.

tagalogeasyreaderhomemade easy readers

I have a set of easy readers that my young students loved in French. They use very simple, straightforward sentences, with lots of repetition and simple present tense verbs. I’m working on translating them into Tagalog, with the help of my husband and tutors. I use sticky notes to cover the French text, creating lift-the-flap bilingual books.

tagalognotebooklanguage notebook

I mentioned my tutoring notebook in an earlier post. It’s a collection of useful phrases, vocabulary, paragraphs that I’ve worked on with my tutor – basically anything that I’ve learned during a session and that I know I’ll want to review again. I find it especially useful to re-read corrected paragraphs, since I generated them myself and they’re full of the words that I personally need.

hardtagalogbooksomething too hard

I always let my students have one aspirational book in their bin. Usually it was something non-fiction with lots of pictures of trucks, baby animals, or snakes eating rats. This is my aspirational book: a Tagalog picture book about the People Power Revolution of 1986. I haven’t yet felt the urge to push my way through a page or two – but it’s there in case I feel like it one day.

So how do I use a book bin?

The answer is ridiculously simple:

  1. Collect a variety of readable texts
  2. Set a timer for 10, 15 or 20 minutes
  3. Read

It doesn’t matter what I read, or in what order. All of the texts in the bin are useful, so I just read whatever I feel like first, and then pick up something else. I might read the same picture book three times one day, understanding a bit more every time. The following day I might focus solely on texts that I’ve already read intensively, so that I understand almost every word that I read. It really doesn’t matter. I don’t stop reading until the timer sounds.

And that’s it.

Easy, right?

I’ve got an extra chair on the front porch and some hot water in the kettle if you care to join me.


Monthly Language Update – July 2014

July’s been an interesting month! I’m on holidays, which should mean that I have more time for languages. But the truth is that the less I have to do, the less I get done!

Still, I’ve managed to do at least some Spanish and some Tagalog nearly every single day. I call that a success!

Spanish Update for the Month of July:

Super Challenge Update

Just in case you missed earlier mentions of the Super Challenge, it’s a massive-input challenge. The goal is to read 100 50-page “books” and watch 100 90-minute “films” in your target language by December 31st 2015. This challenge is perfect me because…

  • I’m at a level where I need massive input in Spanish
  • I like the long-term marathon feel of the challenge
  • I’m really lazy and I like that I can track my progress simply by tweeting updates

spanishchildrensnovelsreading – 23.3 “books” completed

I’ve decided to stop counting articles for the Super Challenge, and to only log actual books or novels. This month I finished the fourth Percy Jackson book, La Batalla del Laberinto and started the final book in the series. I’m most definitely ready to be finished with this series! I’m less than a quarter of the way through El Último Héroe del Olimpo, so that will probably keep me busy for most of August.

Once I finish, I have three books to choose from: Los Juegos del Hambre, Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban and Como Agua Para Chocolate. I’m not sure which one I’ll end up reading first, but I hope to start before the end of the month

aquinohayquienvivawatching – 12 “films” completed

On my tutor’s recommendation, I started watching Aqui No Hay Quien Viva (“No One Could Live Here“) on YouTube. It’s a silly comedy about a group of nosy, obnoxious, ridiculous people living in an apartment block. Apparently it was very popular in Spain when it was airing. It’s a challenge to watch comedy, since I don’t understand every single word. But it’s a good challenge!

I’ve also started watching El Tiempo Entre Costuras (“The Time in Between“) on DramaFever. It’s a period drama set during the Spanish Civil War. The costumes are beautiful and the story is compelling.

Other Spanish this month:

During the month of July, I spent eight and a half hours talking in Spanish over Skype – seven 60-minute sessions with tutors and three 30-minute sessions with a language partner. Some days the words just pour out of my mouth. Other days…not so much.

I also listened to a lot of podcasts. I try to listen to a minimum of 30 minutes per day, while walking the dog or working around the house.

Goals for August:

  • Finish El Último Héroe del Olimpo
  • Watch at least eight TV show episodes
  • Finally finish up the last few chapters of my Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tenses book

Tagalog Update for the Month of July:

I spent a week with my Tagalog-speaking in-laws, which was a very cool experience. It wasn’t exactly immersion, since they spoke a lot of English, but when they were speaking Tagalog, I was able to pick out a lot of words and express myself using simple sentences. Everyone – parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, various other people who are related (or not) in various other ways –  was extremely encouraging.

Fact: it’s very easy to impress my Tagalog-speaking family!

tagalogbookTara, Mag-Tagalog Tayo!

This week, I completed lesson seven in this book.

Each lesson includes a variety of exercises: grammar, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, writing, vocabulary. I like the pace of the lessons, and really enjoy working my way through the book.

In lesson 7, I finally started learning to use verbs, which has really opened up a lot of possibilities during conversations. I’m starting to feel like I’m building a strong base in the language, which is exciting. I use this resource nearly every day.

teachyourselfTeach Yourself Complete Filipino

I just finished unit 6 in this book.

This turned out to be an excellent choice as a secondary resource. Each lesson includes various dialogues and exercises, following a family living in the Philippines. While I do glance at the exercises, my study is mainly focused on the dialogues.

I don’t use Teach Yourself every day, but I do try to learn a new dialogue a few times per week. I listen to each new dialogue multiple times, until I feel completely comfortable with all of the expressions and sentence structures.

Other Tagalog this month:

  • Five hours of Skype conversations with several different italki tutors. I’ve now settled on a few that I really like.
  • Listened to the first three newbie podcasts on KalyeSpeak – a great podcast for learners!
  • Watched the first two episodes of the children’s show Jollitown on YouTube. They were…weird. I don’t know that I’ll be watching any more.
  • Kept up with my anki decks and started working my way through several courses on Memrise

Goals for August:

  • Finish lessons 8 and 9 of Tara, Mag-Tagalog Tayo!
  • Finish units 7 and 8 of Teach Yourself Filipino
  • Find a good children’s TV show
  • Learn to sing a song in Tagalog

Happy August, everyone! What are your language goals for the rest of the summer?

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?

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.