Best means to learn a second language (Spanish)?
December 9, 2015 6:50 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone used online tutors or services that they had positive experience with? I tried to use Rosetta Stone but didn't find it helpful because I think I may need more personal teachings. I have found some online "tutors" but am skeptical of their services. I know VERY BASIC spanish, and am looking to learn more and be able to converse and understand better... My child's father is Spanish and it is important for me to learn to communicate with his family and with our daughter together. I live in the DC area if anyone knows of local resources. My preference would be online or something I can do in home at first since we have a new baby, there isn't much time to get out during the week with working full time.
posted by MamaBee223 to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
sorry if this is obvious or impractical, but i would have thought by far the best way was to talk in spanish with the father. my understanding is that continuous practice with native speakers is the best way to learn.

in my case, i also added lessons when there was something very specific i wanted to learn (the subjunctive), and went to a phonologist (or audiologist, i can't remember what the difference is) when i wanted to improve my accent. in both cases they were fairly short, focussed courses.
posted by andrewcooke at 7:08 AM on December 9, 2015

I've been using Duolingo to learn Spanish (I have to pass a reading exam for my masters' program) for about two years and it seems to have worked pretty well; I can at least read Spanish-language websites now, and I was starting from 0. Duolingo has versions both in an app and in a browser, and it's nice to be able to bop from one to the other.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 7:10 AM on December 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I should have mentioned the father isn't completely fluent (his family who lives in Panama is), he can understand everything but speaking is a english/spanish mix so he would benefit from a little, he can translate for me but doesn't know some words so we would both benefit from it.
posted by MamaBee223 at 7:13 AM on December 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Andrewcooke, where did you go for your lessons? Tutor?
posted by MamaBee223 at 7:14 AM on December 9, 2015

the lessons for the subjunctive were a nightclass in edinburgh (i cannot remember who was running the course, but i somehow got the teacher's name and contacted her, asking what class would be suitable, and entered in the middle of some longer term class for a month or two).

the phonologist or audiologist was more recent, and usually dealt with (chilean) children with speaking difficulties. she was very good.

you can buy books with english on one page and spanish on another. or just read spanish books if you want to dive in, armed with a dictionary (despite what they say about him being difficult, i always found borges to be easy to read - his language is clear, it's the "ideas" that are "hard") (i don't know you from adam - this advice only makes sense if you're the kind of person that would enjoy reading borges anyway!). if you're in the usa i guess you can get spanish language tv? early morning news programs often have text captions that help understand what's being discussed. suerte!
posted by andrewcooke at 7:28 AM on December 9, 2015

I'm currently using a mix of duolingo and Memrise. Duolingo, at least, will let you test out of topics. Memrise is annoying, but quiet on the bus. UTalk has pictures. None of these is going to be as good as actually talking to people. I was starting from zero, so I can't speak to how well they'll do if you already know something.

There also is the possibility of online coursework. For example, my university offers SPAN 317, advanced Spanish grammar, as an online course next semester. I imagine other universities might offer other possibly more suitable courses online as well.
posted by leahwrenn at 7:30 AM on December 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Reading the news in Spanish, especially about stories you already know, could give you a pretty solid background in grammar and vocabulary and increase your exposure to correct/accepted forms of the language, and also is probably a bit more full of the academic language that you might be lacking. Spanish and English aren't so far apart that you couldn't scan an article and get the main ideas about who/what/where just from shared Latin-root words.

Reading also helps you see the sounds you're hearing when someone speaks, which might make it easier to follow later on. You'll also pick up the appropriate register/tone/style for what you want to say - a gossipy story on a celebrity or politician will sound different from a dry economic report.

Check out the Washington Post's El Tiempo Latino for local stuff, or listen and read along with News in Slow Spanish's excellent (but not free...) site.

I took a low-commitment/low-intensity approach (online reading, a few online flash cards I made, and a monthly magazine I read and plowed through) to learning Polish when I lived there a few years ago and the depth and breadth of my vocabulary - though not my grammar, it must be said - was pretty impressive compared to my peers who only went to once-a-week classes. You have to raise your level of exposure to a language to give yourself time to notice and identify patterns, or dissuade you of misconceptions.
posted by mdonley at 7:30 AM on December 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm currently learning a second language (Chinese) via courses and immersion, BUT I've found Fluent U (I've linked the Spanish section for you) to be a great supplement. It has lots of videos to watch plus interactive subtitles so that you're not just passively watching. There are also tons of awesome podcasts for learning languages, complete with worksheets and vocab posted online that can then help with the listening portions.
posted by thebots at 8:05 AM on December 9, 2015

I use Duolingo, but it's a hobby. I don't know if it would be good for someone who's looking for fluency. It could take a while unless you're committed to spending serious time on it. I do think it seems to work - I took a break for a month or two, and immediately picked back up where I left off. But I've been doing it for a few months and I can't even read a newspaper in German yet.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:07 AM on December 9, 2015

You could possibly enroll in a MOOC? (Free online university course). There are hundreds to be found via google, it's learn at your own pace, etc. You'll have to be motivated enough to self-study and the one time I tried to take a language MOOC I found it boring as hell.

This can be supplemented with Duolingo, which I find fun, but not good enough to help you become fluent unless you devote a LOT of time to it. One thing I like about Duolingo is that you can set practice goals and reminder otifications to practice.
posted by Brittanie at 8:31 AM on December 9, 2015

NYT article on the pros and cons of some online peer-to-peer language learning and language tutoring services.
posted by scrambles at 8:37 AM on December 9, 2015

Seconding TV.

My mother spoke no English when she met my father, his German was so bad, she asked someone what language he was speaking. My sister translated for them when she was a tot. Mom swears she learned fluent English largely by watching TV.

But don't necessarily watch the News. See if you can find the Spanish equivalent of soap operas or something. You want people talking about normal things. I know conversational German and cannot follow the News in German. Too many official, technical words that I don't know. But I did fine talking with actual human beings about day-to-day things when living in Germany. I also was able to do things like order food in the restaurants and chat with the waiter and so on.
posted by Michele in California at 1:41 PM on December 9, 2015

I'm sorry, is his family actually Spanish or from Panama? Spanish speaking is not the same as Spanish. The language and the advice will change depending on where they are from.
posted by Promethea at 3:29 PM on December 9, 2015

I have used an online tutoring service-- I actually used them in person on a trip to South America and then continued for a while online via Skype. The organization I have experience with is Yanapuma, out of Ecuador. That said, if you're doing this specifically to speak to Panamanians, it might be good to find tutors out of Panama because of regional differences and accents. Most online tutoring agencies seem to have a free session that they offer so you can try it out.

Duolingo is also great. Honestly, if you know very little I would start there and then do the tutoring and TV watching (I personally never found tv to be all that useful until I was pretty decent at Spanish and could understand a good deal of it already but ymmv obviously) when you have a little more under your belt. However if the cost isn't a huge concern, then an online tutor certainly couldn't hurt.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:37 PM on December 9, 2015

Pimsleur CDs are really good for self-study.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:52 PM on December 9, 2015

Spanish language movies with the subtitles in Spanish, not English.
posted by Che boludo! at 5:12 PM on December 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty sure Mango languages is available through the DC public library - could be another option to mix it up with Duolingo on the go.
posted by NikitaNikita at 5:48 PM on December 9, 2015

Netflix has a metric butt-load of Novellas. I'm engrossed with Sin Senos No Hay Parsiso. They are subtitled, and to me, this is a painless way to get syntax, vocabulary and pronounciaton.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:38 PM on December 9, 2015

I'm going to strongly disagree with a lot of the advice above. I don't think that watching tv will really help you until you have a strong base in the language, or are already immersed; and while there's a lot I like about DuoLingo but I don't think it will get you very far. And don't let your experience with Rosetta Stone get you down - that program possible the worst reputations of any of the main language learning programs.

It's going to take some time to really learn a new language as an adult. The Foreign Service Institute - the guys who train American diplomats - estimate that it takes about 300 hours of class study to reach limited proficiency (able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements) and another 150 hours of homework - and this is for people who are smart and motivated. If you're serious about learning a second language you are going to need to dedicate some real time!

I'm putting those numbers out there not to stress you out, but to help you relax and take it easy. I've had a lot of friends quit language learning after a month or two because they were frustrated at their lack of progress, when in fact they were right on target, & just seriously underestimating the time needed to become proficient. Putting in some time every day - and I do mean every single day - will add up in the end!

I like studying languages a lot; here are some of my favorite resources. Take your pick.

Step 1: Overview

*** Language Transfer - a free audio course that will walk you through the basics of Spanish. It's a great way to get a general overview of the language before diving in to the details. I'd highly recommend starting here.

Michel Thomas - Similar to Language Transfer. About $90.


*** Pimsleur sets the gold standard here. They are all audio tapes that really help in developing a good accent and being able to speak automatically. However, it's an expensive course to buy, and libraries often only carry the introductory 8 lessons. The only affordable way I've found is to buy credits when they're on sale at & use them for the course. On Amazon: $200 / level. Using credits: about $60 per level.

I've played around with some of the other self-talk courses, but none come close in quality to Pimsleur.

Grammar - There are a lot of choices here.

FSI Spanish Basic is the course the State Department developed to train American diplomats. It's hard core, and it's free to download. I think there are about 45 hours of recordings and I don't know how many hundreds of pages between the four volumes. It definitely requires a real commitment, and you need to be the type who finds doing drill after drill rewarding. Amazing, but not for everyone.

Living Language Spanish
- I think this one has the best cost/benefit ration of the popular courses. Claims to take you to an 'advanced' level, which is nonsense - but it's a very solid and user-friendly beginners' course. About $32 on Amazon.


*** Assimil Spanish with Ease - A great and unique series out of France. The Spanish course, along with a few other languages, comes with an English base. Each of the 100 lessons is a short humorous conversation. You listen to the French while reading the English. Then listen to the French while reading the French. Then just read the text and try to understand it. Then listen to the French again.

For the first couple months that's it - you just read and listen for 20-30" a day. The idea is that you will passively assimilate the basics of the language. After lesson 50 you restart the lessons, but do them 'actively' - working through the exercises and trying to reproduce the dialogue yourself. About 70 euro for the course pack (book + audio); sometimes available used.


There are all kinds of theories on whether it's better to focus on speaking first, or reading, or grammar, etc. I really don't think it matters as long as whatever you're doing motivates you. In the end it will all add up, and the best programs are the ones that you will actually enjoy using day after day.

Once you have a strong base then you can start using more native materials, or engaging in skype conversations, doing exchanges on lang8, watching movies and tv, etc.


*** One last one to watch: Lingvist has put out an amazing 'next generation' online learning course for French, and they say that Spanish is coming soon. Currently free, though that might change.
posted by kanewai at 5:47 PM on December 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

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