Learning A Foreign Language

written by mr337 on 2016-03-24

I have been trying to learn Spanish for years. Even worse, its my mothers native language. :(

Fast forward to today, I feel like progress is being made and would like to share what has and has not worked.


First and foremost learning a foreign language is a lot of time and commitment. Its even harder if you can't live in a environment (country) where you are exposed 24/7. With that aside here are some things you should expect:

  • spend hours and hours learning and memorizing
  • no such thing as no memorization learning - see above
  • to suck at something for a while
  • become an expert and fluent speaker in years, not months
  • realize some things in other languages don't map directly to your language
  • realize how crappy English is of a language
  • as a by product, learn way more about your language
  • small bites, one day at a time
  • no easy way out

The list of expectations are a downer. The main driving point being there is no easy way out when learning a language. Keep this in mind when searching for material being a course, book, software, or services. If they say something like "learn in 24 days" or "learn with zero memorization" you should take it with a grain of salt.

My Setup

I use a couple different things:

  • Books
  • Software
  • Notes
  • Class
  • Routine


There are a lot of books on learning a language. Since I'm learning Spanish the recommendations will be geared toward that.

When picking a book check that it has the following:

  • Vocabulary - the more the better
  • Tenses - Spanish has more tenses than just past, present, future
  • Grammar - we all hate grammar but it is important
  • Exercises - review them to see if they really exercise the knowledge
  • Answer Key - without it you'll just be guessing
  • Audio Component - a lot of books don't have this, if you find one that does grab it

I'm a huge fan of the Practice Makes Perfect series. It breaks the language into many little books. More importantly they are cheap, < $10 a book. If you only can afford one book highly recommend the Practice Makes Perfect: Spanish Verb Tenses In Spanish verbs are everything.

Another recommendation is an audio book, Bueno Camino. This book has entry level Spanish and audio component to go with it. This is really good for practicing only your ears which is very important without the 24/7 exposure.


There are a lot of software to assist the learning experience. In all honesty, I have found none of them to be worth the effort or cost.

  • Rosetta Stone - Too damn expensive, relies on the learn as you hear, you'll be lost in the repetition and bored to tears
  • Mango - Usually free through Library, is OK, but slow progress
  • Duolingo - Parts of it free iirc, just didn't get into it

Software may be great for other individuals, but didn't work for me. The main issue is keeping my attention. As things progressed it became boring, then a burden, and out went the motivation.

What has worked: Anki. Anki is not a language learning application. It is a flash card application that uses a repetition method for covering material. This has been a perfect fit with learning vocabulary and conjugations of verbs.

For example, lets have two words: hablar and correr. When entering them in you will be asked about both words. If you don't know hablar you'll select <10min or one day. For correr, let say it came easy to us, we put down 4 days. You are telling Anki how hard to word was to remember or if you didn't at all. When you review tomorrow you'll be hit up immediately about hablar over and over till you remember. Anki will schedule correr to be reviewed in a couple of days. This puts good use of study time on unknown/hard material and light review on known material.

Anki runs on Linux, OSX, iOS, and Android. Also has a sync feature for all the cards for free, good stuff!


When reviewing Spanish material sooner or later you'll encounter words, conjugations, or phrases you don't know. I jot these down for look up at a later time and continue with the current material. When I get free time I enter these into Anki for memorization.

Class / Online Tutor

Luckily, there is a local native speaker that holds four person classes. This has been the biggest driver of my learning, and it boils down to one simple fact. When in the presence of other people you'll do everything in your power to not look dumb. That alone keeps me going. Any time I feel overwhelmed or uninterested, I think back to the one or two classes I didn't study for and instantly have motivation again. This sounds kind of ridiculous but it works.

Do not confuse this with a college class. This specific class is four people so its pretty tight. Most college classes you'll barely be able to verbally practice. My teacher is very good in putting people on the spot by asking for sentences on the fly. Nothing keeps your Spanish sharp.

These types of independent, not associated with college, classes can be pretty cheap. My class meets for a hour per week, four times a month and is $75/person/month.

I do understand not everyone has the access to independent classes. In that case I would strongly recommend an online tutor. They come in various pricing and are on par or cheaper than $75/mo. Normally they charge by the hour so if your willing to pay more you can practice quite a bit. The main driver is you'll have to answer to someone when you meet with them and haven't studied.

If you are on the cheap and can't afford classes or tutors, check around through a few online services that offer local connection with other students trying to learn your native language. The idea being you help the other person learn your language and in return they will help you learn their language. I personally have not tried this but has to be better than no practicing at all.


The last, and what I would argue the most important, component is a routine. This routine will define how fast you'll be able to learn and retain a foreign language.

My routine is:

  • Each week I have my Spanish class
    • The day after class I enter into Anki all the new vocab presented during class
  • Each day I try to fit in one hour of studying (harder than it sounds)
    • 15m of Anki reviewing and learning new words, also include practicing out loud
    • 15m reviewing past concepts, conjugations, sentence building etc
    • 15m on reading new material and picking up new words
    • 15m of doing required homework and reading

This routine will keep a constant exposure to new and current material. In my opinion, exposure is everything. The more the better.

Further Stuff

I've been working on curating a list of material on Netflix to help with exposure. So far its been pretty spotty. I'm looking for films or tv series that has Spanish audio and subtitles. So far I've only found Narcos which has both.