I should have titled this post: “So You Want to Learn Spanish After Age 50”, because that is something I REALLY know about. The brain, she is not as quick as she used to be, and it’s surprising how little a person retains from two, drug-fueled semesters of beginning Spanish that said person took in High School…THIRTY YEARS AGO. Needless to say, it’s a challenge, and it became quickly apparent that I was going to need all the help I could get on this journey.
I’ve been actively learning Spanish for about six months now, not counting the few months I spent toying around with Duolingo on my phone. In that time, I’ve been gathering resources to help me on my journey and, in this post, I’ll share the bulk of them with you so can have access to the quality materials I’ve found and, hopefully, avoid heading down all the dark alleys I did in order to get here.
Websites and Apps
First, let’s talk about websites and apps. If there’s one thing I love about this digital age, it’s the access to crazy good learning materials for anything you might want to know. If there’s anything I don’t like about it, it’s the amount of badly produced, incorrect, and shoddy information that’s out there in equal measure.
So, here are the top, rock-solid options for language learning in the land of ones and zeros that I’ve discovered:
iTalki: (app and website, free) I first learned about italki when I was watching videos from the polyglot conference on YouTube, because I’m a nerd like that. What is italki? In short, it is a website (and app) that promotes language learning by helping you find a teacher online, connecting with others who are working on your target language, and giving you the opportunity to help others realize their dream of fluency in your native language.
How does it work? When you log onto the site, you have the option to explore a few different links…several of which are “discussion board” pages where learners can ask questions about their target language and have them answered by the community. There is also a section called “notebook” where people can post short essays they have written in their target language and have them corrected by community members. This is a great way to give back to the community, and you can even earn credit to use toward lessons by doing this.
The most important section is the “find a teacher” link. Here you have the opportunity to browse through hundreds of teacher’s profiles in your target language and to choose who you would like to work with. Most teachers list their qualifications as well as including a short video to introduce themselves.
When you begin to browse the teacher section, you will notice that there are two different kinds of teachers you can take lessons from on italki. First are the community tutors. These are folks who are native speakers but hold no special certifications in language teaching. These lessons can be hit or miss, but the price is definitely right. My community tutor, Juan, charges me $6 an hour and he is fantastic. We just speak in Spanish for the whole hour and don’t bother too much with grammar. Juan loves cars and futbol and his dog and we talk about whatever has been going on in our lives. He has seemingly endless patience for my vocabulary/grammar mistakes and glacial speaking speed, and even though I am in my infancy, speaking-wise, Juan always makes me feel very comfortable and asks me questions when I get stuck to keep the flow going.
The second type of teacher is the “Professional”. These folks are more expensive, but tend to have a better grasp on tough grammar rules and such. My professional teacher, Charles, is great. He’s living in Tijuana getting his Phd in cultural studies and is an extremely talented teacher. He charges me $20 an hour and it would be worth it at three times the price. We usually work on the meat and potatoes of grammar and vocabulary. He has a very clear presentation style and has obviously put a lot of thought into how he teaches the stickier grammatical issues, such as direct/indirect object pronouns and such.
I usually schedule one lesson with each of them, per week. Lessons are booked and paid for through the italki site or app and the lessons are conducted over Skype. I have found the italki experience to be very smooth and extremely beneficial as a supplement to the regular classes I take, in-person, during the week. I highly recommend giving it a go if you are trying to supercharge your language learning. And, if you find another great teacher on the site, please let me know in the comments!
Duolingo (app, free): I started everything with Duolingo. It gave me a great jump on vocabulary and by using it in tandem with its flash card app, Tiny Cards, I was able to learn a lot of words, fairly quickly. Can you learn a whole language from Duolingo? Maybe, but I’d hate to try. It does what it does well, but it is far from comprehensive. Plus, it has some definite weirdness to it. If you only use duolingo, you may end up thinking that manzana (apple) is the most important word in all of Spanish, because it comes up a million times. And you may never know the word vaca (cow), because I’ve never seen it…not once! Having said that, I think Duolingo is still a handy study tool to have in your quiver and its kooky look is definitely welcoming and fun…and it’s FREE!
SpanishDict (app and website, free): Sounds like what it is…an indispensable Spanish/English dictionary that can translate both ways. Also included are articles and quizzes on common Spanish grammar and vocabulary. I use the app every day, probably fifty times a day, at least. It’s a must have.
Google Translate (app, free) This is the damned future, right here. This bugger is scary good. It does all the mundane translation work of other apps, like SpanishDict, but it has some other features that will blow your tiny mind. For example, right now I’m reading a novel by Roberto Bolano in Spanish. I probably know about 20% of the words. I could look up every word I don’t know by typing them into SpanishDict, but I would be dead before I finished. With google translate, I can take a picture of the page I’m reading and then swipe my finger across any word, sentence, or paragraph I don’t understand, and google will translate it for me. It’s an absolute godsend. It even knows idiomatic and slang phrases. So, if you’re trying to work on reading, writing, and speaking, simultaneously, and you need an app that can help you with all three, download this immediately.
This list is far from comprehensive and I’m sure there are dozens of sites and apps that I have yet to discover that are equal or better, but these are the ones I use the most and find the most benefit with. If you have a favorite language learning site, please drop it in the comments and I’ll check it out. Good luck and Happy learning!
Part 2 – Spanish Videos – coming soon