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Learn Spanish On Your Own

Why study another language?  In addition to the obvious cross cultural benefits, knowing another language makes us smarter, makes our brains more plastic (more able to make new neural connections) and staves off senility (if you live long enough this last one will be important to you!)

In this document I present some ideas for improving your Spanish on your own, without the benefit (or the burden) of attending a Spanish class.  The primary focus of your endeavor is to develop your ability to understand native spoken and written Spanish and to enable you to express yourself in basic situations.

Listening comprehension and reading are the bases for the acquisition of a new language.  Remember that as children learning your first language, you had lots of time to listen before you attempted to speak.  And before anyone ever attempted to teach you to read at age 5 or 6 you already had a recognition vocabulary of between 5,0000 and 10,0000 words!  (That is what the vocabulary range of a 6 year old in their native language.) Don't be impatient with yourself when you find that you can understand far more than you can produce, that is natural; your speaking and writing abilities will always lag slightly behind your ability to understand. 

You cannot expect to acquire native-like competence in a foreign language in one to two years. You can expect to be able to communicate with native speakers of Spanish even though you make mistakes.  Your goal should be communicative competence not grammatical perfection.  Be patient with yourself and use the activities I describe below to develop a working vocabulary of at least 5000 words.

  • Buy CDs in Spanish or download music.  CDs often have the lyrics on the liner notes or you can find lyrics online.  Listen to the songs over and over and over.  Read the lyrics, teach yourself to sing along.  I recommend José Luis Orozco’s many CDs of children’s music because the lyrics are easy, but any kind of music that you enjoy and are willing to learn the lyrics to will be beneficial.  The website for Del Sol Books, has both children’s literature and children’s music from three well known children’s authors: Alma Flor Ada, Isabel Campoy and Suni Paz.   If children’s music does not interest you then find music that does, and teach yourself the lyrics.  Hint: music for adults is poetry put to melody and is often quite hard.  The advantage of music for children is that it is repetitive and includes vocabulary that all native speakers know but that is rarely taught in a Spanish class for adult learners, the sort of vocabulary we all learn as children and that is part of the collective knowledge of native speakers.
  •  Watch TV news in is the easiest because it is usually somewhat familiar to adults.  If you are a baseball or soccer fan, watch those sports in Spanish.  Don't leave when the ads come on...that is Spanish too.
  • Sign up for a chat room experience with native speakers of Spanish.  Type the phrase “chat en español” into Google and there are many to choose from.  I do not recommend a particular one as they come and go quickly and many are used as hookups for sex. I recommend making an arrangement with the native speaker so that you exchange messages at least twice a week, alternating; both of you write in Spanish, then both write in English.  In each case you can help each other with word usage and grammar.   This is a great way to meet people and learn about the culture of the Spanish-speaking world.
  • This site has helpful lists of vocabulary and some grammar pages.  It also has many links to other sites and links to chat rooms.  Scroll down to the bottom of the homepage where it says “Friendly interactions with native Speakers”.  Several of my motivated students like this site a lot.
  • Buy La Opinión, the oldest Spanish language newspaper in the US.  It is available at Sizzler and DK donuts in Tustin...but probably in many areas of Santa Ana, Lake Forest and Costa Mesa.  It is much better that the translated version the Register puts out, called Excelsior.  Do not feel obligated to finish an article...just browse.  Classified ads are good because they are short...although these will have more "Spanglish."  The opinion section is high quality...with correspondents from all over the Spanish-speaking world.
  • Read Spanish language newspapers online.  Go to this site, Prensa Escrita  for an extensive list of online newspapers from all over the Spanish speaking world.
  • Sign up for a local Meet-up where you can practice Spanish with both native speakers and other learners.  One in Orange County is at: But there may be others at the meet-up site:
  • You can read non-copyrighted fables, fairy tales and traditional stories online at
  •  If you live in Southern California go to Martínez bookstore in Santa Ana.   This charming independent bookstore was founded by MacArthur grant winner, Reubén Martínez and is now affiliated with Chapman University.  Get some paper back children's literature or magazines to browse.  You can find children's stories, classics, fables, etc.  on audio CD.  Listen to these in your car.
  • Read short adapted novels in Spanish.  Leer en español is a series of these easy-to-read novels published in Spanish by Santillana.  These novels are both original works and adapted pieces of literature and many are mysteries or historical fiction.  You can access their catalog at  Click on “Catálogo”, then click on “Lecturas graduadas”.  Here you will see two categories: “Leer en español, adultos” and “Leer en español, primero lectores”.   Click on a level and various titles with an accompanying synopsis will come up.  You can then search these titles on Amazon or another (used) online book source.

Audio magazines:


  • produces and audio magazine titled Think Spanish...a dumb title, but a good product.  This is for students at the high beginning to intermediate level. Read it first and then listen to the mp3 recording in your car.
  •   This is an audio magazine for intermediate to advanced learners.  You can read the printed version and then listed to the CD.  This same site has many audio books in Spanish for advanced learners.
  • Get a subscription to Yabla,, where for $10.00 a month you have access to hundreds of shorts and video promos in a unique software system that allows you to see the script as you listen and watch, see the English if you need it, and then play a comprehension game afterwards.  Each video is rated for difficulty.  Yabla has two different subscriptions, one for Adults called LoMás TV and another for K-12 students,, that has been censored for appropriateness in a public school.
  • There is a free website from the University of Texas, Austin, that is similar to Yabla above.  Go to and click on site index.  There you will find varying levels of interviews with native speakers.  There is a script available, which you can use to aid in comprehension.
  • If your child seems motivated to learn another language, check out LangoKids  Here is the website for the Irvine affiliate of Lango Kinds.
  • There are many Spanish language internet sites that have games to play in Spanish.  Just type in Spanish language games and you will find lots.
  • Hire a native speaker (not a teacher...they want to correct you all the time!) and meet once a week for coffee and conversation.  Tell them that their job is to talk to you in Spanish at your level; perhaps that will be the level of a 2 or 3 year old.  You will typically have to tell native speakers to slow down, slow way down.  Collect photos from magazines or from the Internet and use those photos to get the native speaker to talk to you in Spanish.   Do not allow them to translate or use Spanglish with you.  If you cannot afford a tutor then arrange a trade with someone who wants to improve their English.  Spend one hour only in Spanish and then one hour only in English.
  • Above all, flood yourself with spoken and print Spanish, make it a part of your daily routine; spend 30 minutes to an hour a day on Spanish.
  • Volunteer somewhere where services are provides to immigrants, like Share Our Selves (SOS) in Costa Mesa or Catholic Relief Services or a free clinic in Santa Ana, anywhere where the clientele is mostly Spanish speaking.
  • Remember that learning a language is not a destination, but a journey.  We continue to learn words in our native languages all of our lives, so accept the fact that learning this new language is a lifelong endeavor.  Keep your ego out of the process; be willing to be a child again.  Make mistakes, laugh at yourself, but keep trying.  To be successful at acquiring other languages you have to have what Buddhists call “beginner mind”: the openness of a child to new information.

I did all of these sorts of things in order to learn Hebrew and at one point 28 years ago,    I was quite fluent.  I am currently studying ASL (Sign) using this approach and still plan to study Russian and brush up on my French; Hindi would also be fun, maybe Japanese or Turkish….  Unless I can find a class with this kind of approach, I will teach myself with a native speaker, my picture file and eventually music, children's books, TV and Internet.  I may never travel to the places where some of these languages are spoken... but there are many native speakers of these languages here in the US.  Learning a new language keeps me in touch with what my students go through and will, I hope, keep me from getting senile!

I hope these ideas help...Remember learning a language, even our native one, is a life-long pursuit.  Enjoy the journey!

Contact Jeanne Egasse
Professor of Spanish and Languages
Life-Long Language Student
Irvine Valley College


Brooke Bui, PhD
Dean, Languages & Learning Resources

O: LA 209

Erika Arendts
Sr. Admin. Assistant, Languages & Learning Resources

O: LA 207