How I’m improving my Spanish

I’ve been learning Spanish for nearly three years and my biggest weakness is understanding spoken Spanish. I can read and write fairly well and my vocabulary is sufficient for my level. I think this is because I can take my time to read and to write where as with speech, the other person has moved on to the next sentence before I have had a chance to understand the previous sentence. In addition, I struggle to separate out individual words in speech.

As I’m in Madrid for the next three months, I thought I’d share the techniques I am using to improve my Spanish.

Watching Television

I’m spending a lot of my time watching television. It doesn’t matter what I’m watching, so I’m watching a lot of television that I wouldn’t normally watch. The important thing is that they have subtitles in Spanish. Reading the subtitles and listening to the audio allows me the opportunity to recognise the sounds of the words and associate them with the words I can read and recognise. The other effect this is having is that I am improving my reading skills considerable, as I need to read the subtitles at the speed of the speech. One thing I have noticed is last summer I managed 20 minutes of a film in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, that this year I am able to keep up with the subtitles much better and watch hours at end without too much trouble.

Occasionally there shows which don’t have subtitles, and it’s interesting to see how much of this I can understand. I’m hoping that over time this will improve massively. I have also noticed that watching films in French with Spanish subtitles are harder to watch as the French distracts me as I know a little bit of the language. I don’t know if another language will have the same effect. Watching English films with Spanish subtitles also allows me to see how they translate into idiomatic Spanish.


I am talking to friends in as much Spanish as I can. It’s incredibly frustrating at the moment, with me not understanding everything they say, and having to ask them to repeat what they said, but I’m hoping that this will improve over time. I am attempting to understand as much as I can from the few words I do understand and attempting to understand everything else from context. Sometimes this works, other times it goes hilariously wrong. This is the few things that allows me to practice speaking. I find some people are considerably easier to understand than others, based on their speed, accent vocabulary and pronunciation.

I’m also attempting to talk to people in shops and bars when ordering food and drinks, and this is far more frustrating, as they are strangers and aren’t as patient with me as my friends would be. I’m finding that we have a much harder time understanding each other, but this might also be partly the result of cultural norms in these situations. However, if I don’t do this, then I will never gain the confidence to talk to strangers.


This is a spaced-repetition flashcard application that runs on pretty much everything. I use it on my phone to remember words during spare moments. With a spaced-repetition system, you are shown a word and you mentally translate it and reveal the answer. You then pick one of four buttons corresponding to how easy you found it to remember the answer. and if you failed to remember the program will put the card back into the pile to remember again today, but if you remembered  it easily, it will schedule it to come back up further and further in the future. The idea being that words you struggle with you need to test more frequently and words you find easier are more ingrained in your long term memory. You can create your own anki card deck or you can download card decks that other people have created and there are plenty of decks for Spanish and other languages. I’ve also used Anki to learn topics like all 197 national flags.

Anki is available on online, iOS, Android, OS X, Windows and Linux.


Memrise is another SRS system, however this one is tailored more towards making associations in your mind. Given a particular item, people will add hints, which they call “mems”, to make associations in your mind. For example, To drink – beber: “Justin Beiber can’t even drink yet.” Remembering that Justin Beiber can’t drink will make it easier to associate beber with to drink. They also use a planting seeds, growing and watering the seeds metaphor to refer to learning and remembering the memories.

Memrise is available online and on iOS and Android.


Duolingo is a free online language course. It is great for testing your knowledge of topics, but might not be great for learning grammar or vocabulary in the first place. One nice feature is that it allows you to test your speaking too with speech recognition. It’s organised into several small topics, which you need to pass before you can progress to the next topic.

Duolingo is available online, on iOS and Android.

Google Translate

I find Google Translate very useful for looking up words or phrases I don’t understand quickly. Having it on my phone makes it very easy to check if I understood a word correctly or what it means if I didn’t know it previously. I think it would be a good idea if I started my own Anki deck with words I didn’t previously know, so that I can increase my vocabulary.

Hopefully these techniques and tools will give you some useful ideas on how to improve your language skill too. Remember that you don’t need to travel to the country to improve your language. You can watch DVDs with dubbed audio and many cities have language exchanges if you want to talk with people.


I’ve recently started using to talk to teachers and native speakers to help improve my Spanish (and Portuguese as I’m currently in Rio as I write this update). allows anyone to sign up as students and you can find professional teachers, informal lessons from people who are not professional teachers, but enthusiastic about their language and finally find students who are learning your native language and you can have a language exchange. The taught classes cost some money, with the professional lessons costing a little more than the informal tutoring.

I am currently having weekly Portuguese lessons from a Brazilian woman who lives in Ghent, Belgium and more from a lady in Rio, both over Skype. The cost of lessons are generally cheaper than the cost of a personal tutor in person, with them costing around £9 an hour, although I suspect I could find cheaper tutors if I looked. Some people offer classes around $5 an hour.

Speaking the language and having conversations is by far the best way of learning a language. I highly recommend using to improve your language skills.

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3 thoughts on “How I’m improving my Spanish

  1. I would think it helps to seek conversation partners who are mindful of the fact that you’re still learning. I know I try to use standard Spanish, and only use colloquial or unusual Spanish when I specifically want you to learn that expression.

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