How To Teach Yourself Spanish

Have you ever wished you were fluent in Spanish? You know, to make yourself more marketable in the work place, impress your friends, be able to communicate with the locals when you travel, or just for the sheer joy of becoming bilingual?

My day job is high school Spanish teacher, and I constantly get this question: "what's the best way to learn Spanish [without taking classes]?" Well, I have good news for you. It doesn't require much (if any) money to teach yourself fluent Spanish, but it does take a bit of a time commitment. I became fluent in one year, almost accidentally. Allow me to explain.

I took two years of high school Spanish, like you probably did as well. When I started college, it had been two years since my last Spanish class, and I barely remembered anything. (Nor did I really care at that point--I was an English major, intent upon making a living by writing.) My contact with Spanish had been fun in high school, but definitely not life-changing, and I'd never been able to carry on a conversation with an actual Spanish speaker, even when the textbook Spanish was still fresh in my mind after my sophomore year in high school.

During college, I dated a guy who was Puerto Rican, fluent in both Spanish and English. At his apartment one night, I discovered "Univision," a U.S.-based TV channel whose target audience is Latinos living in the U.S. They air soap operas ("telenovelas," literally "TV novels,") produced in Spanish-speaking countries, and I was fascinated by them. I tried to see if I could understand anything, asked my boyfriend for a bit of translation here and there, and then back at my own place, I tuned my TV set to Univision and started watching a Venezuelan soap opera just out of sheer curiosity.

Within a couple of episodes, I was hooked. I wanted to try to figure out what everyone was saying just for the fun of it; plus, I wanted to know who these attractive people were and what all the drama was about. I started watching that soap every night--it was called Pobre Diabla, with the Venezuelan actress Jeannette Rodriguez in the lead role. She was captivating. I loved her hair and makeup. And her love interest, Ariel (played by Uruguayan actor Osvaldo Laport,) had me going ga-ga.

When Pobre Diabla ended a couple of months later, I started watching the soap that took its evening prime time slot, El Desprecio, another Venezuelan soap. That one lasted about nine months, so between the two, I had been watching soaps every weeknight for about a year.

My understanding of what was going on increased gradually night after night, until eventually I felt I was understanding a good 80-85% of what was being said. With my new interest in learning Spanish, I decided to add a Spanish minor to my English degree, and went to the Foreign Language department at my university to take the Spanish placement test so I could enroll in their program.

I was hoping to maybe skip level 1 and test into level 2 Spanish, but the placement test (to my utter shock) put me in third-year college Spanish. I was told that the lowest level class I was allowed to take was "Advanced Spanish Composition," and I panicked. "I don't speak Spanish," I told the lab assistant who scored my exam. "Well," he said, "according to this test, you're fluent. You made a 100%." My jaw dropped. The test hadn't been easy, and I'd mostly gone with what sounded right in my head. I certainly didn't feel as though I was acing it as I answered the questions.

So, I went to the first day of "Advanced Spanish Composition" with fear and trembling. I felt like a fraud, and soon everyone would know it, because I did not speak Spanish. The professor came in, a native of Colombia, and began introducing herself in Spanish, then went over the basics of the course.

A bit of relief washed over me. I could understand her pretty darn well.

Then she said (in Spanish,) "Okay, let's go around the room and introduce ourselves, say why we're in this class. You first," she said to the person sitting in front of me. My heart raced, my palms started sweating, and I gulped as my classmate introduced herself in Spanish.

Then it was my turn. I opened my mouth. Spanish came out. I was freaking dumbfounded.

I had sat there watching my nightly TV while eating dinner, slowly but steadily becoming fluent in Spanish.

So here's what you do if you want to replicate my results.

The Steps to Teaching Yourself Spanish

1. Get on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, or some other streaming service and find yourself a telenovela. If you're on a strict budget and can't afford those services, you can also find telenovelas on Youtube, but the quality, completeness, and selection will be sketchier. You can also use a TV antennae to pick up Univision (and a few other Spanish channels in some areas.) The only downside to watching it this way is that you'll need to be there every weeknight at the same time to watch. Back in the day, that worked well for me because I ran the same routine pretty much every weeknight, of eating dinner in front of the TV at 6:00.

On your streaming service, you should be able to read the description of each telenovela in English so that you can pick one that sounds interesting. If your streaming service doesn't have a description in English, look up the telenovela's title online. Almost all popular soaps have Wikipedia pages in English.

If you need some ideas for good telenovelas, here are some of my all-time favorites:

La fea más bella (an Ugly Betty-inspired story with the talented Angelica Vale and Jaime Camil)
Yo amo a Juan Querendon (with the hilarious, talented, hot Eduardo Santamarina in the lead in a sort of redneck-in-the-big-city role.)
Un gancho al corazón (with the drool-worthy Sebastian Rulli. OMG. Just Google him.)
Al diablo con los guapos (Crazy, funny, annoying, with plenty of twists and turns. Poor girl/rich guy plot, very common in Latino soaps.)
Abismo de pasión (dark, kind of scary, completely captivating.)

You want to go for a Mexican telenovela rather than a Venezuelan or Spanish one (from Spain.) They are higher quality, with better budgets and some truly talented acting, plus the main reason: Mexicans are easier to understand. They enunciate better and speak slower than Spaniards or Venezuelans.

2. Set aside some time each night to watch, starting with episode 1. That's all you have to do, is watch. No subtitles. Let your ear train itself to understand the Spanish without the distraction of reading subtitles. Making/eating dinner while watching is fine, and that way you can multitask.

3. Figure out people's names. This should happen relatively quickly. You'll probably figure out the main characters' names in the first episode. Once you have names down, you'll be able to separate those words from the rest of the sentences, and you'll have at least some starting point for understanding what's going on, for who's talking about whom.

4. Figure out the relationship connections, who is whose mom, child, girlfriend, spouse. Some of this will be obvious in the first episode, where they will spend some time setting up the plot. For that reason, the first episode is crucial. Try not to jump into the middle of a telenovela if you can help it (may be hard to avoid if you're watching it with the TV antennae option.)

5. At some point, you'll probably want to start looking up recurring words. I remember when the word "empresa" started jumping out at me during a soap. "Empresa" this and "empresa" that. (It means company, as in, a business.) When a word you don't know starts getting repeated enough that you notice it, it's a key word to the plot of that soap opera, and you can look it up (but don't distract yourself by trying to look up every word you hear, please! Just let the Spanish come to you, somewhat passively for the most part.) 

Speaking of which, I recommend getting a Spanish dictionary app on your phone. I like Word Magic, which I paid $7.99 for a few years ago (but I think there is a free version as well?) It will pronounce words for you and has several features I use constantly.

6. Give it some time. At first, most of what you hear will sound like gobbledy-gook except for names and a few high school Spanish phrases like "Hola. ¿Cómo estás?" but be patient and hang in there. Words will start coming to you one by one, as if through a narrow tube of understanding. For me, that imaginary word-tube was narrow for about 6 months, but then it widened suddenly, at some point during El desprecio (my second soap.) When it widens and you start understanding whole chunks of conversations, it's really, really cool. Soon after that, you'll notice that you just understood an entire scene or two. And eventually, you'll be understanding a good 80-85% of what goes on. Keep watching, and that percentage will continue to rise.

Spanish movies, radio, or individual TV shows that aren't in a series do not work the same way. The magic of the telenovela is that it's a long series with the same characters, it's visual, and it's very repetitive. A dramatic event will happen, and then the key players will go and tell other people what just happened for a few more scenes. So you'll get present and past tenses, as well as future, conditional, and subjunctive, everything in context so you can acquire the language rather than study rules and then forget them. To me, it's the closest thing to being able to go spend time in a Spanish-speaking country to learn the language.

So that's it. No notes, no textbooks, no homework. Just good, juicy soap opera watching. I was able to get a minor in Spanish with only three Spanish classes in college--Advanced Composition, Advanced Conversation, and a Spanish Lit class. I turned that minor into a career that pays the bills while I write novels on the side.

Not a bad return for the 1 year investment of watching Spanish TV.