Ask Latinaish: How Can I Learn Spanish?

Image source: Kasaa
Image source: Kasaa

Over the years I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who have stumbled upon and, recognizing a kindred spirit, reached out to me. Sometimes they want a recipe for sopa de mondongo, or to know the meaning of a word in Salvadoran slang, and sometimes they just want to say thank you for something they found useful on my blog. Sometimes the words I receive make my day, and sometimes they keep me up at night. Sometimes the person needs mother-in-law advice, or bicultural relationship advice, sometimes the person emailing tells me they know no one else who understands their situation and they hope I can help. I’m always humbled that complete strangers trust me with their very deepest hurts. I always respond from my corazón and give the very best guidance that I can. Sometimes the person will correspond with me for awhile and I see the situation resolved, but most of the time I never find out what ended up happening.

As much as I love receiving these emails, I realize that for each one I receive there are many more people out there who may have the same question, or a similar situation, and could be helped by my reply, so I’m going to start publishing some of my responses as “Ask Latinaish” posts. I will of course always keep the identity of the person asking the question and the details of their situation completely anonymous.

The first question I’ll be answering here is:

How can I learn Spanish?


I most often get this question from gringas like myself who have married into the culture and want to raise bilingual children. Either she has had limited experience in the language, a few classes in high school, or has just learned a thing here and there after meeting her native Spanish speaker partner.

The human tendency is to want immediate gratification – We’re surrounded by it: Lose 10 pounds in 1 week! Organize your junk drawer in 5 minutes!

Language learning isn’t one of those things you can magically speak fluently in a short amount of time – Even babies start out with the basics and build their way up. That being said, there are ways to become proficient in a language more quickly, and the very best way is through immersion.

For the benefit of yourself and your child, encourage/beg/make deals with your native speaker partner to speak to you in their native language. It is one of the most valuable gifts they have to give. Encourage your partner to speak Spanish to your child and tell him all the benefits it will bring to your son or daughter. A few of the benefits:

• Your child will be more in touch with his heritage, and better able to visit your partner’s native country to explore his roots.

• He will be able to communicate with his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Family is so important and if he can’t speak Spanish, chances are as he gets older, he will drift away from relatives he can’t easily keep in touch with.

• Being bilingual, particularly English/Spanish bilingual, means that his job opportunities increase as an adult, plus he is likely to make more money than monolingual employees!

• Research has shown that children who are raised bilingual perform better academically in seemingly unrelated subjects like math, and music, plus they’re better at multi-tasking.

• Research has shown that bilinguals have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s later in life.

Tell your partner all of this, do a quick Google search and find the articles to back it up if he doesn’t believe you. Some people just need to know concrete ways their child will benefit before they jump on the bandwagon.

As for learning Spanish yourself, aside from downloading Duolingo to your phone and playing it each day, (which I recommend!) – immerse yourself in the language as much as possible: the music you listen to, the TV you watch, the books you read, the friends you make… Surround yourself with native speakers as much as possible and SPEAK. Even if you feel awkward, make a million mistakes or people laugh at you. Speaking Spanish, more than anything else, will help your brain “click.” The more you speak, the more comfortable you become and the more vocabulary you learn, even if you have to stop mid-sentence and ask what something is called, or carry a little English/Spanish dictionary with you.

I hope this helps! Suerte! (Good luck!)


  1. Awesome idea for a regular feature on your blog! Really solid advice on learning Spanish…. practice, practice, practice! I studied Spanish in high school and thought I would share a few tips I have learned over the past few years to keep up my skills.

    I’m a bit jealous of those learning Spanish now–there is just so much more access via radio, television, movies as well as through technology in major metropolitan areas. I do remember carrying around my 2 pound dictionary. Now, a quick Google search (or even the Google Translate App) can quickly, often semi-instantly. Wow.

    I highly recommend news programs, since the speakers often annunciate well and are in the business of communication. Plus, you’ll have sort of an idea as to what’s happening through the images and context. Even starting with the local weather segment works. If you’re just starting, checking out some Spanish-language children’s books from the library can help with vocabulary and sentence construction.

    The hardest part for me is actually learning to understand various manners of speaking Spanish with different accents, vocabulary, slang, cadence, and inflection. Exposing yourself to many different speakers and situations helps a lot. The Meetup website has thousands of groups for learning languages, helping new speakers of English/other languages, and exploring cultural events.

    My former Spanish teacher told the class that the three of the most difficult tasks you can do in another language are: speaking on the phone, telling a joke, and dreaming in another language.

    And finally, most importantly, don’t be too serious–laugh at yourself when you make a mistake. Even though you may translate something perfectly word-for-word, the cultural translation is sometimes writing with your other hand. It can be frustrating sometimes, but never give up. :)

  2. These are great ideas. Immersion really helps a ton; that’s how I learned spanish. The problem is… Since I found spanish relatively easy to pick up, now my husband and I speak nothing but spanish at home, and since he works 60+ hours a week and most of his co-workers speak spanish as well, he doesn’t have much opportunity for learning English. I find that when I try to “immerse” him in English, we both get frustrated; we can’t understand each other. :\ He obviously knows the benefits of learning English, and he has a pretty basic understanding of it, but I’d love for him to become more comfortable using it, preferably without all the frustration and stress that comes from misunderstanding. Any ideas? How did Carlos learn English?

    • Hi Laurel!

      This is a really valid concern. If you’re living in the United States, it’s important for your husband to learn and practice his English, otherwise he’ll be limiting his own potential and opportunities in his professional life, etc. In the beginning of our marriage, we spoke in English 90% of the time, unless something needed to be clarified. We also moved in with my monolingual English-speaking parents for the first year of our marriage. This was for financial reasons at the time, but it really helped immerse Carlos in a native English environment. In addition, Carlos has usually worked mostly with monolingual English-speakers so he was forced to sink or swim in that regard.

      Later in our marriage when we moved out on our own, and with my monolingual Spanish-speaking mother-in-law around, we started speaking more Spanish in the home and that’s when I was able to really start learning more by interacting with her and hearing Carlos and her interact, etc.

      Once you establish a language for speaking with someone, it will feel very awkward to switch, but I promise you that the more you do it, the less awkward it feels.

      Maybe you could try easing your husband into speaking English more? Try one hour a day and when that gets comfortable increase it so that you have one “English only” day per week. If he uses his cellphone a lot, have him download the DuoLingo app. Carlos recently downloaded it and has started doing a daily English lesson which he likes and it only takes a few minutes, plus you can have it remind you each day. (Carlos is doing it because his speaking and comprehension are much better than his reading/writing, so he wants to improve it.)

      You can also try saying things twice, once in each language — I did this a lot with my sons when I started speaking more Spanish to them and they were becoming frustrated. So for example you would say, “Do you want something to eat? … Quieres algo de comer?”

      Another option is through music, TV, board games. If he watches TV in Spanish, see if he’d mind you setting up English subtitles. If he watches TV in English, that’s great.

      Sticky notes can be fun too — Write the English name of an object and stick it on there – door, mirror, table, chair, microwave, wall, window… You get the idea.

      Obviously if he gets frustrated and stressed you don’t want to push him or force him. Try to keep it fun.

      I hope some of these ideas help. Good luck!

      • Thank you so much, Tracy!! Those are really great ideas, I especially love the idea of easing into an English-only day; maybe we could try that on his off days. And the Duolingo app sounds awesome… I’ll see if we can both get it today :) and yes, listening to English music really helps… I’m pretty sure half of his English vocabulary comes from the radio ;) (sometimes that’s not such a good thing though… Lol) thanks for the tips!!

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