How do you learn a foreign language for free, without native speakers?
September 25, 2016 9:51 AM   Subscribe

I have intermittently tried to learn Spanish for years, and now I am taking it more seriously again. My question now is, how can I advance myself to the next level, without any consistent access to native speakers? Ideally I would like to do this for free, but low cost is also okay.

A little more context may be useful. I am now in my 30s. I first studied Spanish for several years in high school. Six years later I did some serious independent study of grammar and passed a reading exam with a dictionary. Over a decade later, after having little regular use of the language, I found myself incredibly rusty. So, I have been using duolingo for about a year to try to review and build vocabulary. I have finished the Spanish tree once and am now nearly finishing it a second time. I also have been watching some DVDs of movies that are dubbed into Spanish, with various permutations of English and Spanish subtitles on. I also subscribed to People magazine is Spanish.

I realize that I am far from fluent at this point, and I feel like I am reaching a plateau with the strategies that I have been using. I am guessing that I am now in the A2-B1 range, as that is about where duolingo maxes out. So what do I do next?

I know that immersion among native speakers is a gold standard, and I don't need persuasion of the merits of that approach. But the reality is that I have scant access to native speakers in person, as I am in a small town. I suppose that I could pay for an online tutor, but that would get expensive quickly.

Do you have any suggestions for what to do to improve my Spanish that would be free or low cost? If I need to pay for a tutor or an online course, what would you recommend that is affordable? Do you have success stories to share? If so, what worked for you?
posted by mortaddams to Education (21 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Skype, irc, reddit, and spanish forums, maybe?
posted by I-baLL at 9:54 AM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

In addition to doing lessons at Duolingo, you can connect with others on their Spanish forum and in the Duolingo Spanish Learners Facebook group. WeSpeke is also a free resource for practicing with native speakers.
posted by neushoorn at 10:05 AM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

News in Slow Spanish or Spanish language streaming radio programs (like Caracol Radio out of Colombia)

Also there is almost always a pocket somewhere near you of Spanish speaking community, and with the way they are treated in the US, they often need social services. My cousin advocated and worked to help Spanish-speaking immigrants who work in meat-processing facilities in rural Georgia. Look into volunteering for Planned Parenthood or other social services, you may find unseen networks of Spanish language speakers there.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 10:09 AM on September 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

I have a pretty good teacher and I thinks she's relatively inexpensive.

Aldo, there is some research showing that watching Spanish movies with subtitles in Spanish or any other language is the most effective way to learn outside of immersion.

You can memail me if you want the contact info for my teacher.
posted by Che boludo! at 10:10 AM on September 25, 2016

You're already watching movies, but you should also be listening to spanish language music! Singing along totally counts as practicing speaking.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:12 AM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

For listening to music, what do you all recommend? Is there a good Spanish-language radio station that you recommend, streamable with fun pop songs?
posted by mortaddams at 10:14 AM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've never tried this, but I've seen it posted around on various places, Conversation exchange! you skype with someone who would like to practice their english, and they will practice your spanish with you.

I've been learning portuguese, and I have liked listening to podcasts lately, as it's a different experience with no visuals or anything to hint towards what they're talking about.
posted by euphoria066 at 10:16 AM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

One thing you miss be consuming media is practice making up the sentences yourself. Try keeping a blog in Spanish. Or writing short stories in Spanish.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:20 AM on September 25, 2016

Read books in spanish, start with spanish readers-simple basic kid books. I have found that to be helpful. Google play books app gives you the option to highlight a word and look up its translation right on the page. That will help your vocabulary pretty much.
posted by metajim at 11:55 AM on September 25, 2016

Basically, you can't. I studied Russian on my own for many years and got to a high level of competency in reading and writing, but I couldn't speak the language or understand what others were saying until I actually started speaking it with native speakers.

However, you don't need immersion, you just need access to native speakers. There are a lot of websites like Conversation Exchange above where you can Skype with someone and practice your Spanish and in turn help them with English. I've found this to be a good way of keeping in practice and improving my spoken Russian.

Movies are usually really, really difficult from a listening comprehension point of view as the speech tends to be highly context sensitive, or actors often don't speak clearly or other sounds going on can mask what they are saying. I still sometimes have trouble understanding what people are saying in Russian movies, but I understand people in person absolutely fine. I suggest watching Youtube videos, especially where somebody is explaining something, as they tend to be closer to how people speak in real life and much easier to understand than movies.
posted by pravit at 12:21 PM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

What pravit says. To learn to speak you need to speak, and thus need other speakers of the language to speak with. Improving reading and listening will help you prepare for learning to speak.

I can speak both German and Spanish passably well. With German I first learned to read, which I did okay at for years without being able to actively say much in the spoken language. With the advent of internet I started watching TV from Germany and listening to German radio, and I learned to understand spoken German. Eventually I hired a private tutor for conversation lessons and only after working with him for a while did I become comfortable actually speaking.

With Spanish, however, I hired a conversation tutor more or less off the bat, with just a little knowledge of the grammar. Concurrently I watched a hell of a lot of Spanish language TV. And learned to speak pretty well as a result of the two. My spoken Spanish is noticeably better than my spoken German, although I've read many more books in German than in Spanish.

As for specific resources, RTVE (Spanish state TV & radio) has lots of great series, newscasts and other shows. (Unfortunately, for some of the series an internet location in Spain has recently become required, which you need a VPN to get around. But it's totally worth it for Amar en Tiempos Revueltos alone, a telenovela that is some of the best TV I've seen in any language.) There is also EITB, which has great news and documentaries, doesn't require any VPN, and from which you'll be exposed to the fascinating culture of the Basques.

If you want to just get some hours in quasi-speaking, there is a useful course based on oral audio drills from the U.S. Foreign Service Institute that's free to use. (Spanish Basic.) Some of the grammar may be obvious to you, but sitting there and doing the many drills is the closest you can come to speaking without having a speaking partner. And there is a wise adage that language learning is over-learning. The aim is to turn grammatical and lexical knowledge into instinct.

Finally, do reconsider about getting a tutor through skype. It doesn't have to be that expensive; remember some of the tutors are based in places with relatively low costs of living. If you want a recommendation, memail me; the person who taught me Spanish does skype.

Best of luck.
posted by bertran at 3:36 PM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pimsleur is expensive, but will get you talking, which will help a lot. You might be able to borrow it through your library.

It helps to think of language aquisition as separate skills: reading, listening, writing and speaking. They are quite different, and whilst they are obviously interrelated, you need practice each one.
posted by kjs4 at 6:09 PM on September 25, 2016

Instead of English dubbed into Spanish, watch Spanish-language stuff with English subtitles.

The series Narcos on Netflix has actually done wonders for me picking up Spanish again.
posted by erst at 6:16 PM on September 25, 2016

I'm interested in language learning too. Pimsleur is really good, I like it.

For the writing part, I like this site lang-8. It doesn't have every language but it does have Spanish. You can write stuff up and native speakers will give you corrections. In return you can go and correct people's English writing. I think a lot of people are using it for their homework but it seems to be a really cool concept.

I haven't done much on it yet, but a lot of people use Memrise app for additional courses after Duolingo.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:19 PM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

My Aussie wife is learning Spanish, and she recently found that Netflix has some European Spanish series. She's currently watching Gran Hotel, which is a soap opera dressed up as a drama, and enjoying the fact that she can understand it better than other films we watch.

Seconding and, and not all of the content requires a VPN. I've been watching "Los misterios de Laura", which is an ok-ish police procedural with elements of comedy. It was available with an Australian IP last time I checked. Note that the format has been re-made in the US, and the American version is restricted.

My advice, and I learned two languages this way, is to watch things more than once, and repeat them back to the TV the second, third times. Like you're acting, imitating the accent and intonation as well as saying the words. Subtitles help.
posted by kandinski at 6:32 PM on September 25, 2016

I can't remember where I found this but I found a forum where you can find a skype buddy from somewhere else in the world who wants to practice English, and they will help you in return practice Spanish. It's a little awkward at first, especially if you both aren't too fluent at the language, but I ended up talking to a guy for a few months and we had some really funny and good conversations. It's free, and it's a really great way to practice and also help someone else.
posted by oracleia at 8:29 PM on September 25, 2016

Google 'language exchange'.

I went to Spain for a month this spring in part to begin turning my Spanish learning into conversation. Biggest obstacle was not recognizing what was said. I knew the words, but between their volume, rhythm, enunciation, dropped word endings and accent I didn't hear those words. Now I listen to Spanish language media on a player with speed control. I'm working on hearing Spanish independent of understanding. Most of my prior learning was about understanding written Spanish.
posted by Homer42 at 8:34 PM on September 25, 2016

For reading, you can get the Univision app and read the day's headline stories. The style and rhythm of the reporting is very similar to English-language American reporting so it's relatively easy to follow -- you know what sorts of details are coming up which helps with unfamiliar words, and it's a lot of what people are likely to be currently discussing with attendant vocabulary. Helps a lot with listening to news or sports radio (or TV) since you've been actively reading the vocabulary.

A good friend who is Norwegian remarked that his kindle sent his English skills zooming through the roof because he could read English-language popular fiction (and classic cultural touchstones, for that matter) and tap on any word to get the Norwegian definition. While his social and business English were very good, he said it sent his vocabulary and idiomatic English skills soaring, while helping a lot with cultural referents and making reading for pleasure a lot more pleasant than doing it with a dictionary or missing half the adjectives. Amazon has a pretty robust Spanish-language selection in genre fiction so you can pick stuff you like.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:00 PM on September 25, 2016

I agree that a native speaker is the best way to warm up your oral skills and get talking. I like to listen to the radio or watch foreign-language films with English subtitles. Sometimes I watch kids shows and cartoons if my brain is feeling a bit fried.

When I was learning Chinese I made a point of keeping a small pocket-sized notebook with me where I wrote all my new words and phrases. When I learned a new turn of phrase, caught myself in a grammatical error, learned a new word or wanted to write down a word to look up in the dictionary later, I wrote it down in that book. When I have down time (waiting in line, working out, etc) I would flip through the book and review. It was very helpful because there were always so many moments in the day when I was learning something new but would forget it if I didn't have a pen and paper handy. This was particularly useful when living in China because I could ask native speakers to write down words/characters for me (most people would oblige forgivingly).
posted by mmmleaf at 10:16 PM on September 25, 2016 for very quick writing corrections

Speaking-- the Facebook group lenguajero has hooked me up with a few Skype pals. There's also and a few others. Also, have you actually looked into Skype tutoring? Many of the tutors based in countries with a favorable exchange rate for the US (if you're in the US)--Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala-- are fairly affordable.

Music-- I tend to just listen to Latin American Spotify channels and go from there in discovering new artists. I like the Latin alternative/Latin indie channel but this is going to depend on your personal preferences.

TV-- if you use Netflix there is an option to browse all Spanish language TV. I am working my way through the Mexican telenovela Teresa with spanish subtitles on, but there are other options obviously.
posted by geegollygosh at 4:43 AM on September 26, 2016

There are many Spanish speakers who will want to talk to you so they can learn English. I'd suggest looking on italki. They have a big section with message boards to find language exchange partners. They also have paid teachers who you can take lessons from.

I'm learning to teach English as a Foreign language and I have gotten my practice students from there.

You can also post writing and ask native speakers to correct it.
posted by Melsky at 9:13 AM on December 3, 2016

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