How To Learn Spanish Without A Textbook

When I moved to Spain, my spanish was awful. I’m not exaggerating when I say I didn’t even know how to say “nice to meet you” in a conversation (I had learned it but I didn’t remember). I had taken 3 years (6 months each year, so really 1.5 years) of Spanish in highschool and then a semester in college, but to be honest, it was all kind of a joke. I remember learning bits and pieces, like a few animals (perro, gato), a few irregular verbs (tengo, quiero) and the present tense (hablo, hablas, habla). Y ya esta. That was it.

So getting to Spain was a mild shock for me. Everybody always told me, “ohhh just by living in Spain, you’ll learn spanish. It’ll just take about 3 months.” Well, everyone was lying. Three months into living here and I felt like my Spanish wasn’t improving like I expected. Being an english teacher here means I spend my days speaking english. I have a group of fellow auxiliares and we all speak english together (LOVE YOU GUYS!). My roommate lived in the US for a year and has perfect english. I felt like I was living in an english speaking bubble in Spain and something needed to change! 

Once February rolled around, I was sick of myself not learning as much spanish as I liked. So I decided to make a few small changes that have really made a big difference these past 2 months. And the best part–I’m not sitting somewhere reading a textbook for hours! So here’s the changes I made:

1. Listen to all my music in spanish. ME ENCANTA LA MUSICA DE SHAKIRA!!! Her songs in spanish, in my opinion, are so much better than her english versions. She clearly writes the songs in spanish first, and then “translates” it to english. The translations over to english sometimes actually change the meanings of the songs (a little), and I’ve really enjoyed understanding her spanish versions of songs. Gitana (Gypsy) is one of my favorite songs in spanish, but in english, I don’t like it as much. My first song I learned in spanish was La Tortura…HIGHLY RECOMMEND. 

Anyways, first I listen to the song a few times and try to understand it. Then I listen to it while reading the LETRAS (lyrics). Any words/phrases I don’t understand, I translate and write. After I’m finished learning a song, it gets added to my running playlist and basically drilled into my head. Today, I learned the spanish version of Let It Go. In spanish it’s called Libre Soy which means I am free, so a little different than the english version, but still really fun to learn and a great song.

2. Read magazines in spanish. In my magazines, sometimes I use a pen and write translations and new words in them while reading. But reading magazines has always been fun for me, so I’ve enjoyed reading cosmo each month. And now, I know a lot of the makeup/beauty terminology in spanish which comes in handy when I find myself aimlessly wandering through Sephora and the beauty sections of stores here. Jajaja I’m such a girly-girl.

3. Listen to my students when they talk. With my young students, I learn so much!!! Since they’re only 4-6 years old, their vocabulary is very basic anyways and they aren’t speaking in slang (like my highschoolers) all the time. I teach 2 brothers, twice a week, and the older one is really good at english. I’ll explain something, and I let him translate to his brother if his brother doesn’t understand. At this point, I can obviously translate it too, but when I hear him translate it, it helps me know that he understands what I’m saying as well. Anyways, just listening to my younger students talk, especially when I teach vocabulary, has also helped me!

4. Talk. To. Everyone. Who. Will. Listen. But. Not. Abuelos. Basically, when I go places, I talk to people. I talk to people working there, ask questions, etc. At the grocery store I go to, I made a friend who works there and we always talk when I buy my groceries. Some abuelos (grandparents aka older people) are okay to talk to, but here in Pais Vasco (not sure how it is in the rest of Spain), I find the abuelos a little cynical and not very patient. So, I try to avoid speaking with them just to avoid both of us the struggle and headache.

Probably what abuelos are thinking when I try to talk to them… it says “in my times, the bathroom was for shit and not for taking pictures” hahaha. source

5. Watch tv/movies in spanish. So I’m not in full immersion with only watching tv/movies in spanish yet. I mean, I just started watching Pretty Little Liars on Netflix again, so I just can’t completely immerse myself yet. Maybe after I finish season 4 and find out who A is (judges self), I’ll only watch spanish tv/movies. Anyways, I’ve found it a lot more helpful to watch American movies that I’ve already seen, in spanish. Because I already know the plot line. I also always use sub titles and sit with my computer in front of me with google translate and any word I don’t know, I translate. At the end of the movie, I save the list of words on my computer and review the new vocabulary later!

6. Challenge yourself. The thing about being a native english speaker is, it is the universal language. A lot of people know english and will speak it to you. Here in Bilbao, less people know english than more international cities in Spain, but still a lot of people speak it. With that, I found myself being lazy. If someone knew english, I would just speak english. So I decided to start challenging myself. I told my roommate that we can only speak in english on the weekends, so the weeks, I only speak spanish. I also started speaking spanish with my coworkers, even if we are talking about lesson plans in english. I also actively listen everywhere I go, instead of passively being there. What I mean is when people talk on the metro, I try to listen to their conversations and understand what they’re saying.

Challenge yourself! source

Challenge yourself! source

But like all things in life, nothing worth having comes easily. And learning languages in no exception. It takes WORK to learn a new language. It’s not just going to happen overnight. But, in my opinion, the best way to learn something is to make it feel like you aren’t learning! I’ve made a few changes in things I already enjoy doing, like listening to music, talking to people, watching movies, and lately, I’ve been noticing the changes in my spanish. Now that I’m a teacher, I always tell my students LEARNING IS FUN, and the way I’m learning spanish has been great–sin libros aburrido.


How did you learn a second language? What is your favorite way to learn? 


18 thoughts on “How To Learn Spanish Without A Textbook

  1. I think it’s awesome that you started taking such initiative to learn Spanish!! Even though English is international, if you live in a country it’s a sign of respect to try to speak the language. And all your hard work is for sure paying off because you’ve definitely improved!! BIEN HECHO CHICA!!!

    • Thanks girl!! And yeah, I definitely think speaking (or at least trying) to speak the language of the country you live in is definitely a sign of respect. I think the worst thing you can say to someone is “do you speak english?”

  2. Any chance for an “intercambio” in your town? I started doing one about a month ago with a lady who is studying English at the language school in Ourense. We speak 30 min in English and 30 in Spanish and it has helped SO MUCH. I agree with the abuelos comment as well- half the time I get a rude look and QUE??!! Sorry I’m trying to speak your language :/ ha

    • Yeah I think I’m going to look into doing an intercambio! I’ve been hesitant just because I speak with my roommate every night in Spanish, and sometimes I feel like that’s enough, but I think an intercambio would be another great way to learn. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets responses like that from the abuelos! haha

  3. This is great advice, especially to someone who will be living in Spain in about 6 months. Thank you! I have been listening in Notes in Spanish podcast, which helps me expand my vocabulary. I’ve also been listening to Spanish music and movies that are either in Spanish or are Spanish. I can’t wait to be over in Spain and have the Spanish language all around me, even though I’m sure it will be overwhelming at times.

    • Glad you liked the advice! Sounds like you’re prepping a lot better than I did, so I’m sure when you move here you won’t be has overwhelmed as me! But I think every expat has those days where they just are completely overwhelmed.

  4. Pingback: 10 Things All New Auxiliares Should Know | Wanderlust Kait

  5. Hi, read your blog by chance, I seem very brave, your parents will end up being sure proud of you.
    Good idea to learn through music, is that taste in music is very personal and you come from the country that makes better music and film in the world, so we recommend Spanish music is complicated, but I like to help.
    Fito y Fitipaldis, estos chicos son realmente feos, pero muuuuuuy buenos, hacen poesía, rock & blues y son vecinos tuyos de un pueblo cercano a Bilbao, sus letras se entienden muy bien.
    Con letra;
    Con letra;
    Con letra;
    Desde la ría de Bilbao;
    La misma, con letra;
    Café Quijano, son tres hermanos españoles, de León, donde sus padres tienen una cafetería, de ahí el nombre. Hacen música de varios estilos pero sobre todo “boleros” tienen una amplia discografía, y lo más interesante es que vocalizan muy claramente las letras de sus canciones.

    Espero haberte ayudado; saludos desde Madrid.

    • Estaba buscando para otro musica y este es perfecto. Muchas gracias para el comentario con mucho informacion! Y tienes razon. Mis padres son mejor con la idea sobre mi viviendo en Espana, pero a veces, aun creo que ellos me quieren volver a EU. Pero, con tiempo, estan aceptando mi vida en Espana :)

  6. Tienes toda la razón, la gran mayoría de gente mayor es bastante desagradable, sobre todo con la gente extranjera. He vivido fuera de España y en otros países te intentan ayudar aunque no hablen tu idioma o inglés, pero aquí la gente no lo hace. Así va el país…

    • Jajaja, es bien a oir que no es solo mi! A primero, yo escribe sobre el gente mayor aqui en este blog post porque la propietaria de mi piso es una abuela aqui. Ella es muy desagrable conmigo, pero con mis companeras de piso, ella esta normal. El otro dia, yo perdia mis llaves y tenia que llama ella. Que pena!! Pero, a final (despues una conversacion muy dificil sobre movil), ella me ayudo a entrar el piso.

  7. Where could I find help trying to get an apartment if my spanish is not all that great for communicating with the owners on the questions one asks when renting an apartment?

    • I would recommend grabbing a friend who is either American/British and can speak spanish or a spanish person who can speak english to help you with your search! The lady I rented my apartment out to did not speak ANY english, so to be honest, I had to look up phrases and stuff before she would come over so I could communicate.

      Are you an auxiliar? If you don’t know anyone yet, just get in the facebook group for your city and see if someone can help you! :)

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