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Spain is a country where a many people speak English, to at least some level. some speak French, German and Russian. Few speak any other language. Those who do speak other languages are, mainly, fairly young. Some speak better than others. Few professionals speak foreign languages totally fluently: if you find one who speaks your language, value them.
Even if you speak English fluently, it will greatly simplify your life and enrich your time in Spain if you take the trouble to learn at least some Spanish. Even a limited knowledge opens doors and business opportunities. If you do not speak English it becomes even more important.
Fortunately, Spanish is one of the simplest of languages to learn to a basic level. and there are ways of becoming a fluent Spanish speaker without too much time and trouble.
Even if you learn only a few words, it will be seen by people in Spain as both a courtesy and a gesture of good faith. They will respond enthusiastically, correcting your errors (in a very gentle way) and helping you expand your vocabulary.
A good starting point is the ‘100 words’ (see below).
How can a foreigner learn Spanish?
There are seven main ways.
A local partner
By far the best is to find a Spanish boyfriend or girlfriend. If your significant other baulks at this idea, do not despair; there are alternatives!
You can learn Spanish before you come to Spain or after you have arrived. Children learn very quickly – three months would be normal for a young child. Adults can take a lot longer. I know people who have been studying, regularly, for over two years and who only now feel comfortable with their ability. Of course, they may be being harsh on themselves! Most will speak basic Spanish after three months’ study twice per week.
Learning Spanish before you come to Spain
There are lots of Spanish speakers around the world. Over 430 million of them, in fact. Spanish is the second most popular language on earth. This is a very good thing for you, because it means there are lots of people teaching Spanish.
Do an internet search for “learn Spanish in [your city]” or check out the website of your local language school.
If there aren’t any official Spanish language lessons in your area, or they are too expensive for you, consider whether you know (or your friends know) any Spanish people. You can ask them if they would be willing to tutor you. This method is likely to be a little more haphazard than if you learn in a formal class, but could be very enjoyable, and it is certainly better than nothing at all.
If you can’t find native Spanish speakers, look for Mexicans or people from other Spanish-speaking countries. Their Spanish will be a little different from the Spanish you find in Spain but learning from them will still be a great head start.
It’s a great idea to, at least, get the basics of Spanish down before you move to Spain: it will make the whole thing a lot less scary and ensure you can get set up more quickly.
Learning Spanish in Spain
You can visit Spain and take intensive courses before you move (immersion is the easiest way to learn a language), continue your studies ‘back home’ when you arrive, or even start from scratch when you’ve moved to Spain.
There are many places to learn Spanish in Spain. Search the web and local newspapers for a private tutor or check out a local school. In some tourist areas the municipality (town hall) arranges classes for newly arrived foreigners.
Courses will vary: from evening classes over a period of months, to intensive full-time courses of a couple of weeks.
Prices also vary widely: the best thing to do is call up the school or teacher and find out what you’ll need to pay for your specific needs. You can expect to pay around €350 ($400/£310) for a two-week course in a place such as Marbella or €1,200 for an intensive residential course. An internet search will turn up many options, but do seek recommendations from satisfied users. Not all course are equal and the cheapest is seldom the best.
The internet, DVDs, CDs and books
There are many, many Spanish language courses available online and in print.
A leading and well respected example is the Rosetta Stone courses, which are comprehensive online, audio and written lessons. A popular free course is Duolingo, which is online-only but allows you to write, listen and speak in Spanish. More below.
Websites that charge monthly will often let you ‘bulk buy’ months, or sign up for an extended period of time, which works out cheaper per month.
Many of these websites will also offer an app for your mobile phone.
There are also hundreds of books and DVDs devoted to learning Spanish. A quick search on your favourite bookseller’s website will show you. Books should be used in tandem with other, more interactive, methods of language learning.
Again, email me if there’s anything you think I should add to the table below.
|Media type||Course||Price (2018)|
|Online||Duolingo||Free (with premium option)|
|Online||Babbel||Free trial, then US$12.95 (£9.99/€9.95) per month|
|Online||busuu||Free trial, then US$12.50 (€11.50/£10) per month|
|Online or CD/downloaded audio||Rosetta Stone||Prices seem to change rapidly. Currently (July 2018):
Online subscription: between £60-80 (US$80) for three months.
|CDs||Michel Thomas||Between £10/US$14.95 and £85/US$135, depending on course length|
‘On the job’
Many people pick up the rudiments of Spanish whilst working. I did. This is a slow but inexpensive way of becoming bilingual. Unfortunately, your colleagues are likely to want to use the opportunity to learn your language, and so you may find it difficult to get them to teach you much Spanish. You often end up having slightly surreal conversations with you speaking Spanish to them and them speaking English to you!
Some employers, particularly the big banks and IT companies that have now set up in Spain, run formal tuition for their staff. This is a huge advantage and could be a good reason for taking that job in preference to another.
Friends and neighbours
Your local Spanish neighbours will be very friendly and open to forming friendships with you. They will also love it if you show that you are sufficiently interested in their country to want to learn the language and they will, often will great patience and politeness, guide your faltering steps to some level of command of Spanish. They will often, also very politely, repeat the words that you have said to them (to help your pronunciation) when replying to you whilst gently correcting your grammatical catastrophes.
Two things that are sure. One is that you will have a richer experience with your neighbours if you do speak some Spanish. The other is that your neighbours are likely to be as keen to use you as a way of learning your language as you are to do the reverse.
Spanish conversation groups
A half way house between formal tuition and a social occasion – in truth, tending toward the latter – the conversation group is a group of people, some Spanish and some speaking another language. it is better if all the non-Spanish people speak the same language but this is not essential.
The group meets regularly. Regularity is the key. The meeting should be for an hour or two. Over food and drink works well.
Many groups have an agenda, circulated in advance: on Wednesday we are going to discuss paella and the recent air traffic control strike. this allows you to think about – and research – vocabulary.
Whether you have an agenda or not, you spend half of the meeting discussing things in Spanish and the other half in the other language.
This can be a really effective way of improving your basic Spanish skills.
If you are lucky enough to have young children, especially if they are attending the local school rather than the international school, you will be amazed at how quickly they learn Spanish. They will sometimes be semi-fluent in as little as six weeks and usually skilled within six months. They can then help teach you. Just expect some face-pulling as they indulge their inadequate and stupid parents who struggle to do something that they find so simple!
Keeping up your Spanish
Read the local newspaper (in Spanish) and listen to the local television news. Getting to the stage where you can do this takes time. In my opinion, the real test of whether you can speak any language is whether you can follow a programme on the radio, where they tend to talk quickly and where there are no visual clues.
Another great and painless way of keeping up and improving your Spanish is to watch movies on DVD. Depending on the level of your skill, you can either listen to the movie in your own language but display the subtitles in Spanish or listen in Spanish and display the subtitles in your own language. If you are really good, you can listen in Spanish and also display subtitles in Spanish! All of these methods are very effective at surreptitiously improving your skill.
The 100 words
I am a great believer in the ‘100 words’ (you can tell, because I’ve mentioned it twice!). This is the idea that, with just 100 words (or short phrases) of any language, you can get by in many day-to-day situations and in an emergency.
You will also gain the respect and approval of local business colleagues: you are trying to meet them half way, not working on the basis of cultural imperialism.
See below for the 100 words, or download a PDF with the list:
You will probably want to add a few of your own.
Also view the words here:
- The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Learning Spanish (HobbyHelp.com)
Jenny from HobbyHelp has written a fantastically thorough guide to learning Spanish – if you’ve got a bit more time, we recommend reading through it for lots more ideas.