Resources for learning Spanish I have used

I very much follow the approach of Nassim Taleb when he says that he doesn’t tell people where to invest but instead shares his own investments and lets them make up their own mind. That’s skin in the game.

So when someone asked me on advice for learning Spanish, I thought I could come up with a little compilation of what I have personally used and can vouch for its effectiveness (or lack thereof).

Duolingo

The only resource on this list I recommend not using. I used this when I restarted my own learning for the first of many times. I went through the entire Spanish program and, after reading that suggestion on the net, the German program in Spanish.

Did it help?

Yea, it definitely did. You go over all the basics in a lot of detail. I vaguely remember the app’s UX and how much time you spend on every topic. That’s good and bad at the same time. On the one hand, the app makes damn sure to give you enough practice. On the other hand, I found myself being bored with having to do so many exercises on bland topics that I understood quickly. Of course, you could skip them but then you leave the topic incomplete and we all know how much that annoys our minds.

My bigger issue with it though was that I didn’t feel like it was deliberate practice. Duolingo makes you put together sentences (or at least that was the only thing when I was using it) but you don’t really get to use the language in its most common context there. “The monkey paints the tree” is not something that we’d ever say. If you think that’s an exaggeration, look up @shitduolingosays on Twitter and have a laugh.

As a result you spend a lot of time doing something that helps you, but that probably would have been invested better somewhere else. I pretty vividly remember being annoyed with the app at the end (and I was using it for a few weeks on metro rides) for making me do so many annoying exercises only to complete the goals. The gamification does help to keep your focus but it also makes you feel guilty for not completing something or not showing up when you could be doing something better.

Not recommended.

Memrise

I know I tried Memrise for a very brief period of time but it was too short to give a definitive judgement so I’m indifferent on this one.

It’s better than Duolingo in the sense that you get better contexts and I remember it having different types of spaced-repetition exercises. The whole spaced-repetition idea in general is excellent and a proven working concept. However, I think the gamification aspect annoyed me there as well and that led me to ditching it quickly. I’m really more an old school learning-from-the-book person.

Gente Hoy 1-3

I don’t recall whether I bought this on my own initiative or whether I had to buy it as part of the 1-week introductory class I attended. In any case, I stuck with it and continued using the series throughout. Admittedly, it’s not an ideal resource for self-studying. I went through the entire first book before I got my first teacher to practice speaking. The problem with it is that it’s designed for classroom work so when the exercise tells you to discuss with your partner, you’ll end up talking to yourself (and you should do that, no joke).

However, there are still many useful exercises and it explains the grammar in a very accessible way. The topics are interesting as well and when you use any of the books with a teacher, you can pick a few nice speaking exercises to do together. The vocabulary and expressions introduced especially in the third book (B2 level) are very useful and I still occasionally check them just to refresh my memory.

Would I use this again if I started all over? Not sure, maybe I’d try Colloquial Spanish instead (which I successfully used for Russian) because it’s heavier on the texts and I like that more. But I can still vouch for this series’ effectiveness.

C de C1

Since I’m now attempting to complete C1 and a satisfied customer of the Difusión publishing house, I simply bought the next book in line. So far I’m very happy with my purchase, this book is probably the most interesting I’ve had so far, maybe out of any coursebook in any language. The topics are very current (e.g. social media discourse, online learning etc) and presented in an enaging way. The workbook goes into a lot of detail and gives you a ton of meaningful exercises to work with. The book also balances the different skills well and points out features of colloquial language for example. And to top it off, you get more exercises online. That’s why I’m not progressing quickly but I’m almost certain that C1 is guaranteed when I finish this.

Notes in Spanish

This is a podcast that I’ve used and actually starting to use again when I’m on my way to somewhere. I think it’s an absolutely brilliant resource and has helped me a ton with my listening comprehension and building vocabulary as well.

It’s run by Ben and Marina, who are a couple (He’s British, she’s Spanish) that live in Madrid and record short conversations in everyday Spanish about different topics. The beginner version eases you into it because it’s mostly in English but later the entire conversations are in Spanish (usually 10-15mins). The tempo they’re speaking at is quite slow and very easy to follow in my opinion. I don’t know if Ben slows down deliberately sometimes or if his Spanish is just very intelligible in general, but for the learner it’s very helpful. I’ve never used the worksheets they sell but I don’t doubt they’re very helpful as well and worth the investment.

(As a side note, paying for authentic content that’s prepared for language learners is usually a good idea.)

In any case, I wholeheartedly recommend this for any level. I often listen to the same podcast twice to catch certain phrases or expressions that I didn’t pay attention to the first time. You can find them here:

www.notesinspanish.com

Visualpolitik

This is a Youtube channel one of my teachers recommended to me. Since I’m very into current affairs and politics/economics, this is an absolutely brilliant resource for me.

The videos are around 20 minutes long and deal with interesting current political topics from around the world. The beautiful thing is that the videos shine a light onto topics that you maybe weren’t quite so familiar with but explain them to you in a very accessible way. Think The Economist but easier to understand and not necessarily requiring any prior knowledge of the topic.

The language is heavier on vocabulary that you use to talk about political or economic topics. Since it’s not explicitly designed for language learners, we’re already in authentic material territory and some of the hosts can speak quite fast. By now I understand almost everything but I have to focus on the video and find it hard to have it just running in the background. When I want to put in some deliberate practice, I watch the video or parts of it for a second time and jot down expressions that I consider interesting or useful.

As a rule, this is a very good way of learning any language. Pick a topic you’re interested in and learn it in the new language. It shouldn’t be too difficult or the lingo will impede your learning too much but it’s helpful if you actually learn something new because it engages your brain. I’ve learned things about South America that I didn’t know and wouldn’t have known about without this channel. This works very well with Youtube because you can find almost any topic on there and practice listening comprehension.

El País

This is just a short recommendation because I don’t read it regularly but still found it useful enough. El País is a Spanish newspaper a la The Guardian. You can, of course, just read the news but I sometimes browse the science or technology or culture section just to see if something catches my attention and then read an article. Again, pick something you like and do as much as feels rewarding and not a chore. That way, you keep the learning experience fun.

La Casa de Papel

My last item on the list is the famous Spanish TV series Casa de Papel. To be honest, I haven’t gotten past two or three episodes because I was just starting to watch it when my interest waned for the last time. I do intend to pick it up again though.

TV series or movies are probably the pinnacle of learning because they’re the closest you get to real-life interaction. It includes verbal and non-verbal communication, different speaking tempos, accents, slang and so forth. I still find it quite hard to follow the series, especially without subtitles, but it’s on my list in the near future to get the listening comprehension up to the highest level.

I generally don’t do anything particular work here because the brain is busy enough with connecting the audio with what you’re seeing on the screen. I’d recommend turning Spanish subtitles on as long as you don’t feel like you understand enough to follow the plot without them. If there’s a really interesting expression or something where I feel like something flew over my head, I’d pause and look it up, but otherwise just let it run and enjoy the entertainment.

Conclusion

As you can see, the list isn’t too extensive. There’s no point in engaging with dozens of different resources, better pick a few tried and tested ones and stick with them and re-listen/watch them. Otherwise you’re spreading yourself too thin. That’s why you can safely ignore any “The best 77 resources for…” posts. Ain’t nobody got time to do all that shit.

All my picks are for Iberian Spanish, if you want to learn Latin American Spanish, you’ll have to do a bit of your own research.

Lastly, you’ll see that I do not have too much “real learning stuff” on there. I really recommend only one book (or series thereof), the rest are complementary materials. Again, less is more and you should try to keep it simple and keep your library lean. Better to go over something that you haven’t understood with the same source material than doing it with something else.

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