Learn Spanish – content over method approach to language learning

by Paul Goodchild on April 4, 2011

Arabic Tablet, Cordoba, Spain

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Tim Ferriss is someone I pay close attention to. When he speaks, he’s worth listening to.  It’ll almost always save you effort, money, and time.

When Tim Ferriss learns a new skill, rather than jump straight into it, accepting the given standard of learning as the best way, he first de-constructs the task before him.  This is certainly the approach he takes to learning languages and he is conversationally fluent in many languages, including Spanish and Japanese.

Instead of taking the traditional route of signing up to language schools, he breaks down a language with the help of native speakers and determines how difficult the path to fluency of that language will be before approaching it further.

Language Learning Approach: Material over Method

When learning a language, materials are as important, if not more so, than the method.  Using materials that you have an interest in and that stimulates you are better than those based on topics which are boring for you.

Since language demands repetition to consolidate learning, while you might have the best method in the world, if you’re not interested in the content you wont repeatedly work with it. So you wont learn.

An approach to learning Spanish that works for me

18 months ago I was in Barcelona for 3 weeks, and for 2 of those weeks I took a language course.  There was nothing wrong with the course – the teachers were good, and the fellow students were nice.  But for the time and money spent there, I just didn’t feel it was worth it in terms of language learned.

Tim Ferriss gives 4 reasons why language schools are not an ideal way to learn any language.  The one that stands out to me is this:

Conversation can be learned but not taught

I’m conversationally proficient in Japanese, but that’s after 6 years!  My reading and aural comprehension is far better than my ability to produce either through writing or speaking.  Why?  Because I bust my ass learning the script and the grammar, but shied away from speaking.

I have changed my approach this time around for the way I learn Spanish.

Now with Spanish I’m concentrating on listening with a regular sprinkling of grammar, and trying to speak where I can (and when my ego gives way!).  As Tim Ferriss (again) said, language learning is “ego crushing” and the best way is to just get out there and talk with the locals.

Some Spanish language learning resources

I think the best way to learning languages is to mix it up and not focus on a single method.  So here are all the resources I’m using to study Spanish – and they’re all free!

  • Coffee Break Spanish / iTunes – I have probably learned most of my Spanish from this to date.  I have also just come across Showtime Spanish (from the same people) which is for intermediate ~ Advanced level learners.
  • Intercambio – Language Exchange.  I went to my first one last Thursday which was intense for my baby-beginner Spanish.  Just in-case you’re in Seville, here is the Facebook group you may want to look up.
  • 1-on-1 Spanish Lessons – I’m going to use these to force direct 1-on-1 language conversation with some grammar explanations where appropriate. I feel this is better than laying down serious money on group language classes.
  • Study Spanish . com – Bucket loads of information on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation!
  • Top 100 words in Spanish – following up from Tim Ferriss’ post in learning a language in 3 months.
  • Google Translate – doesn’t always get it right, but it does a good job.
  • Berlitz Spanish Pocket Dictionary – it’s tiny and actually does fiti n your pocket, but only rarely does it not have the words I’m looking for.

Find materials and a method that suits you best

If you’re struggling with your language or Spanish learning, try another approach.  Mix it up and research online for other methods and of course materials you think you would be more interested in.

Don’t just assume that the only way you’re going to learn a language is to sign-up to a language school and pay serious amounts of money.  Test out different methods and research other ways of learning.

One size certainly does not fit all.

There’s a million and one resources available to you, and many of the best ones are free.

What resources do you use to learn Spanish, and what approach do you have to learning languages that doesn’t involve signing up for language courses?  I’d love to hear what you think.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joanne July 26, 2013 at 13:25

Very interesting article 😀 I think it mentions all the important points we have to know about learning a language! I am studying Spanish and I am planning to go to Barcelona next year, during 6 months, to improve it and learn conversation. Do you think it is a good idea?



Valry Weekley April 6, 2015 at 16:01

This April I’m organizing a team of fifteen men to build basic homes for women who are raising their children single handedly. The majority of these workers can’t speak Spanish and are asking me about Spanish learning programs.

I tell them to get Rocket Spanish (video presentation here http://vidshrt.com/spanish_rocket-3yK ), why? because I use it and it’s effective. I’m on an unending search to reach fluency in Spanish so I’ve tested many products and self study programs. All of them have been boring or required a certain amount of discipline that I simply cannot handle. The lessons are captivating and actual, they contain a great number of real situations that I encounter every time I travel to Venezuela, it even teaches me how to argue in Spanish, you just can’t beat that.

I have a lot of good friends in Venezuela, until now our conversations have been minimal. I am looking forward to my next trip to further develop these relationships with my newly acquired skill in speaking Spanish. So if you need to learn Spanish fast, try Rocket Spanish. Quit looking and get learning!


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