Almost Fearless

Learning Spanish Quick (or any language)

Besides pleading with my husband to allow me to contact at least one headhunter, we’ve been spending much of our free time trying to quickly refresh our spanish skills. Since we’ll be in Spain in just 9 weeks, we don’t have much time. We’ve had to be super efficient, and with the help of a very good Boston University professor who has been kindly tutoring us, we’ve come up with a game plan of sorts. It’s specifically for spanish, but I bet it would work well with any language. Going on a trip soon and need to learn a foreign language quickly? Here’s what we did:


Ditch the phrasebook.

The few phrasebooks we’ve used have been a waste of time, unless you just want to memorize 5-6 phrases. Instead we got a no frills grammar book (The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice, $13.95), a good college level dictionary and a 501 Verbs book (for conjugation). I still have my old college Spanish textbooks and we haven’t had to use them once.

Skip Class.

Don’t sign up for classes unless you want to learn very slowly. Instead surf Craigslist or the local paper for tutors that are native speakers (that’s how we found our BU Professor). Instead of spending hours in the classroom, spend 1-2 concentrated hours with your tutor per week. Also, you can often negotiate the price down if you buy a block of lessons at a time.

Watch TV.

Watch lots of TV and movies in the language you want to learn. Check the back of DVDs for other languages and you’d be surprised how often they are translated in multiple languages. We particularly love Buscando a Nemo (Finding Nemo). Almost all Disney and Pixar titles have a spanish version.

Get your Podcasts.

Download free language lessons on iTunes. Instead paying $200+ on boring language tapes, get lessons for free online. Often they are more interesting and practical anyway. is a good place to start.

Read those Blogs.

If you use an RSS reader, find some blogs in your target language. Everyday take the time to translate at least one entry. If you use, you can search for blogs by the language they are written in.

Use it!

Use the skills you have now. Don’t wait until you’re there! Sign up for a language group or try to navigate (or in your target language). For me, it’s been renting an apartment in Madrid and navigating rental sites, emails with owners and contracts. You won’t believe the useful vocabulary you’ll pick up when you’re emailing dozens of spanish speakers a day!

Learn one thing first.

Our spanish professor made a big deal out this, but it works. Learn one verb in all tenses cold. Build from there. Pick a common verb and it will anchor you in the language. For us, we picked on verb from each ending type (AR/IR/ER) hablar (to speak), vivir (to live) and comer (to eat) and learned all the tenses.

Read the kid stuff.

Read children’s books in your target language. Pick something you loved as a kid and enjoy! Kids books often have great idiomatic expressions. We’ve just finished The Princess and the Pea.

Be Kind.

Don’t be hard on yourself. You’re probably learning more than you even realize.

Have fun!

If you’re not having fun, you’re not learning as much as you could be. Find things you like to do and incorporate language lessons in! Spanish Drinking Games, anyone?

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • […] Community Connection: Matador member Christine Gilbert offers great tips for refreshing language skills on her website. […]

  • I read your posts for quite a long time and should tell you that your articles always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.

  • These are great ideas. We’re trying to learn Mandarin right now with a tutor, and whew it’s challenging. (We’re already in China.) I hadn’t even thought of looking for free podcasts. That would be great to listen to while I take my little guy out in the stroller. And if I can locate a Chinese copy of Finding Nemo that would be excellent practice since we pretty much have that one memorized in English. I just discovered your blog and had to go back and start at the beginning. Excited to read about your adventures.

  • Really love the “ditch the class” approach. You say speaking with a native is number 1, and you’re totally right. Face-to-face interaction is key if you want to actually learn.

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