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Language Learning Tips (Bonus: Spanish specifics)

Travel is all about learning new things and meeting people. Of course, we want to communicate with the people we encounter and understand more about the place we’re visiting. But how do we do that if we don’t speak the language? It’s difficult, but with these tips you’ll be working your way toward better communication.

I taught myself Spanish after moving to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I never took classes; I self-taught, which doesn’t work for everyone, but if you want to take classes too, these tips will augment your learning. Your skill level is directly correlated to how much time you have to put into it. I mean, you can’t learn to be fluent in anything in two weeks …but basic communication is achievable. With a few months to a year, you can really dive into a language and having more substance in your conversations.


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When traveling somewhere new, people often get phrasebooks to communicate on the fly. I recommend using a language learning tool or phrasebook and writing down the phrases that will be most effective for you. Like to shop? Learn phrases around shopping. Like history or architecture? Bar-hopping? Choose the phrases you’re most likely to use and forget the rest. Don’t waste time learning vocab that won’t be immediately relevant – save your time and energy!


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Most of us skip over the alphabet, assuming we know it or perhaps it’s not that important. However, in Spanish at least, it’s critical. Spanish differs from English in that they don’t use consonant clusters and every letter has a sound (except the H which is silent, but consistently so). Unlike English, vowels have a single sound. This is a huge help with pronunciation! Essentially, in Spanish, if you can read it, you can pronounce it.


This is the part nobody likes to hear, but I swear by it. Get a good grammar workbook and make your way through it. I know it sounds like a slow death, but grammar is the foundation over which you lay your vocabulary. The stronger your foundation, the better the vocab will stick and the more easily you’ll be able to get your point across when a word eludes you.

In Spanish, I suggest starting with present tense verb conjugations, accompanied by a few weekly irregular verbs that require memorization. I recommend starting with the 3 listed under Auxiliary Verbs.


For me, telenovelas and Mexican films didn’t do the trick. I’d spend too much time reading the subtitles or miss so many little details; I’d feel like I hadn’t really understood. That’s when dawned on me to watch my all-time favorite movies where I already knew exactly what the characters were saying to one another, allowing me to relax and focus on the language itself. No matter where you’re traveling, you can find classics or kids films translated into the local language.

For real beginners, kid’s films are amazing! Simple jokes and plots, and clear articulate voices make it perfect for language learning. Mine was Finding Nemo, and once my Spanish improved, I <heart> Huckabees. Of course there were many others, but those were my two standbys.

Here’s how I did it:
1. In English with Spanish subtitles
2. In Spanish with English subtitles
3. In Spanish with Spanish subtitles


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I believe in learning on a need to know basis and then using the vocabulary. Beyond basic communication, choose vocabulary around your interests or activities. Learning these terms early will help you connect with a community that values the same pastimes.

I like to make small index cards (2×2, any paper is fine) of the vocabulary I’m working on learning and put them on a metal ring in my bag. If I have time to kill in a waiting room, I pull them out and review. I leave some blank ones as well in case I encounter a word I want to learn during my day. More of a techie? Apply the same idea to your smart phone.


Auxiliary verbs are like little verb helpers. You conjugate the auxiliary verb and leave the main verb in its infinitive. That looks like this: I want to sing the blues (want – auxiliary verb, to sing – main verb.)

These make communication much clearer, especially when your vocabulary exceeds your grammatical know-how. By memorizing the conjugations of these 3 auxiliary verbs, you can often forget about the main verb, leaving it in its infinitive state.

Here is a list of three helpful ones in Spanish:
1. Ir (to go)  Ex. Voy a cantar = I /am going/ to sing
2. Querer (to want) Ex. Quiero cantar = I /want/ to sing
3. Poder (to be able) Ex. Puedo cantar = I /am able/ to sing

As you can see, the auxiliary verbs are conjugated (to go, to want, and to be able to) while the main verb remains in it’s infinitive.


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So you’ve learned all this great information, invested your time and energy, now it’s time to make some conversation! Bars are an easy starting place, but if that’s not your thing, coffee shops and special interest events are also great places to meet people and practice what you’ve learned. Cultural exchanges are a great way to get to know people and practice your new language, either in group or one on one.

What are your favorite language learning tips? Greatest challenge in learning a new language? Please share it below!

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