How to learn languages, from home, from zero knowledge to fluency.
September 7, 2007 11:53 AM   Subscribe

I only know English but I've decided I'd like to be fluent in other languages (reading, writing, and speaking). I've decided to start with Spanish. I'm looking for success stories of people who have learned a language (and Spanish in particular) from scratch, at home, and have become as fluent as possible without being immersed in a Spanish-speaking country.

I was hoping there would be one good program that would allow me to do this, but I'm realizing that it isn't that simple. Here's what I know of so far that might be useful:

- Rosetta Stone [software] -- seems to be good for vocabularly and pronunciation, but lacking on grammar and conversation
- Tell Me More [software] -- I've heard mixed reviews about this, and it seems that you need some basic knowledge of the language beforehand, but it sounds like it's very good for pronunciation
- Pimsleur [audio CDs w/ some text] -- sounds like it's good for conversation and pronunciation, but doesn't get very advanced
- Barron / FSI [audio CDs w/ some text] -- same pros/cons as Pimsleur
- SuperMemo [software] -- good for vocabularly and basic grammar drills
- flash cards -- same usefulness as SuperMemo, but can be used anywhere -- not sure what are the best available collections
- textbooks -- good for the "rules of the language" such as grammar, conjugation, tenses, irregular verbs, etc. -- not sure what are the best available

I'm serious about learning effectively, so assume that the cost of the things listed above is no object. However, I can't afford a personal tutor and I don't wish to enroll in a classroom course.

What's the best combination of the above?
Should I complete some programs first, before moving on to the others, or should I do them concurrently?
How far can all this really get me, and in how much time (at, say, an hour a day)?
Can I really NOT become conversationally fluent until I'm immersed in a Spanish-speaking country for some time?

If you've successfully used a combination of the above programs to become fluent (or nearly fluent) in a language (especially Spanish) from scratch, I could really use your help here! There are so many options and they all have pros and cons, and mixed reviews.

I need to know what constitues a complete package that will get me to where I want to be.

Thanks in advance.
posted by debacle to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
There's also Destinos. Did you try looking for previous Ask Mefi threads? I ask because I believe I learned about that here.
posted by vacapinta at 11:56 AM on September 7, 2007

Response by poster: Yes I've done several hours of research, including browsing the previous questions here. There are many many suggestions of programs that help with certain aspects, but none of them appear to be a complete package, and they all have their own pros and cons. Since I can't seem to figure out the best thing to do based on this research, I've had to ask my own question here.

As for Destinos, I did forget to mention that one... The fact that it appears to be just an "introduction" to the language is a little discouraging.
posted by debacle at 12:01 PM on September 7, 2007

How will you know when you're fluent, if you're doing this purely on your own? Do you interact with Spanish speakers in your daily life? If so, pick one or two of your choices (a book + a CD?), and then start talking with native speakers. You can't wait until you think you're "fluent" to start using the language. You have to use it as much as possible and not be afraid to make lots of mistakes.
posted by Joleta at 12:03 PM on September 7, 2007

Response by poster: Joleta: So you're saying that no program can have conversational drills that are good enough to be even a passable substitue for talking with native speakers...? OK, that's good to know - I need to know what kind of results I can realistically expect.
posted by debacle at 12:10 PM on September 7, 2007

Well, you shouldn't settle for those results - go find a native speaker!
posted by phrontist at 12:13 PM on September 7, 2007

Best answer: I'd lower my expectations. Being your first time learning a foreign language, becoming fluent without immersion or intensive tutoring takes years and you'll need all the practice you can get. Destinos sounds great and forgive me, but it looks like an introduction is exactly what you need. After you've learned the nuts & bolts, you'll have a solid basis to go on to the more complex grammar and to enhance your vocabulary - and for that you should read spanish books, watch movies and soap operas. But as for the actual speaking, I personally think there's nothing better than a classroom course.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 12:21 PM on September 7, 2007

Intended as a serious answer, not a put-down: You're wasting valuable time messing around on this message board. We strangers can't promise you any specific results. I've studied several languages and I have chaotically different levels of expertise in each one -- but they're all great if you're into languages. Get out there, find a Spanish class (seconding Lucia's post) -- and start having some fun!
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:33 PM on September 7, 2007

Unless you have a particular genius for language there is no really effective way to learn it on your own without a native speaker with whom you can practice. I learned Mandarin in 4 months, but I was in China, and the reason I did so well (aside from my huge brain, j/k) was that I was in class with other people 5 hours a day, and immediately afterwards I was outside and using it on native speakers.

In my opinion, there is no effective substitute for immersion and a lot of brain sweat. I cannot imagine you would be doing anything other then wasting your time going for fluency using software on your own. Enroll in a class and then try to find native speakers and talk to them, it will be far more effective.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:45 PM on September 7, 2007

Best answer: I could have written this question. I've tried a few of the options you mentioned for Spanish. Pimsleur is ok. You get very good at a very limited vocabulary. If you actually try to use your Spanish, you get in trouble fast. It's about 30 mins per day, and I would do each lesson twice. So that took about 2 months. It's pretty expensive, about $200-$300.

I personally couldn't deal with Rosetta Stone. It was so boring... I've tried it a few times, and I only lasted a couple of days.

So, in my latest attempt, I'm currently taking a Spanish I credit course at the local community college. So far, it's great (but only two weeks in). Total immersion classes. It was about $400 for a semester, and then $140+ for the Destinos books (ripoff). That gets me 3 hours of class time a week for 14 weeks, which is very reasonable. Plus homework, and someone to crack the whip if I don't do the work.
posted by smackfu at 12:51 PM on September 7, 2007

The easiest way I've found to get started in Michel Thomas Spanish. He's an awesome teacher. His beginner stuff is amazing, and his advanced stuff is more advanced than you'll get with a lot of other tapes. Five thumbs up!

Also, once you've got a bit of vocab down, read Google News in spanish.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:53 PM on September 7, 2007

RocketSpanish is pretty good. You won't be able to speak like a native just from that (as others have pointed out) but it emphasizes talking, practicing and practical speaking tips. And it's cheap compared to the other ones you mentioned.
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 1:39 PM on September 7, 2007

Might I suggest Coffee Break Spanish. It's a free podcast that does a pretty good job at giving a basic Spanish introduction in an entertaining fashion. By no means is it a way in itself to learn spanish. But it can be one of the MANY sources you should be using.

But seriously. If you want to learn spanish, travel through South America once you get a decent vocabulary. I think that it would be a blast. And depending on your profession, I've heard of people telecommuting from SA over the tubes.
posted by sethwoodworth at 2:33 PM on September 7, 2007

as a former ESL teacher and native Spanish speaker, i can tell you that the one thing that takes people from "can write or read it" to "fluent" is human interaction. much better if in person, but i imagine you can also get good results from correspondence and voice-chatting with people over the computer.

try to find a class, you can probably find a community college nearby that's not very expensive.

and if you want to correspond with a native speaker, my email's in my profile, i'll be more than glad to exchange a few words. best of luck!
posted by papafrita at 6:54 PM on September 7, 2007

I did this for awhile. It was neat. I wanted to improve my French, and I chatted through Skype almost daily with a man in Paris and a woman in the countryside who wanted to improve their English. We would do some things all in French and then switch and do something in English. I stopped only because I now don't have the time to give to it at the right time of day. You should try it - I think you'd really enjoy it. It's an easy way to speak the language with a native speaker, and it's fun!
posted by la petite marie at 9:15 PM on September 7, 2007

I watched Destinos in my high school Spanish classes and trust me, don't buy it. The first several episodes review new vocabulary during the episode and review it again at the end. The writers/producers soon forget to do it and the remaining episodes have no review. Also, the first episodes have simple vocab and the actors speak slowly and annunciate clearly, but that also changes quickly. After the first 8-10 episodes, it becomes a typical Spanish telenovela with lightning-fast talking.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:18 PM on September 7, 2007

You don't need to purchase Destinos, you can watch it on line for free at

Also, Pimsleur can be purchased cheaper (and sold back, I believe) at

Live study with a good teacher is always the best. Langugae exchanges can be great but it helps if the other person has some sense of how to teach their language (more than just saying, "No, no, no, we don't do it that way!")

Good Luck!
posted by emily56 at 5:16 AM on September 8, 2007

Best answer: I have used both Rosetta Stone and Tell Me More. I would not recommend either. Rosetta Stone is so boring, to the point where you dread having to do a session. Tell me more isn't much better, but also has some big problems in the speech recognition department. (For instance, when I used the program in high school we were told to always skip those sessions because they would always lower our scores to no fault of our own.)

I would recommend a college class at a local community college. The first year I took a college spanish course I learned more spanish than I had in all my years of high school combined. For me its all about the forms and tenses of words. Once you master those, it becomes a matter of whether or not you remember vocabulary, not whether or not you know how to form a sentence properly. You will really have to crack the whip however, because it does not come easy.
posted by MaHaGoN at 9:19 AM on September 8, 2007

Two things helped me tremendously when i was learning english.
You can do it only after you have mastered basic grammar.

1)I started reading comic strips in english, The Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes. It's great because they use everyday vocabulary, and the story helps you figure out the words in their context without picking a dictionary. It's much less boring that material intended for learning. It becomes a game when you try to figure why the punchline is funny.
In spanish, try Mafalda.

2)I was watching subtitled english speaking movies all the time. I did the same with japanese. You'll get the pronunciation that way. If you get your pronunciation from regular learning material you'll sound like shit, you'll speak slowly and you won't understand a word. Native speakers can help but naturally they'll tend to speak at a slower pace so that you can have something ressembling communication.
In language tapes they put a lot of effort to have clear pronunciation of every word in real life that's not how it works.
You have to get used to how native speakers actually speak.
With movies you're on your own, you'll have to get what you can from the dialogue.
The subtitles help in verifying that the word you just heard is really the word you thought it was.

All this is much more easier to achieve if you're into the culture of the language you study of course.
posted by SageLeVoid at 11:38 AM on September 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

OK. Three "steps" to learning a language:

1. Learn the pronunciation and writing system to the point where you can look at a new word and pronounce it correctly. For Spanish, this is pretty easy, but for any language, you have to find a native speaker and read some things to them and get their approval of your pronunciation.

2. Learn the grammar system. You should try to find a concise overview of the grammar that gives you a complete sense of what structures can act as a subject, verb phrase, object, adverbial, etc. Memorize verb inflections and irregular verbs. Use flashcards to do this (making them yourself helps -- you can design them the way you like). When you start to understand the grammar system, write some sentences and paragraphs and take them to a native speaker to check them.

3. Build your vocabulary, and learn the "connected speech" pronunciation changes for the language. Flashcards are best for building vocabulary. Blank business cards work great because they're small enough to put in your pocket with a rubber band around them. I go through a stack of 25 cards. If I say the word right (from Spanish to English), then I put a mark on the card in the corner and then turn the card over and put it in the back of the stack so that next time I have to do it the other way around (from English to Spanish). When there are five marks on each side of the card, I consider the word "learned", and put it in another stack of "learned words", and take a new card and put it in the current stack to keep the number at 25. To gain an understanding of connected speech change in the language, you should get some DVDs of movies or TV shows in that language. Turn the subtitles off. Watch until you get to the first sentence. Set the A-B points to repeat playing that sentence over and over. Listen and write the sentence down. Say the sentence over and over until you can say it as fast as they did, with the right pronunciation and intonation. Turn the Spanish subtitles on and check it. Switch to English subtitles and check to see if you understood the meaning. Be aware that sometimes the subtitles don't exactly match what is said, but you should be able to tell when this is happening. Go to the next sentence and do the same thing. After several hundred sentences, you should notice a lot of improvement in your listening ability.

When you get into stage three, you should take every opportunity to have conversations with Spanish speakers.
posted by strangeguitars at 8:19 PM on September 8, 2007 [7 favorites]

Maybe I'm weird, but I loved Rosetta Stone. I did two intensive months of German with it before I moved to Berlin and it helped a lot. Immersion helped me a lot more, but Rosetta was a great start.

I'd try maybe mixing Rosetta Stone and something more conversational like Pimsleur.
posted by atomly at 1:00 AM on September 9, 2007

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