How to learn Spanish (and other foreign languages) fast

We’ve been in Chile nearly two months now. My Spanish has gone from terrible to borderline average.

I studied French and German at university. I’m in an unrequited love affair with Arabic (I love the language, but it doesn’t seem to love my brain). I picked up some Dutch in Antwerp. I tried to learn basic Hindi prior to my first trip to India.

Yet I feel I’ve made more progress with Spanish in a couple of months than with other languages over several years.

It’s all thanks to Chile.

My advice is, if you want to learn the lingo, be it Spanish or any foreign language…

Total immersion

Move to the country where the language is spoken. Or at least take a long break there.

Go for an environment which will offer as much exposure as possible.

Foreign language courses abroad can be great, but if you’re not careful and all your classmates speak your mother tongue you’ll return home with little more than when you started out. I went to Germany for a month’s course, and while I certainly learned a foreign language, I actually returned with more new Spanish words than German (90% of the class were Spanish).

Keep TV and movie time to the foreign language. Try to incorporate foreign language reading material. Even easy to read, trashy magazines and books are an excellent excuse for learning.

Go where there’s a need

The difference with trying to learn Spanish here in Chile, as opposed to languages in other countries is that you have no choice but to speak.

Here in Chile, the level of English among the very highly educated is generally very good, but not always. My doctor claims to speak English but his level of English is the equivalent to my Spanish, and we end up speaking Spanish 99% of the time. All international school application forms are delivered in Spanish. To get an ID, bank account, mobile phone, take a taxi… you’ll need basic Spanish. Even if you have a wonderful relocation company on board as we do, you’ll still need Spanish.

In some countries, such as Flemish speaking Belgium, many locals spoke better English than I did, they enjoyed speaking English and it felt silly or pointless to try Flemish. Here in Chile however, Spanish is a must. You simply have to learn.

Ideally, you need to travel to a country where only the target language is spoken.

Stick to it

Even if you can’t move and it feels pointless trying to learn in a country where the locals speak brilliant English, you can still make progress. Keep replying in your target language, and politely explain that you really want to learn; most people will understand.

Sure it’s harder when deep down you know you could switch to English and avoid all the headache; that’s why it’s always easier to learn in a fully immersive environment.


Bear in mind that countries where the foreign language is spoken over English may be more isolated. Localisms, slang, strong accents… these will seep into your dialogue for the better or worse.

My four year old is already adopting many latino phrases which I personally love, but my (Spanish) husband keeps correcting.

On this basis, our French department at university would not allow students to study in parts of Canada. The teachers couldn’t understand the returning students’ accent and colloquialisms.

Swiss German is very different to the German spoken in northern Germany, which again differs from the Bayerisch of the southern regions. I learnt a little Portuguese in Angola, but I could never understand people from Portugal.

Your version of the language may vary widely from that spoken in other parts of the world.

All about the love

Most people I know who speak foreign languages to an amazing level have a strong connection to the country.

Before leaving on a semester to study abroad, our German tutor advised us to get a German boyfriend. ‘You’ll learn more than you’ll ever learn here at university and besides, we Germans are lovely!’ she joked.

One friend did indeed get a boyfriend and yes, her German improved considerably. She was right about the language. But my tutor was wrong on one count – the guy was a loser. But hey, they split up and she aced her exams.

I’m not suggesting to search out a mate based on mother tongue alone, but making friends with those who speak the language is a brilliant way to learn.

Just do it

Number one rule – don’t be shy. It’s a very British thing to claim to speak no foreign languages,  but more often than not we’re just too shy or modest.

A French friend of mine proudly claims she speaks English. And yes, her English is great. A British friend who speaks French to the same level claims she speaks ‘just a little bit of French, but very badly’.

People may not understand everything you say, but they don’t seem to care here in Chile and I’ve never felt embarrassed or shy.

Sure, I goof up all the time, but hey who cares? Noone. Most people will be impressed you’re making the effort and grateful you consider their language important enough to learn.

Get stuck in

After work socialising, learning a new hobby with locals, joining a conversational class are all great ways to learn.

Local cultural centres (for example the Japanese centre, the Goethe Institute, the Instituto Cervantes) are good places to ask. Check with your local university too – foreign students might be open to a conversation class or the language department may offer languages events.

If you already hire a nanny, aupair, or other staff, consider a native speaker from your target country.

Language styles

Some dialects are famously tough to understand and may not stand you at such an advantage. I feel the easiest way to learn is to listen, to speak and if you’re up to it, to read in the foreign language.

Two languages I’ve never managed to crack are Latin and classical Arabic. These languages are not readily spoken in the modern world.

I spent two months trying to get a grip on classical Arabic and was none the wiser, then I switched to the Syrian street dialect and I unlocked a whole new world. Gossip with my adorable landlady, (basic) political discussions with my neighbours, haggling on the market.

It’s a virtuous circle – the more you understand, the easier it becomes to absorb the new words. The more encouraged you are to continue.

Absorb the fun

I’ve spent more hours conjugating verbs in my head than I have painting my nails. This says a lot.

But in truth, while grammar is essential and is the key to unlocking the next level of a language, I find it best not to get too bogged down in the detail. When you come to a grammatical rule you don’t understand, it’s interesting to find out why, but let the language take you along, don’t try to stretch it out against your will.

If you’re not enjoying the learning process, you won’t have the drive to continue. Keep it enjoyable.

Light at the end of the tunnel

I don’t understand all Spanish spoken to me. I find my husband’s (Spain) Spanish especially hard to decipher (or is it just him?)

I’ve attended wedding after wedding, party after party, function after function where I’ve understood almost nothing. As the group would get more relaxed, as the party mood would set in the slang would follow, the tempo would increase, the conversations would break off, private jokes would intermingle and I’d be utterly lost.

Often, I’d return home in tears (of boredom or despair) and my husband would be clueless. ‘Ahh but I thought you understood?’ Nope, nada.

But even my bilingual hubby has it tough at times. I remember occasions when he’s been tired, we’ve been among my friends slipping into British slang and he’s been left in the dark too.

We still watch films with subtitles (but hey, can even Americans understand Netflix’s True Detective?). Like many spouses with foreign husbands, I’ve been told I speak a more simplified expat style English with him, automatically avoiding too much slang or language complexity.

Getting it in perspective

Learning a language is fun, but can be tough.

Yes we’ll always face ‘oh crap’ moments where we suddenly forget everything. Where, despite years of learning, we’re back to the drawing board. When we’re just too tired and need to relax with ‘proper’ English among natives.

But let’s not be so tough on ourselves. Let’s move on. ¡Vamos, ya!


For other language tips from an expert on language tuition, click here

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